Exchange rate is a vital political issue
By Peter Wilson, Political Writer
For the last three months, opposition parties have been talking as much about the exchange rate as they have about John Banks and asset sales.
There's been scant attention from the media, but as the donations scandal runs out of steam and Maori water rights dissolve in a series of inconclusive hui, the debate is gaining prominence.
In the last few weeks manufacturers, exporters and unions have jointed Labour, the Greens and NZ First in demanding action.
The problem is that the dollar's value against other currencies is much too high and it is crippling exporters. New Zealand's products cost too much on the international market and they aren't competitive.
Two high-profile cases this month have helped the politicians who are calling for the dollar's value to be brought down - Solid Energy's coal mines and the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter are in strife.
They're laying off workers and both cite the strength of the dollar as one of the main reasons why their exports are falling.
The opposition parties want the Reserve Bank Act to be changed so it has the power to intervene.
"We can't be a pacifist in an international currency war," says Greens co-leader Russel Norman.
"Our trading partners are actively working to devalue their currencies, leaving the kiwi dollar at record levels."
Labour finance spokesman David Parker says the problem is that by law the Reserve Bank must give priority to controlling inflation.
"We must change the law," he says.
"The Reserve Bank is getting off the hook because it is being told it must keep inflation under control.
"Other countries are lowering their currencies so they can export more. They are playing hard ball while National is playing by the old rules."
NZ First leader Winston Peters' trenchant criticism includes the accusation that the Government is living in the past.
"Why try to solve yesterday's problems?" he asks.
"There is no help for manufacturers, no help for exporters, in fact nothing at all except tired old economic philosophies that have been debunked a long time ago."
The Government is just as adamant that intervention wouldn't work, even if the Reserve Bank tried it.
"There's no free lunch around the exchange rate," Finance Minister Bill English says.
"Any attempt to move it comes with large costs and large risks - New Zealand has been down that path before."
In Parliament this week Parker, Peters and Norman reeled off lists of developed countries they said were successfully devaluing their currencies.
English responded by saying only Singapore and Switzerland were defending a fixed exchange rate.
"They both have very large reserves and they are building up huge imbalances... and one has yet to see whether the experiment is going to work," he said.
"The UK and the US are printing money because they have zero interest rates. The fact that they are printing money is a sign of deep distress in their economies, not success."
At the end of this week the dollar was hovering around the US83 cent mark. Anything over 75 cents is considered hazardous, and Prime Minister John Key has acknowledged that.
The Manufacturers and Exporters Association wants it brought down to 60 cents, which English has rejected out of hand.
He told Parliament that would have a catastrophic impact on the standard of living as the price of imports rocketed.
For more than a year the Reserve Bank has held the official cash rate at 2.5 percent, a record low but well above most other countries.
It uses the rate as a blunt instrument to control inflation, and the main point of opposition party protest is that it must be given the flexibility to also use it to influence the exchange rate.
They say high interest rates offered in New Zealand are one of the reasons why the dollar is over-valued by about 20 percent.
Outgoing Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard doesn't think much, if anything, can be done.
"New Zealand is a tiny country that no one else gives a stuff about," he said on Friday.
"They are concerned about their own problems, it's very hard to conceive of interventions that are going to change that."
Bollard says the Reserve Bank and the Treasury are well aware of the exchange rate problem and have been looking at ways to deal with it.
"So far, we haven't found them."
Peters has drafted a bill to amend the Reserve Bank Act and it will come up for its first reading in about three weeks.
The Government has said it won't support the bill but opposition parties will argue strenuously for it to at least be sent to a select committee so expert evidence can be heard.
The debate on it will be one of the most important Parliament has held since last year's election.