Consumer confidence `buggered`
Date: Thursday, July 14, 2011
Author: Henry Thornton
'How dare they' is the response of economists to the plunge in consumer confidence.
Retail sales are down - 'how dare they' is the attitude of retailers toward the customers who have abandoned their stores.
'All's well in the miracle economy' say the economists, 'our chosen PM and Treasurer are getting on with their task of imposing another tax on our most important industries and setting up a great big money churn to use the proceeds to bribe consumers and spend money on unproven alternative energy generation schemes'.
This government has no credibility. After promising no new tax before an election no-one won except the Greens and independents who opted for Gillard over Abbott because of her superior 'negotiating' skills, aka ability to bribe the marginal independent and Green parliamentarians
'Australians are irrational' says a prominant social researcher on ABC radio. 'Bollocks' says Henry.
Australia's political system is balanced on a knife edge, and without an accident, health crisis or other surprise that removes Gillard's paper thin majority, the current situation will persist for the next two years.
Plenty of room for uncertainty in Australia's unstable political position.
But even more powerful is the international situation. The good news is Chinese GDP came in just a whisker above expectations, and share prices staged a weak recovery rally. Stronger than expected Chinese GDP means more Chinese inflation to come and, despite numerous Chinese interest rate hikes and increases in bank asset ratios, the beast is so far untamed.
No surprise here. As we have said many times, China now has the same problem that the Whitlam giovernment had in Australia in the 1970s, relying as it does on an outmoded currency regime (failing to revalue faster) and direct controls over its banks.
Did the Whitlam experiment end badly or well for Australia? Maybe Australian consumers are right to be worried.
But wait, there's more. Greece is moving from the merely 'buggered' camp (thank you John Story for introducing this useful word into Australian economic discourse) to a point where many analysts are now talking default and the break up of the EU. Now analysts are looking at Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland and making the sensible observation that the EU does not have the resources, let alone focussed political will, to bail out these nations. As someone said during a talk on Great Crises of Capitalism last night Euro debt default on any serious scale would make the Lehman Brothers crisis seem like a teddy bear's picnic.
And in the mighty USA, Ben Bernanke warned overnight that a US debt default would cause massive instability and chaos in global financial markets.
I said right at the start of Great Crises: 'The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 might still produce a Great Depression. Massive monetary and fiscal stimulus has been thrown at the problem. Major financial institutions, with one exception, have been bailed out by taxpayers. The problems created by excessive debt and over-easy monetary policy have been ‘solved’ by more of the same. The bailout of Wall Street by Main Street entrenches, indeed reinforces, what economists call ‘moral hazard’. The previous Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, did not believe in opposing asset bubbles but cut interest rates under his control almost to zero when his asset bubble burst. This was a mistake repeated by his successor, Ben Bernanke, in the crash of 2007-08'.
I do not claim that Australian consumers have all read my book - no, the mainstream press has been conspicuously disinterested. But I do claim that there are plenty of reasons for Australian consumers (and companies) to scale back their spending, pay down debt and prepare for some bad outcomes.
I shall be disappointed as a prophet if despite the multiple causes for concern the world emerges quickly and strongly from its current malaise. But I will be mighty pleased for Australians in general if it does.
But failure to understand the depths of global risks makes ill-informed criticism of cautious behaviour by Australians simply bone-headed.
`Banana Republic` and politicising the public service
Date: Monday, January 05, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton
New years bring releases of cabinet papers and this allows former policy warriors relive their glory days. The only real contemporary relevance is the lessons for the immediate future. Geoff Kitney provided such an analysis in the weekend AFR and concluded that the economic mistakes of the Hawke-Keating government make 'ominous reading' for Tony Abbott.
Henry's memory goes back to the 'Banana Republic' event of 1986. This was sparked by sharply rising external debt. After a serious s**tfight, Keating agreed that stern policy action recommendeded by the RBA's economists was required. In the event, the Treasurer persuaded the cabinet to cut government spending to the extent that a serious budget deficit was turned into a surplus. Prime minister Hawke persuaded the ACTU to cop a cut in real wages, accepting less than full compensation for the effects of the plunging dollar. The falling dollar was possible only because of the earlier deregulation of the market for foreign exchange, the Hawke-Keating government's greatest policy move.
The advice of the Research Department (never 'official' RBA advice) was ultimately accepted by the government after a lot of Keating's global best practice invective focussed on the RBA's Chief Economist. Mr Keating's abuse was dished out at a meeting that included the entire senior Treasury team whose members with one honourable exception kept their head down while the verbal bullets were flying. Why Treasury was not leading that debate is a mystery. Either Treasury read the economy differently, or they were far better careerists. But in the crucial meeting alluded to Treasury officials (with that one honourable exception) sat quietly. 'Cigar store indians' Mark Twain would have said.
The next event of significance was the global share price crash of October 1987. Again there was frenzied debate, with Treasury (and several elderly advisors in the RBA's executive committee) arguing that the crash would create a global recession. Once again the advice from the RBA's chief economist was that there would be no global recession and the risk of overheating was a larger risk than the deep freeze predicted by most journalists and policy advisors. The RBA's board seemed to accept this advice and the related advice that monetary policy should be tightened. But while this advice was repeated at each meeting of the board, and seemingly accepted, interest rates fell rather than rose.
Geoff Kitney focusses on the major political event of the 1980s, the struggles for the top job between Messrs Hawke and Keating. 'Through 1989, Keating, the Treasury, and the Reserve Bank collectively misjudged the policy response of the boom, applying the monetary brakes too late and keeping interest rates too high for too long'.
By then, I had stood down as the RBA's Chief Economist and shortly after that accepted a job in the private sector. I will admit to have been seriously disillusioned about the dangers of giving fearless advice that the textbooks (and common sense) recommends for public officials. This disillusion was strengthed as those who kept silent during the big debate in 1987, and who were responsible for 'the recession we had to have', were promoted. To my mind, this is a major cause of the politisisation of the Australian public service that thoughtful people regret.
That is the real message of 'the recession we had to have', one that there is little evidence that the current government understands.
Saturday Sanity Break, 3 January 2015
Date: Saturday, January 03, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton
Greetings and best wishes for 2015, gentle readers. It is hot and very windy on the Mornington Peninsular and in a large swatch of South-Eastern Australia. Perfect bushfire weather, and doubtless there will be nutters abroad seeking to generate some excitement. Anyhow, all we can do is keep the grass around the rural hideaway cut and hope for the best.
Henry's favourite journalistic stirrer, Grace Collier has returned to the Oz after what seems to be a long absence.
Is this another economy measure from Rupert's minions or has Ms Collier been sprogging, travelling overseas or just taking a rest? 'Grace', if I may use such an intimate salutation, please keep up the good work, and if the Oz is reluctant to use your talents, HenryThornton.com stands ready to provide an internship.
Anyway, Ms Grace is onto something with her article today. 'Look after your friends, or at least stop slapping them in the face. Everyone needs friends. The Labor Party is great at looking after its friends; as a result, it has many. The Coalition is hopeless at looking after its friends; as a result, it has hardly any, a fact it constantly bemoans'.
Hopefully, one day the penny will drop. The Coalition should try to keep faith with its base; an obvious rule: never give the enemy of your supporters a job. Two key appointments (to protect the identities of the appointees, they shall be known only as “Natasha X” and “Greg X”) constituted unforgivable insults.
Those who know the real names of "Natasha X" and "Greg X" are invited to contact Henry here. 'Unforgivable insults' need to be recorded, but the general point is more relevant. 'Look after your friends, or at least stop slapping them in the face'.
Of the other suggestions for Tony Abbott and co, Henry most liked the following: * 'Reverse the high-income earner debt levy and cut income taxes.' * 'Do the job fearlessly or go home, and get with the times.' * 'Make serious spending cuts but take from the poorest last.'
The third test ended in a hard fought draw, and Day 5 found Henry glued to the TV. Cap'n Smith again ran the show well, and is making a good start to his time at the top. Interesting to read today's story to the effect the Mitch Johnson has been bowling more than his preferred 3 overs in a spell, which is preventing him from being his fully aggressive best. Shouldn't take more that a nanosecond for Cap'n Smith to resolve to do something about that. Personally, Henry thinks Mitch is a bit like Samson, it is the lack of facial hair which is holding him back. Let that hair grow Mitch, and see if that improves matters.
Still no action from ASADA about alleged drug taking at Essendon. This is a tabloid newspaper approach - trash their reputation, but never present the evidence in a forum in which it can be tested. Surely there is a law firm willing to sue ASADA for defamation of character on a success fee basis?
Soon we shall be in the Big Bash silly season and Henry can go back to work. Then it will be only 75 sleeps 'til the footy season when Henry and his co-religionists can watch Caaaarlton!'s desperate bid to finish in the top eight. In between is the Asian Cup of futball, which may provide a distraction or two.
Image of the week
Courtesy The Oz
Economic crises: then and now
Date: Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
'The present crisis, fortunately, is in no way attributable to unsound banking practices or property speculation. It is a crisis precipitated by catastrophic collapse in the values of [iron ore and coal], but which had its origans in the unsound borrowing pursued by the Australian government from [2009 - 20xx]'.
'... Australia, having got itself into difficulties by inflating its internal prices, cannot get out of difficulties without deflating its prices, which means in this case reducing wages and accepting temporarily a lower standard of living'.
This is not the fulmination of a latter day prophet of doom. It is an edited version of a comment made by the Economist in February 1931. In terms of the editing, in the original the words in the first set of brackets were 'wheat and wool', and the dates in the second set of brackets were '1922 - 1928'.
Australia at the time showed great good sense. Minimum wages were cut by 10 % and the exchange rate was devalued by 30 %. Now wages growth is slow - but without any dramatic cut - and the exchange rate is being devalued in fits and starts. After the dramatic price cuts of 1931, Australia recovered relatively fast, but there was no avoiding deep depression. Slow wages growth and fits and starts currency depreciation will give us little international advantage, as the dramatic currency and wages cuts did in 1931.
With current policies, our economy will struggle for years.
But do enjoy the fireworks and general festivities. Mrs Thornton sends her best wishes with Henry's for 2015 and beyond.
Remember: forewarned is forearmed.
Sat Sanity Break , 27 December 2014
Date: Saturday, December 27, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
Tony Abbott's reshuffle seems to have been a promising circuit breaker. Next step is to get a sensible narrative going. This will be harder, especially after more than a year of mixed messages and confusion, except of course for stop the boats, kill the carbon and mining taxes and sign three Free[r] Trade agreements.
One would have to say say, 'not a bad year comrades', except for the budget deficit, now 40 billion and still rising, failure to get medical and university reform through the Senate, and failute to carry the people on what has been achieved and what has been blocked by economically illiterate micro-party Senators.
Clearly it was time to Reboot. That done, where is the Paul Keating, with his unparalled ability to charm even class enemies and his suprising ability to grasp essentials of economic reform and to persuade his cabinet colleagues? Perhaps Mathias Cormann is the man, if he is given a serious chance to become the public face of the Abbott government's economic team. This team has been strengthened by promotion of two promising young liberals from the so far largely ignored state of Robert Menzies' Victoria, Josh Frydenberg and Kelly O'Dwyer.
So it's on with the show, and we wish the Abbott government every success in 2015. Vital this, as its success is our success, and its failure is our failure.
Henry's son Bert, has just returned after three weeks in Tiger country (South-East Asia). Bert was very taken by the cheerful energy of Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and especially Vietnam. 'It's government is communist', Bert advised, 'but as effective capitalists they leave us for dead'. That judgment, from a young man well educated in economics, history and the law, is worthy of pondering, gentle readers.
We wish all our fellow Australians a wonderful, gradually reforming capitalist success in 2015.
Henry had the great pleasure of sitting through a day of absorbing test cricket yesterday, and will be listening on radio, with the TV screen turned on today, and, one hopes the next four days. After a catastrophic duck by batting hero, Dave Warner, Chris Rogers and Shane Watson steadied the ship with useful 50s, but with Mr Watson a chronic failure to go on and 'get a big hundred' he is copping some flack in the press today. 'Joe Burns for number three' is the cry today, after a well made 13 runs ended buy a silly shot. Henry is prepared to bet, smilin' Joe told himself 'This is pretty easy' just before the ever diligent - well almost always diligent Indian attack ended his first up camoe. the Australia's new super-star Captain and chief batter, Steve Smith, steading the boat again, finished the day on 72 not out, carrying the score to 5/259.
The boat was wobbling noticably at the end of the day, with midshipman Haddan ducking, weaving and taking hits for the team in the very cool breeze to offset the hot bowling.
'Lota work to be done yet, boys', Henry wishes to advise our tail-enders.
Speaking of boats, the SydneytoHobart got off to a fast start as some of that decidedly cool Southerly breeze made it to Sydney. Soon we'll be singing auld Lang Syne and hoping our footy team does a bit better, actually a lot better, if you require total honesty, in the 2015 season. Henry has got to the point that he now hopes for only one more premiership before he goes to a better place, and even that looks like wild hope at this time. We may be forced to begin to ask the great Architect for a Second Term for the Abbott government instead. Perhaps more likely than another premiership for Caaaaarlton! anytime soon, but also a more worthy wish as it willl provide more joy for the masses of well-to-do than a mere footy wish.
Image of the week.
Today we break with years of tradition and present an image from Henry's own brush.
The meaning onf this image will be obvious to any thoughtful reader - here is the link.
Saturday Sanity Break, 20 December 2014
Date: Saturday, December 20, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
It is time for most of us to down tools and have a break from what are becoming increasingly tough times. I'd be delighted to present cheerier news, but it is hard to do so when Australia is suffering from three big challenges: * Double digit cost overhang, encouraging imports and discouraging exports; * Budget deficit out-of-control, adding $40 billion this year to a rapidly growing international debt; * Nasty political gridlock, frustrating the government's attempts to grapple with budget catastrophe.
The first point to note is that every boom of the sort we experienced in the 2000s is followed by a bust. We shall be very lucky to escape severe recession, or a long period of below potential growth, following the national party that was our good luck during the late, much lamented, China boom.
With the onset of the global crisis in 2007-08, Australia's government panicked and the head of Treasury, Dr Ken Henry, advised a crude Keynesian remedy - 'Go early, go hard and go households'. This may have saved some jobs, but it fostered all the wrong cultural messages. Spend, not save. At the first sign of trouble, your government will provide. There is no need to cut consumption and raise productivity in the face of a severe global shock. Item 1 below provides a more appropriate summary of current national imperitives.
So much for how we got here. A massive battle to restore budgetary balance is ahead of us all. Henry would prefer to balance the books with spending cuts, but a well developed sense of entitlement has Australians in its grip. Like the OECD and other expert groups, I believe a GST without exceptions and a top rate of 15 % will eventually be required, as it was in New Zealand. If Labor was fair dinkum it'd do a deal with the government on spending cuts and the suggested GST reform.
That is the least pain solution, and should include compensation for the most needy Australians for the associated increases in the cost of living.
The double-digit cost overhang is a harder nut to crack. Fortunately Australian people are sensible, as shown by the low recent rate of cost increases, especially wage cost increases. If this discipline can be maintained as the dollar falls the cost overhang will be gradually eroded. But there is a lot that a government could do to help reduce costs by structural reform. Here are Henry's suggestions.
This year has seen Australia's monetary policy stuck 'easy'. Henry cheered when Rupert Murdoch noted the link between easy money and asset inflation, and the adverse effect of asset inflation on equality of income and wealth. The article linked here provides the start of an explanation, one that I hope to fill out with serious econometric testing during 2015.
(A reader said 'This would be easier to understand with diagrams. The painting contains the diagrams, three in fact, and anyone who renews his or her goldmembership will receive an explanation.)
Australia is lucky that its central bank, the RBA, has expanded less aggressively than the major central banks. During 2014 the US Fed abandoned a long-held policy of allowing asset booms to go on without any response than to clean up after the bust. New Fed Chief Janet Yellen announced use of 'mactoprudential policy' to curb asset booms, leaving monetary policy to provide overall economic control with low goods and services inflation. This finally helped people to understand the wise saying of Milton Friedman: 'Monetary policy cannot serve two masters'.
I plan to be back in 2015 with updates on matters economic and also providing a vehicle for our impressive bank of political, investment and lifestyle writers. Our 'SMERSH' section provides the most challenging offerings and we commend it to people who welcome a challenge. The article by Roger Underwood, with thanks to Quadrant, about the threat of bushfires and Australia's bone-headed failure to apply the right remedies, is a highly relevant example.
We wish all our readers a merry festive season and a safe and happy 2015.
The first test against India was a rip-snorther and the second is shaping to be just as exciting. With Australia on the ropes at 6 for not very much, the Indians abandoned their usually gentlemanly virtue to slede Mitchell Johnston. Mitch responded with one of the best number 8 batting Henry has seen. Day 4 awaits, gentle readers, do not tarry in the shopping marts.
Image of the week
Courtesy Herald Sun
Work hard, innovate and save.
Date: Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
The Treasurer and Finance minister have provided the current 'best guess' about Australia's budget, and it is an ugly picture. We are all hostage to the budget mess just as surely as were the unfortunate people held hostage in the coffee shop in Sydney's Martin Place. Fixing the budget will require stern action by the authorities, as in the Martin Place siege, and there will be casualties.
Some people will find this description macabre, even offensive. But it is a macro statement of the horrible micro-events of yesterday in Sydney. After living high on the hog - too high it turns out - Australia is facing a difficult and painful readjustment to a new reality. Never before has Australia (or any other country, it must be noted) enjoyed a massive boom (not of its own making, it should be noted) without an equally tough bust. The development boom of the 1880s was followed by deep depression in the 1890s. The share boom of the 1920s was followed by the deep depression in the 1930s. The resource boom of the early 1970s was exaggerated by the over-spending boom of the Whitlam government and followed by a jobs bust and then the long, dreary government of Malcolm Fraser.
Famously, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) followed a massive real estate and share boom but the bust, though severe, lead to a long recession but not a great depression, except in the poor and heavily indebted nations of the Eurozone and the hard working nations of Asia. Southern Europe was forced to adopt savage deflationary policies, and prevented from currency devaluation to restore competitiveness, and these nations are still wallowing in deep depression whose ultimate consequences cannot confidently be predicted.
Australia was a polar opposite to Greece, Italy, Portugal and the other poor nations of Southern Europe. The China boom was hardly touched by the GFC and our resource boom rolled on. Australia's government panicked and the head of Treasury, Dr Ken Henry, advised a crude Keynesian remedy - 'Go early, go hard and go households'. This may have saved some jobs, but it fostered all the wrong cultural messages. Spend, not save. At the first sign of trouble, your government will provide. There is no need to cut consumption and raise productivity in the face of a severe global shock.
This writer much preferred the Icelandic solution when its three banks failed and could not be saved. 'You will have to learn to go fishing again' said the Prime minister.
Many nations are still wallowing in prolonged recession, Japan and Europe in particular. America is showing signs of recovery, but asset prices are roaring and recovery is likely to be compromised when the US Fed begins to raise interest rates. China's miracle economy is slowing and global commodity prices are being decimated. Australia's mini-miracle economy is suffering from the end of the investment phase of the mining boom while many other industries have been damaged by the greatly overvalued currency which, thank goodness, is finally and belatedly now sinking.
Australia's governments have since the onset of the GFC suffered a string of surprises that manifests most clearly in Treasurers constantly overestimating receipts and underestimating budget deficits. While the falling exchange rate is mainly due to falling commodity prices, international investors are noticing our inability to control these deficits.
Australia's government debt was negative when Peter Costello handed the keys of the Treasury to Wayne Swan. Now it is rising with successively higher budget deficits and if this is not stopped far sooner than currently predicted Paul Keating's 'Banana Republic' cry will again be heard. It should not be forgotten that household debt and business debt also has to be serviced, and with current trends Australia's total debt will be become a serious limitation on individual economic freedom, even if it does not currently look that way.
Jobs are growing more slowly than population and therefore the rate of unemployment is rising even though many older Australians are dropping out of the workforce. Furthermore, part time jobs are providing most of the jobs growth, and many of the available jobs are low paid and do not use the skills current young people have acquired in universities. There is a glut of graduates in law, for example, but law firms are the latest to send work offshore where, a senior lawyer said at a recent social event, work can be done at 10 % of the Australian rate. Accountancy will follow this trend shortly, while Fly-in, Fly-out work practives sould an ominous warning.
Australia needs policies to fix the budget. The quality press is beginning to point out that Labor must help fix the mess it did so much to create. Cross-bench Senators have a lot to answer for also, as they have so far blocked several of the more important budget repair efforts and seem to think like Labor 'the budget crisis not belonga me'. Overall cost levels are far too high and will be even harder to fix than the bloated budget.
'Enough, Henry', Mrs T has cried. 'Dinner is on the table'. Henry and his family are blessed, but like all Australians subject to the iron laws of economics. Instead of Ken Henry's crude Keynesian dogma, the alternative should be: 'Work hard; innovate; and save. Not so snappy, or populist, but far more likely to produce a real mini-miracle economy.
Saturday Sanity Break, 13 December 2014
Date: Saturday, December 13, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
'Get real' says RBA Chief Glenn Stevens to the pollies. Guv'nor Glenn deserves a gold medel in public policy for telling it as it is. Retiring Treasury Chief, Martin Parkinson, gets the silver medal for his advice in deficits as far as the mind can imagine. Treasurer Joe Hockey is also in the medal-winning frame (as the argot allows) with his forthcoming mini-budget, and for admitting his first budget lacked the careful 'narrative' used by previous governments seeking to inflict tough management on an hedonistic nation.
(Memo Dr Parkinson. Contact Henry here if you wish to become one of Henry's special correspondants.)
So wonderful to read today of 'Coalition axing 175 agencies'. Buy the Oz and ponder the list of bodies, each of whose chairperson was in line for an AM or better, and whose meetings involved overnight stays at good hotels, aeroplane flights in business class and often luxurious hire cars to transport the eminent agency board members to and fro.
The government has reached accomodation with the Senate micro-parties on one or two of its more controversial savings and there is more effective politicking to be done on this front yet.
So the nation is, or should be, ready for some serious budget clipping and patriotic constraint.
Hal Colebatch's Australia's Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II was a co-winner of the Prime minister's Literary Award for History. This is marked by a nice article by Mr Colebatch in the Weekend Oz today, link to come, but on P 17 in the fish'n'chips version.
The introduction to this fine contribution was posted on this site in October 2013, with permission of Quadrant and the author, and currently has a 'member's rating' of 4.8/5. The story deserves to be told to all Australians. As the Oz says 'Militant unions held the country to ranson and helped end [Prime minister] Curtin's life'.
Best blogs of 2014.
Gor blimy comrades, 20 May 2014
'Who'd of guessed it? Tony Abbott has taken the axe to every program he can find, even adding to the taxes paid by his rich Liberal mates. He's hit us battlers harder, of course, and the brothers at the local pub have all agreed to vote for Bill Shorten or Clive Palmer. Gary Morgan says the Libs are buggered, and even the Oz says Abbott and his mates are in their own world of pain. Dunno why, as all they're sufferin' is a wage freeze plus less free plane trips when they quit politics. Which looks like commin' sooner than they thought. Even the useless bloody State Premiers are whinging, and most of them are Liberals'.
Henry's roving reporter filed this missive from a battleground of the class war, the front bar of Balmain's most traditional pub.
What a blinder of a test match, with wonderful batting from Warner, Captain Courageous and future Captain Smith. Great bowling by Lyon, who looked more like Warnie than ever before as he showed the Indians that they are not necessarily the world's best players of spin. Day five looks like being just as much fun so stay tuned to the ABC if travelling or to Channel Nine if enjoying a nice couch potato day at home.
STOP PRESS: A glorious end to a great test match. India looking like winners until Lyon produced a day for the ages as he bowled them put with not many runs to spare. On to the Gabba, where the pitch should be green, the temperature will be hot and the beer will be cold, but there will be no Captain Courageous.
ASADA has lost a battle to have a court insist that the guys who really know the truth give evidence. Henry is no lawyer, but this seems likely to cruel the chances of cleaning up the great sport of footy. With 4 tests to come, Henry will now focus footy talk on the 2015 season, which in his always optimistic brain flits the ideas of Caaarlton! finishing ... in the top eight.
Meanwhile the hockey players seem to have done well, with the girls' teams in all sports doing exceptionally well. Regular readers will agree this is evidence for Henry's theory that women in Australia are given a better 'go' than just about anywhere else, but try telling that to Julia or Peta if you want a bop on your noggin.
Henry is exhausted after six months in which at any one time two out of the three start-up entities he chairs have been in crisis. Fortunately - touch wood - all three entities have emerged into sunlit uplands as the year draws to a close. Aplogies at sparsity of blogging during recent times, but regular transmission should resume in the new year.
Image of the week
Courtesy Herald Sun
BHP Billiton and the Australian economy
Date: Thursday, December 11, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
The Chinese economy is in trouble, resource (and other) shares are being smashed and most Australians will find 2015 even tougher than 2014. The Labor opposition (and micro-party Senators) is (are) mulishly ignoring the crisis, and opposes every attempt by the government to solve the long-term budget catastrophe. Business confidence is at best neutral and household confidence has plunged.
Henry's author of the much read Raff Report has visited one of the more reliable indicators of economic health, a shopping centre in a leafy suburb to the north of Sydney. 'Last Saturday the Raff and his youngest daughter visited the Westfield Shopping Centre at Hornsby, which for readers unfamiliar with Sydney is about 21km northwest of the CBD. It might have something to do with the fact that Hornsby has a very high Chinese population, but at 10.30 AM there was only one visitor (daughter) to Supre in 15 minutes. Adjacent four clothes shops had combined five shoppers. The food hall was busy, but most of the rest were probably not covering wages. Myers and DJs were near deserted. This ties in with a news item broadcast on the radio minutes ago, saying that shoppers were the most bearish in three years'. Read on here.
But this is not the whole story. Global confidence is low, and only the USA seems to be, finally, and slowly, recovering from the Global Financial Crisis. When the crisis erupted, Australia's strong fiscal position and sensible central bank were able to act to minimise the downside. Yet we always need to pay the piper. Now our budgetary resources are far less and monetary policy has only a small amount of room to move.
Apart from the long-term fiscal crisis, Australia's cost base is currently far too high. Low wage growth aside - the result of effective dialogue between struggling businesses and prudent wage-earners - nothing has been done to improve the problem of bloated costs. As international investors lose confidence in Australia's economic prospects the Aussie dollar is falling, perhaps to 70 cents to the US$, and this will help, provided households and businesses remain cautious about further increases in labor costs and prices in the shops.
Regular readers will be surprised by none of this, but sadly we shall all suffer from the complacent approach of most public officials and the current political gridlock. More fundamentally, we shall pay the price of accepting uncritically the riches from the mining boom, supporting the costly and wasteful fiscal stimulus of the Rudd'n'Gillard'n'Rudd government and voting for, and accepting the antics of, eight micro-party Senators.
Sorry folks, them's the facts.
Saturday Sanity Break, 6 December 2014
Date: Saturday, December 06, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
Shiver me timbers, gentle readers, Australia is experiencing an income recession, and very likely soon a production recession. (The warning was given some time ago.) The Treasurer is facing criticism from all quarters except from his boss, and a new Treasury Secretary will soon be providing advice peppered by half-a-lifetime in the real world of business. Those of us who have toiled in that particular olive orchard know that his focus will be on decisive, effective action to fix an under-performing business.
It is (again) time to come clean with the voting public, this time without attempts to gild the lily or protect us out here in voter land from reality. Here is Henry's dot point attempt at an effective narrative and policies.
* After living high on the hog through the global crisis thanks to the China boom (and the economic reforms of the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments), Australia is struggling badly. Australia has become seriously uncompetitive.
* Overall cost levels are too high, and the budget is literally out-of-control with unsustainable spending levels due to the manifest unwillingness of voters to finance unlimited cheap tertiary education, limitless spending on health and generous welfare spending. Cross bench Senators, please note especially carefully.
* Hard decisions must be made and implemented. It is the opinion of most sensible economists that the remedy must include people paying a higher proportion of education and health spending. A serious attempt to make the Federation more efficient - by eliminating overlaps and 'double regulation' - would help greatly, and can be justified as a basic contribution to accountability and efficiency.
* It is the opinion of many economists that the only lasting solution is to broaden the GST and raise its rate to, say, 15 %. (Think New Zealand.) This should, however, be presented as a last resort. The government should state this is its approach and invite Labor to propose its list of savings to add to the Coalition's current suggestions and others that may be devised.
* The exchange rate must be tamed so that industries have greater certainty. There are only two viable possibilities. Make Australian monetary policy just as easy as that of other countries, including near-zero interest rates and 'quantitative easing', almost certainly creating massive asset inflation. Or introduce a variable tax and subsidy plan for capital flows. We must remember Milton Friedman's obiter dictum that 'monetary policy cannot serve two masters'.
* Government should lead by example in efforts to cut Australia's bloated cost base. Henry remains of the view that a temporary and voluntary cut of government salaries, with the opposition invited to join, would show all the right intent. Business leaders should be invited to accept equivalent (temporary) cuts and ask the Fair Work Commission to impose equivalent (temporary) cuts on workers. To incentivise people in a wholly voluntary scheme, donations to relevant charities, such as the proposed new medical research fund, could attract tax relief certificates to provide future tax cuts at a higher rate than normal to be used when the budget is again in surplus.
Clearly this is a radical set of suggestions. Yet it has the potential to fix Australia's economic woes by rapidly restoring international competitiveness and fixing the budget. As Walter Bagehot once said: 'One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea', quoted by The Economist, digital edition, 5 December 2014.
Regular readers will be aware of my attempts to persuade the RBA to sort out policies to control asset inflation, so far as this is possible, distinct from monetary policy, which involves keeping the overall economy on an even keel with low goods and services inflation. This week, Janet Yellen, US Fed Chairwomen, joined the crusade, which is all over save the shouting.
After two weeks of incredibly moving response to the unexpected and freakish death of Phillip Hughes, it is back to business for the cricket would.
Preparion has commenced for the delayed first test against India, and bouncers were reported to be flying in both camps.
How fiercely the contest is joined is hard to predict, but the whole episode has revealed the souls of leading cricketers like nothing one can recall. One hopes at least that sledging will be eliminated, or at least only genuinely funny sledges are used in future.
ASADA's legal case seems in danger of falling apart due to the reluctance of key witnesses to give evidence.
Henry is no lawyer, but surely the court has the power to insist that these blokes give evidence?
In the absence of this, presumably footy goes on as it did, with teams that seem fitter, faster and stronger than their rivals attracting murmurings to the effect 'how could this be?'.
Henry this week enjoyed lunch with a former AFL Commissioner and one of Australia's finest historians. 'How come there is no AFL team in Tasmania? Was it just reluctance to disturb the native flora and fauna? were the questions. 'Actually no', was the reply. 'It was Tasmania's inability to agree on where the team would be located, Hobart or Launceston, or somewhere in between. The latter might have been just doable politically, but that would have disturbed the plants and animals, not least because of the roads, carparks and the stadium itself required to accomodate the game every second weekend'.
Henry commends the e-book, available free here, which tells the tale of a genuine hero, a former star Tasmanian footballer, and his rise to prominance as a global investment-banking guru. Good holiday reading at a time when the big thinkers are again comparing Australia to a Banana Republic.
Image of the week
Fun in the sun, and related matters
Date: Thursday, December 04, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton
As 2014 winds down, the government is making a major attempt to make progress toward a sustainable budget, with Treasurer Joe Hockey speaking as I am tapping this message. Slowly the narrative is being progressed, helped by the shock of further falls in commodity prices and the prospect of more to come. As the best commentators are saying, the Labor opposition when in government helped create our current budget mess and yet are zealously blocking the remedies. 'Systematic economic vandalism' is a gentle form of the criticism of this behaviour. 'Economic treason' is a tougher label.
One notes the view expressed by the Treasurer that the loss of revenue is no reason to cut spending further. Of course, that depends on whether commodity prices settle at or below current levels. The implied assumption is that commodity prices rebound, meaning the current economic blowout is temporary and the 'no more cuts strategy' is a form of 'automatic stabiliser'. It is entirely possible that there will be no quick rebound, or even further falls, and in that case budget red ink will become deeply entrenched. It is also important to recall that it is not just the Commonwealth government deficit that matters. Earlier this year veteran business titan, Don Argus, put together a fuller picture of Australian indebtedness, and it is not a pretty sight.
We are told that Treasury Secretary, Dr Martin Parkinson, is retiring shortly. Except for the inspired leak some months ago of the name and qualifications of John Fraser, a great man from the global banking system, we have no further information about his replacement. Deputy Secretary David Gruen has moved on to run the Statistical Bureau, so the team on duty over the festive season looks like being a bit under-weight. Hope the new boss, whomever he or she might be, is not a skeptic about allowing 'automatic stabilisers' to work, or there might be some feathers flying in the new year.
We learned yesterday that, despite growing national production, Australia's national income is falling. We are like a shopkeeper, selling stock at price levels so low that profits are falling. Said shopkeeper is cheerfully and deliberately not cutting his family's spending, because 'she'll be right mate'.
Then there is the stubborn overvaluation of the Aussie dollar. The dollar is indeed heading down, and at some stage, eg if the deficit and debt outlook begins to look really grim, it is likely to plunge. (US$ 0.70 is Henry's guess.) The RBA will keep on with its open mouth policy and is likely also to cut interest rates still further. Not a cheep from the chookery at the top end of Martin Place about the idea of modifying the exchange rate with a tax on capital inflow as a form of 'macroprudential' policy designed to keep some predictable stability in the structure of industry.
Next day - As Walter Bagehot once said: 'One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea', quoted by The Economist, digital edition, 5 December 2014.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is today presenting a generous 'compromise' on treatment of asylum seekers who came here on Labor's watch. Kids out of detention, grown-ups freed to work and families able to begin to become integrated into regional communities, with a possible road to eventual permanant residence, What more do the bleeding hearts need? At least if these changes are blocked it will be clear to all fair-minded people, that ideological ratbaggery has blocked reasonable compassion, including the compassion of preventing deaths at sea, including deaths of innocent kids. I say this as someone who took a far softer line on the asylum seeker issue during the Howard-Costello years, including in one long conversation with Peter Costello himself who said at the end that he agreed with my views.
Next day - The Senate approved this reform and there is hope for us all. Well done Scott Morrison.
Soon the silly season will be upon us all, and resting in the sun, or watching the cricket or eating and drinking will become the chief activities of many Australians. We must hope for a renewed focus on economic policy in 2015, led perhaps by Joe Hockey with the advice of a sensible and pragmatic Treasury Secretary.