Monday 21 January 2019

Oxfam - again

Every year, Credit Suisse puts out its October report on global wealth.

Every January, Oxfam releases a gloss on that report. Every time, the policy recommendation is the same - tax wealth.

The Dom Post's Tom Hunt went for Oxfam's bait this time round. It was a bit frustrating because Oxfam didn't have its report up on its website until this afternoon; Hunt's story was on the Dom's front page first thing in the morning. Hunt's headline: Rich richer, poor poorer (at least on the print edition).

The only mention of New Zealand in the Oxfam report is in a note that Oxfam NZ is a local partner in the report. But their data comes from two sources. They use Forbes' rich list (why not NBR's if they actually want anything local?), and Credit Suisse's October report.

What do we find in the October Credit Suisse report? Currency movements. Total NZ wealth dropped from $1,037 billion USD last year to $1,010 billion USD this year - in current exchange rate terms. At constant exchange rates, wealth instead increased from $995 billion to $1,053 billion.

Recall that middle-wealth households have disproportionate amounts of wealth tied up in their houses. If the exchange rate moves, their reported wealth in USD terms will drop. Recall that richer households have more substantial financial assets (relative to their housing assets) and will be diversified. They're hit less by exchange rate changes. So when the exchange rate drops, it looks like richer households are hit less than poorer households. The report notes a -7.2% change in the value of the NZ dollar against the US dollar.

What else can we quickly see in the Credit Suisse report? The Gini coefficient for New Zealand, this year, is 70.8. Last year it was 72.3. That's the opposite of Hunt's headline. I think that headline came from Forbes' figures on the two richest people in New Zealand rather than from the more comprehensive Gini stat. A headline coming out of the Credit Suisse report could easily have been "Wealth Inequality Drops". But that isn't the story Oxfam wants to tell, and nobody at the Dom seems to have checked the source data.

I can't be bothered turning Credit Suisse's PDF into a Google Sheet this go-round; the drop is equivalent (against last year's data) to moving six places in last year's ordinal rankings.

What else is in there?

Since 2000, the start year of their data, median wealth per adult increased from $26,933 to $101,718 last year to $98,613 this year; mean wealth per adult went from $71,632 to $300,988 last year to $289,798 this year. So the median is 3.7 times higher than it was in 2000 and the mean is 2.9 times higher than it was at the start of the period. Both mean and median wealth dropped from last year. So another headline could have been "New Zealand is poorer (but it's mostly currency movements)."  Note that these numbers vary substantially from last year's go round - the base figures are different than they then were. I assume that they've updated exchange rates but I don't really know.

New Zealand now has 1,725,000 adults with more than $100,000 USD in wealth, and 155,000 with more than $1,000,000 USD in wealth. Again, owning a house in Auckland mortgage-free gets you pretty close to that million dollar mark. But twenty thousand fewer Kiwis make the cut for the global top 1% - we're on the list of the world's biggest losers in that category. So another headline could have been "Far fewer Kiwis among the global elite - and wealth inequality is down too."

Pretty much the whole country is in the world's top 3 wealth deciles - or at least the number of Kiwis falling into the lower deciles rounds down to zero when calculating our share of those global wealth deciles. We have 0.4% of the world's top 10%, top 5%, and top 1%. We're 0.2% of the global 9th decile, 0.1% of the global 8th decile, and rounding error below that. So another headline "All things considered, we're pretty wealthy."

Anyway, go look at the Credit Suisse report for yourself. Journalists should be a bit less credulous about Oxfam's reporting on the figures, especially where Oxfam pulls this exact same stunt every year. Hunt paints a picture of wealthy Kiwis getting richer and poor Kiwis getting poorer. The Credit Suisse figures instead show we all got poorer (and wealth inequality dropped), but that it's mostly changes in exchange rates.

I like my headlines above better than the one the Dom picked for Hunt.


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