Bernard is an economics columnist for the NZ Herald

Bernard Hickey: Crisis lurches ever closer as Budget fails struggling Auckland

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Bill English's Budget only allows for immediate necessities. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Bill English's Budget only allows for immediate necessities. Photo / Mark Mitchell

This week's Budget came and went without too much drama or debate about the central assumption around which everything else revolved.

Finance Minister Bill English's guiding light for years has been the aim of reducing net debt to around 20 per cent of GDP by 2020 from a peak of 25.6 per cent next year.

It forced him to cut back his spending allowance next year from $2.5 billion to $1.5b.

It also forced him to cut the Government's capital spending this year to $1.4b from $1.7b as recently as December.

This focus on debt repayment limited the Government's options this year and looks set to do the same for two or three years to come.

That means less potential for the sort of infrastructure investment that Auckland in particular and New Zealand in general needs to cope with the biggest migration shock in more than 100 years and record high tourism.

It also restrains the Government's ability to pursue its social investment strategy of investing heavily upfront to turn around the lives of vulnerable kids before they are locked into generations of misery.

Instead, this Budget limited itself to absolute necessities, which meant spending money reactively on health and education to cope with population growth, and the utterly necessary business of rebuilding Child, Youth and Family.

The Government had virtually nothing to say or do in the Budget about dealing with the core problem at the heart of the economy, the Government's finances, the financial system's stability and many of the nation's social woes: Auckland's housing infrastructure shortage.

Auckland Council made it perfectly clear last week it could not pay for the $17b of roading, water and other infrastructure needed to build all the extra houses around and inside the region the Government is demanding.

Ratepayers don't want to take on the extra debt to pay for it and the Government's own rules about local government debt issuance are blocking the council from borrowing the funds it needs.

Auckland's housing supply outlook, which remains woefully inadequate, is therefore stuck in an endless loop of claim, counter-claim and then nothing being done.

The Government blames the council for not allowing Auckland to build out and up. The council blames the Government for not funding the infrastructure to build out and up.

Meanwhile, Aucklanders face rents rising seven times faster than inflation, house prices nearing 10 times incomes and endless hours in traffic jams on an overwhelmed transport network.

Auckland and the economy needs a circuit breaker of debt-funded infrastructure investment and the only player big enough and financially strong enough to do it is the Government.

Ultimately, it also has the most to lose if Auckland's housing crisis spirals further out of control.

Why won't the Government just borrow the money to break the Auckland log-jam?

The Government's concentration on debt repayment is having real-world effects at a time when the real measure of investor concerns about debt, interest rates, are near record lows of about 2.7 per cent.

English is worried that somehow international investors will lose faith in us if we have to borrow heavily again to deal with another Global Financial Crisis or another earthquake.

There are no indications of that from our credit ratings agencies and English himself regularly trumpets New Zealand's falling net foreign debt and how Treasury's repeated warnings about a worsening current account deficit have been plain wrong.

The Government's own forecasts show net debt will track down to 15 per cent of GDP by 2023 and that solid economic growth and the effects of fiscal drag will keep GDP growing faster than debt.

Instead, the Government said this week it will go out of its way to repay $9.2b in the three years to 2020.

This seems perverse at a time when fund managers and international investors are screaming out for more government bonds to invest in, not less. The Government should stop jumping at debt shadows and just start using that money to show us the infrastructure.

- Herald on Sunday

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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.

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