Monday 29 April 2024

Opposing bars

Health and police make a habit of trying to block licenses and license renewals for bars along Courtenay Place. 

Health NZ has been claiming that there are 'just under 200' licensed premises in the area so the region is dangerously overserved; they pull out the number when objecting to licenses. 

Two owners started asking questions about the number. 
When asked to supply a list of the 200 premises, a Te Whatu Ora spokesperson asked, “are you actually questioning that there aren’t 200 licensed premises in this region?”, before treating it as an Official Information Act request.

That eventual response showed there were just 142 premises within the radius – leaving 58 phantom licences. Te Whatu Ora has now released that list, which actually includes 87 premises.

They include Molly Malones, which closed in 2015, Strawberry Fare, closed since 2016, and Reading Cinemas, closed since 2019.

At least three bars on the list were owned by publican Jordan Mills and his family: Siglo shut this year, Hummingbird closed in 2021 and Public Bar and Eatery shut in 2017. In each case Te Whatu Ora or its predecessor cited the 200 figure in evidence before the district licensing committee, he said.

Standard public health playbook really.  

Friday 26 April 2024

Council ownership

A standard popular argument for public or council ownership over private ownership is that private shareholders are too short-term focused, at the expense of longer-term value. 

It's an eminently debatable proposition. But as always, Demsetz would say 'as compared to what?'. We always need to compare how the alternative works in the real world.

Here's Oliver Lewis over at BusinessDesk:

To mitigate rates rises and fund services, Christchurch City Council will be asking its commercial arm to frontload dividend payments and provide $47 million extra over the next three years.

The move, endorsed by councillors at a meeting on Wednesday, drew a forthright warning from Christchurch City Holdings (CCHL), which controls assets worth more than $5 billion on behalf of the council.

CCHL chair Abby Foote – who has repeatedly spelled out the constrained financial position of the group and the need to start paying down its $2.3b of debt, $440m of which was taken on at the bequest of the council for the earthquake recovery – said the new request placed the CCHL board in an extraordinarily difficult position. 

'Do not add up' 

“We cannot pay down debt, grow dividends to council and invest in the resilience and growth of our critical infrastructure,” Foote said. “These things simply do not add up. We cannot do them all, and that is what we have been saying for the last 12 months.”


Explaining the request for extra dividends, interim council CEO Mary Richardson said she and chief financial officer Bede Carran met with CCHL last week.  Staff believed the request for additional dividends, which was supported by councillors at the meeting, was doable to help restrain rates increases and allow the council to deliver on its capital programme.

When we lived in Christchurch, it always seemed as though Council was underinvesting in maintenance and keeping up with depreciation at the Port. 

If a private company is excessively sweating assets to benefit current shareholders, there are a few potential disciplining mechanisms. Shareholders have incentive to watch over management practice; behaviour that reduces long-term value will ultimately hit shareholders. And takeovers always remain a possibility.

A market test applies. If management is taking the piss when arguing for lower dividends, shareholders can check. Management can be replaced. Analysts skilled at figuring this stuff out can buy out existing shareholders and increase value. Nothing in this world is perfect, but there's a correction mechanism here. 

What disciplining mechanisms kick in if managers of a council-owned company say that the council owners are insisting on sweating the assets too hard? If they're right, no alternative owners can come in and replace the current ones. There's no discovery process to find out whether they're right. 

There's some chance that Council is running down the port to help pay for the new stadium. Does that seem like an entirely good idea, or an advertisement for the merits of public ownership?

Yes, it would have been tobacco prohibition

A living-wage campaigner didn't like my column on tobacco prohibition and complained to the Media Council. 

The Council didn't uphold his complaint on substance but did want the Post to have a disclaimer on our columns about the Initiative's membership base.

Here's what I'd told the Post, and the Council, in response to the complaint:
Please feel free to share this both with the media council and with Mr Herz-Edinger.

I viewed and continue to view the VLNC rules as prohibition on smoked tobacco.

In the same way that near-beers with less than 0.5% alcohol were allowed under American alcohol prohibition, near-cigarettes with less than a tiny amount of nicotine would be allowed under the VLNC rules. It is not prohibition of nicotine, which would continue to be available in vape form. But it would have been prohibition of smoked tobacco.

If we compare 0.5% alcohol beer to the average strength of beer, and the VLNC-allowed levels of nicotine in cigarettes to the average strength of a cigarette, it is roughly equivalent to a 0.2% alcohol rule for beer. So I do not think I am exaggerating here. I went through that calculus here:
“The legislation sets limits on nicotine allowed in cigarettes. The US Centres for Disease Control estimates that the average cigarette has just over 19mg of nicotine per gram of tobacco. From April 1, 2025, Very Low Nicotine Content rules will apply. Under those rules, no tobacco product can have more than 0.8 mg of nicotine per gram.

If a standard beer is 5% alcohol, the VLNC rules are roughly equivalent to banning the sale of beer with more than 0.2% alcohol.”
Those wishing to do so can check the math with a calculator. It isn’t complicated. The VLNC rules set a tighter standard for nicotine allowed in cigarettes than American alcohol prohibition set for alcohol allowed in near-beers.

Had American prohibition included a ban on the sale of near-beers to those born prior to 1900, the creeping increase in the proportion of population forbidden against buying near-beers would have been the minor point

I very much hold that prohibition on cigars, pipe tobacco and cigarettes would have begun the instant that the VLNC rules took effect: 1 April 2025. If that is incorrect, then America never had alcohol prohibition. And my article, here disputed, very clearly set out that I referred to prohibition of tobacco, not prohibition of nicotine. Nicotine would not have been prohibited. I was not taking license or exaggerating for effect or generalising. Smoked tobacco would have been under a prohibitionist regime from 1 April 2025 if the rules maintained a 0.8mg/g threshold. The effects would have been different from American alcohol prohibition, because nicotine would still be available in vape from. But it would nevertheless be prohibition of smoked tobacco.

I had thought that I had made this very clear in the disputed column. I wrote,
“Under prohibition, the illicit market would not just be a way of avoiding excise. It would be the only way of getting a real cigarette. It would be remarkable if Australian crime syndicates, or others, did not plan on supplying the New Zealand market from 2025 – had we gone ahead with prohibition

Tobacco prohibition would not have prohibited nicotine – vaping would remain legal. But illicit tobacco does not carry excise. Shifts to the illicit market provide no health benefits while reducing excise revenue. And because illicit tobacco is cheaper than taxed tobacco, smokers who shift to the illicit market would have one fewer reason to flip to vaping.”
I would have written exactly the same thing regardless of who our members are, because I believe it to be true.

It's a bit funny where total membership subscription fees from our two tobacco company members, over the entire lifespan of the organisation, are a tiny fraction of the amount that the Health Research Council gave to Janet Hoek in a single grant for anti-tobacco work and nobody ever seems to consider that a conflict. One-sided skepticism reigns.  

Competition in Consenting

This week's column over in the Stuff papers wonders about getting some competition into building consenting. A snippet:

Getting building consenting authorities out from under joint and several liability would help. And especially where the government is keen on encouraging the use of quality, lower-cost materials certified overseas.

But so too could easing the local monopoly on building consent and code of compliance issuance.

Government has already recognised that building consents and sign-offs are part of the problem. Kāinga Ora, the government’s housing provider, has its own arms-length consenting authority: Consentium. It provides consents for Kāinga Ora developments along with building inspections and code of compliance certificates.

Consentium then provides a small bit of contestability in the market for building inspection certificates. Kāinga Ora developments can ignore idiosyncratic local interpretations of the Building Act and build to a common national standard. It can also decide to try out new and innovative materials to help bring costs down while improving quality.

But only buildings that will be owned and retained by Kāinga Ora can apply for consenting through Consentium. If a private developer is building two adjacent identical houses, one for Kāinga Ora and the other for private sale, Consentium would only provide consenting services for the Kāinga Ora home. One potential reason: Kāinga Ora is not likely to sue Consentium if they discover a problem down the track.

It’s a bit of a shame.

Consentium is hardly perfect. It was reported earlier this month that it took almost two years for Consentium to decide that an above-ground stormwater storage tank didn’t impose a fire risk. But council consenting systems can be even more broken.

If building consenting authorities had to compete for business, outcomes could be different. If private developers had the option to seek consent from Consentium, both Consentium and councils could have reason to improve performance – so long as the liability issue were sorted out.

I recently returned from Vancouver where the Squamish Nation has autonomy over its Sen̓áḵw apartment tower development near Vancouver’s downtown. A New Zealand equivalent could allow iwi to establish themselves as building consenting authority on iwi-held land. In places where councils were underperforming, iwi might take up consenting for their own construction projects. That too would provide greater competitive discipline on building consenting.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Afternoon roundup

A closing of some of the tabs

First, a set from closing a pile of the week's accumulated stories from the Stuff papers. I wonder whether the people who complain about the absence of real journalism bother reading what The Post and Sunday Star Times have been putting out lately. 

And the rest of the tabs. Or some of the rest. I'm drowning here but the computer needs to be rebooted.... 

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Still no prudential regulation case around climate change

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand desperately wants to find reasons to have workstreams in climate change. 

It makes little sense. 

They've run another stress test on the banks looking to see if they could find a prudential regulation case. 

They couldn't. 

They found no systemic risk from a harsh scenario, just losses absorbed by shareholders of banks that don't respond adequately. And while that might make the banks less resilient against further shocks, that ought to just mean that the RBNZ's prudential side makes sure that bank capitalisation remains high enough. 

Here's their report on it

They conclude:

The Climate Stress Test, and preceding Risk Assessments, have shone a light on the potential effects climate-related risks can have on our large banks’ balance sheets. Climate-related risks, if not managed, could significantly reduce bank dividends, profitability and raise credit risk-weighted assets over the medium to long-term which would lessen the resilience of the system to other shocks.

I come to a different conclusion.

The Reserve Bank's prudential and monetary roles should be split across two separate agencies. A monetary authority with independence in the use of monetary policy to keep inflation within tight bounds. And a prudential side restricted to dealing with actual prudential risk.  

Thursday 18 April 2024

Despair - construction consenting edition

Kainga Ora is the government's house building agency. It's been building a lot of social housing.

Kainga Ora has its own (but independent) consenting authority, Consentium

It's a neat idea. Rather than have to deal with building consents across each different territorial authority, Kainga Ora can run building consents, inspections, and Code of Compliance Certificates through Consentium. 

I really really like the idea of making building consenting contestable. 

Councils have local monopolies on this stuff. Having alternative sources of building consents and certificates that follow a national standard rather than whatever bespoke view councils might have introduces some competition. If councils are being weird about approving something, developers could seek consents instead from the alternative agency. 

And an outfit like Consentium signing off on new building methods with innovative materials might help other building consenting authorities have confidence in approving similar things. 

And then I read Brent Melville's piece in BusinessDesk. You really should subscribe to BusinessDesk. It's regularly and reliably very good. 

But despair. 

I'll snip from it here as the piece is now more than a week old and hope that they don't get too mad at me for it. 

In what's been described as a win for common sense, and after an exhaustive 18-month process, the building regulator has determined that water tanks are "unlikely" to be a fire risk. 

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) clarified this week that an external water tank proposed under a consenting application for a Kāinga Ora development in Henderson, West Auckland, didn't represent a fire risk to neighbouring properties.  

The determination, announced on March 28, was sought in July 2022 by the housing agency's dedicated consenting consultancy, Consentium, was in reference to a new, two-storey detached dwelling and whether an above-ground stormwater tank near the property boundary complied with C3.6 and C3.7 of Clause C3 of the Building Act. 

At the time, Consentium, as the authority, held the view the stormwater tank didn't comply with part of the Building Code concerned with limiting the spread of fire between properties.  

The application was accordingly changed to specify a metal tank to replace the 2.95-metre-long plastic tank supplied by Thin Tanks. 

The regulator duly entered into a year-and-a-half of discussions, consultation, independent fire reviews and deliberations.

Go read the whole thing. If we'd written this as a satirical column in our Insights newsletter, it would have seemed too harsh on officials. 

And yet. 

Even more competition in provision of building consents would be a good thing....

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Reader mailbag: really long tunnels edition

I'd been wondering about the proposal to dig a really long tunnel to route through traffic away from Wellington's central city

It seems the kind of thing that you might decide to do, after running congestion charging for a while and seeing that the project is warranted, rather than deciding on ahead of having that information from revealed preferences and prices. The thing won't be cheap. 

So I was happy to see this in my inbox this afternoon to help me think through it. 
The Wellington Long Tunnel could be a transformative project to take enough traffic out of the city, especially Te Aro, but also the Quays along the waterfront and Oriental Bay, to improve amenity, relieve congestion at bottlenecks at the Terrace and Mt Victoria Tunnels and make it easier to walk and bike, as well as move buses, delivery vehicles (and cars) within central Wellington. Plenty of other cities of broadly have taken traffic out of their downtowns through purpose-built bypasses, such as Bergen, Antwerp, Basel and Tampere. Bergen is paying for some of the cost of its bypass with a toll.

Saving 15 minutes between the airport and the Hutt, Porirua and the rest of the region seems worthwhile, but both the travel time (and fuel) savings, and uplift of amenity would come at considerable cost. In 2021 Let’s Get Wellington Moving estimated the project might cost $3.1b, but we know how reliable such forecasts have been lately.

Yet it poses the obvious question. If Wellington got time-of-use pricing (congestion pricing) introduced during weekday peaks, focused on the CBD (leaving SH1 out of it as a bypass to a cordon), would the change in behaviour it enabled be enough to relieve congestion on SH1, and so determine then if the Long Tunnel idea was still worthwhile?

The answer is probably yes, although high-level modelling of a cordon pricing option by LGWM suggested that travel times southbound on SH1 would worsen, it would appear because the Terrace Tunnel has insufficient capacity in that direction (one-lane) to accommodate the traffic redirected around the CBD off of the Quays. That could be addressed by putting a higher price on that traffic which could justify building more capacity at that bottleneck.

However, it’s one thing to think of how the roads might be run as a rational business, but reality has some complications:
  1. The Long Tunnel is about more than traffic. Arguably it can unlock property value uplift by removing a lot of traffic from existing streets, including taking a lane each way off of the waterfront route to enable a second public transport corridor along it, and more development along the waterfront, as well as removing much of the blight of traffic from Te Aro. The value of all of this is unknown, but as the Long Tunnel is as much about amenity as transport, it is important although caution needs to be taken around exaggerating these benefits (as much as applies to those pushing light rail’s benefits).
  2. Congestion pricing for Wellington should probably exclude SH1 for public acceptability, at least at first. A downtown cordon is relatively easy to implement, as trains and buses pretty much all converge on it, and most drivers have reasonable alternatives. Having a good bypass helps to encourage traffic to flow more efficiently around the priced area (this has been seen in Stockholm and Oslo), although it would be wrong to wait until the Long Tunnel is built before introducing congestion pricing.
  3. Politics around use of the money. Greens want congestion pricing to raise money to pay for public transport boondoggles, it seems likely National wants it to pay for road boondoggles. Arguably, a road boondoggle that at least benefits those paying the congestion charge is a better waste of money than one that doesn't. It would be better to use pricing revenue to offset rates funding of roads, or enable lower off-peak pricing of roads (if RUC was set by location), or just used for the best projects to upgrade roads in the region, but no jurisdictions do this.
  4. The politics around building a Wellington bypass. For over thirty years the issue of fixing the route between the motorway and the roads approaching the airport has been highly politicised.  The current road layout generates congestion all-day during weekdays and much during weekends, and is clearly inefficient as it encourages diversions along routes not well suited to through traffic. The Basin Reserve is the biggest part of that problem, and indeed past BCR assessment of proposals to upgrade it indicate that fixing the Basin Reserve is worthwhile. If the Basin Bridge had been approved by the Key Government, then we probably wouldn’t be talking about the Long Tunnel, but the politics around putting a bridge between Mt Victoria Tunnel (including a new one) and the Arras Tunnel (and maybe a new one to take eastbound traffic off of Vivian St) are complex.
The Greens and Mt Victoria Residents who want nothing built. In Wellington, stopping the “motorway extension” was a cause celebre in the 1990s for the Greens (in their formative years) that succeeded largely due to fiscal constraints, and we are where we are as a result. However, there are also allies in friends of the Basin Reserve who love that cricket ground. The Minister for Infrastructure is one of those people.  The below ground conditions at the Basin are not conducive to tunnelling underneath because of the geology including an underground stream, so it’s a bridge there or a deep tunnel somewhere else. The Minister of Infrastructure is likely to not look friendly upon a bridge (although I wonder if putting a artificial hill to the north of the Basin to conceal a bridge might fix that). 

Unfortunately, the politics around "build no new road projects because cars are bad" from most of the Greens, encourages the Nats to go the opposite "quick build a big project so they can't stop it, and when it opens everyone loves it”.  This transport culture war (which Labour tended to not be a part of, as seen by the road building under the Clark Government) generates a reflex response to build more and bigger.

If there were a more rational, bi-partisan approach, then Wellington could get congestion pricing, a bridge at the Basin Reserve, and perhaps more incremental improvements to SH1 built as merits stack up.  Of course, that wouldn’t deliver the “big bang” amenity transformation of a single big tunnel, but it would likely deliver most of the travel time benefits, many of the amenity benefits, with the only question being whether the costs of disruption and construction in building a cut-and-cover tunnel between Vivian Street and the Arras Tunnel start to rival the Long Tunnel.

This is where the focus of NZTA’s investigation should be in the coming months:

1. Model Wellington traffic with congestion pricing to the downtown (and then again on SH1)

2. Estimate the costs and benefits of the Long Tunnel vs. incremental upgrades to the existing alignment, and whether the transport user benefits and amenity/property uplift benefits are worth it.
I still like the structure that was set out in the 1998 Better Transport, Better Roads proposal. 

Clarifying the absurdity

A couple days ago I pointed to NZIER's figures on the case for strengthening the Christchurch cathedral.

I think it's better to view this whole exercise as making clear what we'd need to believe if we wanted to believe that the regulatory apparatus surrounding the cathedral since 2011 is other than massively value destroying.

Recall that the Bishop wanted to demolish the cathedral and build a facility more in tune with current needs. Reinstating would be too expensive, and the final building not suitable for modern purpose.

A bunch of people who figured they knew better than the then-Bishop what to do with the Anglican Church's property decided that they would interfere. The Wizard. The Heritage People. All the stickybeaks who love to block anyone ever doing anything, but who won't stump the cash to give effect to their preferred views on things.

If you are happy to believe this set of things, then The Wizard and his cohort were right all along. If you don't believe these things, then the case for blocking the Bishop from running a bulldozer through the thing over a decade ago destroyed enormous value. 

  • Revenue from climbing the tower will be 5-15 times higher than before the earthquake
  • Revenue from the gift shop and cafe will be 1-3 times higher than before the earthquake
  • A half a million people per year each get $5 to $10 in enjoyment benefits from having a look inside
  • Visiting the museum gives each of 114k to 159k people per year $10 to $20 in enjoyment benefits
    • There is no practicable way of charging for entry to either of those
  • Regular churchgoers get $5-$10 in benefits from attending mass; special services provide $10-$20 in value
    • There is also no practicable way of charging for these as the number of visitors would then fall
  • Each of the 398k - 467k people in Christchurch get $2 to $20 in benefits from knowing the cathedral has been rebuilt and that they have the option to go and see it sometime. And $1 to $5 for each of the 4.8-5.3 million non-Christchurch New Zealanders
    • And that it is also okay to count the value of the option when exercised (visiting) and the value of the option in the same tally of annual benefits. You might instead count only the value of attending in the year of attendance - exercising the option
  • There is meaningful and policy-relevant benefit to people working on cathedral restoration over and above the wages they are paid, and they wouldn't otherwise be working on similar stonemasonry at, for example, the Arts Centre
  • Each international tourist will spend between 0.1 and 0.5 extra nights in Christchurch because the Cathedral has been restored; at least half of this will be a shift from other NZ destinations, 0-50% of the extra nights will be net increases in total time spent in New Zealand. Oh - and spending by tourists should be judged on gross spend, not on profit from that spend. 
NZIER makes some of the problem really rather clear in Table 6. 

The largest portion of the benefits, dwarfing everything else, is non-use value that they deem to be of low reliability. The point estimate of $19.7m is more than half of their total quantified benefits of $32.4m. 
If don't believe that tourists are going to spend a lot of extra time in NZ because of the restored Cathedral, or that each and every Kiwi outside of Christchurch gets $1 to $5 in annual feel-good benefits about the Cathedral's restoration, then the government erred in blocking the Bishop from running the bulldozer through it. 

If the government is going to require the Anglicans to provide a reinstated cathedral, then the government should be the ones to front the cost. If the government believes the numbers in the NZIER report, then it should be happy to do so. 

If none of us believe those numbers, perhaps the Anglicans should be compensated for the stupidity they've been forced to bear here. I do not believe the numbers, but you have to believe numbers like these if you want to believe that this whole thing has been other than a horrible mistake. 

From where we are:
  1. Void the heritage encumbrances on the site.
  2. Tell the Anglicans how much money central government (and council, and crowdfunding) is willing to put toward different reinstatement options.
  3. Let them bulldoze and build as they like if that's what they prefer instead. 
Update: hoisted from the comments on the "Afternoon roundup" post where I'd first linked the NZIER report, from Glenn Boyle:
Re the cathedral, these sorts of exercises are always difficult and hit-or-miss, but there are certainly some features of NZIER's report that caught my eye:
  1. I'd love to see the parameter values used in the option valuation.
  2. A discount rate of just 5% (essentially the riskfree rate) is interesting, especially given the costs are all incurred in 6 years but the benefits carry on for 40.
  3. There is, apparently, no uncertainty about costs!

Monday 15 April 2024

Net tax

Stuff's Federico Magrin does a whip-round on the updated Treasury estimates of net fiscal impact by income decile

An early version of that paper had been presented at a workshop last year January or February, but for whatever reason wasn't able to be released until after the election. Bit of a shame where there were a lot of claims floating around about who was paying how much. 

The work uses 2018/19 tax and income data. Key charts:

Households below the sixth equivalised disposable income decile receive more in transfers than they pay in tax. The sixth decile is a wash. The top four deciles pay net tax, with the bulk of the burden on decile 10 households who each contribute about $75,000 per household more in tax than they receive in transfers and government-provided services. 

The tax and transfer system sharply reduces the Gini inequality measure. If you're hearing someone citing market Ginis in arguments for higher transfers, know that they either do not know what they are talking about, or are hoping that you won't understand what they're doing. Inequality in final income is much lower than inequality in market income.

There wasn't space in Federico's column for everything that I'd sent through in response to his questions, so I'll include the full answers here (nothing wrong or misleading in how he presented anything; just like keeping track of what I've said about things). 

Treasury’s work really helps us understand that tax and transfer have to be viewed together. It would be easy to damn GST or income tax for not being progressive enough, in isolation, for those who support a lot of redistribution. But where other countries rely heavily on a lot of tax exemptions or preferred tax status for particular groups to achieve redistributive outcomes, New Zealand largely does it through transfers and government-funded programmes. Tax and transfer, put together, sharply reduce income inequality as compared to inequality before taxes and transfers. And the work clearly shows that households in the top ten percent of earners bear a very heavy proportion of the cost of our tax and transfer system.

Treasury’s work relies on data from 2018/19. Since then, a new top marginal tax rate of 39% was introduced for earnings above $180,000, which will have increased the amount of net tax paid by top-earning households. However, inflation will have pushed a lot of lower-earning households into higher tax brackets, reducing progressivity at that end of the distribution. Finally, overall government spending on transfers increased substantially. In 2018/19, government was not in massive structural deficit. In 2024, we are. Far fewer households will now be net taxpayers, because far more government spending is being covered by debt that will fall on future taxpayers.

The tax and transfer system is redistributive by design. Households that are outside of the workforce or that are on lower earnings receive direct transfers to increase their income, and government provides a lot of services in-kind that those households would not be able to afford on their own if they had to pay for them. We all have different views on fairness, and mine is no better than anyone else’s. But what I don’t think is fair is commentary around tax that points to differences in before-tax income as reason to increase taxes and redistribution, while forgetting just how much work the tax and transfer system already does to reduce inequality and poverty.

[And, in response to request for clarification:] You will often hear commentators point to the amount of income earned by the top 10%, and use that as justification for higher tax rates. But that ignores the effects of taxes and transfers that are already in place. Treasury’s work provides that better context. People can come to different views on how much redistribution is enough, but they should at least start by understanding the extent of existing redistribution from the current tax and transfer system.

Afternoon roundup

The afternoon's worthies:

Friday 12 April 2024

Afternoon roundup

More bits as I clear through the tabs. 

Net zero means net negative?

Will look forward to reading the Climate Commission's latest report. This bit, from Jim Rose over at Carbon News, is a bit concerning:

The world is not on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees target, the commission says, and New Zealand is likely to continue contributing to global warming after 2050.

That’s because the country’s current target doesn’t require biogenic methane to reach net zero by 2050 and has no requirement for long-lived greenhouse gases to be reduced beyond net zero.

“This means that it is possible to achieve the 2050 target and still have net positive emissions of 700–1,000 KtCH4 – and the associated contribution to global warming – in 2051 and every year after,” the commission says.

The commission says that when New Zealand’s net zero target was set in 2019 it was seen as ambitious but that’s no longer the case.

I had always understood Net Zero 2050 to mean that the unbacked NZU issued before 2050 would represent the sum total of net emissions from the covered sector from now until forever. An NZU might be redeemed after 2050; it's the quantum of unbacked units issued through 2050 that determines the amount of net emissions overall. 

If the Commission is shifting to a view that Net Zero implies undoing the emissions that have obtained from an indeterminate start point through to 2050, that's of course a much bigger job, and one that Parliament certainly didn't authorise.  

A clean ETS is certainly capable of driving beyond net zero. The government or others just need to buy credits through the system and retire the credits, unused. And if tech follows some potential paths, doing so may well be cost-effective in undoing some accumulated emissions. But probably a good idea to wait and see what the cost paths wind up looking like before committing on that one. 

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Afternoon roundup

The afternoon's worthies, as I close the tabs from one of the many open browsers....

Tuesday 9 April 2024

In a structural deficit, the only real tax cut is a spending cut

This week's column in the Stuff papers. A snippet:

Tabarrok warned that America had two political parties – “the Tax and Spenders and the No-Tax and Spenders” – and neither was fiscally conservative. In the two decades after Tabarrok’s warning, the federal government never achieved a balanced budget. America’s federal deficit ranged from 1.1% of GDP to over 14% of GDP and gross federal debt doubled, rising from 60% of GDP to 120% of GDP.

New Zealand’s Public Finance Act aims to avoid those kinds of outcomes.

The fiscal architecture is neutral about whether core government spending should be about 27% of GDP, as it was in 2018, or over 33% of GDP, which it is forecast to be in 2024.

The six-percentage point difference in core Crown expenditure, as a proportion of GDP, might not sound like much. But in a $405 billion economy, it amounts to almost $25b in increased core government spending per year across a population of just over 5 million people. Or over $18,000 for a family of four.

Some of that substantial increase in spending has been funded by a higher tax take. Core Crown tax revenue increased from just over 27% of GDP in 2018 to over 29% in 2024. The rest, after accounting for other bits of government spending and revenue, is funded by what is now a substantial structural deficit.

Taking on debt during the depths of lockdown to deal with the crisis was one thing. Now, that crisis has long since passed – but the structural deficit remains. The One Big Task for the coming budget is providing a credible path out.

It is not just a test for the current government. It is also a test of the Public Finance Act.

I'm all for tax cuts. Start by balancing the structural budget. That's the most important tax cut to make. Then see whether there are opportunities to go further. There should be. The government takes in a lot more in tax than it did in 2018, and is spending a lot more than was projected in the 2019 Wellbeing Budget. 

I'd filed the column a few days before having a chat with RNZ's Morning Report on proposed staff reductions in government agencies. I was a bit frustrated about that RNZ rarely informs listeners about whether cutbacks in an agency simply undo the last couple years of hiring, whether they revert staffing levels to levels comparable to pre-Covid, whether they go back to where things were when National left office, or whether they go further than that. If an agency has stayed fairly constant over time, and there haven't been substantial productivity improvements or other shifts, a 40% cut would mean they can't keep doing stuff they've been doing for a long time. But if one has tripled in size recently, and then cuts back by 40%, well, there are options around what things no longer get done.

Checking the last five years' data is really easy at the Public Service Commission's website. Click the link, scroll down to the table, click the tab to open the 'Five Year Trend' view. Done. 

I don't know why Radio New Zealand doesn't check. They were really outraged about proposed 40% staffing reductions at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. That Ministry had 40 staff in Q2 2018 and 136 by Q2 2023. They reduced a bit at the end of 2023 to 121 staff. If a 40% reduction comes off that figure, they'd still be left with more staff than they had in Q2 2020.

Update: Kate MacNamara does some checking