Bernard Hickey 's Opinion

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey: Relax and be overburdened

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John Key. Photo / Getty Images
John Key. Photo / Getty Images

This week's conference on the sustainability of our Government's finances reinforced the immense power of ageing.

Treasury forecast the ageing of our population would increase health and superannuation spending to 19.1 per cent of GDP by 2060, from 11.3 per cent in 2010.

More importantly, the population paying for this will be smaller than today's. Treasury estimated the number of people aged 15-65 supporting each person over 65 will fall from just over five in 2010 to just over two by 2060.

Without changes in taxation policies, retirement age and universal access to pensions and health, the Government's debt is forecast to explode towards 200 per cent of GDP by 2060 and interest costs to 11.4 per cent of GDP by 2060 from around 1.2 per cent in 2010.

Essentially, the generations running governments of today have decided to consume the future now and pass crushing debts to the next generation.

So why are policymakers and voters, particularly those under 30, so outwardly relaxed? The assumption at the conference was that voters or financial markets would not let this situation develop.

This implies voters and financial markets can see the train wreck coming. It also assumes they will do something about it in time to make a difference.

But the history of financial markets and democracies is that they don't. Instead, they tend to express surprise the instant the train explodes.

John Key remains insistent New Zealand needn't increase the retirement age to 67. He remains popular.

Financial markets are similarly relaxed. New Zealand 10-year government bond yields are around record lows of 3.5 per cent. The NZ dollar is near record highs.

Ironically, one of the reasons financial markets are so relaxed is the ageing of the population.

Ageing savers get more risk averse the closer they get to retirement, which means they prefer government bonds to stocks. This is one of the major drivers downwards for longer-term interest rates.

Today's politicians and voters are betting on a brighter future. They hope for higher productivity that will deliver the economic growth needed.

The problem for these dreamers is the enormous headwind the ageing population creates.

Research tabled at this conference showed workers are slightly less productive in the last 5-10 years of their working lives.

To avoid the train wreck, increased birthrate and migration may help, as would changing the retirement age and encouraging higher workforce participation.

But what's ultimately needed is a massive rise in productivity, which has only come in the past with new technologies or business methods.

The last time Western governments achieved that was in the 1940s and 50s when the threat of losing wars brought change.

Instead of consuming the future, they chose or were forced to invest in it.

- Herald on Sunday

Bernard Hickey

Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey is the publisher of Hive News, a Wellington-based political and economic subscription news email service. He also writes for Interest.co.nz and appears regularly on Radio New Zealand, Radio Live, TVNZ and TV3. He has been a financial journalist for 25 years, having worked for Reuters, the Financial Times Group and Fairfax Media.

Read more by Bernard Hickey

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