The economy works for National — for now

In politics friends can sometimes be as big a risk as enemies. John Key’s chats with Cameron Slater/Whale Oil reflect two aspects of him which might in time gnaw at his popularity.

One side is the cavalier. He got offside at the candidates meeting in his Helensville electorate by breaking the rules and talking of other parties’ policies. In Parliament’s question time he is an unstatesmanlike larrikin.

If he does that in the leaders debates, it might rebound by making David Cunliffe look reasonable, as Steven Joyce’s bovver-boy attack made Grant Robertson look reasonable on TV3 earlier this month.

The second element of Key’s link with Slater which might in time erode his appeal is his bland, see-no-evil evasiveness in tight spots, as with John Banks. There will come a time when that doesn’t work. If a close aide like Jason Ede, a Slater supplier targeted by Nicky Hager, does something, in effect Key does it.

Key is nearly always blokey, affable and straight, a bubble of national optimism. But left-liberals discern also a dark side. If other sorts start to think they glimpse a dark side now and then, his appeal will slide. That’s the Whale Oil risk.

In the 32 days to election day Key can probably count on personally riding out Hager. That is important because Key’s appeal is one of National’s two big campaign advantages.

The other big campaign advantage is the economy. It will still be a strong card even if some of Hager’s mud sticks and even if Key miscues during the campaign as he did in 2011 when he over-reacted to the recording of his public meeting with John Banks.

This “campaign economy” is not the economy of GDP-fixated bank economists. The economy that voters know is their household finances. The vote yardstick is whether those finances are improving and whether voters think they are.

Election-critical middling households’ finances have been improving on the back of job growth and modest income growth. And those voters also mostly do think their finances are improving. In Colmar Brunton’s TV1 poll 54 per cent in late July (this month’s are not yet available) expected the economy to get better in the next year and only 24 per cent said it would get worse. The June quarter’s strong retail figures, buoyed by job growth, attest to that confidence.

Add Roy Morgan’s reading of whether the country is going in the right direction: in late July 60 per cent said it was and only 25 per cent said it wasn’t.

Though both measures are down off their 62 per cent and 66 per cent respective peaks, they were still so high that an incumbent government could expect re-election if this was a first-past-the-post election.

But do those easing confidence figures indicate consumers are beginning to sense something? Is the economy — the bank economists’ economy — through the best?

In a word, yes. Business confidence is well down from its autumn highs, even if still firm. Job growth and average hourly earnings growth slowed in the June quarter. Dairy prices are 40 per cent down. Forestry prices are down.

By the end of 2014 the mood is likely to have eased a bit more. Key chose well to bring the election forward from November.

Then through 2015 interest rates will bite and the Canterbury rebuild will contribute less to GDP growth, which will slow towards a more normal 2-to-2.5 per cent in 2016. Voters won’t then be so well-disposed to the government.

Add to that a fiscal crunch in the district health boards. Then add 0.8 per cent lower government revenue in the 11 months to May than forecast.

That suggests the pre-election economic and fiscal update due today will be a bit less bullish about a budget surplus in 2014-15.

A marginal slippage doesn’t matter much economically or fiscally. But Key and Bill English have built up the surplus into a re-election icon.

Go wider. Has English in six years fixed what he said was Michael Cullen’s biggest failure: exports’ low share of GDP?

Not exactly. Merchandise exports rose only a sliver from 21.6 per cent of Treasury-calculated GDP in the year to June 2008 to 22.2 per cent in the year to June 2014 — and that was on the back of rock-star dairy prices in 2013-14. The 2007-08 year was Cullen’s last full year as finance minister and the last before the global financial crisis (GFC) jumbled the numbers.

Add in services, including tourism, on a different Treasury-based measure: the “rise” was a microscopic 0.1 per cent from 29.6 per cent to 29.7 per cent between the year to March 2008 and the year to March 2014.

English was also going to get people saving. Households on average far outspent their income through Cullen’s time. But after a short period in credit after the GFC they are back in deficit. House prices are a factor.

For now households feel OK, which helps National this election. But they are unlikely to feel so good by 2016-17. That is because there is much to do on the economy. Which won’t be done through smart tricks on the Prime Minister’s floor on the Beehive.