Thomas Coughlan: Rough waters ahead, after a week of bad news


It’s been a gloomy few days in New Zealand, as report after report warned the nation faces potentially insurmountable challenges and lacks the capability to fix what is already broken – let alone prepare ourselves for the challenges of the future.

To cap it off, yet another report warned New Zealand’s out-of-control housing market could crash to the extent it hurts tens of thousands of recent buyers, whilst not crashing hard enough to increase housing affordability for the hundreds thousands locked out of home ownership.

The gloomiest report was the first.

Climate scientists Tim Naish and Richard Levy published research showing that sea levels could rise faster and higher in New Zealand than in other countries.

This could be 1.2m of sea level rise in places before the century’s end.

It’s the speed of the sea level rise as much as the extent that is concerning. Retreating from coastlines is one of the thorniest democratic issues we’re likely to face in our lifetimes. It’s Frankenstein’s monster of our climate, housing, and economic crises that raises questions over who gets bailed-out, how much, and who gets a say.

The Government has strongly suggested it won’t be bailing out coastline dwelling multi-millionaires, but it won’t be turning its back on them either.

Given its complexity, it’s unsurprising the issue is progressing slowly, but there are serious questions over whether it needs to be quite this slow.

Managed retreat has been on the political radar since the Randerson RMA report was published in 2020. Last week’s consultation document did not push the issue along any further than that report. It proposed almost nothing and simply posed questions about what sort of regime people would like to see.

The document was a near repeat of the controversy that surrounded the draft Emissions Reduction Plan, which was panned for having very few emissions reductions recommendations outside the area of transport.

The issue is getting worse, it’s getting closer, and it’s concerning we’re not ramping up work more quickly to resolve it. Managed retreat will be excruciatingly painful to grapple with – better we have concrete proposals now so that debate can begin and solutions found.

Things got worse on Monday with the release of the Infrastructure Commission’s infrastructure strategy.

It said New Zealand would need to spend more than $30 billion a year – nearly 10 per cent of GDP – to plug the infrastructure deficit.

Both the commission and infrastructure minister Grant Robertson warned this was a sum we could barely afford, and even if we could afford such a sum, New Zealand lacked the capability to deliver that sort of infrastructure all at once.

You want to see inflation? Try doubling the Crown infrastructure spend to $30b a year.

The Commission said New Zealand should better use what we have and be more targeted about what we build. There’s little to argue with on both counts, but it doesn’t discount the fact it is dispiriting that we lack the ability to build ourselves into the country we deserve to live in.

The final grim report was the Reserve Bank’s Financial Stability Report published on Wednesday.

It had good news for banks and insurers in that it said the housing correction we are currently enjoying does not pose a threat for the financial system – indeed, even if there is a sharp correction, the Bank said New Zealand’s retail banks will be fine.

Happy days.

The bank was less coy about the tens of thousands of people in mortgage distress after trying to get onto the housing ladder while the Reserve Bank sent the housing market into the stratosphere on a geyser of printed money during the pandemic.

It remains grim that one of the few ways to breathe life into the New Zealand economy is to pour fuel on the housing market. It’s a social crisis on the way up, and a social crisis on the way down too.

The infrastructure capacity constraints acknowledged on Monday suggest the root cause of the current housing crisis, a lack of supply, isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

A bouquet among the brambles then to Robertson, this time wearing his finance cap, for his announcement on Tuesday morning that New Zealand was shifting the way New Zealand calculates its debt levels, giving it significantly greater headroom to borrow and invest.

National has trained its guns on Labour’s delayed surplus but has stayed relatively quiet on the issue of debt. Christopher Luxon’s fiscal policy is a mercurial thing. He can be hawkish on spending, but has ambitions for infrastructure, which he will no doubt need to debt fund.

New Zealand has seemingly infinite problems getting things build, there are under regulated supply chains and suppliers, over regulated consenting, and an underpaid labour force fleeing to Australia.

Debt is important. The word from Treasury is New Zealand has to keep headroom for disasters and to keep itself appealing to the international bond markets. But that justifiablecaution has been used to argue an unjustifiable hostility to manageable debt levels.

Robertson’s subtle shift on Tuesday was a sensible shift in the other direction.

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