Energy chaos – coming to a market near you

If the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, had been an economist he might have written: “All happy market outcomes are alike, but each policy error is disastrous in its own way”.

Certainly the implosion of the UK’s energy market manages to combine many familiar bad policy interventions, while nonetheless contriving its own unique set of outcomes.

Continue reading “Energy chaos – coming to a market near you”

A NZ-UK trade agreement will be another – albeit small – step in the re-ordering of global trade

There is increasing chatter in London that the NZ-UK trade deal will be announced in days, with invitations to briefings being diaried for Tuesday.

But it’s worth noting that the UK commentators seem to be excising the prefix ‘free’ from the ‘trade agreement’, perhaps reflecting better understanding that these days there is no free trade without a substantial regulatory component.

While NZ’s producers will no doubt be grateful if they get an Australian-style phased reduction of tariffs and quotas as has been briefed, the non-tariff/quota regulatory barriers will be just as important in the long run.

That at least would seem to be the view of the eminent organ, the Irish Farmers Journal, in its assessment of the currently-fraught implementation of free trade arrangements between the EU, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain (ie, the UK minus Northern Ireland).

Continue reading “A NZ-UK trade agreement will be another – albeit small – step in the re-ordering of global trade”

NZ does better than Australia at Covid messaging but signals a different approach

Jacinda Ardern’s government got better press than Scott Morrison’s when it announced details of its ‘reopening’ strategy earlier this week.

This may seem a surprise given that both governments have no immediate plans to actually reopen – rather the contrary in fact.

Continue reading “NZ does better than Australia at Covid messaging but signals a different approach”

Will China’s communist party complete a second century?

The Economist has marked the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with one of its context-rich historical essays.  It puts its money on the side of the party’s continuing adaptability and resilience.  This is probably the orthodox position.  But, as the Economist’s editorial staff themselves say when hedging their bets, only time will tell.

The more optimistic among us might look beyond the party’s seemingly-monolithic strength and see it – in pleasingly Marxist terms – as a prisoner of its own fundamental contradictions.

Continue reading “Will China’s communist party complete a second century?”

The dismantling of free-market reforms – how Ardern is taking us back to the days when state monopolies limited our choices

—————-

The Ardern government is weakening many of the pillars of the free market reforms implemented in the 1980s and 1990s, including undermining the Reserve Bank and Fiscal Responsibility Acts.

 More alarming is its failure to learn that bestowing privileges on a few results in enormous costs for the many.

So says Nicholas Kerr, son of the late Business Roundtable executive director Roger Kerr.

A marketing consultant in Dallas, Texas, Nicholas Kerr delivered a  speech last month to the Dallas chapter of the Bastiat Society, an organisation established by the American Institute for Economic Research as a forum for business professionals to help advance peaceful trade and human flourishing.   

The speech (the full version can be read here) was headed Unleashing New Zealand’s Potential and Suppressing Washington State’s — Lessons for Texas.

Here’s an edited version: –  

—————-

While the New Zealand I grew up in during the 1970s and early 1980s was idyllic for most children, its citizens had long been experiencing declining relative living standards.  In the 30 years prior to 1982, New Zealand’s rank in the per capita gross domestic product league table fell from third to 32nd.

Government owned all manner of things, including but not limited to, one of the largest hotel chains in the country; a shipping company; both television channels (New Zealand only had two until 1989); many radio stations; most hospitals; major banks; a steel mill and a printing company; all the country’s airports, ports, universities and coalmines; half the country’s forests; and, the only telecommunications, electricity, airline, and rail companies. Continue reading “The dismantling of free-market reforms – how Ardern is taking us back to the days when state monopolies limited our choices”

Covid vaccine is important but it’s only a beginning

Never let a crisis go to waste, said Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first Chief of Staff.  In the Covid-stricken northern hemisphere, some people have taken the message to heart.

The mood feels different from in the first wave.  Despite London moving into tier three measures, the volume of traffic is consistent with many people having adapted to new conditions.  The roll-out of the UK’s vaccination programme indicates a clearer direction and sense of urgency from the British government.  There is now a path, with the possibility of rapid improvement.

Continue reading “Covid vaccine is important but it’s only a beginning”

Europe’s false step on tech

You’ve got to hand it to the EU’s leadership.  They are planning to welcome a Joe Biden victory with a proposal for renewed and refreshed co-operation – preferably on Europe’s terms.  

It is billed as a “once-in-a-generation” offer for the US to join the EU’s many committees and after the usual excruciating discussion, agree to adopt its approach in areas like digital regulation, competition policy, security and post-Covid action. 

No doubt a Biden administration will find something to like in the European menu.  But not as much as the Europeans might hope.

Continue reading “Europe’s false step on tech”

A moment of truth for the EU in the post-Brexit trade talks

Covid, summer holidays and the usual foreign policy rows have overshadowed the EU/UK post-Brexit trade talks.  A pity because this looks like a – perhaps the – key moment, as the ever astute Wolfgang Munchau points out in the Financial Times.

The issue is the EU’s insistence that the UK conform with the EU’s state aid and competition policy – in broad terms, the regime whereby the authorities arbitrate and ensure consistency between the member states’ freedom of action in industry regulation, promotion and subsidy. Continue reading “A moment of truth for the EU in the post-Brexit trade talks”

Trump’s (pre-Covid) economy gives clues for election strategy

One of the interesting things about the (pre-Covid) US economy was that, on the surface at least, it didn’t change all that much between Trump and Obama. Or so argues economist Pierre Lemieux in The Trump Economy: Three Years of Volatile Continuity for the Cato Institute.

His assessment on economic growth:

“Under Obama, the average annual growth [in real GDP per capita] starting in 2010 was 1.4%. Under Trump, it averaged 2.0%, though the upward trend slowed in 2019, falling to 1.8%, which is roughly the same level as 2017. These data are consistent with the continuation of a slow recovery from the Great Recession.”

And on labour markets:

“Overall, the poverty and unemployment picture improved slowly from 2009 to 2019, with no radical break when the occupant of the White House changed. The Obama economy and the Trump economy seem to be the same economy. This observation applies to many other measures of American prosperity”

OK.  An important general point – that presidents’ short-term influence on the economy is usually overrated and the influence of longer-term market and policy settings is underrated – is usefully made.  But you still ought to look at the changes in those settings to draw some conclusion about possible longer-term economic and political impacts.

Lemieux’s analysis identifies three substantial policy divergences between the two administrations.

Comprehensive tax reform in 2017 is the first.  This pushed down the cost of capital and increased investment. Lemieux cites evidence that it spurred economic growth in the following year by 0.8 percentage points.

But the tax cuts were not backed by reduced government spending.  So rising government debt, further boosted by Covid payouts, will require a response at some point.  The choice on how this is done – either spending restraint or higher taxes – remains a key dividing line between America’s political tribes.

The second divergence is on regulatory policy. Trump’s administration actually managed to stop (rather than just slow) the growth in the stock of regulation.

“… the Trump administration has roughly capped the total volume of federal regulations at, or slightly over, the 185,000 pages [in the Code of Federal Regulations] they comprised at the end of the Obama presidency”

The process was probably more shuffle than standstill but, even so, it represents a decisive change of intent from the sweeping regulatory surges in areas like resource use, financial services, healthcare and energy policy launched by enthusiastic politicians of all stripes and predating the financial crisis.  And it almost certainly needed a clear lead from the top (plus some excellent regulatory economists on the ground).

The third area is Trump’s break with the orthodox consensus on world trade.  

Managed stability has been replaced by an attempt to batter concessions out of China, win votes from the losers of globalisation, and challenge China’s bid for geopolitical hegemony.  The best you can say about the economics is that so far he seems to have got away with it (despite increased trade barriers reducing US GDP by an estimated 0.4%).

If you are a market liberal, you ought on balance to prefer the Trump mix – although you would be entirely justified in having some conniptions with regard to opportunism and lack of consistency.

And you might also want to use this analysis to evaluate how a Biden or Trump presidency might approach things after the November election.

First up, the case for more continuity.  Despite the rhetoric, both parties will at bottom be relying on workers and businesses in the private sector to generate post-Covid recovery by adapting to changed economic conditions.  Both are likely to spend freely to support those economically hurt by the pandemic (although it’s also reasonable to expect the winner to direct more pork towards ‘his people’).  Both are likely to favour strategic competition with China over market integration. No one wants to tackle the national debt before the market makes them do it.

And now the differences.  

Biden Democrats see a much bigger role for government in the recovery and are already talking about higher taxes on the usual suspects (business and the rich) to pay for extra spending on green subsidies, childcare and unionised jobs.  One can also safely predict a resumption of normal service from the regulatory bureaucracy. Trump and his allies seem less likely to take this path.

So in some ways, Covid might be clarifying the economic choices facing Americans  in November.  Which will surely be helpful after all that continuity.

Britain’s Battle of Brexit has an internal dimension

One of the chores of the Brexit process is the repatriation of powers from Brussels to Westminster.  Simple as making a list you might say.  But one aspect – bringing home the state’s economic regulatory powers – is causing a spat.

When the UK joined the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1973, these powers were held at the national level.  But since then, in addition to ceding further powers to Europe, the central government has devolved substantial retained powers to regional administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.  And the local politicians – seeking to advance their localist and autonomist agenda – are clamouring for a share of the handback.

So Westminster’s mandarins and politicians have come up with a plan, with a refreshingly deep foundation in history, economics and – yes – politics. Continue reading “Britain’s Battle of Brexit has an internal dimension”