Friday, April 18, 2014

Why isn’t New Zealand richer and more productive?

This is a good summary of this important study. It is critical that we try to understand and learn from it – not react either politically or defensively. Denial will not be helpful in the slightest.

 Tyler Cowen on April 18, 2014

Here is a new study from the New Zealand Productivity Commission, and here is the basic puzzle:

Based on its policy settings, the authors estimate that New Zealand’s GDP per capita should be 20% above the OECD average. But it is actually over 20% below average, making New Zealand a clear outlier. The size of the gap indicates an apparent “productivity paradox” that costs more than 40 cents in every dollar of output.

Here is one problem:

The increasing importance of global value chains – where production activities are spread across countries – may have worsened the impact of New Zealand’s geographic isolation on trade in goods.  Because global value chains typically require intensive interaction and just-in-time delivery, they tend to be regionally based. For New Zealand, international transportation costs for goods are about twice as high as in Europe. This reduces access to large markets and the scope for participation in global value chains , where the transfer of advanced technologies now often occurs.

More generally, the “gravity equation” — also known as distance — makes it harder for New Zealand to trade with the rest of the world.

Another big problem has to do with problems of underinvestment in knowledge-based capital:

Most of the rest of New Zealand’s productivity gap…appears to come from an underinvestment in knowledge-based capital. Knowledge-based capital encompasses a wide range of assets including product design, inter-firm networks, R&D and organisational know-how. Knowledge-based capital can be used simultaneously by more and more firms without re-incurring the initial development costs.  This generates increasing returns to scale – an important property that makes ideas and knowledge a key engine of productivity growth.  It can also be difficult to prevent others from using knowledge-based capital, an example of “spillovers” of knowledge and ideas between firms.

While comprehensive data on knowledge-based capital are currently not available, indications are that New Zealand ranks well in software investment and trademarks but very poorly in R&D and, to a lesser extent, patents. Indeed, R&D intensity in New Zealand – particularly business R&D – is among the lowest in the OECD. This not only reduces capacity for frontier innovation but also the ability of firms to absorb new ideas developed elsewhere, constraining technological catch-up.

In part, New Zealand suffers a low return on R&D due to its limited access to large markets, which reduces the likely payoff from the successful commercialisation of new ideas. New Zealand’s economic structure may also play a role. The industries in which New Zealand specialises typically have low R&D intensity. For instance, across countries, R&D in agriculture rarely exceeds 0.5% of value-add.

Here is a good FT summary blog post on the study.

I would have liked more comparison with the time when New Zealand was one of the world’s wealthiest nations per capita, and when, pre-1973, privileged access to British markets for Kiwi lamb and dairy was enough to maintain such high living standards.  And might we be reading a very different piece if the Chinese had a stronger taste for milk?

I recall the Michael Porter report from the 1990s, arguing that New Zealand did not have enough strong economic sectors which could lead to the accretion of cumulative advantages.

Overall, if there is any nation which should be aiming to double or triple its population, it is New Zealand.

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