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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
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.'

  Courtesy NAB

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.

The linked article on 'offshore wage explosion' is like the first blowfly of summer.

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. 

Downtown Abbey on the Molonglo (The Bunyip aristocracy).
Date: Thursday, March 27, 2014
Author: Tiresias of Canberra

Mr Abbott has made a very grave mistake restoring knighthoods and damedoms. Reintroducing chivalric honours, complete with archaic honorifics, will allow Mr Shorten to paint the Coalition as the party of snobs and frustrated, wannabe, Brits. It emphasises Abbott’s personal nostalgia for a world that is past. In the UK knights now mostly decline to use the honorific ‘sir’. The only British knight I know personally insists on first names. Peers, both hereditary and life, largely do the same … unless they are travelling to the USA where would-be sophisticates and rubes adore what passes for European aristocracy.

Australian knighthoods were defensible in the days when we were an Old Dominion and those who held public office could not expect high remuneration during their working life or after it. Today it is very different. We are a republic in all but name, the monarchy plays no real role in national life and senior people in the judiciary and the public sector do very nicely, and the most eminent can expect highly lucrative commercial appointments in retirement as well. There is no principled case why any Australian who has climbed the greasy pole should ape the styles and titles of their 'betters' from days past or why they should receive any greater deference than either money or personal reputation already makes available to them. As for the choice of Cosgrove and Bryce: Peter

Mr (Sir Peter) Cosgrove is worthy enough, but does Abbott think his grassroots constituency (conservative, suburban, Australia) seriously wants to honour someone like Ms (Dame Quinten) Bryce who embodies many of the least likeable features of our smug and snide national elite?

The ABC, SBS and the Fairfax press will mock many of the men and women who will be chosen to receive the new quasi-imperial honours. Who will blame them for doing so? The creepy succession of party donors, spivs, racing industry types and celebrity sportsmen who will inevitably receive such honours over time will destroy public esteem for the whole thing.

Most seriously of all, by making a fuss about the bullshit of knighthoods, Abbott has thrown away a great rhetorical advantage that was available to him: the ALP and the trade unions are the only truly feudal political institutions in the country, that is, they are institutions in which family background and hereditary ties continue to play a truly significant role. This is an Achilles heel of the labour movement – the sheer number of gormless, useless and mediocre, types who continue to rise through the ranks on the strength of their family ties is a disgrace. It goes to the heart of what the trade union movement has allowed itself to become.

Now that Abbott has made himself the champion of chivalry and defender of archaic class distinctions, Shorten shall have undeserved and very suitable cover for the culture of nepotism that plagues the labour movement. Any time that Abbott wishes to focus attention on this nepotism, Shorten shall be able to change the subject merely by alluding to one or other of Abbott’s knights or dames.

Mr Abbott should wise up. University debating and student politics may have been fun, but they are over now. Every day in office is a privilege, every day must count and every punch has got to hit and hit hard. Wasting energy, attention and truly irreplaceable political capital on the honours system in the government’s first term is indefensible. Either Abbott re-sets the national focus where it counts or he is lost.

Other views

'Restoring knights and dames, The Oz.  

'Queen’s man John Howard would refuse Abbott’s Sir John title', AFR.  


The coming global asset bust.
Date: Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'Legendary investor Jeremy Grantham says the US Federal Reserve is killing the recovery of the world's biggest economy and the "next bust will be unlike any other".

We applaud Jared Lynch of The Age for sharing this gloomy prosnostication with Henry and his readers.

His article continues: 'Mr Grantham – the cofounder and chief investment strategist at the $US112 billion ($123 billion) Boston-based fund manager GMO –said he wouldn't invest his clients' money in US stocks for at least the next seven years because of the Fed's "misguided policies".

'Mr Grantham has an impeccable track record, having called both the internet bubble and then the US housing bubble. In November he said he believed the US sharemarket could rise another 30 per cent, although he believed it was overvalued, before crashing again.

"We invest our clients' money based on our seven-year prediction," Mr Grantham told Fortune.

"Over the next seven years we think the market will have negative returns. The next bust will be unlike any other because the Fed and other central banks around the world have taken on all this leverage that was out there and put it on their balance sheets. We have never had this before.

"Assets are overpriced generally. They will become cheap again. That's how we will pay for this. It's going to be very painful for investors".

A close friend, and Goldmember, sent us a link and asked what we thought of this scary prognostication.

I replied as follows: believe ultra loose US monetary policy has fuelled the last two asset booms. When the late 90s boom ended, Greenspan reversed policy to make money again cheap as chips.

Another substantial asset boom started after some time, and it was a doozy. Bernanke did the same when the GFC hit the world.

US monetary tightening now under way will produce another bust, but history says if it gets serious the Fed will then reverse engines again.

If one is willing to bet that the next bust will again be reversed one can sit and take one’s medicine, then enjoy the recovery.

At some time, global investors will however cotton on to the thought that this game cannot go on forever.

Whether this makes for the worst bust ever is uncertain, but one cannot rule it out.

I plan to reduce my equity holding before the next bust, but timing is something no-one is very good at.

In case you missed it, here is our latest report of discussion essentially similar to Mr Grantham's but in modest, non-scary language.

Memo to self: must lift game.

Is Australia's growth doomed to slow?
Date: Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

The inter-related topics of 'Demographics, Productivity and Innovation' is the subject of a fine speech by Philip Lowe of RBA fame, as reported yesterday. Australia's population is growing faster than those of other developed nations and numbers of Australians born overseas are rising to nineteenth century levels.  These are two trends that may help make Australia relatively innovative and relatively productive.  Offsetting this, our population is growing older and older people are costly to look after and (mostly) less innovative even while they are still working.

Productivity growth (and therefore standard of living growth) in almost all developed nations has declined markedly since the mid 2000s compared with that in previous decades, possibly as an effect of the Global Financial Crisis which severely limited business investment.  Australia is no exception.  As Mr Lowe says: 'Looking back over the past two decades or so, we have enjoyed faster growth in real per capita income than almost any other advanced economy. In the 1990s, we benefited from strong productivity growth. Then in the 2000s, our collective living standards were boosted by a very large rise in commodity prices. And over much of this period our national income was further increased by the rise in the labour force participation rate that I mentioned a moment ago.

'Today things look a little different. Productivity growth over the past decade has been lower than it was in the 1990s, commodity prices are high but no longer rising, and the share of the population in employment has fallen recently. If these trends continue we face the prospect of considerably slower growth in our living standards than we have become accustomed to.

'The solution here is to lift our productivity growth.  Mr Lowe did not add 'but this is easier said than done'.

He did however provide brief summaries of the main thesis of two of the books referred to by Michael Folie, plus a more optimistic view.

'Professor Robert Gordon from Northwestern University ... argues that the first three-quarters of the 20th century was a golden period in terms of productivity growth for the advanced economies. During that period, we worked out how to take full advantage of the transformational inventions of electricity and the internal combustion engine that occurred at the end of the 19th century. While there have been many breakthroughs over recent years, Gordon argues that they pale into insignificance compared with the huge advances made possible by these iconic inventions at the end of the 19th century'.

'Another sombre assessment is offered by Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps. He argues that the problem is not so much that we have run out of really great things to invent, but that western societies are now less able to invent them. He argues that cultural changes, including the changed role of government, have stifled the desire and incentives for innovation. As a result, our economies have become less dynamic and less likely to find, develop and make use of the major technological breakthroughs that are the source of much productivity growth.

'As is usual in economics though, there is a counterview and it is much more optimistic. This view is that the so-called techno-pessimists are fundamentally wrong and, rather than facing a future of much slower technical progress, we are on the cusp of a new era of great progress in science. A prominent advocate of this view is Robert Gordon's colleague at Northwestern University, Joel Mokyr, who argues that the technological advances of recent times have given scientists a dazzling new range of tools and instruments. These advances have also greatly lowered the cost of accessing information. His argument is that, as a result, a new age of great scientific advancement is now possible'.

Which view, or which mix of views, is nearest to being correct, is impossible to tell in the current state of economic knowledge. However, Mr Lowe notes that 'if we are to improve efficiency and advance technology then innovation is required and innovation requires someone to take a risk – the risk of trying a different process, the risk of changing workplace organisation and management practices, or the risk of spending scarce resources to explore a new idea'.

This brings us to the question of how to create a more innovative economy. Mr Lowe asks 'How has our society's attitude to risk and innovation evolved over time and what are the implications for productivity growth?'

His 'tentative answer is that there has been a subtle, but important, shift in the way we think about risk and innovation. In particular, our preferences appear to have shifted in such a way that we increasingly focus on risk mitigation and risk control. There are examples of this in a whole range of activities in our society – from the nature of the legislation that parliaments pass, to the increase in compliance activities in the nation's boardrooms, to the amount of money we are prepared to spend to limit the probability of blackouts and even to our attitudes about the design of children's playgrounds. In each of these areas, our society has been prepared to limit options or to spend more of our scarce resources to reduce risk'.

While I am attracted to this view as a structural influence to add to the net effect of technical matters or low recent investment levels, it certainly cannot explain the recent almost halving of the growth of productivity in almost all developed nations.

This must remain a matter for further thought and perhaps for further testing, ideally in the more rigerous manner used by real scientists such as physicists.

My own pet theory is that Australia's tax and welfare system suffers major anti-innovative biases relative to those of the USA, a famously innovative society.  One reason for this is because taxes on start-up companies are far higher here, and the ATO zealously tries to kill plans to reduce this bias.  The ATO's insistence, for example, that shares issued in lieu of cash must be taxed at full nominal value, so that staff and directors of cash-strapped start-ups must pay full tax on a value that may, statistically will on average, be greatly overstated is a ridiculous obstacle to an innovative economic culture.

So too is Australia's relatively generous welfare system.  But would we really want to make things far harder for the battlers, as it is in the USA?  Logically, however, if normal jobs are hard to get and welfare is low and also hard to get, some people will create new businesses, even if it is mowing lawns or minding otherpeople's children, or walking other people's dogs.

But we must accept that America's history was in important respects far more innovative than ours. The relentless drive to the west, buying or capturing massive new territories, the massive influence of mining booms (which we share), acceptance of migrants who had to make it or fail with little help, the war between the states, the influence of colonial masters, who Americans threw off over the issue of excessive taxationwhile we outwaited ours, the differences mostly work in the direction of a more self-reliant, harsher and more entrepreneurial culture.

And, as Mr Lowe says, perhaps being rich makes a nation less innovative, or allows a rich nation to be more risk adverse.  My own writing on these matters is available here.

They raise questions such as the role of gambling in creating an innovative culture, what would Australia would do if a young Albert Einstein popped up or what does the research on the mainsprings of economic growth really show?  Questions a Deputy Governor is probably trained not even to think about.

But adding all the evidence and opinion (except that of the optomistic Joel Mokyr), it seems that unless something big changes, standards of living are likely to grow more slowly in developed nations like Australia.  Countries, like Australia, whose standards of living have grown faster than productivity may even need to undego a reduced standard of living.  Difficult to handle, especially it is only a few conomists on the recored to warn Australians of this gloomy possibility.

RBA Speech - Demographics, Productivity and Innovation
Date: Monday, March 24, 2014
Author: Michael Folie

I have over the last year been mulling and reading about the need for economic policy to focus primarily on growth policies and this leads to the question of how do we incentivise productivity. The usual macro response is to upgrade skills and training and spend money on bureaucratic innovation councils and hence how to get venture capital mobilised.

Several eminent economists have notable treatises on this topic. Michael Spence .. Technology convergence helps Emerging Economies.   Richard Gordon points out that productivity gains in the future will be much less than historical. Edmond Phelps (my favourite) argues that productivity stems from a widespread attitude encouraging creativity, try something different at the individual level . This means a very flexible workplace without all the prescriptive rules such as Fair Work Australia.

The attached link is to a speech given 10 days ago by Phillip Lowe, Deputy-governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia.  I draw it to your attention because it is the first time I have seen such a serious discussion in Australia. Mainly the Phelps book which I think offers an interesting angle towards supporting workplace reform.

Ed: We encourage others to comment on this important speech, providing a fine discussion of an issue that effects us all, and on which economics is a long way from being definite about.  Contact Henry here.

My own writings on these matters is available here.

They raise questions such as the role of gambling in creating an innovative culture, what would Australia would do if a young Albert Einstein popped up or what does the research on the mainsprings of economic growth really show?

The role of 'bourgeois dignity’

Thanks, Michael. I had the pleasure of hosting Deirdre McCloskey recently in Adelaide. Her explanation of the Industrial Revolution, which she generalises, has to do with what she calls ‘bourgeois dignity’: entrepreneurs saw themselves as doing (a social) good; and the dominant groups in the society grew to appreciate the contributions of those who upset the status quo. This is very like the phrase Michael quotes from Phelps, ‘a widespread attitude encouraging creativity’. Ideas and attitudes, along with interests, shape outcomes.

Jonathan Pincus

Sunday Sanity Break, 23 March 2014
Date: Sunday, March 23, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Russia grabs Crimea, someone or something grabs Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and rumour, smear and innuendo grabs Australia's Assistant Treasurer. It been a grabby kind of a week with Russian Grandmaster Vlad (the Impaler) Putin the biggest winner and, apparently, the passengers and crew of Malaysian Flight 370 the biggest losers.  We apologise that Henry's site was unavailable this weekend and that this popular column was therefore delayed.  The reason is mysterious, but got fixed on Monday am when the server was rebooted.

Like the friends and relatives of the possibly hi-jacked aeroplane, we hope at least that the passengers have been released on a military airfield somewhere in the mountain country North of the Indian subcontinent, a theory being propounded on CNN by a retired but supposedly 'well connected' American general.  Seems unlikely to Henry, but the whole lost plane saga has a weirdly strange air about it.

Arthur Sinodinos has certainly been entangled with some unsavoury people, and how could he not know who were the shareholders of the company that he chaired, or the  generous donations from Arthur's company to Arthur's political party?  Henry had a searing learning experience with his first attempt to become a professional director, before he had formed the fully critical approach that is one's best defence in the wilder seas of corporate life.  Mr Sinodisos should not be damned for the rest of his life for what seems to this outsider most likely to be gross naivety, but it is in the hands of ICAC now and its process could go anywhere from here.

The Prime minister is being congratulated by the Australian for an IR policy that is not an IR policy in the normal sense.

'PM vows to bust union stranglehold' is the page one headline.  It is all about the construction industry that seems to be a festering mess of restrictive practices, intimidation and rorts, whose economic effect is to slow down and raise the costs of construction. This rat's nest must be cleaned up and doing so would make a noticable contribution to Australia's economic well-being.

The union movement will of course fight reform like the kilcanny cats it most resembles.  Readers should recall the amazingly bad behaviour during the last great war, brilliantly documented by Hal Colbatch, with an extract from his book available here.

And do not miss Grace Collier's opinion that union membership in Australia might halve overnight if all state governments outlawed patroll deductions of union fees and the Federal government outlawed the forcible unionisation of small business by big business.

China's economy

Analysts everywhere have been worrying themselves silly about a potential hard landing in China's economy. The worries are about corruption, a possibly mismanaged banking sector and the state of China's many government owned corporations.

Fear of retribution for correcption may have accelerated the inflow of wealthy people and capital into safe-haven nations like Australia, Canada and the USA. 

Australia's renascent property boom, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, is attributed in part to increased flow of Chinese money.

Now the inflow is said to include the market for art and rare artifacts, as conveyed to Samantha Hutchinson of the AFR.

The strongest warning that Henry has seen is that by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, reported here.


Fiona Prior has the rare delight of experiencing Handa's Opera on Sydney Harbour, Madama Butterfly.


Australia's cricketers are in foreign climes fighting to their first T20 World Cup.  We wish them well, but it is a style of cricket no-one, like Henry, raised on the timeless serenity of test or shield cricket, where 4 or five days in the blazing sun often failed to reach a clear result, can easily adapt to.

Instead we turned to the footy, and the curiously crafted first round - split so last week we got a taste and this week we have to sit it out.  Last week we rejoiced when the Giants flogged the Swans, Collingwood got flogged by .... and the Suns dealt with Richmond.  Then on Sunday evening, Caaaarlton! came out fighting and seemed to have Port Adelaide on the ropes.  But the gritty boys from the port fought back and in the final quarter blew the Blues away, seven goals to one.

But there is little interest in the actual footy this weekend.  Instead the AFL has again been alleged to having bullied, in this case the former Essendon golden boy, James Hird.  The alleger (sic? - should that be allegater?) was Mrs Hird, a lawyer who 'takes lots of notes'. The Essendon President said this was disappointing and that James Hird's position would need to be reviewed.  Andrew Demitriou put on his face intended to suggest that margarine would not melt in his mouth and said it  was disappointing and he did not have sex with that women, correction, did not tip off the Essendon Club that charges were to be laid, as Mrs Hird alleges.

Here is the question.  Spouses of businesspersons can be banned from buying or selling shares in the 'closed' period for the bizoids. But can the behaviour of a spouse lead to an employee's position being 'reviewed'? And if the review caused said spouse, James Hird in this case, to be told 'Don't bother to return when your time in the sin bin is over' can this create a legal problem, and requiring large damages paid to the employee?

The ramifications of the the drugs'n'supplements saga have a long way to run yet, and Henry advises the Essendon footy club to tread carefully.  Believe it or not, Mr Little, things would get worse, much worse, if you are fighting with Mrs Hird, or disadvantaging Mr Hird because of allegations made by Mrs Hird. Last time we checked, free speech was still the case in Australia, and women are no longer required to 'obey' dictats from their husbands.

In Henry's view, the fact that Doc Reid refused to buckle to what seemed to this outsider to be unfair roughhouse tactics, and had all the charges dropped, suggests there are already legal problems in this case, and that lack of formal charges from the drug Tsars after more than a year may be telling us something important.

Image of the week

Global interest rates to rise
Date: Thursday, March 20, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Monetary policy is rarely out of the news, and today is no exception.  The US Fed is considering its bond buying 'taper' and the future of global interest rates. The general question is how fast to remove the strongly inflationary US monetary policy, and whether the rate of unemployment is a good indicator for forward guidance. The relatively new guv'nor of the Bank of England has revamped his executive team and warned of 'risks to the financial system'. Australian interest rates are set to rise by 1 %,  or possibly 2, over the next year or so, say (well briefed) local economists.

We ask two questions today. Will rising cash rates control goods and services inflation? And will they also contain asset inflation?

To start with the Big Bank, the USA Federal Reserve. 'FEDERAL Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen said interest-rate increases could begin in the first half of 2015, around six months after the US central bank winds down its bond-buying program.

'The Fed, in its policy statement, said the benchmark federal-funds rate will remain near zero for a “considerable time” after its signature bond-buying program ends. For the first time, Ms Yellen attempted to define that term, saying it is “hard to define” but “probably means something on the order of around six months.”

'The Fed has been reducing its bond-buying program in $US10 billion increments and is on track to wind it down this year.

'The central bank altered its guidance on the likely path of interest rates, putting less weight on the unemployment rate as a signpost for when rate increases will start'.

Do not miss the video of Chair Janet Yellan.  And if you stay on the line you will see a thoughtful contribution about the lost Malaysian aeroplane.

The AFR's website, in an article posted after some thought about what Ms Yellan really meant.  The summary headline is 'Fed sets stage for sharply higher interest rates'.

The Bank of England was the world's Big Bank in the nineteenth century, and for most of the twentieth acted as if it still was. It new boss, Canadian  Mark Carney, has radically changed its structure, which you can read about here.  Mark Carney's crucial point is about so-called 'macroprudential' policy. 

Mr Carney's explanation sends, or should send, a loud message to RBA boss, Glenn Stevens. 'Criticising the BoE’s failure under former governor Lord King to focus on financial stability when it had inflation under control, he said: “It doesn’t take a genius to see similar risks exist today.”

'Mr Carney warned there were risks brewing because of the current long period of ultra-low interest rates, saying this could breed “potential complacency and excessive risk taking” in financial markets.

'With the BoE pledged to keep interest rates low for a long time, he added there was now a “tremendous burden on microprudential supervision and macroprudential management” to preserve financial stability'.   Read on here.

Henry's research points to the tendency for share prices to get out of control when goods and services inflation is under control.  In the 1920s USA, the 1950s/60s USA, the 1980s Japan, and the 1990s USA.  More here, but be warned - this is an article for a stiff whisky and a damp towel around the head.

The implication is that outlined by Milton Friedman, that 'monetary policy cannot serve two masters', discussed here more than a year ago.

Mr Carney's emphasis on 'Macroprudential policy' shows he understands the point, but sadly it appears that Glenn Stevens does not.

As evidence I would quote from an article in today's AFR 'Rates may hit 4.25pc by end of 2015: economists'.

In Australia,it seems to Henry,  'economists' who feed the chooks of the press rarely say anything that is not approved by Glenn Stevens and his merry men.

Note the opening three sentances of Jacob Greber's article, where the emphasis is that added by Henry:  The official Reserve Bank of Australia cash rate may be at least 1 percentage point higher than its record low 2.5 per cent by the fourth quarter of 2015, and as high as 4.25 per cent, economists say.

'That would mean the central bank would have withdrawn almost all of its interest rate stimulus by the end of next year  The official Reserve Bank of Australia cash rate may be at least 1 percentage point higher than its record low 2.5 per cent by the fourth quarter of 2015, and as high as 4.25 per cent, economists say.

'That would mean the central bank would have withdrawn almost all of its interest rate stimulus by the end of next year to prevent an inflation blowout and potential housing market bubbles'.

It is impossible, except by accident, to control both [goods and services] inflation and asset inflation by varying interest rates,  and different types of asset inflation may need to be controlled (to the extent possible) by different macroprudential policies.  In Henry's view, a variable asset ratio for house prices and a variable tax on capital inflow to modify a currency too feisty for the overall health of the economy.

You should ask the RBA for its opinion on this important matter, Mr Greber.  Do not be deflected by reference to comments on its website about 'Macroprudential policy' in general.

Henry's answers

Raising cash rates often comes 'too little too late', so there is a clear danger that goods and services inflation will get away before the stable door is locked.

Rising cash rates may dampen asset inflation but cannot be relied up to do so in any reliable way.  Far better to use independent policies, such variable asset ratios on financial institutions, which rise when lending approaches some historically derived danger zone, or taxes on financial transaction, such as the so-called 'Tobin tax' to put 'sand in the wheels of finance'. In the case of a small open economy like Australia, both approaches may be needed.

'Enough, Henry', I hear you cry, 'She'll be right, mates'.

She`ll be right, mates
Date: Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

‘It was a year in which industry, on the whole, was exceedingly prosperous, profits good, wages rising rapidly, unemployment reduced to the minimum, and the volume of production and of foreign commerce in excess of all previous records. [2007 Australia? No, 1913 UK.]

'Nevertheless, it was a year in which the tide of prosperity was on the turn, and the general tone was considerably less favourable in the month of December than it had been 12 months before'.

Then came the Great War.  Britain lost many of the finest men of a generation but also spent much of its overseas wealth, accumulated over centuries. Debt was accumulated on a vast scale.

By 1917, Britain and its allies were winning a long, slow-moving grinding war.  An American, Mr C.W. Barron, wrote generously in what The Economist reported of Britain's wartime efforts: ‘This is a gigantic physical power and a trade and war power combined never before dreamed of. It puts in the shade all that the world previously knew of Britain’s financial power. Nobody dreamed two years ago that the war cost to Great Britain was to be beyond five or six billions. It is today more than twice that, and Great Britain is prepared to double it again'.

The postwar collapse was dramatic.  In its review of the year 1921, presented in early 1922, The Economist said: '‘For Great Britain, 1921 has been one of the worst years of depression since the industrial revolution. The rapid fall in prices, in some cases the shrinkage and, in very many places, the complete disappearance of profits, and the unprecedented contraction of production were accompanied by the unemployment of nearly two million of the industrial population and in the last part of the year by a drastic reduction of wages which, in many cases, far outran the fall in the cost of living’.

Over the next few years the story was one of gradual recovery, with hopes early in each year high but then dashed as one bloody thing after another  confounded the optimists.

Indeed, Chauncy Gardner's advice to the US president in the movie 'Being There' could have been invented then: 'The economy will bloom in the spring'.

Then in 1925, in April, another blooming spring was spoiled by the restoration of the gold standard, with sterling pegged at its pre-war level favoured by the bankers. Britain was deeply uncompetitive at the pre-war level of its currency, and the next few years were disappointing for British capitalists, workers and politicians, despite one of America's golden ages of development and prosperity.

The quotes below are all from the relevant annual reviews conducted by The Economist.

1926: ‘We have frequently had the experience in the last few years of hopeful expectations entertained in January being disappointed by one set-back after another in the ensuing few months; but we have never had so disappointing story to record as the year which is just past. ... This economic recovery [in the first four months] was cut short at the beginning of May  by the first General Strike which has occurred in this country, and although this lasted only a week and a-half, the country remained for seven months in the greatest and the bitterest industrial dispute which we have ever experienced'.

1927: 'Judged by any progressive standard of living, we have much leeway to make up as a nation, and the progress of recent months is only a modest advance towards that goal’.  Among the factors holding up recovery was ‘obstinate stagnation’ in our exports as a whole.

1928: This was a year of ‘no small promise about the future ... Quite possibly it will be remembered in history as a year in which the foundations of recovery were laboriously laid. It was a year of realisation and of facing facts’.

1929: ‘Writing of the prospects a year ago, we called attention to certain favourable omens’. The venerable mag was now inclined to see the year as ‘disappointing’.

The main reason was the monetary situation: ‘The phenomenal Stock Exchange boom drew such large amounts of money to New York that Bank Rate and other money market rates were pushed up to a high level and remained there throughout spring and summer; and, though the situation was radically changed by the Stock Exchange collapse in October and November, the reaction was so abrupt and so severe that the immediate advantage of cheaper money was more than outweighed by uncertainty as to the effect of the slump on purchasing power and employment’.

1930: America, Britain and indeed the rest of the developed world, including Australia,  entered the Great Depression.

No historical analogy is exact.  But readers are invited to see the final year of the great nineteenth century boom, 1913, as equivalent to the last year of the great commodity boom of the 2000s and early 2010s.

The Global Financial Crisis is our lucky generation's equivalent of the Great War.  Just as Britain lost its international assets and built massive debt in that war, developed nations lost assets and built unsustainable debt mountains during the GFC.  This is only possible when previous generations have restrained debt levels, and can only be done occasionally.

The GFC has been followed by several years of disappointing recovery, as in the UK's 1920s. The came the American stock market crash, and the plunge of America and the developed world into deep depression.

The effect of Australia's stubbornly high exchange rate is not unlike the effect of Britain's return to the gold standard in 1925. If the analogy holds, and if plunging commodity prices and deep recession do not solve our problem of poor international competitiveness, recovery will be disappointing, as it was for the UK in the second part of the 1920s,

The entire western world, by the end of the 1930s, had again to cope with a costly and damaging global war.

God forbid that this is our fate in the 2020s.  More likely is trade war, and the intial shots in that sort of war have already been fired - including America's massively easy monetary policy and China's 'pivot to consumerism'.

'Enough, Henry', I hear you cry, 'She'll be right, mates'.


Ed: Henry sent a link to this blog to several eminent historians. He said with appropriate modesty that his analogy was not necessarily perfect.

Their comments follow.

#1. What pointed and pithy summaries they are; and your comments enhance them.

#2. 'I enjoyed reading your ‘She’ll be right mates’; I don’t think it is necessarily imperfect. The essential point – and you do well to remind us – is  how stupid humankind can be. The First World War takes the cake, I think. Here was a European society/societies that had not experienced ‘total’ war for a hundred years; had enjoyed unsurpassed peace and economic prosperity, etc, and then proceeded to throw it away – for what?

'The spark was the assassination in the Balkans; do we have another, similar event evolving around the corner in Eastern Europe – not too far-fetched when you hear the rantings of Sarah Palin and Co, and not to mention Mr Putin. You’ve done well, Henry, to warn us that things can go terribly wrong with what might seem to be minor incidents - and with monumental consequences'.

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

The world is struggling slowly and painfully from the Great Recession that followed the so-called Global Financial Crisis. Historians and other thoughtful people are beginning to assess the causes and the consequences. Failures of national and international elites are largely responsible, almost by definition.  The consequences include long-lived political and economic instability, and in some cases, election of new elites.

Martin Wolf - linked here - notes the one hundredth anniversary of World War 1.  Notes, not celebrates. He sees the war as leading to three decades of 'savagery and stupidity, destroying most of what was good in European civilisation of the beginning on the twentieth century'.

Europe's political, economic and intellectual elites were responsible for this massively damaging series of catastrophes, of war, depression and war again, accompanied by enormous injury, death and destruction and in some places famine and disease on a massive scale.

The empires and elites of the failed nations, Germany, Austria and Russia were swept away. Failed elites can be swept away quickly in democracies, but in autocratic nations replacing the elites is usually long, bloody and costly.

The same principles apply today.  In the past decade the west has experienced three 'visible failures'.

* 'First, the economic, financial, intellectual and political elites mostly misunderstood the consequences of headlong financial liberalisation. Lulled by fantasies of self-stabilising financial markets, they not only permitted but encouraged a huge and, for the financial sector, profitable bet on the expansion of debt. The policy making elite failed to appreciate the incentives at work and, above all, the risks of a systemic breakdown. When it came, the fruits of that breakdown were disastrous on several dimensions: economies collapsed; unemployment jumped; and public debt exploded. The policy making elite was discredited by its failure to prevent disaster. The financial elite was discredited by needing to be rescued. The political elite was discredited by willingness to finance the rescue. The intellectual elite – the economists – was discredited by its failure to anticipate a crisis or agree on what to do after it had struck. The rescue was necessary. But the belief that the powerful sacrificed taxpayers to the interests of the guilty is correct'.

* 'Second, in the past three decades we have seen the emergence of a globalised economic and financial elite. Its members have become ever more detached from the countries that produced them. In the process, the glue that binds any democracy – the notion of citizenship – has weakened. ... If the mass of the people view their economic elite as richly rewarded for mediocre performance and interested only in themselves, yet expecting rescue when things go badly, the bonds snap. We may be just at the beginning of this long-term decay.

* 'Third, in creating the euro, the Europeans took their project beyond the practical into something far more important to people: the fate of their money'.

These failures, Martin Wolf concludes, do not match the follies of 1914. But the performance of the elites is under scrutiny, and angry populism may be the response.  'Lift your game elites' is the message.

Australia's policy revolution.

Australia came through the travails of the global crisis in better shape than most nations.  Thanks to the strong budgetary position bequeathed by the Howard-Costello government,  the powerful, continued Chinese demand for our resources and perhaps a better than average performance of Australia's elites, an arguable proposition that will only become clear to future historical analysis. 

In my view, our elites of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government panicked, provided stimulus that was costly and poorly implemented and left office with the nation massively less competitive that it had been. The massive political shift from centre left governments to a centre right governments in the Federal and State spheres suggests the voters of Australia agree.

Now the rest of the west seems to be experiencing a slow and painful recovery, with greatly increased inequality of wealth and income an undoubted fact of life.  There will be great trouble if this trend is not reversed, as the best writers and thinkers almost universally proclaim.

The Abbott government is grappling with a genuine budgetary crisis.  There is little explicit recognition of our double-digit cost disequilibrium, but in refusing to provide bail-outs to the can manufacturers, food processors, airlines and, we suspect, any other corporate beggers, the Abbot government is throwing the onus on business leaders and their workers - some still in the grip of self-serving union leaders - to sort out the real problems.

The royal commission into the building industry is another more oblique attack on the elites that have made Australian building costs far higher than most.

Friday's AFR contained a long article by editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, headed 'Union on notice', that comes warmly endorsed by Henry.


Fiona Prior brings a friend to Dallas Buyers Club and looks at the films presentation of the black market in pharmaceuticals.


The Australian T-20 cricket team has defeated the hapless South Efricans and now reassembles for a world cup. We wish them well, but are cricketed out, especially now the footy has started, albeit with a two week 'round' that means only one game for each team.  Last night Freo flogged Collingwood and the Magpies seen already to be in deep trouble, as will most teams that play Freo this season.

Caaarlton! plays Port Adelaide at the Ethiead (sic?) Stadium tomorrow night in what is sure to be a stern test.

The drugs'n'peptides drama rolls on, and is surely the most damaging crisis in the AFL/VFL's long history. Henry repeats his suggestion that we need three grades of sportspeople in the modern world - amateur, professional and enhanced. In the latter group any drug or supplement can be administered to any player, but clubs have to register its 'enhanced' status at the start of any season, and society would need to accept that the AFL, or equivalent leading authority, the team managements and consultents (such as the mysteriousMr Dank) have no liability for thigs that go wrong.

Image of the week

Courtesy FT

Jobs growth cheers the optimists
Date: Friday, March 14, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Well, gor blimey guv'nor, the ABS says Australian jobs are growing, including full-time jobs. Unemployment is still 6 %, because when jobs grow (or fall) in ABS reckoning, people seeking work increase (decrease).  This is a long-standing quirk of the ABS jobs and workforce data, which adds to Henry's concerns about methodology in the ABS.  But, despite our view that ABS statistics are mis-counting, the clear resurgance in jobs, especially full-time jobs, cannot be ignored.  This is a palpable strike for the optimists.  The RBA forecasting team will be quietly cheering, and good luck to them if they are correct.

The debate about the management of Treasury has become a whole lot hotter. After Ken Henry's grave and carefully considered speech on the 7.30 Report, and this Henry (Thornton, not Ken)'s response, the bigger beasts have come out to play.

Judith Sloan in the Oz picks on Ken Henry's policy recod and tells him its easy to be wise after the event.

'The Coalition has inherited a budgetary mess from Labor. Commitments were made to large program spending without any planning as to how they would be paid for. There are real weaknesses in the tax and welfare system, which Labor did nothing to remedy. For instance, the interaction of family benefits, childcare subsidies and tax means that it is simply uneconomic for many women to work more than three days a week.

'As for increasing the GST, another gratuitous suggestion of Henry’s, it is Labor which is so bitterly opposed to this. Any hint that the Coalition would even give consideration to changing the rate of, or the exemptions to, the GST is met by a barrage of negative political scaremongering by Labor.

'So thanks, Ken, for your views. You might have been able to make a difference when Labor was in power but, as they say, timing is everything'.  More of Ms Sloan here.

Phillip Coorey writes in the AFR: Tony Abbott has all but sealed the fate of Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson by implying he is not a team player and a poor fit for the Coalition's economic agenda'. (No obvious link.)

Tony Abbott has 'let it be known' that Treasury's Dr Parkinson is going to move on, despite Joe Hockey's alleged preference for business as usual. (If this latter point is correct, Joe must have been suborned by the sweet talk, as Treasury's record on both policy and prediction is simply awful).  Here is a report on the floating of the dollar, with evidence of Treasury's lack of policy cooperation that goes back into the 1970s - see footnote 3 at the end of the article.

To remind us of what matters for our personal financial health, 'Equities plunge on rising risks in the Ukraine'.

'Tough talk from Germany and the US on Russia’s move to annex Crimea has renewed concerns about the crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia risks “massive” political and economic damage. US Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday'.

Chinese data showed factory output rose in January and February from a year earlier by the smallest amount since the global financial crisis, while retail sales grew at the slowest rate for the period since 2004.  The Chinese government has said there will be no stimulus program, so commodity prices are likely to remain soggy to falling.

Just as well the Abbott government is fostering a more self-reliant culture for both business and households. The fiscal mess precludes many handouts if China really does stumble with its pivot to consumerism.

The Australian Treasury
Date: Thursday, March 13, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has spoken out on the ABC.  Naturally this Henry (Thornton, not Ken) watched his interview on the 7.30 report with interest.  It contained some highly contentious points, summarised below, with which this Henry begs to differ.

Below is the first three summary points from the ABC report, followed by Henry (Thornton, not Ken)'s comments.  But if you missed it, watch the full interview, available at the ABC report that is linked here.

'Former Treasury secretary Ken Henry says the GST will have to be raised in the future and warns budget cuts will not be enough to fund spending on new social programs.

'Dr Henry also criticised the actions of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey, in a wide-ranging interview on the ABC's 7.30 program.

'In the interview, he expressed dismay at the decision to replace current Treasury boss Martin Parkinson, defended the mining tax, and warned against replacing the carbon pricing scheme'.

GST. Ken Henry is probably correct on this point, but this Henry sees this is a last resort. Helped by the Commission of Audit and the Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee, Treasurer Joe Hockey has to cut spending whereever the case is economically sensible to do so as well as cancelling the Mining tax and the Carbon tax as promised clearly in the Coalition's pledge to the electorate.  The government has a massive agenda, including increasing the defence budget - very important after the cuts and bungling of the Labor governments - cutting regulations and implementing the Prime minister's paid parental leave scheme.

Not until the dust has settled on all these changes, in time for the next election, will proposed changes to the GST be announced if it is judged necessary at that time.  This Henry believes it will probably be necessary that the base of the GST be broadened and its overall rate increased.  This is a 'last approach' to fixing the budget, after the reckless spending of the Rudd'n'Gillard governments has been trimmed and other reforms are bedded down.

Politicising the public service. How dare this government put its own person in charge of the Treasury!  This is Ken Henry's severest criticism of the Abbott government.  But, like the Labor opposition, Mr Henry finds it outrageous that Australia has elected people from the centre right of Australian politics.

A lifetime of observing politics as it effects the public service convinces this Henry of two things: most people who enter the public service are left-leaning by nature (as was this Henry when he joined the RBA); and Labor in government has been far more systematic than the Coalition in appointing people sympathetic to its cause to key public sector jobs.  Left-leaning people also work as a pack in appointing their mates to jobs in the private sector, but this should come as no surprise because the centre left is the domain of collective action for collective outcomes.

One can lament the passing of the so-called 'Westminster system', with independent public officials providing advice that is both courageous and independent, as this Henry found to his cost in the late nineteen-eighties. But Labor has effectively introduced a 'Washminster system' by stealth, and it is time the Coalition responded in kind, or indeed with a more explicit (and honest) move to the Washington system.

This Henry has no personal knowledge of Mr Parkinson's strengths and weaknesses, except to note that Treasury's recent forecasting abilities have been lamentable and the lack of action on the very policy issues Ken Henry now bewails. But the Coalition is entitled to appoint its own man or woman to such a key job, the performance of which may make a significent contribution to its political success or failure.  The 'Washington system' in which the party in power appoints its own people to key posts in government works well in the USA, and is more honest than the Washminster system. And those let go by a new government in Washington find interesting jobs in the private sector, often in Washington's many think tanks. This enables them to recharge intellectual batteries for their next stint in public service, and to reflect of the lost opportunities of their previous time in office.

Labor's favourite taxes.  The coalition won the last election, as already noted. The coalition's policy to kill the mining and carbon taxes was perfectly clear before the election.  Mr Henry is entitled to his opinion about the efficiacy of the carbon tax, but he should also respect the verdict of the Australian people.  I did not hear him making that point.

Later discussion - eg 14/3

The debate about the management of Treasury has become a whole lot hotter. After Ken Henry's grave and carefully considered speech on the 7.30 Report, and this Henry (Thornton, not Ken)'s response (above), the bigger beasts have come out to play.

Judith Sloan in the Oz picks on Ken Henry's policy recod and tells him its easy to be wise after the event.

'The Coalition has inherited a budgetary mess from Labor. Commitments were made to large program spending without any planning as to how they would be paid for. There are real weaknesses in the tax and welfare system, which Labor did nothing to remedy. For instance, the interaction of family benefits, childcare subsidies and tax means that it is simply uneconomic for many women to work more than three days a week.

'As for increasing the GST, another gratuitous suggestion of Henry’s, it is Labor which is so bitterly opposed to this. Any hint that the Coalition would even give consideration to changing the rate of, or the exemptions to, the GST is met by a barrage of negative political scaremongering by Labor.

'So thanks, Ken, for your views. You might have been able to make a difference when Labor was in power but, as they say, timing is everything'.  More of Ms Sloan here.

Phillip Coorey writes in the AFR: Tony Abbott has all but sealed the fate of Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson by implying he is not a team player and a poor fit for the Coalition's economic agenda'. (No obvious link.)

Tony Abbott has 'let it be known' that Treasury's Dr Parkinson is going to move on, despite Joe Hockey's alleged preference for business as usual. (If this latter point is correct, Joe must have been suborned by the sweet talk, as Treasury's record on both policy and prediction is simply awful).  Here is a report on the floating of the dollar, with evidence of Treasury's lack of policy cooperation that goes back into the 1970s - see footnote 3 at the end of the article.

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