WikiLeaks cable: Visit of US Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

This is one of the diplomatic cables about New Zealand held by Wikileaks.

October 18, 2006


1. Summary: U.S. Treasury Under Secretary, Timothy Adams consulted with New Zealand (NZ) government officials, private bank economists, academics and business people in Wellington on October 16 to ascertain the current state of the NZ economy. Consensus among experts was that NZ is relatively stabile and in the midst of a standard business cycle
downturn. Economic growth slowed to around 1.5 per cent last year and is projected to remain at this level for the near future. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNA - Central Bank) is attempting to ensure the economy has a "soft landing" and in order to ease inflationary pressure is expected to raise the official interest rate in the next few weeks. The Kiwi dollar (NZD) is considered relatively overvalued -estimated
to have appreciated by ten percent- but attempts by RBNZ to curb inflation will also act to keep the currency "overvalued." (Note: NZ has one of the highest interest rates in the world. Endnote). NZ's household savings rate is sharply negative and consumer debt at record highs.

Consumers will become more cautious as the housing market stalls due to massive refinancing of mortgages (forty-eight billion NZD) at
higher interest rates. This phenomena is brought about by the 2-3 year length of the typical mortgage. To address low household savings rate, officials alluded to a new"compulsory" savings plan to be introduced next year. Export sector's importance to economic recovery is also being
hampered by the high NZD. Experts stressed the need for the WTO agenda to succeed. Trade within Asian markets, especially China, has taken on far greater significance. China has moved into third position as a destination for New Zealand exports.

Efforts to conclude a timely free trade agreement with the Chinese are proving difficult.


Minister Cullen's Forecast


2. Under Secretary Adams' called on the Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Michael Cullen who opined that New Zealand's economy was slowing after a period of expansion but believed it would have a soft landing while he expected overall demand to remain relatively strong. He forecast economic growth to slow to 1.5 percent both this year and next, before recovering to 3.7 percent in 2007-08.
Per budget predictions released in May, GNZ estimated a 7 billion NZD budget surplus for 2005-06 dropping to 5.8 billion NZD in 2006-07 and bottoming at 3.6 billion in 2008-09. His most significant concerns for the NZ economy were low household savings rates/high consumer debt and weak export performance. Cullen proffered that the GNZ planned to
introduce a new savings scheme next year with an op-out mechanism to help improve savings rates. He was also worried that a failure in Doha round would have a long-term negative impact especially for NZ exports to the Asia-Pacific markets.

He admitted that China was playing an increasingly important role and moving into third place after Australia and the U.S. as a destination for NZ exports.

3. Cullen believed the NZD to be currently overvalued by ten percent (currently trading in the .66 to .68 range to the USD) which is having a negative effect on export performance. He believes the housing market will remain stable because net gains in immigration will help support demand. Inflation worries have eased a bit as gas prices dropped as much as 15 percent in the past few months. More long range energy
concerns continue to focus on finding alternate sources for natural gas after depletion of domestic reserves anticipated in 2009.


Monetary Policy


4. In the meeting with the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ), Dr. Alan Bollard, a similar assessment of the NZ economy was offered. Per Bollard, current monetary policy is trying to bring the economy to a soft landing but with NZ having one of the highest interest rates in the world further adjustments are only expected to have a small marginal effect while continuing to keep the currency
overvalued. One of his biggest concerns is finding ways to improve household savings rate. He felt that both corporate and government savings were good but noted the increased costs for government when an aging population begins drawing down social security/pensions. He felt that current private sector funding for pensions in NZ "doesn't look healthy."

This comment tracks with Cullen's reference to the new savings scheme to address the low rate of household savings.

5. Treasury Secretary, John Whitehead also took up the issue of a soft landing for the economy. His concern however was that with current interest rates at 7.25 percent and average mortgages fixed at two to three year terms, the economy will experience a lag in the effects monetary policy will exert to correct inflation. On the issue of pension reform, Whitehead mentioned that the state system has moved the retirement age from 60 to 65 resulting in more people remaining in the
workforce thereby easing some of the pressure on government's need to increase expenditures on pensions. Whitehead's assessment of savings rates among households, firms and government echoed the opinions of Cullen and Bollard.

Whitehead further stressed the importance to the NZ economy for greater export access to the Asian markets and the viability of the WTO process. He admitted that the free trade negotiations ongoing with China proved difficult but reaffirmed the need to better integrate the NZ economy over the next 10 years with the Asian markets.


Housing Bubble Waiting to Burst


6. Economists representing some of the major banks in Wellington offered a somewhat pessimistic assessment of the housing market and seemed certain that the bubble will burst but can't forecast exactly when the downturn is likely to occur. Because of the 2-3 year terms of the typical mortgages in NZ, banks will begin to experience a 48 billion NZD churning in the refinancing of these mortgages which will
certainly be set higher than the rates last set in 2004. They predict an announcement by the RBNZ, in a matter of weeks, of a rate increase necessary to address this refinancing wave.

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Immigration Policy's Effect on Economy and Reform Rollbacks

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7. A panel of academics dispelled the conventional wisdom that New Zealand was suffering a brain drain. They maintain that current immigration policy which stresses skills/point system has resulted in NZ being in the net plus range for population/talent gains. On the negative side they worried that despite the free market reforms of the 1980's they saw the effects of consecutive Labour governments resulting in creeping re-regulation with absorption of talent and increasing bureaucracy. They feared that NZ would slip on the international index of competitive economies if this trend continues. They theorized that the electorate may have reacted negatively to the pain of the economic restructuring in the 1980's by inaugurating in 1996 a mixed-member
proportional (MMP) system to elect parliament resulting in more power shared by "marginal groups" thus slowing further economic reforms.


Need to Improve Productivity


8. The business community group was represented by individuals from the agriculture, oil and gas, financial/accounting, and business consulting sectors. They noted that as a relatively small economy, in order for NZ to sustain high rates of growth, it will become increasingly important to realize substantial increase in labor productivity. This will require much greater levels of exporting and foreign investment. They worry that only a small number of NZ companies are adequately engaged in
international markets which is partially caused by the small size and remoteness of the country. Increases in labor productivity could lead to higher wages which could go far in attracting and keeping talent in NZ. They remarked that it is far easier to secure capital than it is to secure talent inthis market. Hope among this group is that political factions will move away from in-fighting and focus more on improving
overall economic potential.


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