NZ better than many, but future is clouded says visiting scholar

There's a whiff of the 1930s in the air if you listen to the political rhetoric around the world, says a visiting US academic.

Alan Beckenstein, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business - and a regular visitor to New Zealand - says anger and an economic divide have fuelled policies that, although terrible, have played on people's fears.

"The substance behind the problem is the old model of how to run an economy and promote growth - make sure inflation doesn't dominate and so on - is based on globalisation and world trade.

"But it's really been deficient in understanding the inequalities associated with it.|
"That's the substantive reason for people wanting change, because the middle class hasn't improved in the US in ways that are measured." The top 10 per cent have done really well but nobody else has, he says, and it's a problem across the world.


As industries have floundered or disappeared, there has been no strategy to adapt people to the new environment, other than putting patches on the holes, he says.

Political leadership has become focused on what they're against rather than what they stand for, Beckenstein says.

"I don't see it being solved and I think that is the problem.

"When you're espousing horrible possibilities like Trump or Le Pen or the arch-conservative Brexiters, you command the media attention and you get the attention of people because the other side doesn't say 'oh, wait a minute, we actually have a way to reduce the impact of these things and do it in a rational way' other than 'trust me, we take care of the system, we'll grow and everybody will benefit', but they don't feel that."

Although he's just a couple of hours down the road from Washington, Beckenstein won't be drawn on tipping who will be in charge of the United States come November.

He says he's an "independent, policy guy", but will say that at a policy level Donald Trump's ideas are a disaster.

Beckenstein has been coming to New Zealand for 23 years, talking to senior public and private sector executives about global economies and markets, as part of a two-week residential programme run by accounting and consulting firm EY.

In that time he's seen the country evolve from "sleepy but moving" to a developing sophistication built around selling intellectual property and a shift in focus from the US and European markets to China and the rest of Asia.

"The understanding of that in a little place that did all kinds of reforms far more quickly than the United State could ever do, it was really educational for me." He says the evolution of the single desk model, in cases such as Fonterra and Zespri, has been interesting and adds "amazing value".

"You need to take that and have enough stability politically, where the rest of the world is going to go through a lot of chaos."

On the downside, New Zealand is not the richest of countries, is too dependent on outside capital, has a volatile exchange rate and a housing bubble, he adds.

"How do you manoeuvre that? I don't know."

A recession in the United States and Europe is inevitable - and overdue - he believes, as central banks unwind low interest rates.

[New Zealand] seems to be doing well, but to get a higher growth rate than Australia in GDP you need to kick it up some more.


Moving away from those low rates will be painful, as the bond market will collapse, in all likelihood taking the share market down with it, and the cost of borrowing will escalate, he says.

Rising nationalistic political leadership could also put pressure on trade flows, which will increase volatility, including exchange rates, unless there is a collaborative effort to deal with the changes.

Beckenstein says it's difficult to predict how it will all play out for New Zealand, except to say there will be a lot of risk and change occurring in a non-linear way as each component interacts.

"Everybody has got challenges.

"[New Zealand is] a different model than almost any place else you can think of though and seems to be doing well, but to get a higher growth rate than Australia in GDP you need to kick it up some more, which is education and a long term coherent view and an understanding of where you can add value in the world.

"Immigration is going to help that - that's what makes the US strong.

"All these PhD programmes in the technical areas are filled by people who aren't originally Americans," he says.

"Cautiously optimistic is how I would call it.

"A better position than most, but the challenge is the uncertainties for the future for everybody aren't known very well.

"Let's hope it's the optimistic view and we get past this political setback with leadership."