The visible hand in economics

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I see there is some talk of compulsory redundancy payments after this sad story.

Now even though it would be nice if those people hadn’t been left high and dry after all their years of commitment, it is important that we try to get an objective idea about the costs associated with the scheme.
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So we all know that Iceland is bankrupt – what is the situation like for New Zealand?

A few of the stories I saw when Iceland first went into massive trouble were here, here, and here.  At the time the comparison was so popular that there was a Dom Post article on the risks of New Zealand’s current account.

However, I think by now it is obvious that I am not going to agree :P  Our stock of debt is equal to one years income – I don’t see how this is unsustainable!

So tell me – are we heading towards bankruptcy, are we heading towards a bumpy ride, or are we heading towards more “golden weather” :)

I have no doubt that my views here will be contentious – but they need to be put forward nonetheless.

I think that Treasury (or some mix of part of Treasury and IRD) should function at arms length in the same way as the Reserve Bank, and that they should set tax rates in the same way that the RBNZ sets interest rates.

Now, let me discuss why.

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For the NZ Herald cartoonist Guy Body:

toon68

h.t. Nigel Pinkerton.

In what appears to be becoming a “stand up for the Bank” day, I was surprised to see Steve Pierson at the Standard state that he believes the Reserve Bank cut interest rates too late!

Now, if the Reserve Bank had known exactly what was going to happen in the world and decided to hike rates for the hell of it I would agree – but ex-ante they (like the majority of other people) had no idea what was going to happen.

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Yesterday I said that I thought the Bank’s speech on bringing down the price level was ridiculous. Not only is asking for a decline in prices a strange thing for a central bank to do, the mentioning of “oil companies” was slightly off the mark – given that they have slashed prices in the face of falling crude oil (although to be fair the Bank was just asking them to keep going – it was the Dom Post that exaggerated it – or maybe I was being generous!).

Now I am going to defend it.

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In an interesting speech by the RBNZ governor Alan Bollard we are told that everyone needs to play their part during the economic crisis. Specifically he stated:

We would hope that the electricity industry does not take advantage of its market position and keep increasing rates, that local authorities realise they need to set rates increases below inflation for a change, that the construction materials industry respond to much weaker demand, that the food industry react to lower international commodity prices with price cuts, that petrol companies keep cutting forecourt prices, that the transport industry pass on fuel price cuts, and that the banks pass on interest rate cuts. Only then will all these firms be playing their proper role in New Zealand’s recovery.

Now, putting the hard word on industries that do not face market pricing (like local councils) is fine – but attacking businesses for setting prices in their own interest – what the hell!

Firms aren’t passing on costs because they aren’t. If they had increased prices as strongly as cost pressures demanded on the way up then the inflation figure would be a lot worse than 5.1!

Think of it this way – if businesses are pricing “too high” they will face a situation where prices are “relative elastic”. Then it is “in their own interest” to cut prices. If they aren’t doing so, then prices aren’t too high, and if the RBNZ is really worried about inflationary pressure they should batter away with their own instrument instead of making arbitrary calls about “sharing the pain”. If there is a competition problem, complain to the commerce commission, otherwise stop trying to create scapegoats because of the fear surrounding a potential policy failure!

Other comments: Inquiring Mind, Rates Blog.

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