This week’s chart explores the contribution of the trade balance in the balance of payments to the evolution of New Zealand’s high external debt ratio.

The issue is significant because of the popular myth that the high net external debt ratio today results from a chronic inability of New Zealanders to save enough, for example, in the last two decades.  This, it is thought, is the cause of the chronic balance of payments current account deficits since 1974.  In reality, what was driving the deficits between around 1990 and 2004 was the cost of serving the net external debt built up by 1990.

This savings myth is bolstering the drive to force or subsidise today’s working age New Zealanders to save more.

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The red line on the chart shows New Zealand’s net external liabilities as a percentage of GDP.  It uses two time series published by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in its May 2011 Financial Stability Report.  The first series, from 1972 to 1989 is an unofficial series.  The second series, from 1989 to 2011, is the official time series.  (Statistics New Zealand has since published revised statistics, but the RBNZ’s second series suffices for the purposes of this analysis.)

The first point to observe about the red line is that its level today is largely a legacy of the events that caused the 1984 foreign exchange crisis.  The ratio peaked at 74.5 percent in 1986 and is not vastly higher today.

The blue line in the chart plots how the net external debt to GDP ratio would have moved forward and backward through time from 1989 if the only factor operating had been the surplus or deficit in the trade balance of the balance of payments as a percentage of GDP in each successive year.

Focus first on the concurrent sharp rise in both the red and blue lines from the early 1970s to the late 1980s.  The unofficial estimate of the net external debt rose from 12.7 percent of GDP in 1974 to 63.9 percent in 1989, a rise of 51.2 percentage points of GDP.  That’s a massive contribution to today’s figure of around 80 percent.

The blue line shows the cumulative contribution to this rise of the large trade deficits (imports greater than exports) that occurred between 1975 and 1986. Summing the annual trade deficits as a percentage of GDP between 1975 and 1986 gives a cumulative deficit of 40.1 percent of GDP.  That’s a big number too.

It follows that the large trade deficits that followed New Zealand’s failure to adjust rapidly and flexibly to the 1973-74 oil shock may explain roughly half of the net external debt of 80 percent of GDP that is causing such widespread angst today. This was not a savings deficiency story (see below).  Instead the proximate reasons were the failure of the heavily controlled economy to respond adequately to the oil price shocks and the heavy overseas borrowing during this period to bolster the exchange rate and fund the large fiscal deficits.

Next, focus on the post-1989 period in the chart. The drop in the blue line occurs because, contrary to much popular belief, New Zealand ran surpluses overall in the balance of trade between 1990 and 2004.

It was only after 2004, when big government spending increases commenced, that the balance of trade returned to deficits, causing the blue line to lift slightly. The divergence between the blue and red lines after 1989 shows that the rise in net external liabilities from 63.9 percent of GDP in 1989 to 76.7 percent in 2004 was not a ‘spending beyond our means’ story.  To the contrary, domestic (consumption and investment) spending was lower than domestic production/income on average during this period.

Another reason for not unduly focusing on the savings aspect is that it is perfectly sensible to borrow overseas to fund some portion of domestic investment as long as the returns from that investment adequately cover the cost of borrowing, taking risk into account.

Savings rates are one thing, competitiveness is another. New Zealand’s exposed industries can lose competitiveness at any given savings ratio simply because of adverse international or domestic events, such as the big rise in government spending that occurred after 2004.

The loss of competitiveness after 2004 is a real concern from an economic management perspective, given the historically favourable export prices relative to import prices during this period.

Those who insist on portraying today’s high net external debt ratio as a savings deficiency story should be aware that New Zealand’s average gross national savings ratio was actually higher, at 19.6 percent of GDP, between 1972 and 1987 than it was between 1988 and 2004 when it averaged 17.2 percent of GDP.

Not shown in the chart is the second major factor affecting the ratio of net external liabilities to GDP.  This is the difference between the earnings rate payable on the net debt and the growth in GDP.  The former increases the numerator, the latter the denominator.  The rise in the red line in the chart after 1989, in conjunction with the fall in the blue line, suggests that the net earnings rate has exceeded the growth rate in GDP during this period.

Since New Zealand is too small to affect investors’ required return on capital, those who are concerned to see the ratio fall should be focusing on raising the rate of growth in GDP.  This needs to be done in conjunction with restoring competitiveness in the traded goods sector in order to stop the blue line from lifting unduly.

In summary, New Zealand’s high net external liabilities are largely a legacy of New Zealand’s pre-1984 ‘Polish shipyard’ economy (with apologies to post 1970s Poland).  They reflect past economic mismanagement and adverse oil price shocks, rather than any sudden change in national savings rates.  The reforms of the 1984-1991, including the move to a floating exchange rate, a disciplined monetary policy, and the progressive elimination of fiscal deficits, put an end to the chronic trade deficits of the earlier period.  Unhappily, the 2004-2008 loss of competitiveness and government spending discipline does not even have an adverse terms of trade excuse.

It could be worse than futile to try to penalise the current generation of workers for pre-1984 poor economic management by interfering with their consumption/savings decisions.  The focus instead should be on raising income growth, in part by raising external competitiveness.  After all, given the income gap with Australia and the number of New Zealanders voting with their feet, many would argue that raising the growth rate should be the focus even if the net external debt ratio were half what it is today.

A related point for those preoccupied with savings, as distinct from a higher savings ratio, is that higher growth means higher incomes and likely higher savings and consumption.


Brace yourselves: this is a seriously scary chart.  According to the latest IMF World Economic Forum forecasts released this week, 148 countries will grow real GDP per capita faster than New Zealand in the decade to 2016. Gallingly, they include Australia – of course.

We wouldn’t accept such mediocre outcomes from the All Blacks, yet it says much about our priorities that we accept it for economic performance.

Our governments don’t hesitate to set grandiose targets for raising living standards.  The last Labour government said repeatedly that its top economic goal was to lift New Zealanders’ average standard of living back into the top half of the OECD by 2010.  The current National government has the stated goal of catching Australia by 2025.

Labour never had a credible strategy for achieving its goal, and National has yet to unveil one.  And even if it had a strategy, would it have the will and ability to achieve it under MMP?

The current government set up a 2025 Taskforce which produced two high-quality reports. These were regarded as politically unpalatable and accordingly side-lined.  Their orthodox OECD style recommendations would have given New Zealanders a much better chance for a more successful and prosperous future.

This is not a simple matter of blaming the politicians.  If the electorate rewards political parties for grandiose goals with nothing to back them up, the chart indicates what we can expect to get.


The IMF’s twice-yearly World Economic Outlook is always a rich source of economic data and analysis.

The following table on the economic situation in selected Asian economies is informative.

The dynamic non-Japan Asian economies are a far better benchmark for New Zealand than the ‘old’ OECD members. Hong Kong and Singapore have per capita incomes that are much higher than New Zealand’s and Korea and Taiwan are fast out-pacing us. Growth rates in China and India are changing the face of the world economy.

The table shows that New Zealand’s economy is projected to grow more slowly in the three years to 2012 than all other Asian countries and sub-regions in the table.

Hong Kong and Singapore are still notching up fast growth rates (a phenomenal 14.5% last year in Singapore) and very low rates of unemployment.  The main concern in the region is over-heating.

Another table in the report shows that the sub-Saharan African economy is showing extraordinary promise, with annual growth rates rising to around 6% in the period.