Sunday, May 26, 2024

Professor John Raine: Shifting Investment towards High-Productivity Industry

Over the last couple of weeks, several posts have had a common factor - New Zealand’s low productivity - indicative of increasing concern over an issue which is critical if the country is to pay down debt, and invest in infrastructure, health, welfare and education at the level needed.

Don Brash reminded us again in his 12th May 2024 article [1] that New Zealand has a high ratio of median house price-to-income. The highly productive USA economy has a house price-to-income ratio of only 4.1. At a ratio of 10.5, NZ ranks 47th out of 104 countries in the Numbeo statistics [2]. Successful economies like Singapore (14.9) and Switzerland (11.1) are higher, but New Zealand has a low-income economy, and high house prices mean less discretionary investment capability to support the productive sector.

Lower house prices and price inflation should reduce capital gain incentives for property investors and shift investment towards the productive sector, albeit we will always need a domestic property rental market. Effects of land and building planning regulations and the cost of building supplies on prices have repeatedly been highlighted as critical issues, but successive governments have substantially failed to date, through legislation, to dampen house price escalation. Let us see MPs overcome their own love of property investment and grasp this nettle.

Simplicity CEO, Sam Stubbs, noted in a linkedIn post in April 2024 that the much larger and stronger Australian economy has hugely benefitted over time from having compulsory superannuation and a Capital Gains Tax, and that NZ must implement these if we are to focus away from property investment and improve productivity. Muriel Newman’s column of 22nd May 2024 [3] highlighted how powerful our economy would have been today if the Muldoon government had not axed the compulsory superannuation scheme in 1975. This needs fixing, but NZ must also seize on other ways to stimulate investment in the productive sector, dampen demand prices for houses, and make property more accessible for first home buyers.

On Friday 23rd May, the NZ 50 share market index closed at 11,809.48, no higher than it was in early-mid January 2020, prior to the Covid-19 market fall. Over the same period the AXJO has increased a little under 12%, and the USA S&P 500 index by more than a whopping 60% The USA market movement, especially, highlights our poor performance, partly a legacy of the Ardern/Hipkins Government’s massive borrowing and wasted expenditure, but also indicative of our weak rate of productivity improvement.

Between 2000 and 2022 New Zealand saw its GDP per hour worked (acknowledging this is a very flawed measure of productive enterprise) in constant US dollar terms increase by a modest ~24% [4]. Productivity in Australia and the USA grew by 27.6% and 38.7% respectively over the same period. More significantly, at USD 43.7 GDP per hour worked in 2022, NZ still lagged Australia (USD 55.9) by about 22%, and lagged both Denmark (USD 74.3) and the USA (USD 75.5) by over 40%.

On 22nd May 2024 Professor Rob MacCulloch [5] eloquently stated 15 reasons why productivity in NZ will continue to stagnate, including failure to address structural deficits, failures in our education system, the abandonment of meritocracy, and the huge cost of ongoing Treaty-related issues.

In sum, we urgently need to drive investment into high productivity industry. I note just five critical areas below – all raised previously, but still needing action:

(i) A highly educated workforce is vital. Too many are in low-productivity employment, and too few school leavers pursue qualifications and training that lead to high productivity jobs. The Minister of Education must face down the pressure from those pushing postmodernism and critical social justice theory, and hold the line to rebuild an education curriculum strong in mathematics, literacy and the sciences. A key factor in enabling high productivity industry growth and attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) will also be to rectify the serious shortfall in our supply of STEM graduates, particularly in Engineering and IT. This is an issue that the Government’s University Advisory Group must address.

(ii) R&D investment (NZ Government and Business Sector combined), which is correlated internationally to economic growth and a key driver of the tech sector, still sits stubbornly at around 1.3 – 1.4% of GDP, where it was at the time of the 2011 Powering Innovation Review [5], and far below the OECD average of ~2.7% [6].

(iii) Stronger links between industry and the research sector are needed enable greater industry-pull in the allocation of part of the contestable public research funding. We need to refocus research funding towards strong fundamental science and towards industry-demand projects in the Sciences, Engineering and IT and mandatory industry-research sector partnering.

(iv) New Zealand’s technology sector is increasing our productivity. It includes electro-mechanical products, smart electronics, medical technology, the IT sector, AI, agritech, and added value dairy and forestry products, and machinery - where the economics of shipment are viable. Distance from markets means a greater focus on weightless exports and higher export dollars per unit shipped volume or weight. The Technology Investment Network report for 2023 [7] notes that this fast-growing sector employed 63,874 people in 2023. It is NZ’s second biggest export earner, with overall revenues up 11.8% on 2022 to $17.2 Bn, and technology exports were up by 13% to 13.05 Bn. We have the innovative capability to spawn more companies like Rocket Lab, Xero and F&P Healthcare, and more recent ventures like Dawn Aerospace and Halter. Still, despite all the positives, a realistic report card would say, “Could do better”. This sector needs to be investment turbocharged.

(v) Stronger capital markets will drive investment into higher productivity industry. These have grown over the past 30 years, and there is also now a fairly large pool of investors backing early-stage companies. Simplicity KiwiSaver superannuation fund has also led by example with a small stake in early-stage companies through Icehouse Ventures. Australia, with its compulsory superannuation-supercharged economy, has better supported high-tech R&D and the high-productivity industry sector. As venture capital activity and KiwiSaver grow, our pool of available capital will increase, but we must move faster.

To close, here's a challenge for Government to direct more investment towards high productivity industry, in addition to making KiwiSaver mandatory and progressively increasing minimum contribution levels:

* Lift R&D investment (with a commensurate increase by industry) by a challenging 7.2% per annum so that NZ hits the OECD average within 10 years.

* Incentivise STEM graduates to return to or stay in New Zealand high-tech industry through arrangements for student loan debt to be forgiven in proportion to years served with New Zealand businesses.

* Refocus part of the Government contestable research funding more clearly towards industry-pull projects, with early partnering required between industry and researchers at the research project concept stage.

* Reshape Callaghan Innovation as an advanced technology institute triangulating between universities/research institutions and industry like the Danish Technological Institute (

* Mandate ~1% of KiwiSaver funds to go into early-stage NZ businesses.

* Enhance NZ’s R&D tax credit system to at least match that in Australia.

* Allow a favourable tax rate on company dividends, but, in fairness, also bank interest.

* Take a bolder step to drive investment into early stage companies through investment write-off incentives as in Australia (although likely hand-in-hand with a Capital Gains Tax) (

* Re-think NZ FDI settings to encourage inward investment flows, and NZ location of R&D centres and Data Centres from mega-corporates.

John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering who held Pro Vice Chancellor or Deputy Vice Chancellor roles in three New Zealand universities. He formerly had responsibilities for international student operations and international relations at Massey University and the University of Canterbury. This article was first published HERE


David Lillis said...

A great article! Various studies demonstrate that having an educated workforce leads to strong economic performance. In particular, having a significant fraction of the workforce trained at postgraduate level in the sciences, engineering and technology is associated with a stronger economy, though it may also be true that nations tend to employ more of such people when times are good. Of course, sectors must have the capacity to absorb new ideas and technologies that emerge from research, and so the pipeline from initial identification of research and technology needs to pre-commercialization, transfer and adoption must be there too.

Between 2014 and 2018 global investment in research and development increased by 19% - a faster rate of growth than increase in global GDP. Why? Mainly because governments and their private sectors saw advantage from research in addressing domestic challenges and playing a part in international collaborative efforts to address global challenges - food insecurity, malnutrition, child mortality, pandemics, public health, environment and climate.

New Zealand's investment in research and development is very low - significantly lower than the average for low-to-middle income nations. This is not positive for a small nation with small economies of scale and far from its markets.

Nor is it positive tha,t over the last half-dozen years, Government and its advisors have damaged education.

Something has to change and indeed we can turn this problem around!
David Lillis

Anonymous said...

Oh that the majority of NZers could aspire to be a Singapore or Switzerland.....

Today far too many seem to aim so very low and expect wrap around care for life.

Those with any ambition leave for better things elsewhere.......

Gaynor said...

Critical studies and post modernism is the inevitable result of Progressive Education's (PE) main tenet of social engineering of children's minds, always at the expense of solid academic study in our schools. This has been insidiously creeping into our education system and corrupting it for seven decades. Nothing will change until this sinister movement PE is seen for what it is and rooted out. Otherwise the nonsense will just continue on progressively getting worse- if such a thing is possible. I think we have hit rock bottom already. This was actually predicted by wise educationalists in the late 1940s when PE was first adopted in NZ replacing Traditional Education which focused on academic learning, meritocracy through effective teaching methods.