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Bernard Hickey: How will NZ break its investment drought?

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Why when there are idle resources sitting around (mostly people) are businesses and households refusing to invest? Photo / David White
Why when there are idle resources sitting around (mostly people) are businesses and households refusing to invest? Photo / David White

If only New Zealand households and businesses would invest more heavily in building new houses, educating new workers and building up their businesses our economy would be much healthier.

This seems a statement of the obvious, but it's patently clear in the Reserve Bank's June Quarter Monetary Policy Statement that New Zealanders are not investing, even though they have plenty of cash and there are shortages of houses and skilled workers.

Why is that? It is the central question of our economic era in New Zealand and overseas.

Why when there are idle resources sitting around (mostly people) are businesses and households refusing to invest?

Instead, they are hoarding their cash in government bonds and bank accounts, or are choosing to repay any debt they have.

The Reserve Bank says this weak investment means the economy is running up against capacity constraints and it's a factor in a halving in our potential economic growth rate to around 1.5 per cent.

"This reduced capital investment, while having an immediate negative impact on GDP, has also negatively affected the economy's future capacity to grow," the Reserve Bank said.

"In addition, economic uncertainty and cautiousness in the willingness to borrow and lend has limited innovation and risk taking, further inhibiting potential growth," it said.

"Consistent with this, indicators of capacity usage are much tighter than would have previously been expected, given the weakness in GDP growth."

The Reserve Bank pointed out that, despite higher unemployment, skill shortages were close to their historic norms and wage inflation was close to its average of the last two decades.

This investment drought is reflected in inflation in the most obvious areas of the economy, including rents and house prices in Christchurch and Auckland, where supply shortages are the heaviest.

Why the reluctance to invest? Could it be demographic? Those in charge of the spare money in households and companies are historically older and more inclined to put any savings in lower risk investments, such as government bonds.

We have a hoarding problem.

How do we deploy those savings in low risk assets such as government bonds into higher returning investments that employ extra people, create new skills, create new businesses and build new houses?

Will households and companies do it?

Or will the government have to step in as it did during the 1930s and 1940s?

INTEREST.CO.NZ

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