COVID-19 - Government's package a mixed bag
The team have spent yesterday afternoon working through the Government’s COVID-19 response package. A couple of the staff are in self-isolation, so we’ve well and truly rehearsed using the virtual technology in preparing this note and our media commentary.
In summary, the package is not as comprehensive as many economists were expecting. On the eight measures we have been lobbying for, the Government has picked up some of the ideas but left many out. Grant Robertson has signalled more is to come on Budget Day (14 May) or even before then.
Overall, yesterday's package is not as focused on protecting jobs as we were expecting. For example, the wage subsidies to employers are effectively limited to organisations with 20 or fewer staff.
The Government also appears to have used COVID-19 to make some permanent policy changes. For example, while temporary boosts to income for beneficiaries and those most vulnerable are justified, the Government has increased benefits by $25 per week on a permanent basis (that is in addition to the normal annual adjustment for wage inflation).
The Winter Energy Payment (paid to all on any non-student benefit or NZ Super) is also being doubled to $40.91/week for singles and $63.64/week for couples. But in this case, just for this year.
Summary of Government's response package:
$500 million boost for health (the cost is equal to $278/household)
$5.1 billion in wage subsidies for affected businesses in all sectors and regions, available from today ($2,833/household)
$126 million in COVID-19 leave and self-isolation support ($70/household)
$2.8 billion income support package for our most vulnerable, including a permanent $25 per week benefit increase and a doubling of the Winter Energy Payment for 2020 ($1,556/household in the first year)
$100 million redeployment package ($56/household)
$2.8 billion in business tax changes to free up cashflow including a provisional tax threshold lift, the reinstatement of building depreciation, and writing off interest on the late payment of tax ($1,556/household)
$600 million initial aviation support package ($333/household).
The New Zealand Taxpayers' Union is welcoming the temporary measures to ease pressure on employers contained in yesterday's economic relief package.
Yesterday's relief package is a vindication of the long-term fiscal prudence by a generation of finance ministers. Measures like temporary wage subsidies are extremely costly, but can be afforded thanks to successive governments' commitment to low public debt.
We're pleased to see the waiving of interest for late tax payments, and the increase to Winter Energy Payments which will help keep vulnerable older New Zealanders at home. We recommended these changes in our briefing paper released Monday. The lift in the threshold for provisional tax will also be a welcome relief to small businesses.
We’re open to increasing benefits for the duration of the pandemic, but COVID-19 is not an excuse for locking it in. For context, the cost of the benefit hike is around $2.3 billion — almost five times as much as the boost to the health system. Every extra dollar spent here means one fewer for the productive sector and frontline health services.
There are also policy measures such as the changes to depreciation treatments which, although we support them, seem totally unrelated to the immediate threats to business cashflow and New Zealand jobs. It suggests this was very much policy designed to be seen to be doing something, rather than policy targeted at the specific challenges we face now.
Elephant in the room: 1 April minimum wage hike
The big hole in this package is supporting businesses faced with higher costs due to the minimum wage going up on 1 April. The people who get slammed most will be the working poor, earning the minimum wage or close to it, who work for a large employer that doesn't qualify for the wage subsidy package or will only receive limited assistance.
The obvious measure is to pause the minimum wage hike until economic conditions allow.
For convenience, we have copied links to the Government’s announcements and factsheets below.
Government's media releases:
Minister's speech to Parliament