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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
The age of restraint
Date: Friday, December 05, 2008
Author: Henry Thornton

We may come to call this the age of restraint.


Retailers are going broke, boomtime financiers are in deep trouble, car sales and housing approvals are plummeting, manufacturing activity is plunging, business investment intentions are cooling.


All of these comments apply to Australia, previously described (perhaps with deep irony) as 'the miracle economy' or 'the nirvana economy'.


They apply with even greater force to most other economies.


The euphoria of last week in equity markets is long gone, and the correction of asset values goes on despite massive interest rate cuts and promised fiscal expansion.


From the USA comes the latest gloomy bulletin: 'General Motors acted as a hefty drag on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, falling US79 cents, or 16 per cent, to 4.11 after the company's chief executive told lawmakers that sales of GM vehicles have already begun to dip because of speculation that the company is on the verge of bankruptcy.


'The Senate hearing appeared to leave plenty of doubt about whether the auto maker will get the government loans it seeks to avoid collapsing in coming weeks. Ford, which says it doesn't need immediate aid, lost US19c, or 6.7 per cent, to $US2.66.


'Overall, the Dow lost 215.45, or 2.51 per cent, to 8376.24. The broad S&P 500 index fell 25.52 points, or 2.93 per cent, to 845.22. The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite declined 46.82 points, or 3.14 per cent, to 1445.56.


And in global commodity markets: 'Oil prices tumbled 6.7 per cent to settle below $US44 a barrel, hitting their lowest point since January 2005, as traders ratcheted up their bets that fuel usage will suffer a steep pullback in the months ahead'.


The Economist explains why the plunging price of oil may not be all good news.


'The price of oil would ideally reflect not only its demand and supply but take into account the damage that its use inflicts on the environment. But when oil is cheap, the hard decisions about investing in alternatives, inventing more energy-efficient plants and machinery, or changing consumer behaviour, all of which would help the world can wean itself off oil, become that much easier to postpone'.


Meanwhile, in the land of Oz, the Rudd government reportedly is going soft on its much heralded emissions trading scheme.


Clearly hard times call for a softer approach, but if climate change is the catastrophe we are led to believe, just maybe we should be tightening belts another notch and getting on with saving the planet.


Henry ventures the judgment that the only way to do this is to change the habits of a century and think 'restraint' rather than consumerism and over-stimulated growth.


We have become used to buying houses with no equity ('subprime borrowing'), buying expensive consumer goods with credit cards or with greatly delayed payment and generally expecting instant or even premature rather than delayed gratification.


Henry recalls companies he has tried to help setting growth targets of 20 %, even in mature industries where growing at the economy average of, say, 5 to 8 % might be considered heroic.


Maybe the massive cuts in equity values are reflecting sober realisation that the world has changed and it will be sensible restraint rather than unsustainable expansionism that will be valued in the twenty-first century.


There is a more general reason to consider the benefits of restraint.


What if massive interest rate cuts and fiscal expansion turn out to be like 'pushing on a string'?


This is clearly possible if businesses and consumers decide to save any windfalls and/or to pay off debt rather than resume the spending habits of a lifetime.


People might just read the unusual actions of central banks and governments as indicating panic, and this might lead them to tighten belts even more than if policy was not so obviously trying to restore business as usual.


In the immediate aftermath of the current crisis, this seems to be many people's plan.  Whether the philosophy of restraint survives the recovery that will come, whether or not it is actually helped by current policy actions, is the big question.


We may be living through one of the global culture's great turning points.




Gliding toward global crisis
Date: Wednesday, March 02, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

Last week's G20 meeting was reportedly a gloomy affair.  The IMF has been revising its forecasts down for some time, and has reached global growth below 3 %, some think 'recession' territory. Value of world trade fell in 2015 by 13.8 %, and 'Baltic Dry' index of shipping costs is  at a very low level. (See graph below.) Ed Conway of The Times says: 'At worst, we are sliding towards a global slump.  At best, this has become a limp, lifeless recovery ...'.  (Available on P10 of The Australian today.)


At the G20 meeting the central bankers 'hinted' that monetary policy could do no more, and the Germans rejected the idea that the world could spend its way out of trouble. Ed Conway reprises the cause of the crisis: 'A financial crisis that began in the US spread to Europe, where it caused a secondary banking and economic crisis before fanning out across the globe. Mass unemployment, especially in Europe, collapsing trade volumes, competitive devaluations, rising extremism and growing dissatisfaction with the ruling classes, who meant well but couldn't find a way out'.  If you are of an historical set of mind, all this should remind you of the 1930s.


 I said in the final chapter of Great Crises of Capitalism, written in 2010: 'The biggest threat to modern capitalism in my view is the possibility of instability caused by policy swings: expansion; recovery; asset inflation; goods inflation; policy tightens; economy falls back; recession starting the whole process anew. Such outcomes would destabilise the beliefs of the econocrats in major countries, as well as their political masters. It would also present a severe blow to the confidence of households and firms, and confidence is a vital part of the capitalist way'.


Ed Conway now sees a real possibility of a 'lurch back into depression', as in the late 1930s. He observes that the world total global indebtedness 'has never been as high as it is now'. At some point, a large chunk of this debt will need to be written off. But debt is so high because of sustained near-zero interest rates, which is a deeper reason for current woes. So is the divergence of ownership of debt - China and other 'new economy' nations financing the debt of profligate Western nations.


Former Bank of England chief, Mervyn King, has written a book called The End of Alchemy. Ed Conway reports that Mr King says the cocktail of low interest rate, high debt levels and its gross misallocation 'makes another crisis inevitable'. The solution, if a solution is possible, lies in greater international cooperation.  China and Germany need to spend more, the USA and UK need to invest more.  There needs to be international agreement to reshape debt burdens and a new international deal to reshape the global monetary system.


'But even as we glide towards another crisis, the impetus for multilateral deals is dying'.



Saturday Sanity Break, 27 February 2016.
Date: Saturday, February 27, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

What a weekend.  John Howard comes out to play, regretting the lack of an economic policy that promotes serious tax and IR reform.  As we all do, dear sir, but it is comforting to have your support.  And on Friday, KPMG boss, Peter Nash, regretted the Turnbull government’s ‘debacle’ on tax reform.  The report, in Friday’s AFR, says: ‘Tax experts say changes that raise the rate of the GST to pay for company tax and income tax cuts would deliver the biggest boost to growth but are unpopular …’.  


And Tony Abbott joins the debate. While this is an acceptable defence of his government’s failed attempts to fix massive economic problems, he provides a key judgment about fiscal policy that I have rarely been said by politician or economist, but is almost certainly correct: ‘Nearly two years on from the 2014 budget, getting spending down remains the critical issue. Contrary to Keynesian orthodoxy, as recent UK experience suggests, reducing deficits is the key to increasing private sector confidence and unlocking more prosperity. It’s also the key to tax reform because, without lower spending, any tax changes must either increase the overall tax burden or increase the budget deficit.’  Read on here, or here if you do not subscribe to the Australian.


Friends and colleagues are uniformly appalled by the approach of the Turnbull government to the issues canvassed by Tony Abbott.  Clearly the party is deeply divided and the carnage will be unprecedented if Mr Turnbull loses the coming election.
One assumes the idea is to win with relatively benign tax and welfare policies and if he wins, go for it in the first budget after that.  But in the meantime, the GST increase having been ruled out, the spending cuts necessary to avoid the horrible anti-growth income tax increases due to bracket creep will be just impossible to achieve.


Is has sometimes said that the Fraser government was policy-shy because of the unorthodox manner of its win over the Whitlam government.  Could we be seeing a strange version of guilt blockage again?


Global warming


‘The global average temperature is likely to remain unchanged by the end of the century, contrary to predictions of climate scientists that they could rise by more than 4C’ says a leading statistician, Professor Terence Mills of Loughborough University.


Professor Mills ‘used simple statistical methods, normally used to predict economic trends, to forecast future temperatures’. (His data base started in 1850, whereas ‘Climate Scientists ‘tend to focus on the period from 1975 – 98, when temperatures rose by 0.5C.)
Read on here.  And here is a report of a more cosmic approach.


Kulture


Fiona Prior sees Oscar nominee for Best Film Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight: 'I believe everyone knows that Spotlight centres on the Boston Globe’s landmark 2002 exposure of widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area. The Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for the story...'  More here


*****************


Are other readers as angry as Henry and Mrs T over the proliferation of adds for gambling on the boxes of Australia?  While gambling can be seen as a precuser of entrepreneurial activity, surely in all seriousness encouraging gambling is just stupid.  Like Bill Shorten’s plans to massively increase tax on smoking, let’s greatly add to the government’s coffers by slapping a GST of 50 % on gambling turnover.


Cricket’n’footy’n’stuff


The extended cricket season is over after a gritty win against McCallum’s Black Caps. The gutsy NZers always fight hard, as we learned first at Gallipoli but have seen many times since.  Even their 15 % GST was introduced a nary a grumble and the NZ economy is doing at least as well as ours despite lacking massive resource bases and other benefits of life as a ‘lucky country’.
Now the footy season can begin.  Sunday’s NAB Cup game against the downtrodden Essendon looms as a danger game for Caaaarlton!  Last year’s best and fairest player, Patrick Cripps is out with a bruised knee and aging stars Walker and Murphy have not yet fully recovered from shoulder surgery.  


Australia’s defence white paper has finally emerged and is reported to have left China ‘dissatisfied’. Costs will be a massive $145 billion over ten years.  Still small voices around Australia bewail the emphasis on large boats and submarines, which according to some are very easy to find and destroy. Henry hopes that the mighty CSIRO is researching some sort of dread disease, which Australians can be inoculated against, that attacks with devastating effect anyone who steps on out sacred soil without the necessary jab at an official immigration post.


Image of the week



Courtesy Herald Sun


Global policy gridlock
Date: Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

The currency wars continue - Europe and Japan cutting rates below zero; China is in strife as it attempts to pivot to consumerism; America attempting to move slowly toward normality but now its monetary Chief, Janet Yellen is hinting that a stalling economy may stay her hand. The worry is that large deficits and already easy money leaves little room to move. Are the global policy-makers 'out of ammo?' the Economist asks this week.


The venerable mag asserts the 'faith in monetary policy is wavering'.  This loss of faith is as good a reason as any for depressed Animal Spirits producing market volatility and losses in values of share portfolios.  But more generally, there is loss of faith in the ability of governments to restore strong growth. The most worrying example is Japan. After its massive asset crash in 1989 and 1990 it has struggled to produce any growth, and an aging population is a further core reason for poor economic performance.  The western world suffered a substantial asset crash in 2007 and 2008 which produced dramatic cuts to cash rates of interest, bailouts of failing financial institutions and fiscal expansion just about everywhere.


Most developed nations are also suffering slow or even negative population growth, hardly a reason for cheerful investors or powerful investment plans.


While many governments are struggling to restore fiscal discipline, such actions run counter to the extreme ease of monetary policy.  The ever optimistic Economist says governments are not powerless.  Sensible infrastructure programs would create jobs and raise national productivity.  So would 'economic reform', and many economists would if asked line up to present their agendas. Slashing bloated bundles of red tape could also help create growth as (in theory) would the streams of immigrants from the Middle East into Europe or Mexicans into the USA.  Trouble is, timid governments avoid policy agendas, governments are usually not so good at picking effective infrastructure projects, and refugees are not always job ready, or even culturally ready.


In any case, says the mag, politicians 'are weak and too quarrelsome to act'. The outlook for effective political leadership is bleak. 'America's political establishment is riven;  Japan's politicians are too timid to confront lobbies; and the euro area seems institutionally incapable of uniting around new policies'.


Perhaps, as the Economist says, 'a full blown crisis will force action' upon timid pollies. But this is by no means certain. 'Behind the worry that central banks can no longer exert control is an even deeper fear. It is that the liberal, centrist politicians are not up to the job'.


The full article is available here.


There are useful supporting articles, especially 'Slight of hand' on p 65.  If you do not subscribe, the edition of 20-26 will be readily available and is well worth the price.


And here is a useful article on the issue of negative interest rates, now in place in half-a-dozen nations.


Saturday Sanity Break, 20 February 2016
Date: Saturday, February 20, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

It will be long, and it will be hard, like a test match of infinite duration on a flat pitch against boring bowlers.  Reminds one of the good old days before the Big Bash and before even the ODI was invented, with Scott Morrison as Bill Lawry and Malcolm as Richie Benaud.  The bowlers are the dullest of pommie trundlers, whose modern political counterparts are Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen, with the odd over from Tanya Plibersek. Looks like a boring season, with no Warners, or Voges or Khawajas on the home side and no demon quicks or cunning twisters among the visiting ranks.


Still, it will be one for the serious fan, Australia’s political tragics. Niki Savva reminded us all this week that Cap’n Turnbull has only to appeal to the centre of Australian voters to hold his place. Around the world – in the USA and UK at least - the ‘progressive’ parties are moving to the left while at least in the USA the less progressive side seems by the evidence of the success so far of Messrs Trump and Cruz to be well to the right.  Mr Shorten’s espousal of government spending and continue growth of Australia’s national debt gives him a renewed place among the lefties – Jim Cairns rather that Paul Keating.


But I digress. As Niki put it: ‘Malcolm Turnbull will succeed as Prime Minister of the Coalition government if he follows to the letter the prescription he articulated so well before Monday’s partyroom meeting.


‘Everything he said he would do, or that needs to be done, is the opposite of what occurred under Tony Abbott’s rule, which ultimately led to the latter’s ruin. Proper cabinet processes have to be restored; a competent energetic frontbench has to be put in place; consultation must occur within an infinite circle; respect has to be shown by the leader, his staff and all other staff towards all MPs regardless of their views; a decent communications strategy has to be applied, with the right personnel running it, ensuring policies are properly explained from inception to execution’.


Here is a link to Niki’s regular contributions.

From where Henry sits as a (self-funded) almost ‘retired’ (from making money) person it seems sad that Australia’s current economic woes cannot be fixed a bit faster and more decisively.  More like the cricketing era of Ian Chappell or Ricky Ponting, or perhaps the era of Steve Smith we are entering.  Still, if the major parties combine to get rid of the policy-free zones that represent such a blocking force in the Senate, or if Cap’n Turnbull remains popular and wins a double dissolution election, faster and more decisive remedial action may be possible.


Economy and markets


Global experts reported in an insert to Friday’s Oz, ‘including two Nobel laureates’ are generally gloomy about the state of global economies. Eugene Fama says: ‘China will hit a wall, or explode, unless they figure out how to make their political system much more open’. The author of this fascinating compilation, Adam Creighton, concludes by bewailing the state of economics: ‘mainstream economists’ comprehensive failure to foresee the financial crisis has burst the discipline’s pretence to a uniquely privileged into how the world works’.


Judging by Friday’s Fin, however, professional investors have overtaken the disappointing economists. “Time to buy shares’ was the big message, obviously a mistake if the twelve eminent economists’ gloom about the global economy is correct.


Henry remains in the camp of the gloomsters.


Kulture


Fiona Prior visits the colourful artist Grayson Perry's exhibition My Pretty Little Art Career at Sydney's MCA.
"As you walk into the Grayson Perry exhibition, over a giant, golden teddy bear on the MCA’s stairway, then into the lifts with “My Pretty Little Art Career” graffiti, then into Grayson’s installed works on level three ‒ vast in scope and ranging from vibrant ceramics, to intricate silk embroidery, to oversized tapestries, to frocks, sketchbooks, videos … all in alluring splashes and squiggles of vibrant colours ‒ you think ‘Oh my God how gorgeous!’
 
Get up closer and you just think ‘Oh my God!’ as some of the details on the works reveal themselves as phalluses and fetishized scenes, or intricate maps (somewhat like a Tolkien rendition of Middle Earth) revealing carnage as every minority group from non-smokers through Catholics, through to homosexuals, through to the Royal family is bombing the hell out of everyone else’s minority settlement. In short, you realise Perry’s work is highly political. More here


And what about the stupidity of trying to tax backpackers? Two readers point it out, short and sweet.

Cricket’n’footy’n’stuff.


In the real world of sport, Australia started well in its task of farewelling Brendon McCallum with another good thrashing, at least until McCallum himself came to the crease and began to hit the bowlers over or into the ropes   with gay abandon.


Friday night Caaarlton!’s largely new, very young players took on the might of the Threepeat premiers and we prayed in advance that the decimation would not be too brutal. In the event, the Hawkes were kind and the newBlues lost by only 21 points. Actually it was a low scoring game and Caaaaarlton! scored most of its points in the first quarter. Report here.


Image of the week


To be posted in the meantime, see Nicholson on p 37 of the weekend Oz


Saturday Sanity Break, 13 February 2016
Date: Saturday, February 13, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

It seems that the economic case for substantial cuts to income tax funded by a rise in the rate of the GST is insufficiently large to be worth pursuing. While we are not privy to the evidence on this matter, one might have thought that a higher GST discouraging consumption (after compensating those people in genuine need) with income tax cuts providing greater incentive to work and to invest would provide some net stimulus to growth.


Cutting welfare entitlements would also boost efforts to work and to save for old age but will of course be agonisingly difficult as Joe Hockey's call for an end to the age of entitlement seems to have been lost with its lack of selling and his move to Washington.


Meanwhile the deeper thinkers are beginning to conclude that the western world is facing a long period of slow growth.  Aging populations, entrenched unfunded welfare entitlements, the steady rise of corporate and government debt, the shock to Animal Spirits from the GFC and the apparent onset of a bear global market in equities will all act to stifle growth.  Bold governments may by economic reform including a focus on innovation provide a countervailing force, but Henry advises readers not to rely on such initiatives coming to your nation, state or local council. 


Politics


Planned retirements and effective sackings have allowed a  bold reshuffle to refresh the government's ranks. More women and younger blokes in cabinet and promotion of some highly competent new ministers and assistant ministers all improve the talent base. Warren Truss and Andrew Robb will be missed, while Barnaby Joyce and Steve Ciobo will bring fresh faces and feet in large shoes.  Fiona Nash, newly elected Deputy leader of the Nats, provides a breath of fresh air to a party previously largely associated with rather elderly males.


Bill Shorten continues to sneer at any effort of the Turnbull government and having seen off (as he sees it) any thought of a higher rate of GST now offers in addition to a general tendency to soak the rich a limit on negative gearing and a reduction to one quarter to the discount on income tax for capital gains.  Great way to discourage entrepreneurial flair, Mr Shorten.


If you are deeply frustrated by local politics and puzzled by the state of American politics, here is the gold standard of politics - President Ronald Reagan's finest moments.


Kulture


Henry and Mrs T were treated last week to preview showing of a delightful movie called Brooklyn. Reflecting as it does on the difficulties of a mixed (in terms of national origin of participants) marriage it will provide food for thought in today's highly mobile young people.
Here is a link to the trailer.


Fiona Prior sees the Oscar nominated Carol featuring Cate Blanchett.


"I must admit that I am Cate Blanchett-saturated and it was only at the wish of a dear friend that we went to see Carol, one of Cate Blanchett’s latest cinematic triumphs! The result of this excursion was that both the film and my friend had me viewing Ms Blanchett and her work from an entirely different perspective, a complete ‘zoom out’ from my usual position. More here.



Cricket'n'footy'n'stuff.


Steve Smith won the toss and invited the brave black caps to bat on a pitch tinged with green. Just as well that Mitch Johnson and Mitch Stark were not bowling but their replacements played well and got the job done. Then our brave openers staged a mini-collapse but Capn Steve, Usman Khawaja (who earlier took a spectacular boundary catch) and Adam Voges (who survived due to an 'horrific' umpiring decision) settled in to build a large lead by the end of day two.


Soon footy will replace cricket in most households and this cannot come too soon for Henry. Not that he expects too much from Caaarlton! but he hopes they will at least lift themselves from the bottom of the ladder. Geelong are being promoted as the coming power, but Hawthorn, West Coast, Richmond and perhaps even Adelaide should make up half of the top spots in the 'eight'.  And, as someone once said, it is better to travel than to arrive.


Image of the week.



Courtesy The Oz


Saturday Sanity Break, 6 February 2016
Date: Saturday, February 06, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

Here's the thing. The government's line is that budget woes will be fixed by cutting spending. An increase in the rate at which GST is levied on the current narrow base is still in the frame but widening the base to include health and education seems very unlikely.  Any GST changes will be used just to increase the overall efficiency of tax collection and will involve rigorous focus on 'fairness'


The enthusiastic amateurs who hold the balance of power in the Senate are most unlikely to agree to any serious attempts to cut spending.  Previous Treasurers Keating and Costello have urged the current Treasurer to follow their heroic efforts and cut spending.  Neither seem prepared to recognise Senate obstructionism that will almost certainly frustrate efforts to fix the budget in the most desirable way.  Any changes to superannuation rules, except possibly the rational approach of allowing a 15 % lower income tax on contributions, will be chicken feed but will presumably pass the 'fairness' test.


How cuts to government spending on health, education, disabled people and other pensioners can possibly be regarded by a majority of Australians is yet to be explained. Older Australians will be strongly interested in increased efficiency of tax collection and especially cuts to income tax, despite reaching a point in their lives where income, except pension income, is likely to be severely curtailed. 


If they are taxed on their pension incomes, self-financed despite paying scandalously high income tax throughout a long period of earning, this will be grossly unfair.  But this idea will be rejected by Labor and the Greens, and current cross-bench Senators. This bundle of rationality-deniers will be highly vulnerable to a 'Save our Super' party.  Is there a (privately funded) pensioner of statue who will stand up for all the Seniors who do not rely on public funding of their retirement incomes?


Lots of discussion in the serious press about the dilemma facing Messrs Turnbull and Scott, and their colleagues. 


Will they take a punt of real reform and risk being dry-gulched by a last-minute change of Labor leader?  Hawkie is probably too Senior to run, but Paul Keating looks like he'd welcome another shot at the (refurbished) Lodge.


The US presidential race has begun and is looking most interesting for decades.  Can Hillary hold off Bernie, an engaging old socialist? Will the younger men send Mr Trump  back to property development?  Will Mr Bloomberg provide a moderate alternative to relatively radical likely to emerge from the big party pre-selections.  Greg Sheridan today provides a fine overview of the coming 'revolution in American politics.


The RBA has maintained its relatively cheers review of the global and Australian economy. Its main caveat is the China question - 'Is the Chinese economy in far worse shape that official Chinese and global (IMF, BIS, etc) views assume. 


Here is the RBA's new year's gift to all economists and economy-watchers. It should be read carefully and thoughtfully.


Kulture


Fiona Prior sees Room by director Lenny Abrahamson, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue.


I have never considered a movie a life changer until I viewed Room. This movie will have you riveted, so perfectly do ‘Ma’ (Brie Larson) and ‘Jack’ (Jacob Tremblay) introduce you to their world. That this world is a 10 foot by 10 foot room where Brie has been imprisoned since kidnapped as a school girl is the core of this movie. How Ma and Jack navigate their reality; her beloved Jack being the child of her own and her captor is the film’s exploration, and  we soon discover that Ma is  bringing up Jack to believe that ‘room’ is really all there is, and that nothing exists beyond its parameters … as you would. More here...


************************


A lawyer friend has been to see The Big Short.  Greatly enjoyed it, and sent the following link to an interview with the 'genius who predicted the whole mess'.


http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/12/big-short-genius-says-another-crisis-is-coming.html


Maybe Henry's 3 AM worries are not so silly after all.


 


Cricket'n'footy'n'tennis'n'stuff


The rampaging 'Black Caps' belted the Australian ODI team at Eden Park where apparently lies an immense hoodoo. With all the top batters failing, the current form batter, Usman Khawaja, has finally been given a chance. We wish him, and the team, better luck today.


Footy is mostly off the radar but Henry was buoyed to see young Patrick Cripps has been signed by Caaaarlton! until 2019.  Pity about all that talk about his future as a captain, but he's handled that ok.  Key Essendon players are appealing against their being booted out for a year as drug cheats.  The court is in Switzerland and the proceedings are in French so one wonders how the lads will cope.  'Pourquoi avez-vous déranger moi?' ( 'Why are you bothering me?') may well be the response of the Judge.


Great upset in the Women's final of the Aussie Open was the highlight after two weeks of vigorous grunting and growling. Serena was the popular finalist but Angelique Kerber won a lot of fans for a near perfect game and great persistence in the long points.  Also a large bucket of money. 


Biggest sporting story of the week was the government's threat to cut funding to sports that do not provide equal travel opportunities to women and men.  Ridiculous that in many cases women travel economy/premium economy while men travel business class. Game over male sports administrators!


(Belated) Image of the week.



Courtesy The Oz


The Unknown Universe
Date: Thursday, February 04, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

Astronomers believe that the Sun and other stars are nuclear furnaces. The Sun experiences times of great sunspot activity, solar flares that have fried the world’s electronic systems and times of relatively quiescent activity. This are the arresting facts summarised by one Stewart Clark in one of the ten chapters a fine book titled The Unknown Universe.


The book is a treasure trove of facts about the development of astronomy and physics. It is well written, engaging and tells its tales in a thinking person’s version of an exciting sci-fi novel.  Quite suddenly, I was captivated by a dip into the world’s climate cycles and understated advice on vital context for the debate on global warming.


I shall quote freely. ‘The only visible marks on the solar surface are sunspots’. Sometimes there are many and occasionally there are none. A German chemist named Heinrich Schwabe was encouraged to begin a study of the matter. He sold his business, purchased and set up a fine telescope and on every fine day he recorded the number of sunspots. (How Herr Schwabe lived is not recorded by Mr Clark.)


After around 15 years of patient and diligent recording he found a pattern of increasing numbers of sunspots from a low base, reaching a peak and then falling rapidly toward zero, the full ‘cycle’ taking around 11 years.  (At university in the 1960s, proto-economists learned that there was a school of economics that linked sunspots to the so-called ‘trade cycle’).


Sunspots are apparently magnetic, and in years of their greatest number, compasses on earth deviate significantly from true north, a fact known by mariners. Large numbers of sunspots ‘forewarn of gigantic solar flares that can unleash a billion times more energy that an atomic bomb’. Such an event happened in 1859 and is known as the ‘Carrington event’. The electronic technology of the time was the telegraph, which ‘stopped working in spectacular fashion as the aurorae spread across the sky’. Telegraph operators were electrocuted, offices burst into flames, global communication and navigation stopped.


At the start of the twentieth century, a pair of astronomers, Walter Maunder and his wife Annie, began to study a different type of event way back in the second half of the seventeenth century.  At this time, there was a long period (from 1645 to 1715) when there were virtually no sunspots. ‘This grand minimum coincides with the worst years of the so-called Little Ice Age.’ This catchy name is misleading, says Clark, because it was not a time of continuous frost, though Northern Europe was ‘beset by a greater-than-average number of savagely cold winters’.


Apart from northern Europe, Iceland became locked in miles of sea ice and many people died or left for warmer climes. New York harbour froze over and people could walk from Manhattan to Staten Island.


And it was not the first such event people could recall, or at least read about. Between 1420 and 1570, the Viking colonies on Greenland were turned ‘from fertile farmlands to arctic wastelands'. And, it turned out, this was a time of a plunge in the number of sunspots – though for economists it seems the so-called ‘cycles’ were shorter.


This is a controversial matter. Now the party line is that ‘man-made pollution is creating a greenhouse effect that is catastrophically warming the planet’.  And ‘to suggest the Sun is in any way responsible for what is happening in Earth’s atmosphere lays one open to be branded a “climate sceptic”.’ 


Models are all we have to try to sort out cause and effect and we all know, or should know, that models models can be horribly incomplete or just plain wrong. A case in point is the plausible claim that it is ‘Animal Spirits’ that has most to do with the ups and down of economies, yet such influences are (so it is said) impossible to measure and hard to understand or to put into models. (This author will have more to say on this specific matter in due course.)


The bald fact is that before the industrial revolution, and the subsequent rise of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, the planet had large variations in it’s climate. So any reasonably accurate modelling must take this fact into account along with the current (partial) models of the green-house gas issue.


As if providing an experiment, in 2007, the sunspots disappeared. No-one expected much sunspot activity for a bit but then there would be a large upswing. Then NASA scientists suggested – based on their models - that the upswing might be an especially violent one. With an obvious risk of another Carrington event imposed on a world that is far more dependent on electronics generally.


But the Sun remained quiescent, to an extent that was ‘extreme even for a minimum’. 2009 failed to deliver a strong upswing until December, when there was a large group of sunspots. The winters of 2008-09 and particularly 2009-10 were ‘unusually cold in Europe’, an ‘eerily familiar’ event. One Mike Lockwood led an investigation of average winter temperatures using a beaut British database that covers the time since 1659. Low solar activity were correlated with low winter temperatures, and when the hypothesis effect of greenhouse gasses were removed from the data, the effect was stronger.


But what are the mechanisms that are at work?  Spacecraft measurement show ‘beyond doubt’ that the Sun’s output of energy is ‘remarkably constant’, with only a relatively small (1%) variation between years of strong and weak sunspot activity. (I sense the Animal Spirits of climate sceptics waning.)  However, ultraviolet light is strongly linked to solar activity, and more UV light means more ozone is created in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn leads to more UV being absorbed. The stratosphere heats up, ‘driving faster winds up there’.


The most famous high level wind is the Jet Stream, which does respond to temperatures on high. When solar activity is strong, the Jet Stream blows hard.  When solar activity is low, the stream turns into a meander and distributes the weather differently, with a particular cooling effect on Northern Europe.


Mr Clark then moves to discuss the (repeating, if not strictly cyclical) model of how the Sun works. There is an emerging theory that the Sun in its early days was less luminous, meaning if the Earth was where it is now we all be in the deep freeze. But ancient rocks show that water flowed freely when the Earth was young, and quite possibly that was because Earth was closer to the cooler Sun. A keen planetary scientist has worked out that early planetary collisions might have moved the Earth slowly away from the Sun as it (the Sun) warmed up.  Clearly this is a theory in search of a Lord of the Universe, or at least a Boss of our solar system.)


Obviously the full story is far from settled. What is for certain is that the partial models of the ‘bed-wetter’ climate worriers are far from fully validated. I remain of the view that we’d do our descendents a possibly large favour by acting as if there was a problem, and in the process reversing the trend to a grimmer environment generally. But we should also fund really good science so these vital matters can be nutted out properly.


Meanwhile, we must salute Stuart Clark for his brilliant book.  The climate story is only one of many that he chases down the scientific burrows with flair and deep knowledge.


In the dark hours
Date: Tuesday, February 02, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

The RBA board meets today and is widely expected to keep its powder dry, perhaps with some hints of a bias for further easing.  The US Fed, meanwhile has indicated there may be three or four small rate hikes in the land of the free as the start of a gradual return to normality. Little to disagree with, but despite this questions keep surfacing, mostly at 3 AM when the world is dark and quiet.


The capitalist world has suffered great depressions, mad booms and serious busts, wars to end wars,  widespread environmental degradation  and extreme poverty in the midst of plenty. We cannot blame economists or economics for all these maladies, but it is certainly true that economics has been unable to reach a consensus about the causes of gross dysfunction in the economic system.


Nor can we blame central banks as their mandates are narrow. Central banks, however, failed to  prevent, or even it seems to moderate, mad booms, though in the wake of the recent Global Financial Crisis they acted in concert in ways that probably prevented the onset of the Great Depression of the 2010s.


Here are some of the questions that come unbidden in the dark hours before dawn. Why do modern capitalist nations fail to save? Common sense says people should all be willing to save in their years of peak earnings so they can accumulate assets to provide a sensible living in their twilight years. And in some cases to leave money to children and also some worthy philanthropic cause.  Yet most people in modern consumerist nations find far more pleasure in competing to accumulate things.


Can this go on? One doubts it at 3 am, and thinks modern society is living as if most people think there is no tomorrow.


Why are modern economies prone to booms and busts?  And does this matter? One famous economist wrote of the value of what he called the 'gale of creative destruction' created by the busts. Others have pointed out that great things happen in the booms. But readers of history know that mad booms create rubbish as well as great things, and often lead to busts that damage ordinary battlers as well as middling kind of people who get carried away during the booms.


Unravelling the causes of global or national challenges would be worthy occupations with those whose normal working life has run its course. Or helping with practical work on real projects. Or developing creative instincts suppressed in a normal working life.


Yet most people in modern consumerist nations apparently find far more pleasure in competing to accumulate things. With aging populations and entrenched systems of public charity, increasing numbers of people rely on help from declining numbers of taxpayers.


Can this go on? One doubts it at 3 am, and sees in these trends more evidence that most people think there is no tomorrow.


The history of capitalism has many examples of what one writer called the 'madness of crowds' and what is clear is that governments, central bankers and other financial system regulators have not yet learned how to limit the excesses of booms so as to more readily contain the damage of subsequent downturns. Nor it seems do governments (or markets) have the ability to limit the loss of species that signals serious environmental damage.  Nor to devise systems of taxation, welfare and education that give every child opportunity, encourages all people to improve their lot (and become self-sufficient) and allows a decent life for those who fail in the economic race.


At 3 AM come visions of various processes - financial, political, environmental - running out of control.


Do our leaders really understand what is going on in our economies and in the global financial system in particular? President Nixon gave the coup de grace to the gold standard in 1971. This standard was a semi-automatic stabilising part of global capitalism, far from ideal but better than what has replaced it.  The well-understood global monetary regulator instead became replaced by compliant money printers who encouraged growth of credit and created serious inflation, encouraged successive oil price bubbles, then asset bubbles more generally as real estate, great art and shares all boomed and in turn 'corrected'.


Systems with individually floating currencies,  'monetary' targets, 'check lists' and then (goods and service) inflation targets  were introduced in individual capitalist nations and all showed some promise for a time.  (This writer confesses to have championed each of these in turn, it must be said.)


The rise of China and other 'emerging' economies introduced a new age of deflation.  For a while the influence of new sources of highly competitive 'things' offset capitalist nation inflationism to make inflation targets look good. 


In the dark hours, one wonders what new 'policy rule' will be needed next.


As part of the development of 'improved' modern financial management, President Clinton abolished the Glass Steagall legislation of 1933 that ruled out commercial banks and investment banks being in one entity. There was a global rush to 'deregulate' financial systems (advocated by many people in Australia, including this writer). Regulatory frameworks were supposedly improved to contain stupidity and malfeasance by the new superbanks. Watch The Big Short if you doubt the failure of deregulated finance.


The true effect of these reforms was seen in the near meltdown of global financial system in 2007 and 2008.


In the dark hours one sees globally a heady confluence of continued new economy deflation, continued easy money, asset inflation volatility tending to asset inflation, extremely cautious monetary tightening in the USA, in Europe and Japan further easing and perhaps a bias to ease further in Australia.    In our case so far a distinct lack of required fiscal discipline and a distinct lack of energetic economic reform.


Global capitalism is still in deep trouble and there is a lot to disturb the dark hours.


Saturday Sanity 30 January 2016
Date: Saturday, January 30, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

Gor Blimey, Comrades, 'Treasury secretary John Fraser has warned the Turnbull government its prized AAA-credit rating is in jeopardy unless urgent efforts are made to cut spending, raising the spectre of a federal interest bill of more than $2 billion a month within a decade'. This truth-telling is a commodity in short supply, but John Fraser is a wealthy bloke in his last full-time job so has nothing to prove but his reputation.


Adam Creighton continues: 'In a [recent] landmark speech in Sydney ..., the government’s top economic adviser sounded the alarm about Australia chronic fiscal malaise, arguing that weaker-than-expected revenues, falling commodity prices and forecasting errors were no excuse for not taking tough decisions about the nation’s budget deficit.


'Mr Fraser called for further cuts to the government’s ballooning welfare bill and spending promises to be offset with new savings. He also signalled that federal government spending of more than 25 per cent of national income was unacceptable'. Read on here.


Mr Fraser will no doubt receive the AC when he retires as have his predecessors brave or craven or incompetent, and good luck to him.  Doubt he'll be Australian of the year, however, as doing a real job (or jobs) especially well is no qualification. As  Greg Sheridan put it yesterday: 'The Australian of the Year is meant to have been outstanding in their career and then done something extra. The something extra now apparently is entirely advocacy for any approved social cause. How about an Australian of the Year who doesn’t support the republic and has spent his or her life advocating fiscal discipline? Representative and useful at the same time'.


Kulture


'What’s wrong with Australia?  After 228 years, the only thing we can think of to celebrate this nation’s great achievements, and the liberation of its native inhabitants from the Stone Age, is the appointment of a tin soldier who excoriates us for sexism, family violence and lack of patriotism'.


This splendid sentence from Geoffrey Luck in (on?) Quadrant Online is a powerful comment on Australia's evolving culture.


Mr Luck continues: 'It seems David Morrison is now to be turned loose on the country, licensed to lecture and hector all and sundry for their failure to conform to his barrack-room discipline on social standards. As a lieutenant-general, Morrison might have passed unnoticed onto the retired list but for his 2013 outburst in a video clip applauded by the usual coterie of feminists, left-wing ideologues and the campaigning broadcasters of the ABC.


'What we don’t hear often are the voices saying that Morrison demoralised the army with his “feminisation” of the service, which scandalously included taxpayer-funded sex-change operations. Or that his concerns about gender-bashing came very late in his career. The enthusiasm for his YouTube clip effectively snuffed out any analysis of the Morrison style: the fierce, almost jihadist fanaticism in his eyes, the tightened facial muscles, what might be taken by some to be a self-righteous vindictiveness lurking in his delivery'.


Read on here. dear readers, and consider if the trendy committee that oversees recommendations about Australia's awards is helping or hindering cultural development suitable for a difficult and dangerous world with many social and economic challenges.


While we contemplate committees, Fiona Prior enjoys the sharp wit of Meow Meow. Read on here.


 Tennis'n'cricket'n'stuff


Novak Djokavic dismissed Roger Federer imperiously in four sets and now plays Andy Murray in the final tomorrow night. Serena Williams proceeds even more imperially toward yet another grand slam victory. It is amazing just how politically correct are the top sportsmen and women these days. 'X is a really good player and I had to play at my very best to flog (correction 'narrowly defeat') him/her.  And thanks a million (literally) to all the spectators who have come here to support me, yer really bonza'. (Cheers from the stands).


Much better than YouTube moving images of a footballer apparently pleasuring a dog, it has to be said.  Still, who cares? Was it an Aussie spectator who accused Ray Lindwall of pleasuring himself while innocently shining the ball? Where has that old Aussie humour gone, Comrades? Lost in the ocean of political correctness that apparently bedevils current Australia's 'gongs'.


The cricket season is descending to the populist depths with the T20 bash-a-thon and Australia's form batsman Usman Khawaja cannot get a look in. (Correction, Mr Khawaja has been called up for the dead rubber, India having out-bashed our boys twice, and because Mr Finch apparently tore his hamstring.] Good on 'Watto' for pointing out just how well this bloke is batting, without of course pointing a finger or even a bone at the selectors who in Henry's view failed to give him a fair go.  It's got to be 'form' that decides these matters, or what are the great men about?


Image of the week



Courtesy The Oz.


The unfairness of being young
Date: Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Author: Henry Thornton

'Young, gifted and held back' proclaims a leader in this week's Economist. Everywhere young people are facing a struggle to find fulfilling jobs, and in some cases any paying job. As the venerable mag puts it: 'Roughly a quarter of the world’s people—some 1.8 billion—have turned 15 but not yet reached 30. In many ways, they are the luckiest group of young adults ever to have existed. They are richer than any previous generation, and live in a world without smallpox or Mao Zedong. They are the best-educated generation ever ... And they can look forward to improvements in technology that will, say, enable many of them to live well past 100. So what, exactly, are they complaining about?'


'Around the world, young people gripe that it is too hard to find a job and a place to live, and that the path to adulthood has grown longer and more complicated'. IR laws insist on 'copious benefits' and make it hard to fire people, a situation that favours older, established workers. In countries that Henry knows a fair bit about one regular path to paid employment is to work as an unpaid 'intern'. And there is strong use of family networks to get young people a foot in this door, or if the candidate is really lucky, a paid job right off the bat.


Labor markets are often heavily constrained and the biggest constraint is the fairly standard barriers to free international movement of people, including 'footloose' young people. Many economists rail against particular taxes or other impediments to the free market, but even free market warriors often, even usually oppose free movement of people. Yet, as the Economist claims: 'By one estimate, global GDP would double if people could move about freely', but that is 'politically impossible'. Look at Europe's confused response to the tide of refugees from the Middle East, or the attitude of relatively stable Middle Eastern nations to taking in their dispossessed brethren, or Donald Trump's plans to make Mexico build a wall along its border with the land of the free.


Regulation of housing is in many cities far more expensive than it needs to be, which makes life harder for young people than for generally wealthier older people. 'The old have always subsidised their juniors. Within families, they still do. But many governments favour the old: an ever greater share of public spending goes on pensions and health care for them.


'This is partly the natural result of societies ageing, but it is also because the elderly ensure that policies work in their favour. By one calculation, the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now from young to old in at least five countries, including Germany and Hungary. This is unprecedented and unjust—the old are much richer'.


In short: 'The young are an oppressed minority—albeit an unusual one—in the straightforward sense that governments are systematically preventing them from reaching their potential.


'That is a cruel waste of talent. Today’s under-30s will one day dominate the labour force. If their skills are not developed, they will be less productive than they could be'.


Read on here to see the Economist's suggestions to reform this situation. Specific remedies apart, young people need to vote, as they often do not.  And parents and grandparents might consider agitating for a better deal for their young descendants.


Investment ideas


If you need a second opinion on your investment portfolio, here is a view about Aussie equities from Henry's favourite fund manager.  The summary seems to be:  Avoid the banks and resource stocks and look to stocks developing or managing solid infrastructure projects or portfolios.


In the wider world of asset allocation, Henry advocates being long real estate (excluding flats in Melbourne which are soon to be a drug on the market), around neutral with prime  international equities and short the Aussie dollar. And remain aware that cash is king and if there are further substantial falls in equity values there will be glorious buying opportunities.


Above all, if you feel nervous find a sensible advisor to discuss these matters with, and if you are highly risk averse seek out a registered financial planner. Even such people are sometimes in thrall to particular managers or sectors, or even conmen. Your response to this risk, above all, should be to apply robust common sense to your financial decisions.


For reasons hinted at in the following graph showing the record indebtedness of Australian households, repay debt if you can and avoid new debt like the plague. (Further hint - what happens when interest rates double or even triple?)



If you are young, Henry's advice on the vexed question of becoming financially self-sufficient is here. Point 1 is 'Earn well', which has to start with getting a paying job.


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