Mark Lister, 3 October 2017

This month we should find out what sort of Government we’re in for over the next three years. Someone is going to come out on the wrong side of the negotiations, and it may not be a terrible battle to lose.

The economy has been running hot over the past few years, but this might be coming to an end, regardless of potential policy change.

Migration has had a significant influence in recent years, with population growth running at the highest levels since the 1960s, boosting economic activity.

Early signs are emerging this may have peaked, such as a pickup in the number of non-residents leaving in the past few months. If this trend continues, it could dent the domestic growth story heading into 2018.

Slowing house-price inflation is another factor. Many have put recent softness down to election uncertainty but I don’t buy that entirely.

In July, when Labour (under Andrew Little) was polling below 25 per cent, REINZ figures revealed a 31 per cent decline in sales volumes in Auckland. In addition, annual house price inflation in our biggest city had fallen into negative territory. The strong housing market has been another big economic driver in recent years, boosting spending, confidence and activity for many sectors. A period of flat prices would definitely take a little more wind out of our sails.

Interest rates have been falling for just about the entire time National has been in power, which is always a crowd pleaser. Last year mortgage rates fell to the lowest levels we’ve seen in more than 50 years.

Since then, they’ve been drifting higher, and I’d be surprised if that doesn’t continue. Despite an OCR that’s going nowhere, central banks around the world are trying to reverse the economic life support of the past few years. That’ll put upward pressure on global interest rates, and New Zealand won’t be immune.

Tourism and construction also look close to their respective peaks, so it’s hard to see those sectors adding much more to the growth picture during the next three years.

None of these issues is a show-stopper on its own, but combined they could have an impact.

A few less people, sluggish house prices and a small but steady rise in borrowing costs could quite easily dent our outlook.

If it all pans out that way, the tax take could end up a little lower than expected, making the government books look less rosy. We’d see some heat come out of the NZ dollar, adding to price pressures on things like fuel.

It all makes for uncomfortable headlines for policymakers. Rightly or wrongly, people blame the Government for the state of the economy, for their mortgage rates or petrol costs going up, or their house price slipping back a little.

It’s not all bad news. Dairy prices are almost 70 per cent higher than 18 months ago, a weaker currency would boost the exporter sector, and low government debt leaves room for fiscal stimulus if necessary. Besides, a moderating housing market is a good thing. But for a new (or re-elected) Government, that all means tough questions. Who wants to preside over an economic slowdown, rising interest rates, a housing market that’s run out of puff and missing your surplus forecasts?

This article was originally published in the New Zealand Herald under the title “Mark Lister: Next Govt could face a rougher ride” on Tuesday 3 October 2017.