When it comes to the outlook for productivity growth we are hopeful, for a few reasons. The economy continues to make progress on moving up the value-add chain in terms of our commodity exports, and it is perhaps under-appreciated how this is now flowing through to our terms of trade and incomes.
The economy continues to rank strongly in measures of international competitiveness and ease of doing business. And the negative impact of natural disasters, which undoubtedly must have had an impact on the efficient allocation of capital, should also start to wane.
But greater investment in capital will likely be necessary to deliver a labour productivity dividend. New Zealand’s ratio of capital to labour has effectively been unchanged since 2010. In economist parlance, there has been no ‘capital deepening’ in contrast to the prior 10 years where the ratio grew at an average pace of 2.0 per cent a year.
It means the labour productivity growth which has been experienced over recent years has effectively been driven entirely by multi-factor productivity. That is impressive on its own way but unlikely to be sustainable without further capital investment.
Fortunately, the stars are now aligning for exactly that.
A tight labour market will force firms to look at alternatives. Firms continue to report it is extremely difficult to find skilled staff. While the unemployment rate could of course fall further, it is more about the skills labour possesses rather than the number of workers per se.
That is a harder problem to solve, and could see firms look at other ways to expand capacity, ie through capital investment and automation. We are certainly hearing anecdotes to that effect.
The relative price of labour and capital should start to shift. One clear reason why the ratio of capital to labour hasn’t risen is it has been relatively cheap to throw labour at the problem of increasing output rather than take the risk of capital investment.
With tentative signs wage growth is starting to rise (due to both policy changes and a tight labour market) the attractiveness of capital investment should increase. The elevated $NZ should help too, by making imported capital equipment cheaper.
Although surveyed business confidence took a hit after the election, we are picking up a vibe of ‘just getting on with it’. The risk profile around the near-term growth picture doesn’t appear as negatively skewed as it was.
The broader outlook for the economy, while not expected to hit the pace of growth experienced over 2015/16, should still be solid, providing firms with the confidence to continue to put cash to work.
Finally, while some of the changes the new government are considering should perhaps assist: redirectly investment from housing to more productive assets and re-introducing tax credits for research and development.
In one sense, revisions to historical productivity statistics don’t ‘matter’ in they don’t change a thing about how well off we are at this point in time. We can all feel a bit better about ourselves.
In a broader sense, productivity growth is everything in terms of economic growth which improves lives over the long run. It’s good to hear we have been working smarter as well as harder but with the economy and labour market starting to hit its physical limits, the ‘smarter’ bit needs to take a step up. That needs better tools.
Philip Borkin is Senior Economist at ANZ