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An Economic History of New Zealand in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

John Singleton, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Living standards in New Zealand were among the highest in the world between the late nineteenth century and the 1960s. But New Zealand’s economic growth was very sluggish between 1950 and the early 1990s, and most Western European countries, as well as several in East Asia, overtook New Zealand in terms of real per capita income. By the early 2000s, New Zealand’s GDP per capita was in the bottom half of the developed world.

Table 1:
Per capita GDP in New Zealand
compared with the United States and Australia
(in 1990 international dollars)

US Australia New Zealand NZ as
% of US
NZ as % of
1840 1588 1374 400 25 29
1900 4091 4013 4298 105 107
1950 9561 7412 8456 88 114
2000 28129 21540 16010 57 74

Source: Angus Maddison, The World Economy: Historical Statistics. Paris: OECD, 2003, pp. 85-7.

Over the second half of the twentieth century, argue Greasley and Oxley (1999), New Zealand seemed in some respects to have more in common with Latin American countries than with other advanced western nations. As well as a snail-like growth rate, New Zealand followed highly protectionist economic policies between 1938 and the 1980s. (In absolute terms, however, New Zealanders continued to be much better off than their Latin American counterparts.) Maddison (1991) put New Zealand in a middle-income group of countries, including the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Portugal, and Spain.

Origins and Development to 1914

When Europeans (mainly Britons) started to arrive in Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the early nineteenth century, they encountered a tribal society. Maori tribes made a living from agriculture, fishing, and hunting. Internal trade was conducted on the basis of gift exchange. Maori did not hold to the Western concept of exclusive property rights in land. The idea that land could be bought and sold was alien to them. Most early European residents were not permanent settlers. They were short-term male visitors involved in extractive activities such as sealing, whaling, and forestry. They traded with Maori for food, sexual services, and other supplies.

Growing contact between Maori and the British was difficult to manage. In 1840 the British Crown and some Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty, though subject to various interpretations, to some extent regularized the relationship between Maori and Europeans (or Pakeha). At roughly the same time, the first wave of settlers arrived from England to set up colonies including Wellington and Christchurch. Settlers were looking for a better life than they could obtain in overcrowded and class-ridden England. They wished to build a rural and largely self-sufficient society.

For some time, only the Crown was permitted to purchase land from Maori. This land was then either resold or leased to settlers. Many Maori felt – and many still feel – that they were forced to give up land, effectively at gunpoint, in return for a pittance. Perhaps they did not always grasp that land, once sold, was lost forever. Conflict over land led to intermittent warfare between Maori and settlers, especially in the 1860s. There was brutality on both sides, but the Europeans on the whole showed more restraint in New Zealand than in North America, Australia, or Southern Africa.

Maori actually required less land in the nineteenth century because their numbers were falling, possibly by half between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. By the 1860s, Maori were outnumbered by British settlers. The introduction of European diseases, alcohol, and guns contributed to the decline in population. Increased mobility and contact between tribes may also have spread disease. The Maori population did not begin to recover until the twentieth century.

Gold was discovered in several parts of New Zealand (including Thames and Otago) in the mid-nineteenth century, but the introduction of sheep farming in the 1850s gave a more enduring boost to the economy. Australian and New Zealand wool was in high demand in the textile mills of Yorkshire. Sheep farming necessitated the clearing of native forests and the planting of grasslands, which changed the appearance of large tracts of New Zealand. This work was expensive, and easy access to the London capital market was critical. Economic relations between New Zealand and Britain were strong, and remained so until the 1970s.

Between the mid-1870s and mid-1890s, New Zealand was adversely affected by weak export prices, and in some years there was net emigration. But wool prices recovered in the 1890s, just as new exports – meat and dairy produce – were coming to prominence. Until the advent of refrigeration in the early 1880s, New Zealand did not export meat and dairy produce. After the introduction of refrigeration, however, New Zealand foodstuffs found their way on to the dinner tables of working class families in Britain, but not the tables of the middle and upper classes, as they could afford fresh produce.

In comparative terms, the New Zealand economy was in its heyday in the two decades before 1914. New Zealand (though not its Maori shadow, Aotearoa) was a wealthy, dynamic, and egalitarian society. The total population in 1914 was slightly above one million. Exports consisted almost entirely of land-intensive pastoral commodities. Manufactures loomed large in New Zealand’s imports. High labor costs, and the absence of scale economies in the tiny domestic market, hindered industrialization, though there was some processing of export commodities and imports.

War, Depression and Recovery, 1914-38

World War One disrupted agricultural production in Europe, and created a robust demand for New Zealand’s primary exports. Encouraged by high export prices, New Zealand farmers borrowed and invested heavily between 1914 and 1920. Land exchanged hands at very high prices. Unfortunately, the early twenties brought the start of a prolonged slump in international commodity markets. Many farmers struggled to service and repay their debts.

The global economic downturn, beginning in 1929-30, was transmitted to New Zealand by the collapse in commodity prices on the London market. Farmers bore the brunt of the depression. At the trough, in 1931-32, net farm income was negative. Declining commodity prices increased the already onerous burden of servicing and repaying farm mortgages. Meat freezing works, woolen mills, and dairy factories were caught in the spiral of decline. Farmers had less to spend in the towns. Unemployment rose, and some of the urban jobless drifted back to the family farm. The burden of external debt, the bulk of which was in sterling, rose dramatically relative to export receipts. But a protracted balance of payments crisis was avoided, since the demand for imports fell sharply in response to the drop in incomes. The depression was not as serious in New Zealand as in many industrial countries. Prices were more flexible in the primary sector and in small business than in modern, capital-intensive industry. Nevertheless, the experience of depression profoundly affected New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the international economy for decades to come.

At first, there was no reason to expect that the downturn in 1929-30 was the prelude to the worst slump in history. As tax and customs revenue fell, the government trimmed expenditure in an attempt to balance the budget. Only in 1931 was the severity of the crisis realized. Further cuts were made in public spending. The government intervened in the labor market, securing an order for an all-round reduction in wages. It pressured and then forced the banks to reduce interest rates. The government sought to maintain confidence and restore prosperity by helping farms and other businesses to lower costs. But these policies did not lead to recovery.

Several factors contributed to the recovery that commenced in 1933-34. The New Zealand pound was devalued by 14 percent against sterling in January 1933. As most exports were sold for sterling, which was then converted into New Zealand pounds, the income of farmers was boosted at a stroke of the pen. Devaluation increased the money supply. Once economic actors, including the banks, were convinced that the devaluation was permanent, there was an increase in confidence and in lending. Other developments played their part. World commodity prices stabilized, and then began to pick up. Pastoral output and productivity continued to rise. The 1932 Ottawa Agreements on imperial trade strengthened New Zealand’s position in the British market at the expense of non-empire competitors such as Argentina, and prefigured an increase in the New Zealand tariff on non-empire manufactures. As was the case elsewhere, the recovery in New Zealand was not the product of a coherent economic strategy. When beneficial policies were adopted it was as much by accident as by design.

Once underway, however, New Zealand’s recovery was comparatively rapid and persisted over the second half of the thirties. A Labour government, elected towards the end of 1935, nationalized the central bank (the Reserve Bank of New Zealand). The government instructed the Reserve Bank to create advances in support of its agricultural marketing and state housing schemes. It became easier to obtain borrowed funds.

An Insulated Economy, 1938-1984

A balance of payments crisis in 1938-39 was met by the introduction of administrative restrictions on imports. Labour had not been prepared to deflate or devalue – the former would have increased unemployment, while the latter would have raised working class living costs. Although intended as a temporary expedient, the direct control of imports became a distinctive feature of New Zealand economic policy until the mid-1980s.

The doctrine of “insulationism” was expounded during the 1940s. Full employment was now the main priority. In the light of disappointing interwar experience, there were doubts about the ability of the pastoral sector to provide sufficient work for New Zealand’s growing population. There was a desire to create more industrial jobs, even though there seemed no prospect of achieving scale economies within such a small country. Uncertainty about export receipts, the need to maintain a high level of domestic demand, and the competitive weakness of the manufacturing sector, appeared to justify the retention of quantitative import controls.

After 1945, many Western countries retained controls over current account transactions for several years. When these controls were relaxed and then abolished in the fifties and early sixties, the anomalous nature of New Zealand’s position became more visible. Although successive governments intended to liberalize, in practice they achieved little, except with respect to trade with Australia.

The collapse of the Korean War commodity boom, in the early 1950s, marked an unfortunate turning point in New Zealand’s economic history. International conditions were unpropitious for the pastoral sector in the second half of the twentieth century. Despite the aspirations of GATT, the United States, Western Europe and Japan restricted agricultural imports, especially of temperate foodstuffs, subsidized their own farmers and, in the case of the Americans and the Europeans, dumped their surpluses in third markets. The British market, which remained open until 1973, when the United Kingdom was absorbed into the EEC, was too small to satisfy New Zealand. Moreover, even the British resorted to agricultural subsidies. Compared with the price of industrial goods, the price of agricultural produce tended to weaken over the long term.

Insulation was a boon to manufacturers, and New Zealand developed a highly diversified industrial structure. But competition was ineffectual, and firms were able to pass cost increases on to the consumer. Import barriers induced many British, American, and Australian multinationals to establish plants in New Zealand. The protected industrial economy did have some benefits. It created jobs – there was full employment until the 1970s – and it increased the stock of technical and managerial skills. But consumers and farmers were deprived of access to cheaper – and often better quality – imported goods. Their interests and welfare were neglected. Competing demand from protected industries also raised the costs of farm inputs, including labor power, and thus reduced the competitiveness of New Zealand’s key export sector.

By the early 1960s, policy makers had realized that New Zealand was falling behind in the race for greater prosperity. The British food market was under threat, as the Macmillan government began a lengthy campaign to enter the protectionist EEC. New Zealand began to look for other economic partners, and the most obvious candidate was Australia. In 1901, New Zealand had declined to join the new federation of Australian colonies. Thus it had been excluded from the Australian common market. After lengthy negotiations, a partial New Zealand-Australia Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1965. Despite initial misgivings, many New Zealand firms found that they could compete in the Australian market, where tariffs against imports from the rest of the world remained quite high. But this had little bearing on their ability to compete with European, Asian, and North American firms. NAFTA was given renewed impetus by the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement of 1983.

Between 1973 and 1984, New Zealand governments were overwhelmed by a group of inter-related economic crises, including two serious supply shocks (the oil crises), rising inflation, and increasing unemployment. Robert Muldoon, the National Party (conservative) prime minister between 1975 and 1984, pursued increasingly erratic macroeconomic policies. He tightened government control over the economy in the early eighties. There were dramatic fluctuations in inflation and in economic growth. In desperation, Muldoon imposed a wage and price freeze in 1982-84. He also mounted a program of large-scale investments, including the expansion of a steel works, and the construction of chemical plants and an oil refinery. By means of these investments, he hoped to reduce the import bill and secure a durable improvement in the balance of payments. But the “Think Big” strategy failed – the projects were inadequately costed, and inherently risky. Although Muldoon’s intention had been to stabilize the economy, his policies had the opposite effect.

Economic Reform, 1984-2000

Muldoon’s policies were discredited, and in 1984 the Labour Party came to power. All other economic strategies having failed, Labour resolved to deregulate and restore the market process. (This seemed very odd at the time.) Within a week of the election, virtually all controls over interest rates had been abolished. Financial markets were deregulated, and, in March 1985, the New Zealand dollar was floated. Other changes followed, including the sale of public sector trading organizations, the reduction of tariffs and the elimination of import licensing. However, reform of the labor market was not completed until the early 1990s, by which time National (this time without Muldoon or his policies) was back in office.

Once credit was no longer rationed, there was a large increase in private sector borrowing, and a boom in asset prices. Numerous speculative investment and property companies were set up in the mid-eighties. New Zealand’s banks, which were not used to managing risk in a deregulated environment, scrambled to lend to speculators in an effort not to miss out on big profits. Many of these ventures turned sour, especially after the 1987 share market crash. Banks were forced to reduce their lending, to the detriment of sound as well as unsound borrowers.

Tight monetary policy and financial deregulation led to rising interest rates after 1984. The New Zealand dollar appreciated strongly. Farmers bore the initial brunt of high borrowing costs and a rising real exchange rate. Manufactured imports also became more competitive, and many inefficient firms were forced to close. Unemployment rose in the late eighties and early nineties. The early 1990s were marked by an international recession, which was particularly painful in New Zealand, not least because of the high hopes raised by the post-1984 reforms.

An economic recovery began towards the end of 1991. With a brief interlude in 1998, strong growth persisted for the remainder of the decade. Confidence was gradually restored to the business sector. Unemployment began to recede. After a lengthy time lag, the economic reforms seemed to be paying off for the majority of the population.

Large structural changes took place after 1984. Factors of production switched out of the protected manufacturing sector, and were drawn into services. Tourism boomed as the relative cost of international travel fell. The face of the primary sector also changed, and the wine industry began to penetrate world markets. But not all manufacturers struggled. Some firms adapted to the new environment and became more export-oriented. For instance, a small engineering company, Scott Technology, became a world leader in the provision of equipment for the manufacture of refrigerators and washing machines.

Annual inflation was reduced to low single digits by the early nineties. Price stability was locked in through the 1989 Reserve Bank Act. This legislation gave the central bank operational autonomy, while compelling it to focus on the achievement and maintenance of price stability rather than other macroeconomic objectives. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand was the first central bank in the world to adopt a regime of inflation targeting. The 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act committed governments to sound finance and the reduction of public debt.

By 2000, New Zealand’s population was approaching four million. Overall, the reforms of the eighties and nineties were responsible for creating a more competitive economy. New Zealand’s economic decline relative to the rest of the OECD was halted, though it was not reversed. In the nineties, New Zealand enjoyed faster economic growth than either Germany or Japan, an outcome that would have been inconceivable a few years earlier. But many New Zealanders were not satisfied. In particular, they were galled that their closest neighbor, Australia, was growing even faster. Australia, however, was an inherently much wealthier country with massive mineral deposits.


Several explanations have been offered for New Zealand’s relatively poor economic performance during the twentieth century.

Wool, meat, and dairy produce were the foundations of New Zealand’s prosperity in Victorian and Edwardian times. After 1920, however, international market conditions were generally unfavorable to pastoral exports. New Zealand had the wrong comparative advantage to enjoy rapid growth in the twentieth century.

Attempts to diversify were only partially successful. High labor costs and the small size of the domestic market hindered the efficient production of standardized labor-intensive goods (e.g. garments) and standardized capital-intensive goods (e.g. autos). New Zealand might have specialized in customized and skill-intensive manufactures, but the policy environment was not conducive to the promotion of excellence in niche markets. Between 1938 and the 1980s, Latin American-style trade policies fostered the growth of a ramshackle manufacturing sector. Only in the late eighties did New Zealand decisively reject this regime.

Geographical and geological factors also worked to New Zealand’s disadvantage. Australia drew ahead of New Zealand in the 1960s, following the discovery of large mineral deposits for which there was a big market in Japan. Staple theory suggests that developing countries may industrialize successfully by processing their own primary products, instead of by exporting them in a raw state. Canada had coal and minerals, and became a significant industrial power. But New Zealand’s staples of wool, meat and dairy produce offered limited downstream potential.

Canada also took advantage of its proximity to the U.S. market, and access to U.S. capital and technology. American-style institutions in the labor market, business, education and government became popular in Canada. New Zealand and Australia relied on, arguably inferior, British-style institutions. New Zealand was a long way from the world’s economic powerhouses, and it was difficult for its firms to establish and maintain contact with potential customers and collaborators in Europe, North America, or Asia.

Clearly, New Zealand’s problems were not all of its own making. The elimination of agricultural protectionism in the northern hemisphere would have given a huge boost the New Zealand economy. On the other hand, in the period between the late 1930s and mid-1980s, New Zealand followed inward-looking economic policies that hindered economic efficiency and flexibility.


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Citation: Singleton, John. “New Zealand in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. February 10, 2008. URL