Thursday, 27 November 2014

Why the shortages?

Yesterday I posted about recent trends in immigration, and made a case for taking in more talented and skilled people, especially from Europe: business conditions there aren't great, they're much better here, and there's a window of opportunity to hoover up some talent.

Along the way I got thinking a bit more about MBIE's lists of local skill shortages, which they use to prioritise people overseas who come looking for New Zealand work visas. There are two of them, the 'Long Term Skill Shortages List', which MBIE says "identifies occupations where there is a sustained and on-going shortage of highly skilled workers both globally and throughout New Zealand", and an 'Immediate Skill Shortage List', which "includes occupations where skilled workers are immediately required in New Zealand and indicates that there are no New Zealand citizens or residents available to take up the position".

On the 'Immediate' list, there's a whole bunch of medical shortages - virtually every speciality you can think of (cardiologists, haematologists,paediatricians, you name it, it's there), the technicians to support them, plus dentists, dental technicians and dental therapists.

On the 'Long Term' list, there's a equally wide range of shortages - anaesthetists, clinical psychologists, GPs, intensive care specialists, nurses of all kinds, obstetricians, physiotherapists, just to pick out a selection, plus we're short vets as well.

Why is this?

I can rule out one explanation: it's not because people aren't interested in taking up these professions. I can't speak for all of them, but I do know about some of them, and I'd be confident that the medical and vet schools aren't short of people trying to get in.

There could be benign explanations.

Maybe we just don't have the resources to turn out all the skills we need, and that could be because we're not a rich enough country or because, like a lot of governments post GFC, ours has had to prioritise pretty hard in recent years, and not everything desirable can be financed.

And then there's the possibility that we've been at home to Mister Cockup. Maybe we've made a complete hames of matching labour market supply and demand, and I'm open to that as a theory, too, especially as you don't get normal labour market incentives working in these essentially centrally planned disciplines.

And then there's a darker hypothesis: that some or all of these professions are artificially restricting local supply. Do the gatekeepers to these careers face an inherent conflict of interest when advising on the level of student intake?

It doesn't help that the possibilities I've listed aren't mutually exclusive. We might have a mixture of cyclical or secular shortage of the readies, ineffective planning, and anti-competitively narrow entry gates. So I don't have any smoking gun answers.

But we can't leave these markets the way they are. They're just not working properly.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Let's take in more talent from overseas - and quickly

The latest net migration figures got a fair amount of media airtime, and even though a fair slab of it was on the invidious "aren't we doing better than Australia" track, the numbers were still pretty impressive - we had the biggest ever annual level of net immigration in the October '14 year (+47,700), beating the previous records set in the August '14 year (+43,500) and the May '03 year (+42,500). Net immigration is running at over four times its annual average over the past 20 years (+11,700). If you're interested in the details, the big pdf release from Stats is here and the actual data here.

It's interesting to see how sensitive these migration flows are to economic conditions at both ends of the migration journey: a lot of the media commentary, for example, picked up on the big impact on trans-Tasman flows of the strong New Zealand business cycle, compared with the currently sub-par Aussie one. But the same mechanism also works on migrant flows from other places, and it's left me wondering whether we're missing a good opportunity to attract European talent in particular.

We know, for example, that employment conditions in France are pretty grim, particularly for younger people, mostly down to the weak French economy, but aggravated by an inflexible labour market. So it's not surprising to see that the number of French people coming here on work visas has been rising strongly, from 1,187 in the October '12 year to 2,642 in the October '14 year. Unemployment isn't anywhere near as bad in Germany, but again the local slow economy is encouraging more Germans to look for jobs here, and the numbers coming on work visas have risen from 1,703 to 2,723 over the past two years.

But these opportunities to get talented people to come here from overseas don't last forever: the flows are very sensitive to relative changes in the business cycle at both origin and destination. Ireland's the classic example: business conditions were dire in Ireland until this year, when there has been a reasonably robust recovery. And the link to the net work migration flows from Ireland has been immediate: we had 1,298 Irish people coming here on work visas in the October '12 year, and 1,378 in the October '13 year, but it's already started to ebb, with a drop to 1,032 in the October '14 year.

I'd say we have a short but highly promising opportunity to get more skilled people to come here from the recessionary Eurozone. Jobs fairs in Australia are all well and good: but what about also doing a one-off liberal offer of work visas around Europe?

And by liberal, I mean one that doesn't pay too much mind to MBIE's 'Long Term Skill Shortage List', the thing that prioritises the kinds of skills we're normally looking for, partly because the list looks to me rather odd in places - I can believe we're short of engineers of all kinds, a fair array of medical specialists, and anything to do with ICT, but social workers? chefs? education lecturers? statisticians? external auditors? quantity surveyors? - and partly because we can't actually achieve that degree of precision in knowing what we'll need or in linking credentials to innovation or entrepreneurship. For all we know the next big app could be written by a self-taught enthusiast who left school with no qualification.

So I'd be inclined to hoover up as many of Europe's skilled and talented people as we can, while we can, and I'd relax the current immigration criteria to do it. Paper Marseilles and Düsseldorf with easy to complete work visa forms, and see what happens.

It can only be good for us. And if you're not too sure that immigration is good for a country, then read this opinion piece from the Brookings Institution, "Even Piecemeal Immigration Reform Could Boost the U.S. Economy", which says
High-skilled immigrants are good for America, and we should encourage more of them to come here given recent trends in entrepreneurship, where more firms are dying than being created every year. But high-skilled immigrants could help turn that trend around — they are twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. This is especially true in high-tech sectors, where immigrants are not only more likely to start firms, but also to patent new technological discoveries
A bit of piecemeal immigration liberalisation would work for us, too.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The ref shouldn't reach for his pocket

You've got a valuable piece of intellectual or physical property. What, from a competition law perspective, can you do with it?

That might seem a daftly broad (or broadly daft) question to ask, but it keeps coming up, and it rather bothers me, since if there isn't a clear answer, you'd imagine that there could be a potentially costly chilling effect on the (often sizeable and specialised) investment involved.

What got me thinking about it, again, is the current fuss in the UK over the television rights to live coverage of Premier League soccer games. Ofcom, the relevant regulator, has agreed to take a look: here's its news release, which doesn't give a great deal of context, so here are a piece in the FT and a piece in the Daily Telegraph which give some background (hopefully neither is paywalled for the casual browser - I can't easily tell, as I've got a sub to both of them). Or here's the Guardian's coverage.

The gist is that the rights to the Premier League coverage have been vigorously contested at auction by Sky and BT, sending the price up, and in turn (allegedly) leading to high prices for end consumers watching the games on the box. Virgin, who have lost out on the rights, have complained. Ofcom has said it'll have a look, while pointing out that agreeing to have a look doesn't mean it's accepted that there is indeed a competition issue.

I don't think there is. For the life of me I can't see a competition problem here.

I don't see any issue with the clubs getting together to sell the rights to all the games. Alternatives would have large, inefficient transaction costs and wouldn't be attractive to broadcasters or end consumers. And in any event I'd say a football league would fly through any 'joint venture' provisions in competition law.

And I don't see any issue with an auction of the rights to the highest bidder. Competition for the market is fine by me, especially (as seems to be the case here) the auction opportunities come along reasonably often and are open to anyone with enough zeroes in their bank account. Indeed, I would say that Virgin's gripe is entirely because there has been robust competition for the prize.

And I'm not enamoured of the logic behind the European Commission's approach, which (I gather) at one point required the rights to go to at least two parties. Should J K Rowling have had to offer the Harry Potter books to two different publishers?

I can see instances where there may be an essential piece of infrastructure (spectrum, for example), where (unless you're a rapacious sell-the-airwaves-for-the-most-I-can-get government, and if you don't believe they exist, then you didn't notice how the Aussies privatised Sydney Airport) you wouldn't want to award a monopoly because of the adverse consequences of downstream market power.

But football?

I'm not saying that it's always going to be in football's own best interest to maximise their short-term profit: a longer-term view of the end game might see a better outcome from a wider consumer base rather than a narrower one, for example. It may not even be in a broadcaster's best long-term interests to hoover up all the rights on offer: not if you don't want to make yourself the target of populist regulation. And sometimes non-economic factors will need to get a look in, too (in spectrum allocation, for example, you might want to think of concentration of media ownership from a democratic point of view).

But normally, if someone's decided, eyes wide open, that they want to auction a right for the best short-term price, and someone's decided, also eyes open, to put the cash down and buy it, I can't see from a competition perspective why anyone should stand in the way.

And while we're in the general territory of football and what people can do with what they own, can the owner of a football stadium provide the chips and beer itself? Or must it allow third parties access to the chips and beer 'markets' at its stadium? Will it be okay (Premier League style) to award the concessions for beer and chips to the highest bidder, or must it spread the market around? And if you think this a fanciful example of competition law overreach, it's actually cropped up in New Zealand: can an airport award one onsite 'duty free' franchise to the highest bidder?

There'll be exceptions, but for me, there won't often be good reason to interfere with a competitive auction where willing buyer meets willing seller.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Decile funding - pros and cons

There's been quite a bit of reaction in the social media to the news that 'Poorly targeted' school decile funding may be dropped. It's not easy to make much of a case for anything in 140 character bursts, so I thought I'd take a bit more space to wonder if the case against decile funding isn't being oversold.

Here's some data, from the same article, which shows the percentage of students in different decile schools who are well below the national standard for maths (I gather you'd get the same picture if you looked at other subjects). What would you conclude from this chart?

You'd have to say that there is some at least rough and ready correlation between decile level and school performance. Performance worsens as you move down from decile 10 to decile 1 (other analyses have found the same pattern). You'd be inclined to keep a school's decile status in play as an explanatory factor, rather than junking it.

Since this is the picture after schools have had decile-related resourcing, you'd have to suspect that the relationship would have been even more pronounced pre-resourcing. You could, I suppose, make the argument that decile funding has been completely ineffective, and the relationship in the chart is the same pre and post decile-related funding, but that seems to me to be a big stretch to the rather unlikely counterfactual that funding levels make no difference at all to educational outcomes. There's an even more unlikely possibility, that decile funding was counterproductive, and that the decile/performance relationship would have been less pronounced without greater funding to lower decile schools, but I can't see how that would work, certainly not at any systemic national level. So you'd be inclined to believe decile funding has had some positive impact.

But self-evidently, the decile-related funding has not completely equalled out school performance. One part of the answer is that the link between a school's socio-economic profile as summarised by its decile classification and a school's performance isn't 100%, and it's unlikely that it ever could have been. So you'd be sympathetic to arguments that would tweak or supplement the decile funding system, though not to wholesale junking of the approach.

Another part of the answer, though, is likely variation in teaching quality at different schools. In the chart, there's a clear pattern of poorly performing outliers at every decile level. It's unlikely that all of that pattern is down to slippage in the relationship between decile level and educational outcomes, though some of it will be. For example, that outlier decile 2 school, the worst in the chart, could well be facing tougher challenges than most of the decile 1 schools, either because it got mismeasured in the decile process or because the things that matter outside the decile criteria weigh especially heavily on it (equally there could be schools that have been coasting, and their performance reflected an easier catchment challenge in reality than the decile ranking suggested). But some of it, as in most endeavours in life, is likely to be down to variations in the quality of the provider.

Either way, you'd be inclined to hone in on those outliers from two perspectives. One is that, if there is indeed something missing from the decile approach, and there seems to be, then these outlier schools are the most likely place to find it. And the other is that if they're just bad schools, you'd want to sort them out.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Report from the GEN conference

Wednesday was the Government Economics Network's annual conference at Te Papa in Wellington. This year the theme was "The relevance of economics in a changing world".

The keynote presentation was from Stanford's Paul Oyer, "The more things change, the more they stay the same: Four economic ideas everyone should know". His core theme was that, although many people post the GFC have criticised economics for not predicting it, or not understanding it, or even for causing it, economics has core concepts that were valid pre-GFC and are just as valid now. He picked four - cost-benefit analysis, equilibrium, thinking on the margin, and the limits of markets, all operating in the context of people aiming to maximise something in an environment of limited resources - and gave lively examples (funeral parlours in Tennessee, dog care services in Georgia) where these principles played out in real life. However, he also felt (quoting Princeton's Alan Blinder) that too much of economists' attention is taken up with arcana, and that the practical, useful, workaday economics, far from the bleeding edge academic frontier, was relatively neglected. That said, he ended up by saying that economics remains a powerful way of better understanding the world we live in, of helping to operate businesses more efficiently, and of setting policy for the greater good.

Not everyone agreed with his view - there was one pointed statement-cum-question from the floor saying that economics had fairly and squarely walked us into the GFC mess, and that the economics trade is in denial if it thinks it didn't - but I felt Oyer was broadly on the right track. The babies and bathwater criticism of economics has always seemed overdone to me, and I'd probably chuck in some further concepts that have also had enduring value (trade-offs, for example).

The next session was on "Economic analysis for policy", which exposed us to some applied techniques. Leo Dobes from the Australian National University talked about options, and the importance of allowing for the value of options in making decisions, and Caroline Saunders from Lincoln showed us examples of choice modelling, trade modelling, and modelling of sectoral comparative advantage. The choice modelling in particular was fascinating: Caroline showed us a real world example of how it had been used to identify the importance of various consumer criteria (such as safety, sustainability, country of origin) to overseas purchasers of our agricultural exports, which in turn could be used to profitable marketing effect in different overseas markets.

The next session, on "Teaching economics at university", wasn't so great.

The first speaker, Michael Mintrom from Monash, spent a good deal of his time on bringing an investment perspective to public policy development, which I thought was fine in itself, but not fully on-topic. He did get round to what you might want to teach people in university, if they're going to provide that perspective, albeit late in the piece. And it was quite good when we got there: I jotted down cost-benefit analysis models, experimental design with control groups, comparative institutional analysis, ex post opportunity cost studies, how economic insights can support social outcomes, learning from policy mistakes and near-failures, setting students 'capstone' projects which combine theory and application.

I didn't enjoy the presentation by Victoria's Morris Altman at all, principally because the delivery was painful to sit through (screen after screen of text paragraph bullet points, read verbatim). His core point was that it is a good idea to bring a mix of techniques and perspectives to any given problem.

Ashleigh Cox, a master's student at Waikato, gave us an interesting perspective from the other side of the lectern. She was concerned that her undergraduate economics hadn't seemed to give her the insights she'd have liked on issues such as exchange rates, housing, or inequality, and that it was only later and further reading that left her better equipped (mind you, I'd say that's probably true of a lot of things, and most of us have learned more about a subject post school or post college than we ever learned at the time). And she was also concerned about what (I think) she called "economics imperialism", or economics attempting to be a Grand Theory of Everything, and not doing it well at all.

Her comments got the discussion going, both in the hall and around coffee afterwards. Mostly I got the impression that all is not as well as it might be with teaching economics in New Zealand (and there are similar discontents overseas). Comments I picked up: not enough real-world applied economics on the menu; three-year, short-trimester economics degrees don't leave enough room to add the bits that would give a broader perspective to an economics education (such as economic history, or the history of economic thought); not enough effort going into making sure that students have an intuitive understanding of concepts, as opposed to parroting back equations (I was suddenly reminded of a piece George Orwell once wrote about a rote-leaning school student in the UK blindly reciting, "The root cause of the French Revolution was the oppression of the nobles by the people"); and degree courses being overdesigned for the student on the PhD track (heavy on the maths and the theory).

I snuck in a "mostly" qualification earlier, and that's because I also talked to some (younger) people who were very satisfied with what they'd got in New Zealand. As was I with mine in Ireland (Trinity), but then I did get some economic history, and some compulsory politics options, that rounded things off better than some modern economics courses seem to manage.

And we finished with an excellent session on the "Economist as Policy Advisor", from two battle-hardened pros - Graham Scott, formerly Secretary to the Treasury, and the NZIER's John Yeabsley - who've seen it all, and have the war stories to prove it. Graham had led off with an impressively erudite history of the role of advisers to rulers, but we moved on from Athenian democracy to wrestling with Muldoon in short order. I'd guess the many policy analysts in the room will have taken away good ideas on how to handle some of the trickier issues - notably how to present advice that your Minister does not want to hear.

At the end we had an unscheduled appearance by one of those very Ministers, Max Bradford, who made two points that I recall. One was that the greatest difficulty he'd faced was breaking with the inertia of the status quo. The other was that it might have been useful to have had some Ministerial customers of policy advice on the panel for the session, to give their perspective, and I think he was right.

The picture of health

This chart, from the OECD's latest Health At a Glance publication, is going the rounds of the social media, and it's a bit of a reality check, in a good way. If you'd thought that we were all going to hell in a handbasket because of binge drinking, bad driving, obesity and all the rest of it, think again.

The graph shows people's self-reported state of health, and we're very near the global top. Even if you take off a positive bias for the way the question was asked in some countries (our score is 5-8% higher than it would be if measured the same as in most countries), we're still well up there.

How people feel about their health is one reasonably important outcome, but if we go away from perception and look at some of the hard numbers, we stack up pretty well, too. Here's life expectancy.

The wealthier OECD countries are all pretty much of a muchness, really, but again we're in a pretty good place. Interestingly, as the next graph shows, we have much less of a gap in life expectancy between the well-off and the poor than exists in most countries. No idea why this should be, but there you go - another pretty good outcome.

From an economist's perspective, it's interesting to see that we've got better health (measured by life expectancy) than you'd expect for a country of our income level, and better health than you'd expect for the amount we spend on healthcare, as the next two graphs show. In both cases you want to be north of the fitted black line, and we are. And it's interesting to see that some of the stylised facts we all 'know' about global healthcare are, indeed, true, notably the hopelessly inefficient level of the health spend in the US.

I know, I know, we could be even healthier again, and if we did a better job of managing the booze, the weight, the fags, the exercise, the diet and the heavy foot on the accelerator, we'd all be even better off. But at the same time we ought to take on board that as far as comparisons with countries like us are concerned, we're already making a pretty good fist of health outcomes.

That "heavy foot on the accelerator" isn't a random comment, by the way. I'm recently back from Ireland, where I couldn't help noticing how much more polite and orderly the driving is than here in NZ. And it shows in these OECD stats, too: neither country is a smash palace along Brazilian or eastern European lines (and America doesn't show to advantage, either), but Ireland's death rate on the roads is clearly lower than ours. Which is something you could think about next time you cut me off on the motorway.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Too many rules, not enough houses

Last month I wrote about some residual absurdities in Australia, where there were still bizarre examples of nutbar regulation of the retail trade, and this despite decades of economic reform that one might have expected would have swept away the last of the most egregious nonsense.

It left me feeling that "there are still thickets of regulation that are absolutely bonkers". At the end of the post I said that "the good news is that both Australia and New Zealand now have Productivity Commissions that are able to turn over the flat stones and tell us what they're finding underneath", and wondered "what we'd find if, for example, we turned over some flat stones of our own".

I didn't have long to wonder.

Along came the Issues Paper (pdf) for the Productivity Commission's latest project, on the availability of land for housing. And even at this early stage it has found multiple examples of over-prescriptive, inconsistent, complex, inefficient, expensive and (I would say) largely rationale-free regulation.
Here are some examples, direct quotes from the paper.
(1) A Ministry for the Environment review of Christchurch City Council planning and resource consent processes described the two Christchurch District Plans as:
…large, cumbersome and difficult to navigate. The City plan is effects-based, while the
Banks Peninsula plan is activities-based. There are a total of 109 different planning zones,each with varying provisions (p28)
(2) Auckland Council is currently in the process of developing its first Plan as a unitary council. The Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) will replace the existing Regional Policy Statement and 13 district and regional plans. Given the breadth of the material covered in the PAUP it is not surprising that the document is lengthy, but at 6 961 pages (at the time of writing) the PAUP is very unwieldy. Supplementary documentation acknowledges that the Plan is complex, but also suggests that users must read the full document:
       The Unitary Plan is a complex document that consists of many interlinked parts. One        must not look at any provision in isolation, but read it as a whole (p29)
 (3) the Ministry for the Environment notes that plans prepared by “the eight largest
territorial authorities showed 123 different terms were defined, with more than 450 variations of those definitions”...
A comparison of two Plans’ rules around car parking demonstrates the variation. The Käpiti Coast District Council’s Rules and Standards states that "All buildings shall be designed so that wherever practicable sufficient manoeuvring space on site will ensure no reversing onto the road is necessary." In contrast, Nelson City Council’s Residential Zone Rules state that "Reverse manoeuvring is encouraged on unclassified roads and is part of ensuring a low speed environment and people orientated streetscape." (p37)
(4) One way of enabling new types of land use is to change a Regional or District Plan. Changes to Plans can be sought by a local authority or a private party...
The average timeframe taken to complete a Plan change in 2012/13 was 24 months. This was an increase from 2010/11, where council-initiated Plan changes took 17 months to complete and privately initiated Plan changes took 16 months (p47)
No doubt some processes are working well, but in spots we've got regulations of a complexity that would tax a Talmudic scholar, a glacial pace of administration, and an absence of compelling logic, with things forbidden in one jurisdiction being encouraged in the next. And all this against a background of a bloated local administration superstructure. We're a small country, but even after a programme of local authority consolidation, we're still left with this (p16):

No wonder we get this outcome (p7).

The Issues Paper isn't all about the dead hand of local authority micromanagement - I've focussed on those aspects as I've got an interest in good regulation - and it canvasses a wide range of other factors affecting the availability of housing land. The Productivity Commission is looking for people to tell it whether it's on the right track with its initial ideas, and whether it's missed anything: in particular it has a list of 74 specific questions where it is looking to get feedback and information, though people are also welcome to submit their views outside the 74-question format (contact details are in the paper and here).

The state of the housing market is one of the bigger economic issues right now: take the opportunity to have your say on what's going on and what should be done about it.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The economy's still in good shape

Treasury's latest Monthly Economic Indicators came out today. Here's a selection of some of the bits I found interesting.

First, the current growth cycle is still in good shape. The NZIER's survey measure of firms' trading activity in September suggests the economy was still growing at about a 3% rate. As I've said before, I love these survey measures: they're quick, relatively cheap, and usually have dependable relationships with the big macroeconomic statistics.

Looking ahead, prospects are still pretty upbeat, too. In the chart below I've shown firms' hiring intentions, but I could as easily have picked firms' expected trading activity or firms' expected investment. It's all good.

You might well feel that we've had a bit of a blow to our export incomes given the degree of attention that's been given to lower world dairy prices, and while that's true to a degree, as the chart below shows it's not the whole story. For one thing, dairy products aren't the only things we sell: overall export prices have been hanging in there. And for another, import prices have been falling (and may well fall quite a bit further, if world oil prices keep sliding), so our overall purchasing power - our terms of trade, what we can buy with our export income - has actually been rising sharply.

And finally there's that unexpectedly low inflation rate that we've been having. As the chart below shows, there's generally been a fairly close link between various survey measures of firms' price setting and overall inflation, but over the last eighteen months or so actual inflation has come out lower than the surveys would have led you to believe. Some people have been climbing into the Reserve Bank for overestimating the likely inflation rate: well, don't be too quick to rush to judgement. On the traditional relationships, they were making a sensible call.

Why the relationship appears to have broken down, at least for now, is a big question, and one I'll probably come back to, but we are not alone. In many places around the developed world, inflation is turning out to be lower than central banks were steering for, as the chart below, from this article in the Economist, shows: look where the dark brown marker lies relative to the bright blue one (or to the white range between blue markers). Another reason not to get too into finger-pointing at our RB: there's evidently something happening at a global level here that's blindsided a whole bevy of central banks (or whatever the collective noun for central banks might be).