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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.

Saturday Sanity Break, 16 August 2014
Date: Saturday, August 16, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Joe Hockey shedding a tear for his own insensitivity on national television was the political high point of the week, and may represent a turning point for what was beginning to look like an economically inept government. The call now is for the government to recast the budget. However, the first task is to provide a believable narrative.

Once a believable and plausible narrative is in place, there are two things to get right.  Make the budget genuinely 'tough', and make it much fairer.  Henry's call for direct action to address the 20 % or so national cost overhang (and in the process create a plausible, because truthful, narrative is probably a bridge too far, but is linked here to remind readers about Australia's true 'economic emergency'. 

On the issue of welfare dependency, it is alleged by experts that 40 % of Australians contribute to helping the other 60 % who get assistance, and that Australia helps the bottom 25 % more than any other developed nation.  Surely 60 % of Australians are not 'battlers' and if they we have the balance wrong. But how to end the Age of Entitlement is far from obvious, but it must be done, dear readers, or we shall indeed achieve Banana Republic status, with all but a priviledged elite 'battlers'.

'Tony Abbott to step up budget sales job' is one relevant headline today, but there are others of equal importance.

Adam Creighton warns that 'If we're not careful, we'll have a full-blown jobs crisis on our hands'.

He points out that Australia's rate of unemployment is rising when in most countries it is falling. So much for the 'miracle economy', with even the tenured, highly remunerated men of the RBA pointing out that the jobs scene will be dismal for some time yet.

But the jobs crisis has been with us for years now, as pointed out here for an equally long time - and most recently in the blog immediately below this.

Mr Creighton nails the key point is a beautiful piece of economic prose: 'Economic theory says involuntary unemployment is impossible in a free market — if someone is out of work at the prevailing wage rate someone can simply offer to work for a $1 less and thereby become employed. But the reality could not be more different. Vast welfare states and bureaucracies, heavy taxation, transport and job search costs, and in some cases byzantine labour market regulations, dramatically dim prospects for full employment'.

Read on here and weep for official ignorance, gentle readers.

The political crystal ball

Henry's favourite journo, Grace Collier, has pointed out 'Labor's looming disasters'. First she summarises the government's recent blunders with enthusiasm, showing that Murdoch's minions understand 'balance' far more than do employees of the taxpayer-funded ABC.

'But speaking of Labor, here is the brutal truth: within the next year, three processes will be finalised and disaster is bound to strike. These processes are two police investigations and a royal commission into union malfeasance'.  More here, and google for more on the alleged police investigations.

Who owns the US Fed?

And does it matter?

The August Raff Report tackles these extraordinary questions. 


Caaaaaarlton! finally pleased its supercoach and gave til it really hurt.  Again narrowly beaten by a top side, Geelong, thanks to a dodgy free kick when the Blues were 8 points ahead with 3 minutes to go, Henry's heroes were gutted when the final bell sounded, having finished with three injured players and only one fit player on the interchange bench.

Henry is beginning to believe that better days are ahead for his beloved Caaaarlton!  And now supports the reappointment of Mick the Merciless and hopes that Juddie will stay on for years as a goalsneak and occasional midfielder.

Henry has heard, thanks to a taxi driver called 'Lucky', a Geelong supporter, that there is an international game of footy this weekend in a Northern suburb.

The game is between Pakistan and India.  The Pakistan team is made up by local lads of Pakistani origan, while the Indian team was said to have flown in from India. In what will clearly be a scoop, the result will be posted if 'Lucky' fulfills his promise to email them.

Tonight sees what should be a titanic struggle between the All Blacks and the Wallabies in the first game of the Bludisloe cup.  Henry will be glued to the screen, and asks readers not to feel sorry for Mrs T, who always has little mates to chat with by telephone, and books to read.

We commiserate with Henry's kultural advisor, Fiona Prior, who is having the cause of blinding headaches fixed in hospital. Fiona's many contributions are available here, and we look forward to her return soon, fit and well.

Image of the week

Courtesy The Oz

Creating jobs requires radical action
Date: Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'The crisis the unemployment statistics don't reveal' is the headline for another expose of Australia's dismal labor market performance. The estimable John Black writes: 'Rather than join the ranks of those formally unemployed, these [middle class, middle aged] men and women, who had lost established jobs in industries such as wholesale, retail, hospitality, media, finance and recreation, joined the hidden unemployed while they worked out how to find a replacement job within a viable commuting distance for which they were qualified. But in May there were no jobs for them to find.

'The number of hidden unemployed has been steadily increasing, because the labour market in 2014 is generating only enough jobs for 100,000 persons every year, instead of the 210,000 needed to maintain employment levels. Most of the 110,000 persons not finding jobs have been joining the hidden unemployed'.

This revealing discussion strongly supports the alternative measure of unemployment developed by Roy Morgan Research with help from Henry Thornton.  Our results are summarised in the graph that is part of this Blog. The early part of Mr Black's article provides the best discussion I have seen on the reasons why the official (ABS) measure of the rate of unemployment greatly underestimates the real rate of unemployment.  It should be read by every senior bureaucrat and politician in Canberra, and interested academics.

As Mr Black concluded: 'At the heart of the problems for the labour market is the lack of any substantial industry drivers for jobs growth in an economy over-encumbered with regulation and on-costs and a lack of political leadership and meaningful vision'.  Read on here. 

Today Senator Day suggested that the young unemployed should be allowed to seek jobs and agree with an employer on the wage to be paid.  Immediately the cry of 'exploitation' want up, and 'remember Henry Bourne Higgins',but one must ask who are the exploited here. Currently it includes young people who cannot find jobs in a wealthy and supposedly dynamic country like Australia.

This Henry can report that all of his kids, and several of their friends, got jobs after gaining valuable but unpaid work experience, doing real jobs.  This is a common practice in Europe, while in America young people, and many adults, work for very low wages.  The philosophic question is whether it is better to get work experience for low wages or no wages and then a job that pays a living wage, or whether no job at a theoretical high wage is better. I have no doubts about the answer.

Of course, in a civilised nation, society needs to provide the basic elements of an income sufficient to live on for those who cannot earn a wage to do so without supplementation.  This must be provided after careful scrutiny to keep those who seek to bludge on society honest.  But the idea of forcing unemployed people to write 40 serious job applications a week is simply nuts.  It involves lots of wasted effort and much demeaning of the job seekers. I know how demeaned our kids felt, with 5 good degrees between them, useful parental 'contacts' and relevant work experience until they landed jobs with some chance of turning into careers.

I do not know how to solve all the problems inherent in the current system.  But I do think Senator Day's idea should be tried somewhere, perhaps in Tasmania where the plight of the homeless is particularly acute.

Come on Minister Abetz, stop peddling 1950s 'medical science' and try something radical in your area of actual responsibility.

Saturday Sanity Break, 9 August 2014
Date: Saturday, August 09, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Economic news this weeks included a surprise (to most economists) leap in the rate of unemployment. The image of the week at the end of today's blog shows the latest jump in the 'official' (prepared by the ABS) rate of unemployment and the more realistic measure prepared by Roy Morgan Research. Draw your own conclusions, gentle people. We thank Des Moore for his incisive analysis immediately below this blog.

The state of the labor market is far worse than believed in official circles, and officials are generally maintaining a 'glass half full' posture, although the RBA this week somewhat reduced its economic forecasts. With the budget stranded in the Senate, and no plan B, Australia's 'miracle economy' is struggling and the government is also struggling. Paul Kelly continues his criticism of Tony Abbott's leadership, and Joe Hockey is doing the rounds trying to get a budget, any budget really, up. He has started to whinge that no-one, not even business, is providing support.

Smoking cigars with the Finance minister started the process of self-destruction and release of a 'semi-authorised' biography that restated his ambition to lead the nation, and revealed his secret wish for a tougher budget, would have been unwise if the budget had been applauded by all, but instead it is becalmed with almost no-one from among business leaders, the economists of Australia or drinkers in the front bars of Australia's pubs is prepared to back it.

Leaving Malcolm Turnbull out of the loop on the discussion of new anti-terror policies, leaving more favoured but severely less competent ministers to try to explain, was a catastrophe. Time for a shake up, Tony, or continued unpopularity? 

Meanwhile, we are being warned to prepare for a hundred year war with radical Islam. Tony, you have proved you have the right stuff to be a great war leader, and Julie Bishop has shown similar mettle.

For goodness sake get the team together that can win the economic war.

Footy'n'other stuff.

Caaarlton! belted the Gold Coast Suns (minus Gary) in the first half and coasted for most of the second half.  With nothing to play for but the good opinion of their fellows, and perhaps the chance to play for the blues next year, one might have expected a red hot go from all players for the full 100 minutes.

For the rest, Hawthorn and Sydney look like runaway favourites, with a young Geelong and a puzzling Freo maling up the final four, members of which all have some chance of winning a grand final in which luck and the net result of character on both finalists sometimes throws up an unexpected win.

Features of Henry's week included a fine seminar at Melbourne Uni with a superstar Spanish economist discussing asset bubbles and what to do about them.  Read on here folks, you will find support for some notions you may have seen in the hallowed pages of Henry's folly

The RBA brains trust seems not yet to have absorbed either the Fed's new approach of the visitor's clever theoretical thinking. Rather they sit like rabbits in the headlights, wondering whether to cut interest rates to help the currency to fall or raise them to head off a housing boom.  'Don't panic' shouts the resident Mr Jones, but one suspects there is no old soldier (like Aussie Holmes in Henry's time) to help their key people see the blooming obvious. Sigh!

And do not miss Henry's geopolitical writers - Gary Scarrabelotti on the Ukraine and Tiresias on Israel and the Garzans.

Image of the week

Labor market shock
Date: Friday, August 08, 2014
Author: Des Moore

The increase in July unemployment to 6.4% seasonally adjusted rate (from 5.6% in July last year), and the accompanying small fall in employment since last month, highlight the need for reduced regulation of workplace relations in circumstances where the economy is growing below trend.

Unless regulations are reduced the Abbott government’s budget forecast of a 1.5% increase in employment in 2014-15 will not be achieved and productivity growth will remain sluggish.

The regulatory problem is highlighted by the fact that the growth in the working age population (WAP) is twice as fast as the growth in employment over the past 12 months – employment up by only 0.9% while the WAP increased at double that rate (1.8%).

Before the Fair Work legislation employment was growing faster than the WAP and the participation rate was growing. Over the past three years that rate has fallen from 65.4% to 64.8%.

On top of the twelve months increase of about 15% in numbers unemployed, this indicates continued large increases in those who have given up actively looking for work – the so-called drop outs

Labour Force – Increases Since July 2013 (Original Data)

                                                   000s               Percent

Employment                                1,041                0.9

Working Age Population                 3,421                1.8

Unemployed                                   96                14.9 

WAP is civilian population aged 15 years and over     

It is now abundantly clear that urgent changes must be made to the existing regulatory legislation, and the administration of it, just to reach the “sensible centre” and remove the bias evident in the existing arrangements.

Sufficient evidence of the monopoly position of unions has already been given to the Heydon Royal Commission to warrant immediate reforms and allow employers much greater freedom to determine employment conditions. It is anomalous, for example, that the MUA has to be taken to the Federal Court in an attempt to reduce its monopoly powers.

The proposals to reform the ABBC and other minor reforms are welcome but have yet to be implemented and will not themselves change the behaviour of militant unions.

Henry comments: We agree with Des moore, and the HR Nicholls Society, that Australia needs serious labor market reform.

We have long argued that the labor market is in far more trouble than generally recognised (EG here).

We have also warned of 'The recession we did not need to have'.  With the budget jammed in the Senate, and a worsening labor market, the 'miracle economy' is headed for real trouble.

The latest RBA Quarterly Report on Monetary Policy is linked here, and presents a significently happier picture. Time will tell whether my relatively gloomy view or the RBA's far happier view is closer to the mark.

The main difference between us is my concern for Australia's competitiveness, which I believe we cannot overcome with current policies.

Asset/credit bubbles - advice to the RBA
Date: Thursday, August 07, 2014
Author: PD Jonson

There is justified credit and 'bubble credit'. The former is fine, indeed it is how the capitalist world makes progress, but bubble credit is not so fine and can, and often does, lead to asset bubbles that inevitably lead to asset busts.  As in the world learned at great cost in the 1930s, a sufficiently bad asset bust can influence the world and may lead to global depression.

That is the message of Professor Jaume Ventura, a visitor to Melbourne University. Last night Professor Jaume delivered the twelth Corden lecture, introduced by Professor Max Corden, who is still working and is a rolled gold superstar of economics.  He described Jaume as his best student and a brilliant academic. I agree, and would add that Jaume is a genuine macro-economist who admits this part of the profession has learned it knows less than it thought it knew about how economies work and about appropriate policies to control 'bubble credit'. As Mark Twain is alleged to have said: 'It's not the things you don't know that get you into trouble, but the things you think you know that ain't so'.

Jaume Ventura started with a graph depicting the global ratio of credit to GDP since 1970. This ratio fell below trend in the 1970s, rose sharply in the late 1980s, fell again and then set new records in the late 1990s. If 1970 is 100, after the fall associated with the Global Financial Crisis, the ratio is now 160. That is, since 1970, credit has on average grown faster than GDP. Worse, the growth has been variable, and associated with increasing ups and down.  Asset prices have followed a similar pattern.

We were shown similar graphs for a number of countries.  The booms and busts of credit were not unifom, but all showed a strong upward trend and decided volatility.  'Worst' were Spain, Italy, Island and Greece. These countries were the worst hit during the GFC, unsurprising given the size of their preceeding credit binges.

Then we saw data on gross and net credit flows by country.  The stunning fact is that all OECD countries both import and export credit. It is import and export of credit that dries up when something goes wrong for a country. 'In crises everyone goes home' said Professor Ventura. 'During crises, countries go back to the closed economy model'. Already we learned a reason not to rely too heavily on overseas credit and I recalled James Tobin's call for 'sand in the gears of global finance', or indeed the logic of taxing capital inflow to protect local industry.

Professor Ventura was careful to point out that lots of good things happen when credit grows quickly. Booms are good for countries. Indeed, he has drawn a distinction of 'collateralised credit' (backed by real assets) and 'bubble credit' (resulting from chaims of credit ultimately backed only by hype and overoptimism).  It is bubble capital that we should try to contain.  But there is no consensus among macroeconomists about this matter, and Professor Ventura is trying to clarify this vital matter.

In short, Professor Ventura has discovered by sheer logic and some mathematical analysis that there is an optimal mix of the two sorts of credit. So the problem for central banks is to find that optimal mix for a given nation and devise policy or policies to drive their economy toward that optimal mix, 'leaning into the wind' of asset credit.  This is because there is no way for the economy unaided to find this happy outcome.

As the lender of last resort, a central bank should be able to do this.  The basic idea is if a boom is based on 'real things', let it rip. If it is based on irrational exuberance, lean into it.  My own view is that as asset prices, or credit (as a ratio to GDP), get too far from their long run trends, action to 'lean into' the growth are needed, but this should be in the form of macroprudential policies, not (except perhaps in extreme cases) using interest rates.  This is because normal development - take GDP itself - suggests that fundamental forces of productivity and population are always close to a reasonable steady trend, so as asset values or credit depart greatly from trend, this is surely a sign of an asset/credit bubble.

Professor Ventura said there are three ways to contain asset/credit bubbles.
1. Improve law enforcement and contract design,
2. Improve corporate governance, and
3.  Macroprudential policy.

Macroprudential policy includes reserve requirements of lending institutions and capital controls.  These should be 'owned' by the central banks and be seperate from monetary policy.  Given the key role of overseas credit - both inward and outward - there is a potential role for taxes on capital inflow, or if the economy is on the nose with international investors, subsidies.

As we walked out of the lecture, I said to one old friend 'I rest my case'. He observed that Professor Ventura had brilliantly made my case.

Further reading, from Jaume Ventura

Economic Growth with Bubbles (with A. Martin)
American Economic Review, 102 (6), 2012, 3033-3058

 Bubbles and Capital Flows
Journal of Economic Theory, 147 (2), 2012, 738-758

 Understanding Bubbly Episodes (with V. Carvalho and A. Martin)
American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 102 (3), 2012, 95-100 

 Theoretical Notes on Bubbles and the Current Crisis (with A. Martin)
Read a non-technical summary on VOXEU
IMF Economic Review
, 59 (1), 2011, 6-40

By PD Jonson

Monetary policy and asset inflation, July 2014

Asset inflation and monetary policy (with Elizabeth Prior Jonson and Ka Mun Ho), June 2013

Great Crises of Capitalism, January 2011

Saturday Sanity Break, 2 August 2014
Date: Saturday, August 02, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Innovation is (probably briefly) in the news, thanks to new BCA Chair, and former CSIRO Chair, Catherine Livingstone. Her comments came about the same time that Henry heard the news that 800 scientists from CSIRO's Brisbane offices have been or are to be, made redundant.  This was (allegedly) the entire coal division, meaning a dispersal of the group responsible for research into this vital exportable resource.

Ms Livingstone and the BCA suggested that research and other support should go to 'proven winners'. Rod Sims of the ACCC immediately leapt into the debate with critical comments about 'picking winners', missing the point almost entirely. The Hon Minister Andrew Robb said the government had been spruiking the BCA view for years.

The relevant policies of The Industry Group for 'Growing the Trade Exposed Industries' are as follows.

In a study called The Mystery of Economic Growth, Israeli economist Elhanan Helpman reviewed all the available research on the sources of above average economic growth, especially growth of productivity. He found that the only single clear reason for higher productivity growth was corporate and Government spending on Research and Development (R&D) as a share of GDP. Singapore and Israel feature near the top of any list of nations that have commercialised inventions.

Australia’s total spending on R&D is not especially high on lists of international spenders and as the budgetary situation allows needs to be increased. The long established Cooperative Research Centre (CRC)  Association conducted a review by Allen Consulting Group in 2014. This review reported that, relative to the funds committed to the CRC program by the Australian Government, the CRC program has generated a net economic benefit to the community, which has exceeded its costs by a factor of 3 to 1.

We must stress, however, that it is not just R&D that matters. ‘Innovation’ requires successful commercialisation of R&D. By contrast to our average performance with R&D in the international league tables, Australia often ranks lowest in tables comparing successful implementation of the results of R&D. (See John Bell, ‘Innovation policy linked to productivity boost’, ATSE Focus, April 2014.)

Australian Venture Capital Association Ltd (AVCAL) has pointed out that the flaw in Australia's current policy prioritisation is that it does not invest enough in bringing its innovation to market.

AVCAL quoted a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study that flagged venture capital as being one of the potential ‘game changers’ in contributing to Australia's innovation system: a position that has been echoed in many forums in recent years. It also highlighted the fact that the US spends over four times (per capita) what Australia spends through venture capital investment.

The 300 page Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research report referred to what it called the“valley of death” being the hiatus between discovery and successful commercialisation.

The evidence suggests that there are two key factors involved, firstly the availability of risk capital for commercialisation, and secondly the transfer of development to staff sufficiently trained and with the business skills required.

Another generic issue concerns the early sale of successful new Australian ventures to large foreign companies. The causes of this perhaps includes cultural obstacles and also lack of explicit tax benefits for investors, to compensate for the higher risk attaching to early stage innovation and development.

There is a further uncertainty with foreign owned companies as to the question of retaining the benefits of Government supported innovations and commercialisation within the Australian economy.

It may be necessary to focus assistance to smaller Australian companies. Larger global companies in the main have their own resources. For example, the German company Bosch, has 38,000 staff worldwide working in innovation and development and on average registers 14 patents each day.

Business regulation and taxation arrangements can be unhelpful for commercialisation of ventures. For example, entrepreneurial people granted shares in cash strapped start-up companies immediately pay the full amount of income tax based on the theoretical value of the shares - value that may never be realised.

No comment on innovation is complete without recognition of staff in the workplace being able to recognise the opportunity for innovation with improvements to processes and products. Smith referred to the value of workers contributing to innovation. He said: “A great part of the machines made use of in those manufacturers in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts to finding out easier and readier methods of performing it.”

Today his comments would apply to a wider range of employees.

Such innovations can support the management philosophy of continual improvement known in Japan as Kaizen management. Toyota benefits from a sophisticated system whereby employee ideas are given consideration and where adopted the employee gets a benefit reflecting the value of the innovation.


1. It is recommended policies be put in place to raise the overall spend (Government and corporate) on R&D as a percentage of GDP, to global best practice levels.

The program would need to ensure that relevant business and administrative skills and experience are available to use any Government support effectively.

2. To attract capital to this high risk area, tax concessions would be appropriate. For example, for  approved projects foundation shares could be capital gains tax free and further calls up to set limits tax deductible. This could reduce the requirement for payments by Government to support innovation and commercialisation.

3. Remove the tax penalty applying to shares issued in start up companies commercialising innovations.

4. It is recommended a task force be constituted to review best practice arrangements in countries which lead the table of performance with innovation and commercialisation. The outcome be a basis to review and implement policies which would be relevant for Australia.

The internal process, if available, of successful companies in this field such as Bosch, would also be relevant.

5. The Government consider claw-back of grants and/or tax concessions within, say, five years as a way to discourage too early sale to overseas interests.

6. Ensuring tax certainty and consistent long term policy settings for innovation and commercial development.

Read the full report, including policies in related areas, here.

Geopolitical tragedies

The events in Gaza make one weep. We have a natural sympathy with the Israeli side, but the terrible price they are exacting from the inhabitents of Gaza seems dispropionate. That said, no country cam allow regular rocket attacks on its territory.

The failed attempts to rescue the bodies remaining on the crash zone of the downed Malaysian airplane get more farcial by the day. Horrible for everyone involved, except perhaps for whoever gave the order to destroy the plane and its almost 300 passengers and crew.  President Putin has a lot to apologize for, and one hopes that severe trade and financial sanctions will eventually bring him to heel.

The various other global atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Africa, the list goes on, show the need for an effective global policing group.  That seems at least as far away as good sense in Australian economic and welfare policies.


Caaaarlton! cheered Henry with its brave attempt to beat Freo on its home turf, but left him almost weeping with frustration at yet another loss by a tiny margin.

Coach Merciless Mick Malthouse said he did not know why this was the case, but it seems clear the team has just forgotten how to win. Partly, perhaps, due to morale sapping coaching.

Like 'Innovation' it is a difficult subject, but Henry is certain in footy it requires occasional shafts of kindness to the players, not constant criticism, which is what Mick the Merciless seems to dish out. Henry learnt this lesson by changing his coaching style for an under-age footy team a decade ago, and is available for psychological councelling at Caaaarlton! if needed.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Aussie women and men are acquitting themselves with honour.  The swimmers seem to have rediscovered their mojo, the marathoners have exceeded expectations, ditto the shooters, and Sally Pearson looked terrifyingly focussed when she won a heat or semi-final by a second or two. From the other side of the world, this seems like a happy team, and the sacking of the apparantly merciless head(?) coach will have lifted team morale further. Go Sally!

Image of the week


Inflationary expectations and monetary policy
Date: Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Author: PD Jonson

Inflationary expectations have also risen, as reported by Roy Morgan Research. Here is the graph.

We are not yet embrioled in an inflationary fiasco but there is a dilemma, that last week we tried to set out in slightly satiric terms. (See Blog two down.)

I have for some time also been worrying like a dog with a bone how to define the stance of monetary policy, and I have now solved this, to my satisfaction at least.

I have also made progress in showing with Economics 101 supply and demand graphs - albeit drawn in the air - how monetary policy might transmit itself to goods inflation but also to asset inflation.

Here is the link, and I am keen to receive feedback.

Is there any competent macro-economists out there?  If there is, am I on the right train? Was this all said in an unpublished note 50 years ago? It is trivially obvious, or wrong, or both at the same time?

Saturday Sanity Break, 26 July 2014
Date: Saturday, July 26, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'Need more policy reform' say both RBA Chief, Glenn Stevens, and Treasury Head, Martin Parkinson. 'The budget should have been tougher' says someone who is allegedly quoting Smokin' Joe Hockey. 'Hear, Hear' squark the pet shop galahs (just joking, galahs) but it is a refreshing development that these three important Australians now feel they can edge toward saying what they really think, and what the galahs think. (See Parkinson and Stevens.)

Tony Abbott's chief economic advisor, Maurice Newman, no galah, more like a robust emu on the run, says 'We're heading fast for a one-way trip on the escalator of decline'. This echoes Paul Kelly's message of some weeks ago, and that of senior galahs like Ross Garnaut and Henry Thornton himself.

Henry is mighty pleased to see 'Asset inflation' recognised as: (a) heavily influenced by super-easy monetary policy; (b) presenting a distinct risk to financial stability (and therefore to economic stability - think 1930s); and (c) requiring so-called 'macroprudential policy', rather than monetary policy alone, to deal with.

There is a further feature of asset inflation, which is to exacerbate inequalities of wealth and incomes. Like financial instability, stretching the gap between rich and poor is a sure road to ruin, as the world's elite thinkers (eg Keynes and Marx) have frequently asserted. (Here is a recent example. 'Asset inflation makes richer; unemployment makes us poorer'.)

Geopolitical matters.

It is cheering to see gradual (though sadly overdue) progress in recovering bodies for respectful identification and return to family members. We salute Tony Abbott for his strong global leadership in this sad matter, and Julie Bishop for success in achieving a unanimous decision by the Security Council.

Mr Putin will probably still annex Eastern Ukraine  and terrorists will still run amuck in hellholes without the law, and surely it is time for a fast response policing unit overseen by whichever country is chairing the Security Council?

'Mind you own business, Henry' is no doubt the view of those currently in office, but surely this latest atrocity will make those currently in office think outside the existing boxes.

Here is what the experts say - Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan.

Kelly: 'THE nation is seeing a new Tony Abbott — the Prime Minister as crisis manager. It is a time when more people than usual focus on their leader and the leader, in turn, operates as principal mourner, chief diplomat and security guardian'.

Sheridan: 'AS every day the news from eastern Ukraine grows worse, Australia has found itself in the middle of one of the greatest geostrategic crises of our day.

'Irony has come here to attend tragedy. For decades, our strategic debate has been transfixed by the rise of China. But it is Russia, the old enemy from the Cold War, which has drawn us intimately into first-order global power plays'.

Footy'n'cricket'n'Commonwealth Games'n'stuff

Today is the second part of another 'split round', an innovation Henry does not like as he requires a weekly diet of footy during the winter chills. And what a winter it is proving to be. The wags say this is due to the presence of Al Gore, because everywhere he goes the weather turns cold.  And there are reports of cooling in the world's deep oceans. But I digress.

The Indians have again beaten the pestiferous Poms in the fine old game of five day cricket.  Soon it will be summer and we can have our own crack at the curry munchers.

At least we can enjoy news of gold medals and world records, mostly due to the efforts of Aussie shielas in Glasgow. ...

Image of the week

Courtesy The Australian

Inflation - of all varieties - rising
Date: Thursday, July 24, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'Inflation', the common or garden variety, means 'goods and services inflation'.  This sort of inflation in Australia has reached 3 %, top of the range agreed between the government and RBA. One can imagine Joe Hockey, newly fired up by the release of his authorised biography, asking 'What's going on Glenn?'

The RBA will be asking itself  'Have we overdone the easing of monetary policy?'  when its bright economists reflect on why interest rates were cut so far. Some brave soul might even say 'Because were were trying to get the bl**dy exchange rate to fall'.

House price inflation seems to be on an unward track. As The Oz reported recently: 'The house price boom shows no sign of cooling despite the onset of winter.

'PRICE growth in almost all capital cities in the three months to June has helped the median Australian house price soar almost 11 per cent in just 12 months'. Ouch! House inflation 11 %?

The RBA should be asking itself  'Is this in part a consequences of interest rates too low, as we sought to help stimulate the economy and reduce the bl**dy exchange rate'.

A supplementary question should be: 'Is it time to implement the latest ideas about the need to implement "Macroprudential policy" to contain house prices?'

Then there is share price inflation, continually setting new records despite the great geopolitical risk with the various dangerous global hot spots. 'Nothing we can do about that, governor', the head of Economic Analysis Department might say, 'Share prices are set on Wall Street'.  'But surely the share boom is looking dangerous, a risk to global financial stability, as I hinted in my latest speech', Glenn Stevens might reply.*

'And the bl**dy exchange rate is still too high, decimating the export-oriented trade industries, which Joe Hockey said we should be encouraging'.

There we have it, gentle readers. Mixed up confusion.

* I should note that this speech is one of Governor Glenn's finest. Despite my concerns that the RBA has not yet come to terms with the problems of sensibly influencing the overall economy (and garden variety inflation) and asset inflation, most of the necessary pieces are clearly in the governor's mind, especially when he recognises the role of 'Animal spirits'.

Growing Australia`s Trade Exposed Industries
Date: Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton and friends

The Australian Government has made very clear its resolve to advance fiscal and structural reforms to strengthen the Australian economy. They include the policy areas of infrastructure, taxation and financial regulation. Improvements to labour flexibility and reducing energy and regulatory costs are also seen as critically important.

Four Australians designated as 'The Industry Group' offer recommendations arising out of the current economic environment, including areas that are not so evident, but require urgent attention to ensure the trade exposed industries of the Australian economy can have a sound future.

Governments, Regulators, Industry and Unions have often failed to recognise, understand, or give consideration to the less obvious and often longer term consequences of their decisions and actions, and their impact on Australia’s competitive position.

This is particularly significant when such decisions, as outlined in this paper, lead to long-term operating and capital cost penalties and market constraints, some of which may be difficult to reverse. It is the collective impact of these factors which has been so detrimental for the Australian trade exposed industries. It is clear what Ludwig Erhard had to say about the threat to competitive free markets is as relevant today as it was in his time.

Ludwig Erhard, the Former Vice Chancellor of Germany, writing about “Prosperity through Competition” said “Efforts will only be successful so long as competition is not hindered or eliminated through artificial or legal manipulations.”

Inevitably, it becomes necessary to replace or radically upgrade or expand ageing production facilities to improve productivity and restore a world competitive position. Increasingly however, the logical economicsbased response by business in current circumstances will be a decision not to undertake such major capital expenditure. An adequate return would be unlikely because there appears no realistic prospect that international competitiveness can be restored.

Recent examples of these consequences are the progressive closure of our oil refineries around the coast, rather than their replacement with one or two world-scale facilities, and the closure of alumina refining, aluminium smelting and aluminium rolling capacity. These plants which a decade or so back were at thelow end of the world cost curve could survive periods of global production exceeding demand.

With these plant closures there is also a decline in demand for a range of supporting services.

Other current examples of this substantial hollowing out of Australian manufacturing industry are the reductions in cement and steel manufacture and closure of a number of food processing operations.

Also, some companies have chosen to relocate overseas or have preferred to build new plants overseas.

Industrial development in Australia in the Post World War II years focused on the supply of domestic demand behind tariff protection. Later, countries in the region led by Japan and then South Korea focused on the economic benefits of larger plants to supply not only domestic demand but exports. They were assisted by tariffs and other forms of protection for their local markets, some of which remain in place.

Unfortunately Australia has missed out on a second stage of industrial development, with world-class plants with improved productivity, as a result of the continuing impact of past policies. The failure to gain the benefit of plants with improved productivity is of particular concern. In the report by the Productivity Commission, the Chairman Peter Harris said, “Our (productivity) performance has been significantly worse than that of most other developed economies for more than a decade.”

Decisions against major renewal investment in more productive equipment are made ever more likely when the cost impediments are compounded by low rates of tax-deductible depreciation and the absenceof accelerated write-off to match overseas competitors. This has led to minimum capital expenditure and a focus on immediately tax-deductible maintenance to preserve the status quo as long as possible beforethe inevitable final plant closure.

Free markets have been accepted by policy makers as central for economic growth. Nevertheles ssovereign states, despite statements supporting free markets, are intervening with measures which hinder competition in favour of their national interests and these activities have significance for Australian industryand agriculture.

The trade exposed industries are now operating in a global economy. Markets no longer have a national or regional emphasis but have a global perspective. Specialisation provides gains in productivity but it is the size of markets which enables these gains to create national wealth with opportunities to generate jobs, economies of scale, resources for research and innovation and an increase to the national tax base.

For Australia however, there have been a number of impediments for industry, which have seriouslyconstrained market opportunities and competitiveness.

The full paper is available here. 

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