INTOUCH : New Zealand's "Lucky Period"
Byline: Reg Birchfield
Nobel Award winning economist and globalisation advocate Joseph Stiglitz returned to New Zealand for the first time in 40 years last month. Generally he liked what he saw. But his view of our Reserve Bank's interest rate policy didn't impress him.
There were, he said, some "aspects of global economic trends that are very positive for New Zealand. The global economy is moving toward you. Being diversified (in market option terms) gives you a major advantage, and as an agricultural exporter the terms of trade will be in your favour for the next few years. Oil prices will remain high for a long time - that means higher food prices."
New Zealand is, he said, going through a lucky period. Our dairy industry, in particular, should be salting away its profits against the inevitable market back swing. The environment is also working in our favour. "People want to come to a country like yours."
But the best-selling author and acknowledged economic thought leader was more bearish - though diplomatically conceded he had not "fully studied" our economy - about the Reserve Bank's insistence on using interest rates to control inflation.
"Inflation targeting in open economies facing imported inflation is a foolish policy. You are targeting things you don't control. It can even be counter-productive. As you raise interest rates you attract capital into the country, cause an asset bubble. But it restricts investment of the kind you do want - real industry investment. It does not restrict speculation from abroad," he said.
"In an open capital market context, not only are high interest rates unlikely to be effective in addressing the sources of inflation, but they lead to rising exchange rates which are bad for exports and distort the economy. The only way the policy can work is to cause such high levels of unemployment that wages and non-traded goods start to fall. This is a case where the cure is worse than the disease."
Stiglitz believes monetary policies like New Zealand's are based on a mechanical model that does not effectively hit the kind of inflation the country is now facing. New Zealand's approach of linking the tenure of the governor of the Reserve Bank to an inflation target of less than three percent was written at a time when it seemed politically appropriate. It is legislatively enshrined and does not allow for changed economic circumstances.
"The approach is not based on economic science and there is no evidence that countries with inflation targeting grow faster or experience lower unemployment," he added. "The approach was ideologically driven. Interest rates may succeed in getting a little bit lower inflation, but it would startle me if they didn't get that result. If the focus was to hold inflation and they didn't even accomplish that, then what is there to recommend it?
"When inflation targeting became the fad, attempts were made to change the charter of America's Federal Reserve to embrace it. The debate died once the option of higher inflation versus less jobs was put on the political agenda. The Fed must focus on inflation and growth - not just inflation."
But Stiglitz is more interested in promoting effective globalisation. And despite its bad press, and despite his own reservations about many aspects of it, he is still optimistic that globalisation offers the world the best future economic options. "Globalisation offers enormous benefits but it has to be managed well. We are going through a period in which we can clearly see some of the consequences of not managing it well," he concedes.
"Globalisation has, unfortunately, been associated with particular ideol-ogies such as market fundamentalism - the belief that left to themselves, markets solve all problems. A case of 'get the government out of the way and everything will work'. …