Tuesday, 23 June 2015

We're no fools, Winston

It's Bush v Clinton for the White House, a film about dinosaurs is tops at the cinemas... and Winston Peters is banging the anti-immigration drum. It's like the 1990s never ended!

Peters is referring to the recent release of net migration figures by Statistics NZ. What do those numbers show?

In the year to May 2015 there was a net gain of 57,800 people to New Zealand. This is made up of:

  • 7,516 applicants for residence visas
  • 17,515 student visas
  • 27,957 work visas
  • 4,812 New Zealand or Australian citizens
Student visas are a critical part of our $2.3 billion (2009 est) education export industry, which despite his alleged desire to expand New Zealand's exports, Winston First opposes. Likewise with work visas. In the industry I work in, the reality is that New Zealand is often too small to train technicians in every facet of IT. 

Nor should we attempt to - we only have a handful of multi-nationals with global reach (sadly) who require some of the skills that are more common overseas. So it's common sense that we should enable workers from overseas to come to New Zealand. In IT, there's also a huge skills transfer component.

Peters bangs on the anti-immigration drum because he knows it wins him votes. Sadly a number of New Zealanders see the great - if not critical - contribution immigrants make to New Zealand economically and socially. Luckily I think most do see it - and welcome new New Zealanders.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The New Labour Party and 70s thinking

Chris Bishop gave a speech recently pointing out the inversion in New Zealand politics:
Historically in New Zealand politics, the Labour Party has liked to think of itself as the party of progressive, even radical, social change.
Conversely, it is sometimes claimed National is the traditional party of conservatism – the party that manages the status quo; that builds on social changes already made.
Whatever the truth of these claims, today’s political situation differs markedly from these perceptions. National and Labour’s traditional roles have reversed.
Labour is now the real conservative party – fearful of innovative social policy, afraid of new ideas – in short, the party which says “No” to everything.
Meanwhile it is National that is the genuine reformist party, determined to enter social policy realms that Labour has selfishly and oddly assumed it owned for itself, such as the welfare system, social housing and education.
The responses to this speech (and subsequent NBR article) have been intriguing. One in particular caught my attention. It wasn't the expected response from the centre-left, which has been "No", they do in fact have all the answers to long-term social problems.

It's the response from the wingnut right faction (no, I'm not going to link to it) the accusation has been leveled that in the speech and article Chris was "...lay[ing] out his and National’s credentials as the New Labour party…approaching Muldoon’s for its left-ness."

It's this response that I find laughable. Firstly, Muldoon was clear right from the start of his premiership that his goal was to "leave New Zealand no worse off than he found it." While I think he was genuine in this goal, it was clear by 1984 that he hadn't achieved this unambitious goal. In swept the Lange-Douglas government and the rest is history.

Muldoon's "left-ness" was his expansion of the government's intervention in the economy. But he kept to usual centre-right policies of the day otherwise. And no-one can accuse the Key government of the sort of Think Big, wage-freeze or exchange rate interventions Muldoon brought in to shield New Zealand from the world.

Secondly, and this is a point missed by the wingnut faction, the goal of the Key government has been to deliver better social outcomes and better value for money for taxpayers. The point Chris made more broadly is that better social outcomes are not left-wing in nature, nor does the opposition have a monopoly on them.

What is becoming obvious though is that the opposition are conservative in the sense that most of their solutions seem to date from the 1970s. Take their broadcasting policy for example: spending millions on regional television stations; spending further millions bringing back a fully public broadcaster combining radio and television. You know, much like the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation of the 1970s. Completely at odds with their own admission that the internet is radically changing the way people access and view content. That's 70s thinking - the sort of thinking that won't move New Zealand forwards.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

OECD: time for port reform

The OECD report on New Zealand's economy makes for very interesting reading. There's been plenty of analysis of the points it makes so there's no point in going over them again here.

One area I'm particularly interested in, highlighted by the New Zealand Initiative, was the OECD's call in 2013 on government to "Consider reducing local government ownership of port assets to bring more market discipline to the sector". This seems like an odd thing for the OECD to talk about (yes, I do all the time, but let's be honest, I'm pretty odd) but it has major downstream affects on the economy.

What's the status quo of New Zealand ports? I crunched the numbers - in terms of total seaport export and import value for the year 2014-15 - and looked at who owns each port:

Port Share of exports (NZ$)* Share of imports (NZ$)* Ownership
NorthPort (Whangarei) 1.66% 8.87% Port of Tauranga (50%), Northland Regional Council (25%), Ports of Auckland (10%) plus other investors.
Ports of Auckland 14.29% 57.86% Auckland Council
CentrePort (Wellington) 3.26% 4.76% Wellington Regional Council
Port of Tauranga 37.56% 11.01% NZX listed; Bay of Plenty Regional Council (54%)
Port Napier 9.26% 1.44% Hawke's Bay Regional Council
Port Taranaki 4.68% 0.60% Taranaki Regional Council
Eastland Port (Gisborne) 0.82% 0.00% Eastland Group Ltd, owned by Eastland Community Trust
Port Marlborough (Picton) 0.19% 0.00% Marlborough District Council
Port Nelson 1.55% 0.84% Nelson City Council (50%), Tasman District Council (50%)
Lytellton Port Company (Christchurch) 11.13% 10.83% Christchurch City Council
Port Otago (Dunedin) 9.04% 1.03% Otago Regional Council
SouthPort (Bluff) 2.99% 1.85% Southland Regional Council (65%); NZX listed 
PrimePort (Timaru) 3.56% 0.91% Port of Tauranga (50%), Timaru District Council (50%)

*YTD 2014-15

As you can see, local government dominates the 13 major port businesses in New Zealand. Two of our ports are NZX listed - Port of Tauranga and SouthPort, which most are either directly or indirectly owned by local governments. Port of Tauranga has been active in seeking joint ventures; it now has two - NorthPort (Marsden Point, new Whangarei) and PrimePort (Timaru). Tauranga now dominates exports, while Auckland dominates imports.

Ports of Auckland was publicly listed from 1993-2005 (due to Waikato Regional Council selling 20% of its shares), and as most Aucklanders now know is currently 100% owned by Auckland Council Investments Limited. Christchurch City Council is considering selling a stake in the Lyttelton Port Company.

These complex ownership structures underlines the many problems for sea ports in New Zealand: with the exception of Auckland and Tauranga, our port companies are small and unable to expand to gain economies of scale. The multiplicity of ports makes it easy for the major international shipping lines to play ports off against one another. As smaller entities, our ports are price takers. This, as the OECD points out, makes life harder for New Zealand exporters.

Meanwhile, Tauranga's strategy appears to be to take business off both Auckland and Lyttelton (Christchurch) ports through its two joint ventures. Ports of Auckland doesn't appear to have much of a strategy other than filling in more of the Waitemata Harbour, and a joint venture with Port Napier, outside of Palmerston North, which appears to be a play at taking business off Wellington's CentrePort.

Add to this the looming problem of "mega" ships, which the Ministry of Transport recently argued should mean that the number of international container ports is significantly reduced, from 10 to 5. The Ministry of Transport suggested Auckland, Tauranga, Napier, Lyttelton and Otago would be the survivors, while other ports simply become "feeder" ports.

All of this points to a major restructure of how ports operate in New Zealand. My suggestion is that the ports are consolidated into two main companies - one consisting of Auckland, Wellington, Napier and Lyttelton, the other Tauranga, Taranaki, Marlborough, NorthPort, SouthPort and PrimePort - to create competition (both groups would have roughly 50% of all trade between them). The local authorities could band together to own a stake in each of these consolidated companies, which would be NZX listed.

The expectation would be that the port companies would consolidate their investment to achieve economies of scale in servicing larger TEU ships. Smaller ports would become "feeder" ports to the larger hubs (Auckland, Tauranga, Lyttelton and Timaru).