Industrial relations key to Australian prosperity
Date: Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Author: Henry Thornton
Business conditions recovering, with sentiment again 'above trend', reports the National Australia bank.
In summary: 'THE economy is staging a powerful recovery from a summer of disasters and the annual growth rate could reach 4 per cent by the middle of the year.'
The bank reported: • The Australian economy appears to be showing signs of recovery following the flood-induced slowdown, with the NAB business survey reporting a marked improvement in business conditions in March, driven by sharp rises in trading conditions and profitability. The overall business conditions index is now at its highest level since March 2010. Conditions in Queensland improved significantly in the month but are still very poor. Business confidence declined in March, though remains positive and above trend. More broadly, confidence is now more in line with business conditions (or outcomes). • Forwards orders and stocks picked up, and are now in positive territory. Capacity utilisation also edged a little higher. The survey is consistent with annualised domestic demand growth of around 2½% in the March quarter which, given the impact of recent floods on coal and commodity exports, suggests a flat to negative outcome for GDP in Q1. That would imply a 6-monthly annualised rate of around 1½% versus the survey read of 2¾%. Maintaining March monthly readings in Q2 it would imply a return to more than 4% growth. • Labour costs were broadly unchanged but continue to trend down in annualised 3-month-average terms. While price inflation remained relatively low, purchase costs are rising.
The Australian's David Uren spoke to NAB's Chief Economist, Alan Oster, who added the helpful colour that 'all industries registered a huge improvement in March' and that the improvement continued in April.
Oster added: "We're getting the first inkling that we're looking at strong growth in the June quarter," he said. "That is consistent with what the Reserve Bank is thinking."
It is also, incidentally, what Henry has been thinking, with growth again at the 4 % rate that indicates the onset of inflatioary pressures.
The NAB reports that inflation remains low, but purchase costs are rising. Whether the Reserve Bank was right or wrong to hold its fire on rate hikes so far this year will depend largely on whether wages surge.
Under the howard government's WorkChoices legislation there would have been a fair chance of this. After the Rudd-Gillard rollback there is a more than even chance that wages will break out.
Talk of a 'tough budget', immediately contradicted by promises to 'overcompensate' battlers for the carbon tax, will not hold the line.
And there is still no policy for productivity, which has been languishing since the effect of the last big economic reforms of the Howard government wore off, with the slowing also impacted by IR rollabck.
It is no exaggeration to say that Australia's immediate prosperity is in the hands of union bosses. Go for the doctor, comrades, and interest rates will be higher, the budget will be tougher (with a mini-budget after the faux-tough budget we are about to get) and the miracle economy will do more than stumble as it did in Q1, 2011. It will have fallen flat on its face.
Let them eat gumleaves
Date: Friday, February 07, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
Henry has been in the heart of Australia's drought-stricken country attending the memorial service for his much loved Father-in-law after the funeral in Sydney. Both services were moving and strongly attended. Dr John Prior was a seriously good man, and after time serving in the occupation force in Japan the young medico purchased a practice in Boggabri where he served the community for 50 years.
All the signs are clear. The paddocks were pale yellow, sometimes reddish-brown when all the grass had been eaten. In one place, the remaining foliage was a pale mauve color, but no-one in our car knew what it might have been. We drove carefully through herds of cattle, some with ribs highly visible, apparently looking after themselves on the long paddock that is the roadside foliage. One old farmer I met in the street said he'd never known it so bad. 'The other day a large branch of a gum tree was blown down in the storm, and the cattle were eating the leaves - I've never seen that before' he explained.
Towns like Boggabri in northern NSW have been revitalised by coal mining. Houses have been painted and the dry grass of their gardens is carefully tended, and other plants kept alive with waste water. At Boggabri there is a vast camp for the fly-in fly-out miners which I spent two night sleeping, the family house being overflowing with Dr Prior's children and their children. Generally, the mining blokes were sitting on the small seats outside their rooms having a beer, while the mining wimmin were at corners speaking on mobile phones to (presumably) their loved ones. The blokes one passed in walking to and from the dining hall almost invariably said 'G'day mate, how yer doing' or similar, while the wimmin mostly kept their eyes on the pavement for the usual female reason of not encouraging any unwanted contact.
The dining hall catered for all tastes and a special notice said customers could order steak, chicken or fish cooked anyway they liked. The internet and aircom worked perfectly, in the latter case after one friendly mining bloke showed Henry how to rig up a piece of toilet paper to keep the motion sensor busy while the resident was away at the mines. Nothing in the rooms except the bare minimum, and after a first inspection Henry headed for the local IGA to acquired orange juice, apples, tea bags and shampoo. 'I get a lot of business from the miners for those items' the IGA manager said. The camp already holds almost as many people as the population of Boggabri and a planned extension will double the capacity.
The current big city debate on wages and conditions of employment seems almost nonsensical in drought-stricken Boggabri. The old bloke whose cattle were eating gum leaves has no income this year. 'Its not worth truckin' 'em back if you don't sell 'em', he told Henry, 'and prices are dreadful'. Yet back in the bigger towns and cities, most people people have generous welfare payments for doing not much or jobs with lots of over-award conditions, including a 'shiny tin' allowance for forklift drivers at SPC Ardmona (forklift drivers who have the skill to pack unlabelled fruit at the highest level). Failing companies live with ludicrously generously working conditions and then have the cheek to ask for help from taxpayers. Joy Hockey is right on the money when he says we cannot afford current levels of corporate or personal welfare.
Paul Howes has cemented his place in Australia's economic history by his call for cooperation between unions and businesses to maximise jobs. This was a theme of Simon Crean's father in the dying days of the Whitlan government ('One man's wage hike is another man's job) and again with Bob Hawke's Accord in the 1980s. Tony Abbott is surely right to say it is up to companies and workers to sort out employment conditions that reward both groups. Any other arrangement is just not sustainable, and Bill Shorten's attempt to protect the role of unions may well make his party unelectable. Check out the proportion of workers who are unionists, Bill Shorten.
We drove through and then flew home over dangerously dry country and impoverished farming communities. There is already a jobs drought in the cities and it will get worse before it gets better. Stronger retail sales and higher exports has injected some optimism into the corporate sector, but recovery will be limited by the large cost overhang and unsustainable budget. It is indeed the end of the age of entitlement, and while-ever the Labor Party and Greens fail to see this they are condemning Australia to a mediocre future.
'Let them eat gum leaves', Bill Shorten and Christine Milne are saying in their economically illiterate way.
Saturday Sanity Break, 1 February 2014
Date: Saturday, February 01, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
The debate on what will be called 'structural unemployment' has gone global. Spengler writes: 'The risk is that the unproductive, unskilled and unemployable portions of the industrial world’s people will decide to vote themselves rich. Their leaders encourage this by focusing on income inequality. That is President Obama’s message as well as the consensus at the World Economic Forum last week at Davos, and it is nonsense.
'The problem isn’t inequality of income, but inequality of knowledge. One pilot flying a modern military aircraft could destroy the whole of an ancient civilization. One farmer from Nebraska can replace a hundred in Egypt. A thousand years ago, everyone knew how a watermill worked; 200 years ago, most people knew how a steam engine works; how many people today know how a computer works?
'East Asia is faring better than the rest of the world in this great transformation because its culture imposes a merciless meritocracy. The West should be able to do better than this. If we can’t, we can see our future in Argentina'.
In the former 'miracle economy' of continent Downunder, debate rages also.
Henry's favourite journalist, Grace Collier, says in the weekend Oz that it is 'time to think again as players turn a blind eye to IR's corrupt heart'. Someone in the weekend fin has interviewed a builder, who says the government needs to erect a tougher barriers to union thugs before his colleagues will be willing to speak out. Fair enough, mate, but if there is a royal commission, you must be willing to stand up and be heard, as it will be the best chance in your lifetime to make a difference.
Judith Sloan, also in the Oz, has a nice - correction horrible - graph showing the decline in Australia's jobs from the peak in late 2008 (if I read the graph right) and the near parallel fall in workforce participation. The decline in participation explains why the rate of unemployment as measured by the ABS has 'only' risen from 4.9 % in April 2011 to 5.8 % now. As we have pointed out, if successively broader (and more realistic) measures are considered, there are 22 % of Australian workers who are actually unemployed (11 %), underemployed (another 8.6 %) or dropped out of the workforce (2.5 %).
Ather key bits of analysis come from international sources - the Economist and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (click on their names for Henry's discussion) as well as Spengler, linked above.
We make no apology for quoting from the best journalists in the world, because economics, business and economic policy have been for many years a global matter, and these writers are dealing with vast global structural forces that are influencing Australia demand to be heard. Australia's jobs market was for a while protected by the China boom and then the mad, wasteful spending by the Rudd'n'Gillard'n'Rudd governments. The cost was the build-up of a disasterous cost disequilibriun and a monster budget deficit.
The RBA meets for the first time this year next Tuesday. RBA staff must now be feeling a bit shell-shocked due to the unexpected weakness of the jobs market, combined with higher than expected house price inflation and higher than expected goods and services inflation. The question members of the the board should be asking is this: 'Could the last couple of rate cuts, and the Governor's "glass half full" optimism have helped create the current mess?' This will not be asked, of course, as Governor Glenn and his minions have highly effective ways of dealing with dissidents, but outsiders can ponder these questions as they observe the journalistic cheer squad in action on Wednesday morning.
Henry's expectation is that the board will decide that the current 'bias to easing' should be removed, implying (even stating) that the next move of cash rates could be in either direction.
However, we should not be too harsh on the gnomes of Martin Place. The RBA employs the most professional group of economists in Australia, and Henry is sure they do their best inside a rather insular culture. More importantly, the problems facing the Australian economy are, in order of inportance, the double-barralled cost overhang built up in the mining boom and by the Rudd'n'Gillard'n'Rudd governments' indulgent vainglorious spending boom and the horrible budgetary situation now faced by the Abbott government. Not much that the monetary gnomes can do except hold monetary policy firm and offer advice to the government, should Glenn Stevens feel that is part of his task.
Tennis has come and gone, and how good was it to see Li Na and Stan Wawrinka emerge victorious at the Australian Open. The others will be back, but Henry enjoys an upset as opposed to the mechanical repetition of wins by the suprstars.
It is only 14 or 15 sleeps until the footy starts again, and we can begin to judge how our teaqms are likely to perform in the 2014 season. Caaaarlton!'s one rolled gold superstar Chris Judd is said to be raring to go, and will play more in this year's preseason NAB cup than last year when he was said to be 'underdone'. Teams like Hawthorn, however, have 4 or 5 rolled gold superstars, and there is no evidence that Caaaarlton! can match those above them on the ladder in 2013. Indeed, we have let go to players who would have been on Henry's top 22 this year, Betts and Hampson, and the preferred ruckman, Warnock has two clearly obvious bad habits that Henry feels should be eliminated if he and the team are to begin to trouble the top teams. (Memo Mick Malthouse: Henry is willing to help Mr Warnock overcome these habits.)
Cricket is almost over at home, and since it included something like 11 wins out of 12 against the pestiferous Poms, with one big bash event to come we can at least feel we are approaching our proper level in world rankings again. But playing the number one South Efricans on their home turf is a truly great challenge, and if we win one test out of three with one hard-fought draw, it will be worth sitting up for.
Image of the week
Courtesy Sun Herald
A distopian future, even for Australia, former `miracle economy`.
Date: Thursday, January 30, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
Well, what a surprise, the ABC has discovered that rorts, corruption, intimidation, even death threats are rife in the construction business. Warm congratulations to those brave souls who spoke out, and also to Grace Collier of the Oz who is pursuing IR matters like a hound from hell. As Ms Collier says today, it is not just the union but the big construction companies who are complicit in in the whole mess, and we must now hope that the police get on with the job of organising some really juicy prosecutions for the industrial version of the coward's punch that has been so much discussed in recent months. Where does Bill Shorten and the parliamentary Labor Party stand on this one, folks, that is the political question.
Senator the Hon Eric Abetz, Minister for Employment, is also on the case, and his recent speech is getting some publicity.
The AFR reported as follows: 'The Abbott government has signalled a broad-ranging royal commission into the union movement following fresh allegations of corruption in the construction industry, setting the scene for a drawn-out assault on Labor’s traditional support base.
'At the same time, Employment Minister Eric Abetz upbraided businesses which habitually cave in to unrealistic union pay demands, jeopardising their viability and risking a wages breakout.
'In a blistering attack on business and unions for their roles in lifting wages to unsustainable levels, Senator Abetz called on companies to band together and resist spiralling claims'.
This continues the government's theme that if a company needs government support is should first put its house in order, and as we have pointed out labor costs are an important set of costs that are rendering Australian industry globally uncompetitive. Part of labor costs are the rorts and corruption in the construction industry, which includes the out-of-control NBN
Here is a link. If past practice is a guide, a video of the event will eventually be provided by the Sydney Institute.
Last week's inflation shock has provided aftershocks as the analysts get onto the case. For the December quarter, CPI inflation was 0.8 %, twice the predicted 0.4 %. 'Underlying' CPI inflation, the main guide to RBA action, is said to be at the top or even above the 2-3 % range for the past six months. Worse, traded goods inflation and inflation of services provided by or heavily influenced by governments are running at almost twice the average. On top of the unexpected strength of housing prices, this would seem to leave little room for any more rate cuts, and suggests in fact that the two previous rate cuts were a mistake. Much egg to be wiped from the RBa's dial as this is the entirely predictable (and predicted) consequence of using monetary policy to reduce the overblown Australian dollar.
The various nasty economic currents include doubt about the strength of China's economy putting downward pressure on commodity prices, fears about the further 'taper' of American money printing policy putting downward pressure on share prices and problems for 'emerging economies' as money flows back to the USA.
We highly commend Gary Scarrabelotti's fine contribution on the theme of 'a floating dollar requires floating wages', published here on Tuesday.
However, the real global nastiness is the vast and accelerating change that is the result of the second great age of machines. A reader has drawn attention to an excellent diatribe by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard who asks the question 'Will the 2nd Great Machine Age be a frightening jobless dystopia?"
As the reader says, 'it puts our debate on the future of manufacturing to shame'. But we are a small country far from the big centres where competition raises standards of debate on most matters, so we must borrow from the best in class when we can. (This bodes ill for local journalists, incidentally, but that is another matter.)
The basic thesis is that machines have been displacing jobs for years and the rate is accelerating.
Ambrose Pritchard: 'Phillip Jennings, head of the UNI global labour federation, said it would be a "miscarriage of justice" to blame the 32 million job losses since the Lehman-EMU crisis on the iPad or the driverless car.
"You can't put technology in the dock for 50pc youth unemployment in Greece or Spain. I blame the EU Troika. It was the economic and political decisions taken that have led to the collapse of jobs. In Greece it has gone beyond depression into a humanitarian crisis," he said at the World Economic Forum.
'He said some $2 trillion of corporate cash is on the sidelines in the US, $700bn in the UK, and another $2 trillion in the rest of the world. "There is an investors strike. This is a problem of demand in our economies, they are comatose," he said.
'This has a kernel of truth. The current policy settings are pushing the global savings rate to a record 25.5pc of GDP, creating a chronic surfeit of capital over labour. It is a Marxian world'.
Today we learn thanks to the ANZ bank that Australian investment is falling off a cliff and regular readers will recall that real (as opposed to ABS) unemployment has been rocketing up. While the mining boom may have staved off the problems already endemic in other 'developed' nations, it seems distopia is finally reaching Australia.
Read on here, folks, and work as hard as you can to help get your children into jobs that cannot (yet) be done by robots.
This is a companion piece to those by the Economist reported on last week, and linked here.
Should we be worried? You bet.
Floating dollar means (inevitably) floating wages
Date: Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Author: Gary Scarrabelotti
The truth about an iron law of economics must come out – and here it is: in a multi-dimensional economy the floating of the dollar was a one-dimensional reform – important in its own right and with many benefits - but a genuinely multi-dimensional reform would also provide for the “floating” of wages and salaries.
“Did he actually say that?”
“Yes, he did.”
Wages and salaries not only go up. They can go down – sometimes with inexorable force.
And here’s another shock with which to end your Happy Australia Day Holiday: John Howard was right about Work Choices.
Indeed he was. Because embedded in Work Choices was an important principle – the one I am now openly advocating – that wages and salaries are not on a one-way street north. They travel along a conventional two-way route and on the other side of the road traffic is heading south.
What was wrong with Work Choices was that it was a bridge too far at the time: industrially it was unnecessary; politically it was an error of judgement.
Prior to the 2004 federal elections, Howard government IR legislation had already set in motion throughout the labour market forces that were likely to have achieved in time, and with a conservative caution, much the same result as Work Choices – the natural complement of floating of the dollar.
Do I hear outrage there on my Left?
Sure do. I have said the unsayable.
Do I have a theoretical argument?
No, I don’t. But I do have the observations of “real life experience”. Let me tell you about them.
You see, I run a small business: a micro business, in fact. And this is what I have noticed: when my customers dry up, the business income dries up too; and when business income dries up, the wages that I can pay myself fall.
It has nothing to do with Theory of Money or “corporate greed”. It’s just a fact. Shrinking market, shrinking wages. Don’t ask me to explain it. It happens.
On one painful occasion I recall all too well, the market simply disappeared. What then occurred happened with the inevitability of a physical law. I had to stop paying myself a wage. To keep the business ticking over, I also had to stop making super contributions. And to meet my personal needs, I had to draw on savings. In other words, I took a gamble: I raided the Scarrabelotti Future Fund to pay for the present. Only time will tell, what the implications of that might be. For now I try not to think about it.
I did not come here, though, to write about me and my gambler’s decisions – after a certain point, me and mine had little to do with it. My business was like a tiny boat that had chugged out ignorantly upon a placid-seeming sea only to be picked up by a huge and unexpected wave and hurled mercilessly shoreward.
I also observed, as we sped toward our fate, that when my wages were cut – eliminated, actually –there was no respect paid to providing me with a living wage as defined by some industrial court or, more abstractly, by theologians and moral philosophers I have known. None at all! The wage was cancelled outright as if by an automatic principle imbedded in the universe. I was astonished by the shear amorality of it. Hadn’t the “business cycle” heard of justice?
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t deny that employers should pay workers a just wage. Let’s leave that for another time. For now, I want to focus on my personal encounter with the market place. In the instance I am reporting, there was literally no space for justice. It’s great to have it, if you have the means of delivering on it. Sometimes – very often, indeed – the means can be snatched away from us.
Here’s your takeaway then: in markets values rise and fall, including the value of wages. That is a shocking thought in a society habituated to the notion that wages can only rise. Unfortunately, a society that refuses to tolerate wage-and-salary falls is one committed – whether it appreciates it or not – to the long run destruction of work and employment.
You don’t believe me?Well, why not conduct an experiment? Go start a small business and watch what happens.
“OK. Been there, done that. Cut my wages. Cut my employees wages. We survived. But today the employees don’t seem too grateful. What now?”
Well, think about this. The employees who accepted the wage cuts have just acquired a stake in your business. They are like the venture capitalist. They have stumped up the new capital you needed to run the business. Now they have a claim to part of it.
“Whoa! Say that again.”
I will. Later.
“By the way, what happened when you hit the beach.”
Australia Day Sanity Break, 25 January 2014
Date: Saturday, January 25, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
Here's to a wonderful Australia Day long weekend, gentle readers, and congratulations to all those eminant Australians who have been 'gonged'.
We are late to post this weekend because we have been 'camped' in Avoca celebrating a dear friend's eightieth birthday, disguised as an event to 'open' a grand new hay shed. Little internet here, and Henry has not learnt to access it via his mobile phone. The 'camp' in our case was a nice 'Eco Lodge' about 7 km from the town centre and offering fine views, including bunnies, wallabies and stunning vistas of stars at night. For us the festivities started Friday night at a real camp beside a lake in the middle of a sheep'n'cattle run with a large fire, meat slowly roasting on said fire, dogs (and large bullants) running about and lots of red wine and fine scotch.
Henry had a mild traffic accident (BEFORE the drinking started), and the car was rendered driveable by the friendly owner of one of the local service stations. A sideswipe was due to Henry's uncertainty about the double two lane highway through the town and he was quick to tell the young person who had been startled by Henry's sudden lurch to the right it was his (Henry's) fault. No-one was hurt, and both cars are easily repairable, and this will boost Australia's GDP, but Mrs T when phoned to report the event was quick to question Henry's competence as a driver. 'Are you ok', she demanded to know, 'you're slurring your speech'. This is the latest line of attack on poor Henry, who over the years has been the recipient of most reasonable criticisms, as well attention being drawn to several (highly implausible) alleged weaknesses.
There were two copies of the Australian in the newsagent but no Age, showing the innate good sense of the residents of Avoca. The local news was of a bizarre murder, with the body dumped in an old mine shaft. 'This tipped the police off, as the perps must be men with detailed knowledge of the old mines and their locations', explained the bloke who kindly fixed Henry's car. 'They made two arrests almost immediately'.
On the national scene, we salute Adam Goodes, the official Australian of the year, as well as the five 'Champions of indigenous advancement' named as joint winners of a newspaper's similar award, one of whom was Adam Goodes. Also we cheer Li Na, who should be made an honorary Aussie for her fine win in the Australian Open. Coming as it did after two stoic losses, and thoughts of retirement, this is a rival for Mao's last dancer in Henry's heart at least.
Tony Abbott has been hailed for his speech of great economic commonsense at Davos and it has also been revealed that 'Jakarta rift won't deter PM on boats'. The largely country folk at the birthday party were probably natural conservatives but several expressed the view that 'nothing much' has happened so far under the new government. We were seeking to understand the complex family interrelationships among the guests and in any case it would have been impolite to attempt to poll the other guests on their political views.
Our guest of honour was a distinguished medical man who is known for his pioneering work on the so-called Bairnsdale Ulcer, aka Mycobacterium ulcerans disease or the Buruli ulcer. As well as diagnosing this dread affliction, which is related to leprosy and tuberculosis, John Hayman also devised the theory that it originated on the Gondwana supercontinent before it split apart. Analysis of the genetic structure of the Bairnsdale ulcer and similar diseases on the former parts of Gondwana has supposedly disproved this theory, but the senior medical man who was MC for the day expressed his view that John's theory would eventually be proved correct. Here is a link.
John Hayman's career has another, even more distinguished, highlight. In a moment of inspiration, he suddenly realised the nature of the previously mysterious illness that afflicted Charles Darwin. The symptoms included frequent vomiting, headaches and depression, hence the colorful name of the 'vomiting disease'. Previous theories focussed on depression, implying or stating outright that Darwin was a feeble person with a severe psychological problem. Even if this was correct, it would be a major burden, making his achievements even more worthy, but John Hayman's theory has been published in a refereed journal and seems widely accepted. There can be no definitive proof short of digging the body up and checking the DNA, although analysis of Darwin's (female) ancestors and their illnesses provides supporting evidence. The abstract to Dr Hayman's definitive paper is available here.
The theme of Henry's talk was that John Hayman is a man for the ages due to the many achievements of his medical career and in particular his work on Darwin's illness. But he is also a very good bloke with a great talent for friendship and a great love for the members of his extensive family, his dogs and even his many trees.
The country around Avoca in summer is classic Aussie landscape. Bright yellow grass, gum trees in numbers far too numerous to count, wire fences and blue hills, one of which is named, presumably with a sense of irony, Mount Avoca. We were taken to see a massive Red Gum, estimated to be three or four hundred years old. It was in the middle of a large paddock, and had a ring around its trunk about four feet from the ground, which one expert said was evidence that it survived an attempted ring-barking. As there were the dead bones of similar enormous trees in the centre of many other large paddocks in the area, Henry speculates that the original idea was to provide shade for the stock, but a later fashion, presumably encouraged by the Productivity Commission, decreed that the shade trees be cut down to provide more pasture.
One of the speeches praised John Hayman for the large number of trees he has planted. 'But I feel sure Jack (real name surpressed, but a worker on the estate) will chop them all down once I am gone', John Hayman noted in his reply.
Image of the week
Henry arrives, disguised as a local, photo courtesy Tom Hayman
Inflation, cost disequilibrium blues
Date: Thursday, January 23, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
Gor blimey, guv'nor, the mob has caught on. Australia's cost base is way over a level at which we are competitive and a falling exchange rate is necessary but not sufficient to fix it. We was warned by the Gov'nor of this proposition very recently, only a year or so after it became bleeding obvious to the outsiders who try to help.
The RBA boss, Glenn Stevens, has now faced two strikes aginst his administration. First the resumption of house price inflation came far sooner than he expected, and his only response was to point out that these hikes did not a bubble make. Then goods and services inflation for the December quarter come in about twice the level expected by guv'nor Glenn and his forecasting team and all and sundry are giving advice that is intended to be helpful. Even one of the old and bold bizoids, a former RBA board member no less, has pointed out, well after the inflationary horse has bolted, that Australia's double-barreled cost disequilibrium been building up for years. Hope he will now reveal the warnings about the advice he gave the guv'nor along the way. Here is one of Henry's efforts, in May 2013.
'Australia needs wage restraint' say some, and the more enlightened people even say 'Australia needs wage cuts'. Yes we do comrades, but how can this be done in an IR system that favours unions and with an absolutely poisonous political atmosphere? That is the question and there is no easy answer. Short of political and union cooperation the conventional answer is severe recession. Here is Henry's most recent attempt to be helpful.
Hang on to your hats, gentle readers.
Innovation and new technologies - should we be worried?
Date: Monday, January 20, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
'INNOVATION, the elixir of progress, has always cost people their jobs. In the Industrial Revolution artisan weavers were swept aside by the mechanical loom. Over the past 30 years the digital revolution has displaced many of the mid-skill jobs that underpinned 20th-century middle-class life'. This is the introduction to an important lead article from this week's Economist.
1. The big bursts of innovation have made the average inhabitant of modern western economies far better off. 2. However, gains took a long while to trickle down, and during the long adjustment period, many redundant artisans were unemployed - think the Luddites, who burnt the machines that were taking their jobs. 3. In addition, initial gains went to owners of capital, and real wages of workers took the best part of a century from the start of the first industrial revolution to rise. 4. The western world is now experiencing another bust of productivity growth that is disrupting workers and may yet cause substantial unemployment combined with people dropping out of the workforce.
The main facts quoted by the Economist demand careful attention.
* 'In the early part of the first industrial revolution the rewards of increasing productivity went disproportionately to capital; later on, labour reaped most of the benefits. * 'The pattern today is similar. The prosperity unleashed by the digital revolution has gone overwhelmingly to the owners of capital and the highest-skilled workers. Over the past three decades, labour’s share of output has shrunk globally from 64% to 59%. * 'Meanwhile, the share of income going to the top 1% in America has risen from around 9% in the 1970s to 22% today. Unemployment is at alarming levels in much of the rich world, and not just for cyclical reasons. * 'In 2000, 65% of working-age Americans were in work; since then the proportion has fallen, during good years as well as bad, to the current level of 59%'.
And it will get worse, says the venerable mag: '... it seems likely that this wave of technological disruption to the job market has only just started. From driverless cars to clever household gadgets, innovations that already exist could destroy swathes of jobs that have hitherto been untouched. The public sector is one obvious target: it has proved singularly resistant to tech-driven reinvention. But the step change in what computers can do will have a powerful effect on middle-class jobs in the private sector too'.
Not mentioned, but perhaps implicit, is the rise of China, India, and the dynamic nations of South East Asia and South America. There is also the relentless aging of global population, especially acute in China, Japan and the Eurozone. Whether these factors make for a larger and in proportional terms more brutal adjustment than that of the first industrial revolution is beyond Henry's pay grade to discern. But the special article that accompanies the Economist's leader says: 'For much of the 20th century, those arguing that technology brought ever more jobs and prosperity looked to have the better of the debate. Real incomes in Britain scarcely doubled between the beginning of the common era and 1570. They then tripled from 1570 to 1875. And they more than tripled from 1875 to 1975. Industrialisation did not end up eliminating the need for human workers. On the contrary, it created employment opportunities sufficient to soak up the 20th century’s exploding population'.
However: '... across the rich world, all is far from well in the world of work. The essence of what they see as a work crisis is that in rich countries the wages of the typical worker, adjusted for cost of living, are stagnant. In America the real wage has hardly budged over the past four decades. Even in places like Britain and Germany, where employment is touching new highs, wages have been flat for a decade. Recent research suggests that this is because substituting capital for labour through automation is increasingly attractive; as a result owners of capital have captured ever more of the world’s income since the 1980s, while the share going to labour has fallen.
'At the same time, even in relatively egalitarian places like Sweden, inequality among the employed has risen sharply, with the share going to the highest earners soaring. For those not in the elite, argues David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, much of modern labour consists of stultifying “bullshit jobs”—low- and mid-level screen-sitting that serves simply to occupy workers for whom the economy no longer has much use'. ...
'The case for a highly disruptive period of economic growth is made by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, professors at MIT, in “The Second Machine Age”, a book to be published later this month. Like the first great era of industrialisation, they argue, it should deliver enormous benefits—but not without a period of disorienting and uncomfortable change. Their argument rests on an underappreciated aspect of the exponential growth in chip processing speed, memory capacity and other computer metrics: that the amount of progress computers will make in the next few years is always equal to the progress they have made since the very beginning. Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee reckon that the main bottleneck on innovation is the time it takes society to sort through the many combinations and permutations of new technologies and business models.
'A startling progression of inventions seems to bear their thesis out. Ten years ago technologically minded economists pointed to driving cars in traffic as the sort of human accomplishment that computers were highly unlikely to master. Now Google cars are rolling round California driver-free no one doubts such mastery is possible, though the speed at which fully self-driving cars will come to market remains hard to guess'.
These latest articles from the Economist, and the new books they cite, are are obviously well worth reading. Even optimists concede the onrush of technology is likely to involve loss of jobs, with many older workers unable to acquire the new skills necessary for them to stay in the workforce. And during the adjustment phase of the new era of technical progress, inequality will rise, and perhaps the elite top 1 % will become a new self-replicating oligarchy, profoundly unsetting to many of the non-elite 99 %, most of whom have badly paid, uninteresting jobs.
Saturday Sanity Break, 18 January 2014
Date: Saturday, January 18, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
Some like it hot, as the movie asserted, but people living in areas suffering bushfires don't like it as hot as its been, and neither do tennis players. As usual, fantastic work by firefighters, mostly volunteers, has so far limited the damage, and in this, Australia's hottest summer since the 1930s, more vigilence and dangerous hard work is on the agenda.
Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, has offered to bet Maurice Newman $10,000 that average temperatures will be higher in 20 years time. Though Henry will likely not be around to collect, I would be happy to add my $10,000 to the pile if Mr Newman is taking more bets. If you are not, old mate, at least spell out your exhaustive literature survey.
One of the stories of the heatwave is the inability of the alternative energy sources to contribute to meeting the peak power loads. Often in heat waves the wind is still, or blowing so hard that the wind turbines get turned off, and solar is still highly inefficient. Given the massive hikes in power bills, partly to pay for inefficient 'alternative' energy sources (and partly to pay for delayed or overlooked infrastructure upgrades as privatised managements pursued bonusses) a new and more hard-nosed approach to national power supply is clearly needed. Item # 46 of the Abbott government's list, one imagines.
Australia's best friend in Asia, Indonesia, purports to be outraged at the accidental incursion of an Australian patrol boat into Indonesian waters. On behalf of Australia, Henry respectfully wishes to assert his outrage that Indonesia harbours people smugglers and sees them on their way to make incursions into our sacred waters. Fair go, fellows, we share this problem and outrage, real or confected, can only give comfort to the people smugglers.
Fiona Prior suggests you go immediately to MONA if you have not already made your pilgrimage to this cultural temple. It is just next to God’s parking spot, Hobart, Tasmania.
Mrs T is away, tending to her aged father, and the kids are mostly all over the globe, the youngest snowboarding in Canada at 30 degrees below zero. So it is largely Jack the collie dog for company and the total freedom this provides has not been wasted. Henry's new leisure time regime includes reading whilst following the tennis and, when Australia is playing the PPs, cricket.
Henry has developed a technique for doing all three things at once that is so efficient that only an economist could have invented it.
Pick a book that is gripping enough to provide real focus while not so difficult that it requires fierce attention. Turn on the cricket, switch to the tennis, then in ad breaks one can just hit the back button on the TV remote to change channels.
Last night, the book was Dylan's Chronicles, according to the blurb on the cover, 'The most extraordinarily intimate autobiography by a twentieth-century legend ever written' (Daily Telegraph). It is certainly brilliantly written and full of insight into contemporary America and its music. He writes of recording for Danny Lanois: 'I would have liked to be able to give him the kind of songs he wanted, like "Masters of War", "Hard Rain", "Gates of Eden" but those kind of songs were written under different circumstances, and circumstances never repeat themselves. Not exactly. I couldn't get to those kinds of songs for him or anyone else. To do it, you've got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I'd done it once, and once was enough.' (Volume 1, pp 218 - 219. Note - there is no Volume 2, not yet at least.)
Anyway, when the sounds from the TV rose to excitement levels that indicated something important had happened, immediate viewing was an option, and if it is a particularly exciting passage one can watch until the excitement ebbs and, if an ad comes on, one can switch channels, and if the second channel has an ad, its back to Bob Dylan.
I saw key moments of Sam Stouser struggling after a brilliant first set. And the night before I'd watched key bits of Rafael Nadal blasting the hapless Australian 17-year-old off the court, but Thanasi Kokkinakis was far from disgraced. I saw quite a bit of Nick Kyrgios dominating Frenchman Benoit Paire (who needs a forehand coach) for the first two sets only to run out of gas in the end. With Kokkinakis and Kyrgios, it seems like Australia has finally found some potential stars, including in this list Ashley Barty whose brave first round fight against Serena 'Goliath' Williams showed she has the right stuff. In other good news, it seems as if Casey Dellacqua is back, another Aussie battler who lifts our spirit every time she steps on the court. When Mr Tomic gave up after a good first set against Nadal, all I asked was 'What would Lleyton have done?'
But last night, it was the cricket that stopped the night from being another page turner and channel hopper. England batted first and accumulated 300 runs, with several good individual performances and a brilliant century by that stout honorary Englishman Eoin Morgan. Then the PPs took early wickets, holding two catches that English fielders would previously on this tour hardly have seen. Marsh and Maxwell each contributed well but, with only one wicket to go, James Faulkner came to play one of the great innings, with massive sixes and three fours from the three first balls of the last over. If you missed this glorious match, here is a video of the highlights.
Image of the week
Lost jobs and lost workers - the debate we have to have
Date: Friday, January 17, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
'Growth in jobs worst for 20 years' screams the front page of the Australian. Good to see this important national newspaper has discovered the systematic loss of jobs, especially full-time jobs, and the largely ofsetting loss of workers. It is only a sharply declining participation rate that is keeping the officially measured rate of unemployment to a modest 5.8 %.
As the graph below shows, the more realistic measure of unemployment by Roy Morgan Research shows unemployment is already at 11 % and climbing. Allowing for underemployment, the total of under- and un-employed is more than 22% of the workforce. Here is a good discussion of the facts, from the Macrobusiness site.
Roy Morgan today reported a substantial fall in business confidence.
'Roy Morgan Research’s latest Business Confidence survey in December 2013 has fallen sharply from its immediate post-election peak of 136.3 in October to 125.2. This turnaround was expected to some degree after the election but a number of negative events since have contributed to a more severe drop than was considered likely. These December figures are the results of 1,841 interviews across all industries, business sizes and locations across Australia.
'The further drop in confidence among business in December was caused by a decline in positive feelings about where the economy is heading in the next 12 months and the next five years. There has also been a small drop in the proportion of businesses considering that the next 12 months are a good time to invest in growing the business'.
Many of Australia's iconic businesses are doomed unless there are dramatic changes in the current overblown cost structure. Labor costs have risen sharply, most obviously for apprentices whose wages have been greatly boosted by a decision of the 'Fair work' Commission. Now there are many potential apprentices who have 'fair' wages (in theory) but no jobs. Fair? Bloody unfair, if you think about it for a nanosecond. But also sharply increased are costs of power, stultifying regulations, confusing tax policy and an excessive exchange rate, despite the welcome falls so far. All areas provide great scope for reform, but Henry is worried that the urgency of cost reform is lost in the heat of the battle to fix the budget. Please Joe Hockey, keep telling your cabinet colleagues two things. Declining jobs, and a declining work force will surely wreck the budget - indeed, these scarey workplace facts have already done a fair bit of damage - and will also wreck your government if no solution is forthcoming.
Analysis business icon by icon may be helpful. Earlier this week we learned that Qantas is no longer sending its large planes to Tasmania. Mrs Thornton's private research, seeking to use Henry's frequent flyer points for a trip to Europe, discovered a far more alarming set of facts. First, no spots for frequent flyer points to fly to Europe - 'you have to call exactly 12 months before the flight' trilled one helpful booking-clerk, who at least spoke good Aussie English. But here was the worrying point. Emirates has all the convenient flights to Europe. To travel on Qantas is to pay top dollar plus its flights all seemed less convenient. One 'special deal' involved an overnight hotel stay in Dubai. 'Qantas's international routes are already taken over' was Mrs T's conclusuion.
Regular readers will recall that Henry has been saying for some time that Quantas's cost base for international competition is some 30 or 40 % above those of new best friend Emirates and other international airlines. 'Quantas's domestic costs are also 8 to 10 % higher than Virgin' a colleague pointed out during a meeting yesterday. Sadly, Qantas is doomed, except perhaps to have its brand utilised by Emirates on the international routes while it fights a losing battle with Virgin on the major domestic routes.
One of the better ideas following the decision by General Motors is to find some sort of boutique vehicle producer to take over Holden's infrastructure. Here is a more radical version of this idea. The government should offer to broker a deal in which Holden's infrastructure is acquired by Holden's workforce, probably a consortium of unions. (This thought is not original. It was James Meade's suggested solution for dealing with Britain's antiquated coal mines in the 1950s). Henry is prepared to bet the unions would say 'no way, Jose', because the only way they could make the business even break even would be by cutting wages and conditions.
There is of course, a bigger play in all this for the Abbott government. Every economist Henry knows agrees excessive costs are crippling many of Australia's businesses. Joe Hockey has been building a case against 'special assistance', but the political risks of this for the government are both obvious and considerable. The Treasurer should say 'we shall not even consider assistance unless a business has already reduced wages and conditions to the minimum specified in the relevant awards'. This approach would wedge Labor nicely, to the point that Mr Shorten would stand a fair chance of getting the blame if he supported the inevitable union cry of 'unfair - we deserve to be paid well above the global wage because we are Aussies'. At least there would be the prospect of a decent national debate on the issue of costs and the sustainability of Australia's current industrial structure. This debate is clearly needed.
True Unemployment by Henry Thornton's measure is at a new record high of 22.3% in December 2013. (ABS says 5.8% for November and December 2013).
Risk, uncertainty and controlling thugs
Date: Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
The new financial year is slowly cranking up to business as normal. All the main US equity indices were down by 1.1 % to 1.7 % while the yield on long-term bonds rose to 2.82 %. The Aussie dollar rose by over 1 %. Commodity experts say iron ore and most metal prices will be lower this year as China struggles with its pivot to consumerism. All this seems to symbolise the fact that 2014 is likely to be a more difficult year for both the US and Australian economies.
The emerging Aussie house price boom is I suspect stronger than the Reserve Bank boffins expected, and the RBA's mates in the press are shedding crocodile tears over the plight of first time house or unit buyers as they are elbowed aside by 'investors' using excessively generous negative gearing tax breaks. Abolishing negative gearing would be a great reform, but Paul Keating's attempt to do so ended in ignominy (try spelling that after a big night watching the tennis, and isn't Ashley Barty a goer) after a few weeks as the punters revolted.
Best hope for the Abbott government is to limit tax offset to interest paid on a case by case basis. If this is too big a punt for Joe Hockey, what about allowing entrepreneurs to offset losses on new business ventures against income across their portfolio, including their cash income? Simple equity, plus desire to promote new businesses, demands such a reform, and the rumor mills suggest the boffins are worrying that issue like dogs with a bone. Now, if a cash-strapped start-up cannot afford to pay directors and staff properly, and issues shares in lieu of cash, the ATO requires income tax to be paid on an imputed amount in excess of the issue price. an amazing turn-off.
Any way, to return to the crocodile tears, RBA staffers in the privacy of their offices should be shedding the occasional tear for having overshot in cutting interest rates, thereby making life more difficult than it need be for first home buyers. This has been further than most experts (even old duffers like Henry) recommended and at least one result is a housing boom that is already squeezing young people out of the market. Whether super-low interest rates will help the pivot to non-mining activity is yet to be seen, and our fingers are crossed. Encourage infrastructure repair and building is the cry from most of us, financed by selling assets still owned by government or by tax breaks to infrastructure builders or privately owned investment funds, including the booming superannuation funds.
'Policy needs to be designed around uncertainty' thunders Warwick McKibbin today in the Fin. McKibbin makes the powerful point that Treasury forecasts have ignored 'how uncertain the world already is', for which we offer a hearty 'hear, hear!'. He does not offer any concrete proposals. The RBA apparently puts error limits around its predictions these days, which is a classic way to take account of risk (which can be measured and allowed for) but not uncertainty. Specification of 'realistic worst cases' is Henry's suggestion about allowing crudely for uncertainty. Another practice Henry used when he was responsible for forecasting was at the start of the year - ie around now - invite staff to provide predictions of 'unlikely but possible surprises'. Like a good dose of salts, this can loosen the relevant organs, ie brains in this case, to the point that useful insights are produced. Doing just this in early 1986 was certainly effective, but career limiting for the principal loose-brained thinkers, so one can sympathise with more tight-brained folk who stay in their comfy burrows and say 'uncertainty is not my department, sir'.
Jennifer Hewett has been drinking in Mexican bars with young relatives during the holiday season. She was struck (in her mind, not physically) with the lack of violence, despite the acknowledged presence of drug gangs, police corruption and other noxious aspect of Mexican culture. Ms Hewett attributes lack of violence to numbers of heavily armed police patrolling the fun-streets and booze-temples, which makes sense to Henry. She asserts that the killers of one young person assulted here will be charged with murder, but a lawyer friend disputes this point, since the defence will be 'Temporarily insane due to drugs and/or 'There was no intention to murder the victim, yer honor, this was just a very sad accident'.
Presumably, a similar defence will be used by the mad person who drove at speed through a red light, killing a pedestrian and two people in a car crossing on green, and injuring others. (If this person was not 'mad' in any normal sense of the word, the word should never be used.) As well as police presence in numbers, tough laws are also needed, so that judges have to give serious judgments, not 'six years with parole possible after four', whether on not the perpetrator was temporarily 'mad' or drug-crazed.
Henry also wishes to commend Nick Cator of the Oz for his expose of the fiasco that is the 'national curriculum'. It is long, it dense with educrat jargon and presents an amazingly noxious view of what is important in Aussie culture. A real 'black armband' creature.
Since I am unable to access Mr Cator's article on my PC, despite being a subscriber for every issue since launch, and a contributor for over a decade, I shall leave it too interested readers to seek out his article. It is in today's fish'n'chip edition, on the opinion page.
Gird your loins, gentle readers, it is going to be a difficult year.