Dom Post on Savings

The Dom Post editorial:

The $10 billion deficit for the first nine months of this year confirms, if confirmation was needed, that the last government made bad choices. At a time of plenty it chose to buy popularity rather than to save and invest for the future. Worse still, it created an expectation that the bounty would continue to flow in bad times as well as good.

Yep. Labour thought that the economy would never go into recession, ignoring that the tradeable sector had in fact been in recession since 2004/5.

It cannot – a point Prime Minister John Key and his ministers have been trying to get across in advance of next week’s Budget. New Zealand has to get back to living within its means. There are a number of obvious targets for a government looking for what Finance Minister Bill English has quaintly termed the “nice-to-haves”. They include the extension of welfare to families with incomes far in excess of the average wage, interest free student loans and the 65-year age of entitlement for .

I support increasing the age of eligibility for superannuation. It will happen one day also. But any increase would have to be signalled a good decade or so in advance, so don’t think any change to the age will help get the books back into surplus in this decade. Lifting the future age of retirement is important for the long-term sustainability of superannuation, but again that is a different issue to the shorter-term fiscal challenge.

Instead, Mr Key’s Government is taking aim at the scheme introduced by its predecessor to tackle New Zealand’s chronically low savings rate.

Under the scheme, people who agree to set aside a percentage of their income for their retirement receive a one-off Government grant of $1000 and tax credits worth up to $1040 a year. The scheme has proved remarkably attractive. It now has almost 1.7 million members. However, Mr Key has classified it among the “nice-to-haves” and is signalling that the annual Government contribution will be reduced, probably halved.

He and his finance minister appear to believe the public will not be deterred by the change. If so, they are graduates of the same University of Spin and Hope as their Labour predecessors, who believed that scrapping interest on student loans would not increase the take-up rate. New Zealanders are not stupid. The year before loans were made interest free, 53 per cent of eligible students borrowed from the Government. By 2009 – the last year for which figures are available – that figure had increased to 71 per cent.

KiwiSaver membership involves sacrifices. Contributing the amount required to secure the maximum Government contribution means many members have to make choices between other “nice-to-haves” and even some essentials. However, they calculate that, together with employer contributions, the Government top-up makes the sacrifice worthwhile. Reduce the top-up and many will review their participation.

For most employees, they will still be getting a massive subsidy. Someone on $28,000 will still get around $2.50 into their KiwiSaver account for every $1 they put in. That’s a 150% return on investment compared to 10% most funds deliver. I doubt too many people will dump KiwiSaver becuase their return on investment is 150% instead of 200%.

Those who get most hard done by the Government’s changes are self-employed like me. As I pay both my employer and employee contribution, then I’ll personally be quite a bit worse off by the Government’s proposed changes. But I had been saving plenty anyway, prior to KiwiSaver, so to some degree the KiwiSaver subsidies were just a way to maximise my return. And the Government should be focusing its scarce tax dollars on those who most need it, not people like me.

The Government has a choice. It can encourage the current generation of workers to save more, or it can pander to the “grey” vote by maintaining the pretence that superannuation for all at age 65 is affordable when it is patently not. It cannot do both.

It has made the easy choice, not the right one.

The reality is the age does need to increase, but not until around 2025 by my calculations.

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