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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
Financial world at decision point
Date: Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Author: Henry Thornton

The current financial crisis has revealed the astonishing fact that capitalism is not perfect.

Furthermore, progress is in fits and starts, with occasional but costly setbacks.

Sometimes setbacks create a long period of reaction - think the 1890s and the 1930s.

Setbacks also create opportunity and provide platforms for fresh progress.

Will we react constructively or foolishly to the situation in which we find ourselves?

The world is at a decision point.

Critics of capitalism red in tooth and claw are having a field day, despite the fact that for the best part of a century many markets have been heavily regulated and extensive social welfare has softened market outcomes.

For the past 50 years, trade in goods has become freer, many public utilities have been privatised and there has been a complex mix of regulatory change, not all deserving the label 'deregulation'.

President Bush has called a summit to decide what should be done.

Here are Henry's suggestions.

The immediate solution must involve guarantee of bank deposits and bailout (or forced consolidation) of failed banks, central bank provision of virtually unlimited liquidity and judicious easing of monetary and fiscal policies.

Bailouts should involve governments taking shares in the institutions they are required to save and their managers should not be allowed to receive massive compensation for losing their jobs.

The first point gives taxpayers some chance of recovering their involuntary but inescapable investment in global financial stability, and the second will at least reduce the 'moral hazard' involved in the bailouts, to encourage the next generation of financiers to be more prudent.

All this is pretty much what has been done and this is why there should be no global depression following this crisis.

Indeed, inflation is the more likely result.

Central banks should be vigilant and prepared to tighten monetary policy quickly when recovery begins to gather pace.

Fiscal policy should also be reined in as recovery picks up.

It is now being claimed that there are many hedge funds on the brink of collapse.

If at all possible, hedge funds should be allowed to fail. Investments in hedge funds surely are only for 'professional investors' who will not be driven into poverty by losing their investments.  Owners of failed hedge funds surely will cope, even if coping involves a period of driving taxis.

Going forward, there are a number of ways to reform financial regulation.

A start is to make clearer than it has been that there is a difference between 'banks' and other financial institutions.

'Banks' are low risk enterprises whose deposits are guaranteed, whose managers are expected to be cautious and are subject to strong regulation.

Required liquidity ratios of 'banks' might sensibly be required to increase in some way related to the growth of nominal GPP - meaning as real growth or inflation rises there is an automatic 'leaning into the wind'.

(Central banks should be more pro-active in raising cash rates sooner as nominal economic growth accelerates or as credit and asset inflation begins to build).

'Non-bank financial institutions' should, like real estate agents and pawn-brokers, be regarded as high-risk ventures that are not regulated, or regulated only lightly - for example with licences to operate given only to people who have not recently been bankrupt or found guilty of criminal activity.

Where 'investment banks' fit into the risk spectrum between 'banks' and 'pawn-brokers' is for the experts to decide.  Possibly a half-way house in terms of regulation, not allowed to be managed by criminally insane former or potential bankrupts.

The idea, of course, is to remind punters that high risk and high returns are likely to be associated and if you lose money investing in such ventures you should be prepared to accept the consequences.

Conversely, it is important to have an unregulated or lightly regulated financial sector to allow high risk ventures to get funded.

This is in addition to share capital, which ought to be far more subject to strictures of the sort implied by the old Latin phrase 'caveat emptor'.

But this is probably a bridge too far, even for such a robust proponent of capitalism red in tooth and claw as President Bush.

Related contributions.

Australia, New Zealand and the International Economy, by Glenn Stevens

Bailing-out or crowding-out, by Stephen Kirchner

A short history of capitalism, by The Economist


Dire straits for miners; G20`s theoretical triumph
Date: Thursday, November 20, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'Without doubt this is the toughest market for the resource sector that the Raff can remember, since graduating from Macquarie University in 1975. Murdoch’s paper is too long to detail in a Raff Report but his key findings were as expected. Here are just a few points from Murdoch to ponder:

1. The Metals and Mining Index has hugely underperformed BHP (this reflects the dumping of junior metal miners and explorers and the relative safety of BHP which at least pays a dividend).

2. Only 28% of companies have the cash typically needed to mount a robust site programme that may result in a re-rating of the company’s share price (to give readers an idea of drilling cost, a ballpark figure for a drill rig with capability of 1,000 metres capacity is $6,000 per day; for this you might get 90-120 metres open hole or 30 metres of diamond core).

3. 22% of explorers do not have the cash to do any real work on site (the Raff looked at a bunch of Appendix 5Bs recently and one characteristic in common was cash outflow for administration dwarfing expenditures on exploration).

4. On average, energy explorers spent $740,000 on exploration, nearly three times the expenditure of companies exploring for precious and base metals (the Raff thinks the recent hike in the price for uranium will see a swing back to exploration for uranium in 2015, and energy explorers, on average, will outspend precious and base metals in 2015).

The latest Raff Report explains the dire straits our small mining companies find themselves in, a theme first predicted here by Louis Hissink at least 18 months ago.  And Louis weighs in with his own current thoughts on the dire straits of the mining industry.

Here is a BHP Billiton perspective. 'BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner, is not concerned with the five-year-low iron ore price, saying its West Australian operations are still making a good margin, as it defends its expansion strategy in an oversupplied market'.

G20 triumph

We have, however, noted the new Free Trade Agreement and the visits of the G20 leaders and Finance ministers.  Both events are positive, but only the new FTA goes beyond nice theory.  Politics, as so often happens, is likely to block economic policy, as we observe so painfully here.

Overall, a triumph for Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, and now we know how to boost global growth;  but we also know this will only happen if the policies listed by the G20 nations are implemented, and we can see just how many have got through Australia's Senate.  This may well be the usual response, leaving the G20 growth boost nice theory, disappointing practice.

How ironic that the Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke so graciously about China's new partner Australia in the parliament while Barak Obama seemed to undermine our policy on climate change at the University of Queensland.  Noone has explained yet how China's and America's climate change policies are different to ours, and how we achieved a better performance on CO2 emissions than the mighty USA.

Funny business politics.

Saturday Sanity Break, 15 November 2014
Date: Saturday, November 15, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

What a thrill, the leaders of G20 nations arriving in Brisbane, our new 'global city'. The Agenda for their meeting is largely economic, with the Australia-China free trade deal (Step 1) to be announced Monday to provide an exclamation mark. US-China climate change deal puts a big 'Stop Press' sign as a preamble, and it is also good to see the amount of press activity devoted to international tax avoidance.  Why discuss tax hikes here when Google, Amazon and IKEA, and other multinational are playing us for mugs?

The most interesting item in the weekend press, for this writer at least, is Stirling Larkin's 'Steps to avoid a banana republic'. Here are some quotes:
* The RBA's 'money zero maturity' (whatever this is) has 'placed us in the unenviable position of drifting away from the commodities super-cycle and towards the abyss of ... a banana republic'.
* '... real growth comes from technological developments, human ingenuity and the boosting of productivity through innovation, all of which are precepts of free markets and not the state'.
* Australian Industry group Chief Executive Innes Willox believes "the Australian economy is changing gears and big parts are in the slow lane with little prospect for a quick turnaround'.
* 'Willox highlights the need for the Australian economy to be retooled and rebooted to deal with the effects of a high-cost, high-wage economy saddled with a relatively high currency, struggling with the resources boom tapering off, construction struggling to gain traction, traditional manufacturing under pressure and slowing government hitting the services sector'.
* "Like any good business, Australia needs to focus on its competitive strengths, intellectual capital and skills base to value add in resources, agriculture and manufacturing to give us the balanced sustainable economy with a distinctive competitive edge" Willox added.

The whole article is well worth reading.  Mr Larkin's focus is one the investment practices of ultra-high-net-worth -families, who have for several years putting a lot of money offshore. The conclusion of the article links the economic reform program outlined by Innex Willox with a shift back toward investment in Australia.

'Hear, hear' Henry cheers.

A surpising headline today is 'Economist tips recession next year'. Finally this news is breaking through the Australian economic elite's complacency. This is like spotting the second blowfly at the barbeque.  Henry must admit to being the first such annoyance, with 'The recession we did not need to have', published in The Australian in august 2014.

Will our economy be saved by the G20?  Andrew Robb says says China free trade agreement could ‘set us up for years’, reports Paul Kelly.

If the 2 % hike in global growth really happens, and if the free trade agreement with China happens as advertised, these developments will undoubtedly help.  But to take maximum advantage the domestic reforms outlined by Innox Willox are needed. My fingers are crossed.


ASADA is said to have finally issued 'show cause' notices to 34 former and current Essendon players.  Stephen Dank is still smirking for the press, and looks like escaping from penalty for his alleged part in the supplements saga. This issue is becoming a bigger 'clusterf**k by the week, and can only end badly for the AFL. 

Meanwhile, Australian 'Futball' goes from strength to strength with its advantages if being a global game far friendlier to children, and therefore modern parents. Henry recalls at age 15 being given a shot of whisky before going out to play the hard men of Scorsby in an EDFL grand final.  Nunawading played an honorable but losing game, and the young Henry was delighted no-one was killed or crippled.

Mitch Johnson is cricketer of the year for the second time,  still scaring the cr*p out of batsmen and cheering local audiences.  Pakistan was a catastrophe, the One Day series against South Efrica has started well, and the test series against India looms.


Fiona Prior survived Java and now reports from, no, not from that comet but from a cinema showing the film called 'Interstellar'. Interstellar 'is a grandly enjoyable movie'.

Henry's sources reveal that a number of excellent movies will hit the screens this summer, so readers can find entertainment plus refuge from the heat if the cricket is boring.

Image of the week

  Courtesy The Oz

Saturday Sanity Break, 8 November 2014
Date: Saturday, November 08, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Big international companies evading tax.  Who'd have thunk it?  The BCA opposed to fixing this. Well, what a surprise!  Clearly there neeeds to be some international accord that companies will play fair on tax or be outed, or worse. What happens after outing remains to be seen, but individuals can make their views known in the most obvious of ways - stop buying their stuff.

Free trade agreement with China looking likely. Chalk this up as another bold move by the Abbott government, and will provide much opportunity to farmers and agriculturists. And it is a very welcome move strategically, which could be compared with pre-world war II decision by western powers to starve Japan of raw materials.

Jobs growth about half growth of the workforce, leading to inexorable increase in unemployment, loss of productive workers (dropping out of the workforce) and further upward pressure on welfare payments. Who cares? The government must and anyone else concerned at growing inequality should.

Imposing a modest real wage hike on the defence forces and others on the national payroll. In reality, if Australians all took a 20 % cut in money wages, our economy would be competitive again and our jobs growth would surge. Who cares? The government does and anyone else concerned at growing inequality should. 

The exchange rate sinking, not yet quite like a stone, but that could be the next issue people worry about, or take advantage of by moving assets offshore and generally tightening their belts. Provided wage costs are contained - see previous comment - a lower exchange rate will help restore competitiveness. A lower exchange rate is a graphic signal of our nation giving up the fruits of the mining boom, reality bites.  Ergo, we are poorer and can afford less welfare and lower incomes generally.

Points like these should be part of the Australian 'hymnbook'. Henry has been working to see that a 'hymnbook' is agreed by all participants in two significent industrial ventures.  That is difficult enough for one enterprise, imagine the challenge for the Prime minister? Even the cabinet is said to be in need of more solidarity.

Hope these notes might be useful at festive season bbqs.  Spread the news, folks. Global economic competition is ruthless, and Australia's current lack of competitiveness will impose costs on us all.  As dear old Frank Cream said way back when: 'One man's wage rise is another man's job loss'.

We wish the Prime minister, his ministers and every one battling to improve Australia's competitiveness, thereby allowing more compassion, all their best with their endeavours, so look out boys and lady, disunity is death. This is why we need a compelling national 'narrative'.

Here is the latest RBA prognosis - their glasses now well below half full - indeed 'grim' as one newspaper summarised. 

Do not panic, gentle readers - the G20 (sans shirtfronts) will sort it all out. Is it 2 % of GDP or 2 % pa Growth of GDP that is being added?  Henry suspects we are all equally confused about this but either outcome will be welcome.


Our recently victorious cricket team has been given a salutory lesson in the duust of the Middle East.  Overnight it drew level in a T20 contest, whatever that is.  Bring back the five day tests meandering to a meaningless draw is Henry's views. 'G20' is apparently the economy's version od T20, Henry has been told. Helter skelter for a short time, then its on to the next talkfest.  One assumes it is better than fighting.

Rugby team started well under its new coach but faces severe tests in Europe.

No news of footy, except the non-news that ASADA has again failed to pounce.  Obviously Asada feels its case is not sufficiently backed by evidence, and surely someone should insist there be an end to this farce.  And it was good to read this week that Caaaaaarlton! believes is has recruited wisely. Time will tell.

So sad to see two horse died after the running of the Melbourne Cup. Not much to be done about it except, perhaps, to enforce rules apparently in place about use of the whip.

Terry Maher has again presented all the news that's worth reading in his views of the Spring Carnival.

Image of the week - from the archives


Saturday Sanity Break, 1 November 2014
Date: Saturday, November 01, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Inequality in Australia is rising, but only gradually from not-too-obscene levels.  This is one of the conclusions as Adam Creighton continues to fan the blaze after his boss Rupert Murdoch lit the flames in a major presentation to G20 finance ministers.  Henry has been trying to get a copy of the presentation so he can check it for himself, but so far, no luck. Anyway, inequality has risen far faster elsewhere and it is plausibly due in part to the massive monetary expansionary that is 'Quanitative Easing' (QE). Do not miss the nice video featuring Alan Kohler.

Another economist has joined the discussion. Henry Ergas sees QE as dangerous and must be welcomed to the 'old ratbag club' (orc) otherwise known as the 'economic elite'. As clear evidence of his status, Mr Ergas quotes Keynes and Milton Friedman: 'While very sparingly used until then, that approach had a long pedigree. Before he turned to government spending as his instrument of choice, John Maynard Keynes had proposed QE as a key element in responding to the ­Depression.  Mr Ergas speaks here. (Apologies if the link is not working, gentle readers, The Oz has done something different.)

“We cannot hope,” Keynes wrote in 1930, “for a complete or lasting recovery until there has been a very great fall in the long-term rate of interest throughout the world.” The problem, however, was that left to its own devices, achieving that fall was likely to prove “a long and a tedious process”. The answer was for central banks to “reduce the rate of interest to a very low figure”, while buying “long-dated securities either against an expansion of central bank money or against the sale of short-dated securities until the short-term market is saturated”.

'The Fed did just that two years later, with Milton Friedman, in the monumental monetary history of the US he co-authored with Anna Schwartz, crediting the policy with an important role in stabilising the American economy'. And, in conclusion, governments, and presumably, central banks, should be cautious, 'all too often, however, they have failed to heed Friedman’s admonition against “assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can ­perform, asking it to achieve tasks it cannot achieve, and, as a result, preventing it from making the contribution it is capable of ­making”.  Or, as Friedman used say more pithily: 'Monetary policy cannot serve two masters'.

To return to Mr Ergas; 'the “unconventional” measures the Fed is bringing to an end may become an object lesson in the costs ignoring that warning can impose'.  More here. 

Henry's collected recent advice on  Monetary policy is available here.


Henry's Kultural Komissar, Fiona Prior, has travelled to Java.

I have not been to Indonesia for almost a decade ... definitely not since the Bali bombings and I was looking forward to discovering Java, an island I knew very little about except that it housed an ancient Buddhist temple of which my school art teacher had enthusiastically spoken.

Transporter God Garuda

A whiff of a clove cigarette at Denpasar airport accompanied the transition to my Yogyakarta flight. On arrival I sadly noted the rituals of post-terrorism Indonesia, as each time my driver pulled up at our hotel or any major public/tourist destination a long stick with a mirror attached to its end was walked round the car to detect attached explosives.

Read on here.

Footy'n'cricket'n stuff

What a catastrophe.  On a dead pitch, even Mitch Johnson can't put a batter, or preferable two, out of the game.  The formerly hapless Pakistani team is putting Australia to the sword. After scoring almost 600 for 6, the Pakistanis declared and snared the wicket of nightwatchman Nathan Lyon.  Personally, I blame australia's mothers. Don (Bradman), Jeff (Thompson), Dennis (Lillee), Ricky (Ponting), the list of good old aussie scrappers goes on. 'Nathan, move a few inches to the left, if you don't mind', is unlikely to scare the batter as much as 'Rip into the bas**rd, your b**tard', once would have unsettled the nice lads from Karachi.

Shane (Warne) set the new trend of Superstars with, in his case, only slightly sus first name. But 'Nathan'?  Mrs Lyon has a lot to answer for, as do Mothers who call their kids Trent, Jeremy, Fortesque, ... and other 'modern' names. Fill in your favourite first name.

In Footy, ASADA is still poised to pounce, but seem to lack the guts, or evidence, to do so.  Here is a modest suggestion. The Napthine government should pass a law, or promulgate a regulation, that asserts if ASADA fails to pounce by November 1 its all over.  Oooops, I meant November 4, by which time every one will be focussed on the Cup.  While they are at it, Mr Nahthine might ban foreign horses from The Cup. Either new policy would put the state Libs back in the election race.  Both would make an election win a dead cert.

Image of the week

Courtesy The Oz


Easy money and inequality
Date: Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Rupert Murdoch has greatly contributed to the debate on the world's currently uncontrollable asset inflation. In a recent speech to the G20 finance ministers, he blamed asset inflation on money printing in the guise of 'quantitative easing'. He noted, according to Paul Kelly's report in The Australian, that this was the cause of widespread asset inflation. Most importantly, he noted that the net effect of this was to make rich people much richer, and therefore made income disparity far greater.

This is a consequence of overly easy money that is vital for the stability of modern capitalism. Zero interest rates and massive 'quantitative easing' has greatly inflated asset prices. This has made rich people richer, and has little benefit for ordinary people. The great thinkers, including Keynes and Marx, have seen excessive inequality as likely to damage, even destroy, capitalism. So, even without factoring in the likely (serious) economic consequences of withdrawing excessive monetary stimulus, there is a serious issue awaiting resolution.

This is an issue that should provoke widespread interest in the question about the causes and consequences of asset inflation that is not generally even debated in academic circles.(Macoeconomics is a largely overlooked subject in academic circles, being too hard for most economists.)  However, Mr Murdoch's speech is likely to have wide ramifications in the real world.

Today The Australian has continued the debate, courtesy Adam Creighton, who asserts that 'Economic elite back Rupert Murdoch’s inequality fears'. Henry acknowledges his editor's appearance in Adam's list of local economic gurus but believes concern at growing inequality within the rich nations is, or should be, a concern to economic thinkers everywhere. For the academic end of this debate, you need go no further than the much discussed work of Thomas Piketty.

But now for Adam's contribution: 'VETERAN Reserve Bank economist Peter Jonson cheered yesterday when he read Rupert Murdoch had warned G20 ¬finance ministers that money printing by central banks had exacerbated inequality and fanned discontent with the global economic system.

'Mr Jonson, a Reserve Bank economist for 16 years and the former Henry Thornton columnist for The Australian, said he had been worried for years that so-called quantitative easing (QE) had benefited the rich by artificially boosting share and property prices. {NB - two typos corrected.}

' “Mr Murdoch has made the absolutely valid point that QE has done really nothing or very little for ordinary people,” said Mr Jonson, the bank’s head of research for seven years in the 1980s'.  ...

'Bob Gregory, professor of economics at ANU and a former Reserve Bank board member, said Mr Murdoch was “completely right: QE is causing rising asset prices and growing inequality, but the harder question is what should central banks do now, and what should they have done then after the financial crisis”.

' “The intellectual underpinning of QE is a kind of ‘trickle down’ economics whereby the rich feel richer and spend more,” he said, suggesting the policies would eventually stoke inflation in consumer prices as well as asset prices'.

The answer to Bob Gregory’s question – what to do about it – is that we never should have gotten into the situation we are in.

Having got there, we must take our medicine.  Ending QE will presumably remove some of the excess asset fiz, and raising interest rates will remove some more.

If the beneficiaries of the great asset boom are lucky, they will end up net net better than they would have been but not nearly so rich as they are now.  (If the smart, or merely lucky, ones bail out at the right time, they will remain rich.)

This will be what it will be.  The real lesson to not let it happen again. That's where macroprudential policies fit in.

But I am reminded of a comment John Howard once made: ‘No-one complains to me that the price of his house has gone up’.

Continuing with Adam Creighton: 'A new study by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research written by eminent tax economist Emmanuel Saez, released on Monday, found the rise in wealth inequality in the US is “almost entirely due to the rise of the top 0.1 per cent wealth share”, noting that share had grown from 7 per cent in 1979 to 22 per cent in 2012 — a level almost as high as in 1929. “The bottom 90 per cent wealth share first increased up to the mid-1980s and then steadily declined.

' “The increase in wealth concentration is due to the surge of top incomes,” the authors said' .  ...

'Joe Hockey agreed that “loose monetary policy has helped people who own a lot of assets to become richer, and that is why loose monetary policy needs to be reversed over time and will get back to normal levels of monetary policy.”

'Labor Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen welcomed Mr Murdoch’s remarks, especially for their contribution to a growing debate about rising global inequality'.

Alan Kohler has also weighed in with some analysis of the  history of inequality. His headline is 'Roots of imbalance sown in the Reagan era', and he asks 'Are we seeing a return to the time when middle classes didn't exist?'

Henry is keen to foster debate on this vital issue. If you wish to contribute, contact Henry here.


Economic progress and risks
Date: Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

There are some welcome developments in economic management. The Prime minister has put Commonwealth-State relations on the agenda, which has widely been interpreted as implying a broadening and/or widening of the GST. As Mr Abbott said, the real issue is deciding which level of government does what and cutting out the overlaps, double guessing and double regulating.

This will save money but, if done thoroughly, there would be wider benefits.  Shared responsibility is no responsibility, and allowing states to have sole control over specified functions would make for far clearer lines of responsibility. There would also be opportunity for states to offer competition. For example, a particular state might opt for more technical training and less production of excess lawyers, economists and experts in gender studies.

Another good sign is that labor costs are now growing more slowly than for a long time.  Provided this can be maintained as the currency devalues, it might make a useful contribution to making Australian industry more internationally competitive. There is also the project of killing unnecessary regulation, and if we can get really serious about this, it will also be helpful. I worry that our international competitiveness is so compromised that best realistic endeavours shall not be enough, but I hope I am wrong.  Failure to boost competitiveness strongly is the biggest risk facing our economic well being.

The second biggest risk is failure to fix the budget.  I think Labor would be sensible to stop playing doggie in the manger and say they oppose various budgetary measures but they will wave them through so that the budget can be fixed.  If the side effects are excessively horrific, or if the budget is not fixed, one would expect the government's popularity to plunge. Ergo, Labor reelected with a reputation for allowing the voters to have their say.

A third risk, far harder to deal with, is rising inequality. This has been greatly exacerbated by the super-easy monetary policy since the GFC. Many great thinkers, including Keynes and Marx, have seen excessive inequality as putting capitalism at risk. Rupert Murdoch has put this issue squarely on the global agenda with a speech at a meeting of G20 Finance ministers. How leaders respond will be vital, but even removing excessive monetary policy ease will be a major challenge to the stability of the global economy.

The next biggest risk to Australia's prosperity concerns the state of the world economy. As Larry Summers has concluded, high growth, especially in authoritarian nations, can and usually does end badly with a return to global average growth.  A dramatic slowdown in China and/or India would hit hard a world economy that is already struggling to recover from the severe recession induced by the GFC.  There is another iron law of economics, which is that nations with large debts, private plus public, take a long time to recover.  Think Japan after its asset bust in 1989/90. And this was the first 'miracle economy' of the modern era.

Some will say Australia was also a 'miracle economy', and so it seemed at the time.  With current policies, Australia is adding a mountain of government to debt to everests of household debt and company debt. This comes at a time when our cost structures are out of whack and there are growing doubts about the likely strength of global growth, and some chance that the Chindia boom will slow severely, even if there is no bust to follow the boom.

What would you do if your household had built a debt mountain and priced itself out of the market, gentle readers?

Sunday Sanity Break, 26 October 2014
Date: Sunday, October 26, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

The most reliable measure of above average growth is spending on research and development (R&D.) Spending on 'commercialisation' or, more generally 'innovation' is also vital, as shown by the experience of Israel and Singapore.  And will be further evidence as China embraces innovation. Henry's pleas about this matter are available here. But high level help is at hand. 

To its credit, The Oz is running a series called Innovation Challenge.  As well as case studies, the Oz is providing opinion. This weekend's opinion piece is by master entrepreneur, Alan Finkel, 'Why closer ties with industry is needed'.

We have ridden on the sheep's back, profited greatly from the activities of gold prospectors and hitched a ride in the cabin of iron ore trucks. But collaboration between Australian industry and research institutes like CSIRO and our great research universities is the weakest in the OECD area.

And there is less government funding of business-relevant research in Australia than in any OECD nation than Mexico.

Alan Finkel predicts us slipping to last now that Commercialisation Australia funding has been junked and the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program is under threat. He notes the new Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda (including the new Growth Centres program) is expected to redress the situation, at least to some degree.

More on prospects for growth here.

Dealing with fundamentalist terror

A constant theme is summed up as follows: 'SECURITY agencies fear Australian jihadists may have used the ­recent Hajj pilgrimage as a cover to leave the country to fight for ­Islamic State and other terror groups in Syria'.

And: 'Tony Abbott yesterday defended the policy of cancelling the passports of would-be fighters, despite claims that this might increase the likelihood of those people launching attacks in Australia. “What we don’t want is people coming back more capable of doing us harm than they were before they left. Going overseas brutalises them, it militarises them, it gives them far more capacity to do us harm then they had before they left,” the Prime Minister said'.

My question is this.  Why would it not be better to let suspected terrorists leave and, 24 or 48 hours later, cancel their passports?  If such people wanted to return, they could provide an explanation of where they went and why. If this failed to satisfy immigration authorities, they would become stateless and would have to remain with their fundamentalist mates in Iraq and Styria.


Caaaarlton! seems still in limbo on the trading market.  ASADA 'refuses to be rushed' in issuing 'show cause' notices to Essendon or ex-Essendon players. Henry resolutely believes Essendon and other clubs using banned or unknown drugs or supplements should suffer harsh penalties. But Gor Blimey, Comrades, how long can this be allowed to be dragged out? ASADA failed to require Steven Dank to give evidence. Now they fiddle while the reputations of Essendon and its players are trashed. How long can they be allowed to dither? Act or get off the pot, supposed guardians of a fair go in sport.

Meanwhile, Australia's world standard cricket team is being belted by Pakistan. 'Just what we needed to get rid of the cobwebs' someone in authority will presumably say. Sigh!

Henry's epic crossing the Nullarbor is over.  Here are links to his three trip reports.


Crossing the Nullarbor  

The Barossa  

Image of the week

Vale Gough Whitlam; and issues for economic growth
Date: Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

We salute the life of Gough Whitlam, 98 good years for a great Australian. Flawed, like the rest of us, but a visionary leader who gave hope to the battlers and helped to create a better deal for women, indigenous Australians, bright kids from battler families, ill Australians and improved Australia's international image with his early recognition of China.

Economics was Mr Whitlam's great flaw. 'His weakness was inability to tell a million from a billion' said one of his loyal supporters. Trouble with social reform is that it costs real money, and more generous welfare or premature wage increases can blunt incentives and cost jobs..

It was Time, as the slogan (and the song) said, but we got too much too fast.

Greetings from Port Lincoln, gentle readers. From Port Lincoln, after crossing the Nullarbor, Henry reported in the  style of Jack Kerouac. Available here.

Brilliant landscape, with lots of painting ideas.

Totally missed the weekend papers, but got a free Monday Australian at hotel here to catch up. Plus a special newspaper at Port Lincoln tourist info specially for Seniors. 'Leave our pensions alone' was the headline.

Heard of new Growth Centre ideas before leaving. Sounds like an innovative new way to get university researchers to work with businesses, focussing on areas where Australia has already achieved global high standard, or needs to do so.

This is sometimes derided as 'picking winners' but Henry's view it should more sensibly be described as 'supporting winners'. The world economy is more competitive than ever, and we need to focus on things we already do well.

The examples provided by the government include:

* The food and agribusiness Centre may assist food manufacturers to work with packaging companies and researchers to consider packaging solutions to extend the shelf life of products, especially into regional export markets where the lack of refrigeration is a problem.

* The mining equipment, technology and services (METS) Centre may identify global market opportunities to enable establishment of METS consortiums to target opportunities with product and service export packages and access to information on global supply chains.

* Through the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals Centre, businesses may be assisted to identify new opportunities through linking with medical device and materials researchers to develop new biomedical devices and platform technologies to improve health outcomes and business profitability.

* The advanced manufacturing Centre may bring together researchers and small chemical manufacturers to enable them to adopt new chemical flow and carbon fibre technology, in turn allowing them to develop new, low cost chemical products which are competitive with those produced overseas.

* The oil, gas and energy resources Centre may assist businesses to lower costs through greater collaboration, better sharing of infrastructure and logistics support (especially on remote projects), greater development and uptake of new technology and innovation, and improved planning across all areas of the resources value chain.

More information here.

Economic growth.

David Uren delivered a very interesting discussion in Monday's Oz. He reports on a study led by Larry Summers, former US Treasury Secretary, now practicing economics at Harvard.  In summary: 'The history of countries enjoying rapid growth is that they return to the global average, usually very rapidly'.

It is always possible to assert 'this time its different', but in my view the sort of historical experience like that investigated by Summers et al is the best guide to future economic developments.

If this universal law - 'regression to the mean' - applies to China and India, the future will be far rougher than the past decade has been for Australia.

This possibility should give us added impetus to fix the budget and get on with some serious economic reform.  Please, political heirs of the visionary Gough Whitlam, buckle down and let the government do their best. In my view, this will give you the best chance to again govern, and it will be a far stronger country when your turn comes again.

The bipartisan tributes to Gough and Margaret Whitlam today show parliament  at its best.  Being constructive about economic policy would lift the tone and outcomes greatly.

Sunday Sanity Break, 19/10/2014
Date: Sunday, October 19, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton (In Ceduna)

Growing inequality is damaging the USA, and especially its great tradition of equality of opportunity. This is unsustainable said US Fed Chairperson Janet Yellen on ABC TV yestertoday. (Or words to this effect.) Can it be very different here, gentle readers?

A simple google search provided access to the entire speech. Here is the summary paragraph.

 'The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then.2 It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity'.

The dread disease of Ebola is racing ahead, and experts are warning that soon it may become a global pandemic.  The isolated cases in developed nations show the risk, as does the upward curve of deaths in Africa. Henry has been told that in principle a vaccine should be possible, but none has been developed because poor Africans cannot afford to meet their cost.  Inequality is not just an American challenge.

Henry has spent the night in Norseman.  This is a typical declining rural town, that reminded Mrs Thotnton of her ancestral town of Boggabri in Northern NSW. Here the ratio of closed to open shops is far higher to that in Kalgoorlie, about 70 % we guess.  Talk at the bar before dinner revealed that two out of three gold mines in the vicinity of Norseman are closed, reflecting high costs and a generally falling price of gold. Henry's travelling companion, a former mining mogul, offered the view that most of Australia's gold mines were at the 90 th decile of costs.  Henry's report on the Super Pit in Kalgoorlie is available here.

Henry's visit to Kalgoorlie is reported here. Next post covers the crossing of the Nullarbor.


Australia's cricket team whitewashed the pride of Pakistan in Quatar, or some similarly strange cricket powerhouse. The final over was a ripper, with Pakistan failing to score the two runs needed to win.  Great work, men.

Last night, like lambs to the slaughter, the Aussie Rugger bu**ers faced the mighty All Blacks. As we said: 'A win would be glorious, a draw would be wonderful but a thrashing would not be unsurprising'. Sadly, there was a near win, but the coach fell on his sword. Smart man.

This is the dead time for sport in the Thornton household, with only the footy trading to relieve the boredom. Essendon is letting go players likely to be banned in return for other players who will not be banned.  Caaaarlton! has let Waite go, and have traded Jeff Garlett and it said to have fired Mitch Robinson. Hard to see how we can do better next year, Mighty Mick.

Henry, Mrs T and the Mining Mogul have travelled the mighty Nullarbor and report in from Ceduna.  Nice hotel motel on the waterfront, but no internet connection, decent TV or newspapers anywhere.  It will be better tomorrow.

Image of the week

Global finance - `anomalies` and `dangerous combination[s]`
Date: Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

There are 'a number of anomalies present in financial markets in terms of pricing and volatility. There are also some misplaced perceptions amongst market participants about the degree of liquidity present in some market segments. That strikes me as a dangerous combination and unlikely to be resolved smoothly'.

This is the conclusion of a speech by Guy Debelle, RBA Assistant Governor (Financial Markets). The speech is called Volatility and Market Pricing, and is worth reading carefully.

It can be accessed here

Henry is escaping all this to visit the arid delights of the road across the Nullarbor from Perth to Adelaide. Having listened recently to an expert on feral cats, we shall not be camping out, but hunkering down in whatever motels we can find.

Be assured Henry shall be monitoring the global markets and domestic politics as well as checking the wildlife, indigenous and imported alike. But transmission may be intermittant.

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