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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
IMF throws in the towel
Date: Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Author: Henry Thornton

The IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard has thrown in the towel and downgraded the lumbering international agency's economic forecasts.

Though Blanchard still expects 4 % growth for the world, hardly shabby, his forecasts for developed countries have been edged down from 'barely acceptable' to 'bloody miserable'. (These are technical economic terms that sound far more impressive in French, ze language of love.)

As warned yesterday, expect a backflip from Madam Legarde on the question of whether developed nations should tighten their belts or send out for more pizza.

Australia's Treasurer has been made 'Finance Minister of the year', an accolade that must peeve Ms Wong. Henry recalls once being told that 9 out of ten winners of Btitain's 'entrepreneur of the year' award ended up broke withing 2, or was it three, years.

Flushed by the award, will Treasurer Swan now blame the slippage into developed nation misery as an excuse to abandon the 'return to surplus by 2013' promise.  Like 'no carbon tax' and 'we will never send asylum seekers to countries who have not signed the UN protocol and dealing with refugees' this budgetary election commitment will prove to be just as firm.

In the gloaming

Amongst the fading light, the Rugby World Cup was meant to kindle light and hope, that is until Australia was choked into an all-but-impossible position by an inspired Ireland.

TP Maher reports here, and if he stays off the turps will continue to do so as the tournement unfolds.

[Ed: We must apologise and withdraw.  TP Mahar would never dring turpentine.  We acknowledge that he is a lifetime single malt quaffer.]

Vale Gough Whitlam; and issues for economic growth
Date: Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

We salute the life of Gough Whitlam, 98 good years for a great Australian. Flawed, like the rest of us, but a visionary leader who gave hope to the battlers and helped to create a better deal for women, indigenous Australians, bright kids from battler families, ill Australians and improved Australia's international image with his early recognition of China.

Economics was Mr Whitlam's great flaw. 'His weakness was inability to tell a million from a billion' said one of his loyal supporters. Trouble with social reform is that it costs real money, and more generous welfare or premature wage increases can blunt incentives and cost jobs..

It was Time, as the slogan (and the song) said, but we got too much too fast.

Greetings from Port Lincoln, gentle readers. From Port Lincoln, after crossing the Nullarbor, Henry reported in the  style of Jack Kerouac. Available here.

Brilliant landscape, with lots of painting ideas.

Totally missed the weekend papers, but got a free Monday Australian at hotel here to catch up. Plus a special newspaper at Port Lincoln tourist info specially for Seniors. 'Leave our pensions alone' was the headline.

Heard of new Growth Centre ideas before leaving. Sounds like an innovative new way to get university researchers to work with businesses, focussing on areas where Australia has already achieved global high standard, or needs to do so.

This is sometimes derided as 'picking winners' but Henry's view it should more sensibly be described as 'supporting winners'. The world economy is more competitive than ever, and we need to focus on things we already do well.

The examples provided by the government include:

* The food and agribusiness Centre may assist food manufacturers to work with packaging companies and researchers to consider packaging solutions to extend the shelf life of products, especially into regional export markets where the lack of refrigeration is a problem.

* The mining equipment, technology and services (METS) Centre may identify global market opportunities to enable establishment of METS consortiums to target opportunities with product and service export packages and access to information on global supply chains.

* Through the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals Centre, businesses may be assisted to identify new opportunities through linking with medical device and materials researchers to develop new biomedical devices and platform technologies to improve health outcomes and business profitability.

* The advanced manufacturing Centre may bring together researchers and small chemical manufacturers to enable them to adopt new chemical flow and carbon fibre technology, in turn allowing them to develop new, low cost chemical products which are competitive with those produced overseas.

* The oil, gas and energy resources Centre may assist businesses to lower costs through greater collaboration, better sharing of infrastructure and logistics support (especially on remote projects), greater development and uptake of new technology and innovation, and improved planning across all areas of the resources value chain.

More information here.

Economic growth.

David Uren delivered a very interesting discussion in Monday's Oz. He reports on a study led by Larry Summers, former US Treasury Secretary, now practicing economics at Harvard.  In summary: 'The history of countries enjoying rapid growth is that they return to the global average, usually very rapidly'.

It is always possible to assert 'this time its different', but in my view the sort of historical experience like that investigated by Summers et al is the best guide to future economic developments.

If this universal law - 'regression to the mean' - applies to China and India, the future will be far rougher than the past decade has been for Australia.

This possibility should give us added impetus to fix the budget and get on with some serious economic reform.  Please, political heirs of the visionary Gough Whitlam, buckle down and let the government do their best. In my view, this will give you the best chance to again govern, and it will be a far stronger country when your turn comes again.

The bipartisan tributes to Gough and Margaret Whitlam today show parliament  at its best.  Being constructive about economic policy would lift the tone and outcomes greatly.

Sunday Sanity Break, 19/10/2014
Date: Sunday, October 19, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton (In Ceduna)

Growing inequality is damaging the USA, and especially its great tradition of equality of opportunity. This is unsustainable said US Fed Chairperson Janet Yellen on ABC TV yestertoday. (Or words to this effect.) Can it be very different here, gentle readers?

A simple google search provided access to the entire speech. Here is the summary paragraph.

 'The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then.2 It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity'.

The dread disease of Ebola is racing ahead, and experts are warning that soon it may become a global pandemic.  The isolated cases in developed nations show the risk, as does the upward curve of deaths in Africa. Henry has been told that in principle a vaccine should be possible, but none has been developed because poor Africans cannot afford to meet their cost.  Inequality is not just an American challenge.

Henry has spent the night in Norseman.  This is a typical declining rural town, that reminded Mrs Thotnton of her ancestral town of Boggabri in Northern NSW. Here the ratio of closed to open shops is far higher to that in Kalgoorlie, about 70 % we guess.  Talk at the bar before dinner revealed that two out of three gold mines in the vicinity of Norseman are closed, reflecting high costs and a generally falling price of gold. Henry's travelling companion, a former mining mogul, offered the view that most of Australia's gold mines were at the 90 th decile of costs.  Henry's report on the Super Pit in Kalgoorlie is available here.

Henry's visit to Kalgoorlie is reported here. Next post covers the crossing of the Nullarbor.


Australia's cricket team whitewashed the pride of Pakistan in Quatar, or some similarly strange cricket powerhouse. The final over was a ripper, with Pakistan failing to score the two runs needed to win.  Great work, men.

Last night, like lambs to the slaughter, the Aussie Rugger bu**ers faced the mighty All Blacks. As we said: 'A win would be glorious, a draw would be wonderful but a thrashing would not be unsurprising'. Sadly, there was a near win, but the coach fell on his sword. Smart man.

This is the dead time for sport in the Thornton household, with only the footy trading to relieve the boredom. Essendon is letting go players likely to be banned in return for other players who will not be banned.  Caaaarlton! has let Waite go, and have traded Jeff Garlett and it said to have fired Mitch Robinson. Hard to see how we can do better next year, Mighty Mick.

Henry, Mrs T and the Mining Mogul have travelled the mighty Nullarbor and report in from Ceduna.  Nice hotel motel on the waterfront, but no internet connection, decent TV or newspapers anywhere.  It will be better tomorrow.

Image of the week

Global finance - `anomalies` and `dangerous combination[s]`
Date: Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

There are 'a number of anomalies present in financial markets in terms of pricing and volatility. There are also some misplaced perceptions amongst market participants about the degree of liquidity present in some market segments. That strikes me as a dangerous combination and unlikely to be resolved smoothly'.

This is the conclusion of a speech by Guy Debelle, RBA Assistant Governor (Financial Markets). The speech is called Volatility and Market Pricing, and is worth reading carefully.

It can be accessed here

Henry is escaping all this to visit the arid delights of the road across the Nullarbor from Perth to Adelaide. Having listened recently to an expert on feral cats, we shall not be camping out, but hunkering down in whatever motels we can find.

Be assured Henry shall be monitoring the global markets and domestic politics as well as checking the wildlife, indigenous and imported alike. But transmission may be intermittant.

Weekend Sanity Break, 11 October 2014
Date: Saturday, October 11, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

The risks of a global recession are increasing.  The shadwos in the China story are lengthening with renewed emphasis provided by China's decision to impose tariffs on the import of coal. Spread of protectiomist policies greatly worsened the global depression in the 1930s and this action by China is like the death of the first canary in an old-fashioned underground coal mine. The fighting in the Middle East will become worse as airpower alone fails to subdue the Islamist fanatics. Serious damage to oil production would further damage prospects for growth.  Growth in the Eurozone is sputtering and there are deeply adverse population trends to reduce everyone's 'Animal Spirits'.

Avoiding a protectionist plague is vital, but will such self-restraint be uniformly maintained?  To add to the pressures, every developed nations' budget is mired in deep debt and any push to tighten budget policy will reduce growth further, at least in the short run, which means for several years.  'Budget gridlock' is the technical term.  If former Treasury Deputy-Secretary John Fraser, now a globe trotting wealthy capitalist, takes a deep breath and accepts the job of heading Australia's Treasury he will quickly find a government bereft of any consistent budgetary policy with 'Budget Gridlock' the situation,

As noted yesterday, monetary policy is also in Gridlock. Globally, the US Fed has to find a way to begin to return monetary policy to normal without bringing on global recession. There is plenty of bad news to smash share proces, but the news that American 'Quantitative Easing' is ending is most often claimed as the prime cause of the deep correction now reducing paper wealth globally. Henry hopes his favourite fund manager further reduced his exposure to global equities in recent weeks, but picking when to do this is one of the toughest decisions a fundie has to make.  John Fraser will know the feeling well.

In Australia, Glenn Stevens is facing a falling dollar ('Hooray, Comrades' is the cry) but also rising house prices ('Do something APRA').  Australia's monetary policy is also in gridlock, and may stand easy, like the Good Soldier Schwejk, for well into 2015.

Paul Kelly wants Tony Abbott to 'muscle up' to the economic challenge. This description will appeal to the Prime minister, who has a good record in confronting the challenge of the terrorists but has let the economic debate be hi-jacked by the charge of 'unfair'. The problem is twofold.  The first problem is adopting Wayne Swan's overoptimistic forecasts, for which we must blame Treasury and Treasurer Joe Hockey.  Always allow for the 'realistic worse case' is one of Henry's (Thornton not Ken) rules for forecasters and policy makers. This is a rule apparently unknown in Canberra, and Treasury and the Treasurer seem to have assumed that the Australian parliament would allow then to adopt a few tough (but unfair) budget improvement policies and the budget would 'whirr back into surplus'.  And now the PM has ruled out tax increases, during a quick break from the war front.

The second problem is an almost total inability to tell a coherent economic story.  It is pretty somple really. Australia's largent mining boom is over, and no former mining boom has ended without serious recession. The particular problem the government seems not to have noticed is a national cost base that has made all sectors of Australian industry uncompetitive. To compound the problem, the world is slipping back into recession and in any case is in a debt trap that will enforce slow growth for the forseeable future.

My prediction is this. Australia's budget will never again be in surplus until the GST is widened or its rate increased, or preferably both. Much as I hate tax increases almost as much as Tony Abbott, Australia's ability to remove supposed 'entitlements' is almost zero, and certainly so unless we can find a 'genius communicator' to devise and sell an economic narrative just as compelling as Tony Abbott is on geo-political matters.


What a great Rugby League grand final is was, gentle readers, and Greg Inglis' Goanna Walk will become an icon of Black Pride, whose time has come.

Meanwhile, the Essendon supplements saga must, surely, be ending soon.  Most people are saying Mr Hird will coach no more, and if 34 infraction notices are issued and remain on the table it is hard to see how the once mighty Essendon can field a team next year.  We grieve for this situation, but did you notice Dean Cox's book launch included reference to drugs problems in the West about the time they were laying waste to their opponants. ('Don't mention the war' seems to be the AFL's response.)

The Aussie netball team are again at their peak, and the wimmin's basketballers played well in losing to the mighty USA and again in winning the bronze medal in the playoff against Turkey.

Cricket will soon be with us. With a very busy season before us, serious viewers may find their drinking arm packing up like Watto's calf, so one hopes there has been adequate preparation.

Image of the Week

Linked here.

Slower growth and economic policy
Date: Friday, October 10, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

The IMF has reduced its forecasts for global growth. With commodity prices plunging, Australia's budget deficit problem is getting worse. Australia, like other so-called 'developed nations' has a budget crisis.  As growth prospects worsen, what can we do?

Global monetary policy remains 'set easy'.  The RBA's monetary policy is not so easy as that of the nations with near-zero interest rates, like the USA and Europe. But monetary policy cannot perform miracles. The budget dilemma is obvious and clear.  Slow growth makes budget deficits larger, limiting the use of fiscal policy to  increase growth that seems to elected leaders 'too slow' and unlikely to help their chances of reelection. 

Sadly governments like those of Rudd'n'Gillard'Rudd in Oz have wasted the benefit of 'fiscal stimulus', and now governments cannot afford to tighten fiscal policy.  Or are not allowed to tighten fiscal policy, as in Australia with its recalcient Senate. None of this should be a surprise, gentle readers.  It was even predicted (gasp!) here.

So we have fiscal gridlock, gentle readers.  And monetary policy gridlock. Nations with near zero interest rates and 'quantitative easing'  need to withdraw excessively easy monetary policy - hardly likely to strengthen growth, and almost certain to reduce asset prices. The end of booming asset prices is already evident, and plunging asset prices are also unlikely to strengthen growth. Countries with excessive debt will be unable or unwilling to to tighten fiscal policy, at least until budgets under control again raise 'Animal Spirits'.

The only answer with these constraints is 'economic reform', but shell-shocked businesses and households - due to excessive debt, slow growth and high unemployment - are unlikely to welcome 'economic reform'.  In any case, to encourage growth requires years of steady, consistent economic reform, not twisting and turning like wounded rattlesnakes.

The only other 'solution' to the slow growth that is now widely expected is to cop it sweet and let nature take its course. Do not upset the voters with painful 'economic reform. Allow nature to fix fiscal deficits ever so slowly, and let monetary policy stay loose as an Ebola-infected goose. (Apologies for such an awful vision, gentle readers.)

As someone once said, 'When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise'. So dream on, wise leaders. Muddle through.  Soon a real economic or geopolitical crisis will appear, and all this concern for overly large budget deficits and overly easy monetary policy will evaporate.

Then instead of slow growth or mild recession will shall all face deep depression.

Germany - a case study

'The German model is ruinous for Germany, and deadly for Europe', says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

'France may look like the sick of man of Europe, but Germany’s woes run deeper, rooted in mercantilist dogma.

'The Kaiser Wilhelm Canal in Kiel is crumbling. Last year, the authorities had to close the 60-mile shortcut from the Baltic to the North Sea for two weeks, something that had never happened through two world wars. The locks had failed.

'Large ships were forced to go around the Skagerrak, imposing emergency surcharges. The canal was shut again last month because sluice gates were not working, damaged by the constant thrust of propeller blades. It has been a running saga of problems, the result of slashing investment to the bone, and cutting maintenance funds in 2012 from €60m (£47m) a year to €11m.

'This is an odd way to treat the busiest waterway in the world, letting through 35,000 ships a year, so vital to the Port of Hamburg. It is odder still given that the German state can borrow funds for five years at an interest rate of 0.15pc. Yet such is the economic policy of Germany, worshipping the false of god of fiscal balance.
'The Bundestag is waking up to the economic folly of this. It has approved €260m of funding to refurbish the canal over the next five years. Yet experts say it needs €1bn, one of countless projects crying out for money across the derelict infrastructure of a nation that has forgotten how to invest, sleepwalking into decline.

'France may look like the sick of man of Europe, but Germany’s woes run deeper, rooted in mercantilist dogma, the glorification of saving for its own sake, and the corrosive psychology of ageing'.

Read on here.

The graph says it all, really.

Turnbull and the NBN
Date: Tuesday, October 07, 2014
Author: Michael Porter

The fact that accounting for the NBN as a losing business will (correct) the budget deficit is no cause for delay, contrary to Malcolm Turnbull.

By allowing multi-technology competition Turnbull will reverse the ‘de-commissioning” of businesses competing with NBN – HFC cable, copper and so forth. Allow competition. Reduce waste of our taxes by $40-60 billion.

Malcolm Turnbull seems intimidated by Hockey and Abbott’s foolish adherence to the accounting fiction in the deficit. Combined losses by the private sector investment in broadband will be replaced by a booming broadband market if we remove protection on the contrived NBN government monopoly.

The reports commissioned by Malcolm from both Bill Scales and Michael Vertigan are spot on – and should be acted on. A row with Hockey and Abbott on this would be a plus! And the savings would finance real quality service to the regions ten times over.

Read on here.  

Saturday Sanity Break, 4 Oct 2014
Date: Saturday, October 04, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Australia goes to war with fighter planes seeking jihadists and a debate on whether anything real can be achieved without boots on the ground. As in Vietnam, even with boots on the ground, fighting, it will be long and hard.

Henry's geopolitical guru, Gary Scarrabelotti begins a series on the struggle.

Joe Hockey has provided an update on the government's economic strategy.

It has an odd web address, but perhaps the Abbott government has outsourced its communication policy to a proven genius communicator.

The summary is as follows.

Australia's Economic Action Strategy.

'The Economic Action Strategy is providing the right conditions to drive growth and create jobs.

'Since coming to Government, growth has strengthened and nearly a quarter of a million jobs have been created.

'We are restoring confidence in public finances.  And we are promoting business confidence by creating the right environment to innovate, invest and thrive.

'This is good news for families and for Australia’s small businesses.

'Already the Government has:
• Scrapped the carbon tax– reducing costs for families;
• Scrapped the mining tax – making Australia a more attractive investment destination;
• Strengthened the Budget – and detailed how we will reduce projected debt by almost $300 billion in a decade;
• Cut $700 million in red tape so far – with another Red Tape Repeal Day to be held later this month;
• Launched the largest infrastructure programme in Australia’s history – with major road investments across Australia; and
• Signed free trade agreements with Korea and Japan – making it easier to for exporters and for job creation.

'These achievements are just the first steps as we build a strong, prosperous economy and a safe, secure Australia.

'There is much more to do.

'In coming months, the Government will continue to make decisions that strengthen the economy; repair the Budget; help small business create jobs and ensure families can plan for their futures with confidence.

'Click here to download the Government’s Economic Action Strategy'.

Henry's latest blog, linked here, expresses polite skepticism, but today I must defer to the Treasurer and the Australian Treasury.  Trouble is, the Treasury is the mob that led Treasurer Swan down a primrose path to perdition.

The AFR, stumbling along behind, says 'Top expats warn on slowdown'. Sadly no link I can find, but at least some people (Top expats) have worked it out.

You takes your money and you makes your choice, gentle readers.

Speaking of money, the markets have been unkind, gentle readers, but in Henry's humble opinion, it is not yet time to plunge in again.  Some unplunging is probably still wise, but your big bank Financial Advisor will, or should be able to, help.

Henry's latest (but humble) advice may be accessed here.


Drat.  Henry was hoping that Hawthorn's belting of the Swans was the end of all the footy talk.  But the Essendon supplements saga refuses to go away, continued by Coach Hird's stubborn attempt to stay in the news.

Once the Rugby (League) grand final is over, and Australia's Rugby (Union) team is flogged by the Argies, it will be time to catch up on the cricket.

It's none too soon, comrades, as the new allrounder, Mitch 'Swampey' Marsh is said to have a hammie.  It's tough being an allrounder, Mitch, as your predecessor, Shane 'Watto' Watson has discovered.  Don't they have expert help, these fellows? Surely there is a supplement for overworked allrounders, Mr Dank?

Speak of the divil, comrades, why has said Mr Dank not been banned for life, or flogged in the middle of the 'G' by Paul Little as a half-time entertainment for the footy crowd?

At least there is the Netball World Cup to watch, and if in albury on the right weekend the National boomerang throwing Championship.

Image of the week.

Courtesy The Oz

RBA`s next major dilemma
Date: Friday, October 03, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'Be careful what you wish for' is a useful piece of advice for naive youngsters.  But one assumes that grown-ups do not need reminding about such an important matter.

The RBA has been confronting dilemmas.  Policy #1, cut interest rates more than is strictly needed to control domestic inflatiion to discourage the excess capital inflow that has been keeping the dollar so high. To little, too late, Guv'nor Glenn. Already whole swathes of existing globally sensitive industy is weakened, and in some cases decimated.

With Policy #1 'working', watch the housing market take off, fuelled by overseas buyers and local investors, 'crowding out' (foregive the technical term, gentle readers) local potential home owners. The frustrated domestic home owners include the young people who are further discouraged by the enormous difficults in getting jobs, partly because of the dire effects of Policy #1, the non-policy of letting the Aussia dollar rip.

At least the RBA seems to have spotted the fallacy of trying to introduce Policy #2, raising interest rates to slow rampaging house price inflation.  They have handballed responsibility of containing house price inflation to APRA, as the designated custodian of 'counter-cyclical Australian macroprudential policy (C-CAMP).  Let's hope APRA does not respond with 'Que?'.

Now the Aussie dollar is on the skids, helped along by falling iron ore prices. Now that iron ore prices have halved from their peak, the fall in the Aussie is likely to become precipitous, to the point of being damaging. An economy cannot restructure on the whim of international currency speculators, which is why policy #1A was proposed here almost two years ago.

A distinguished friend provided Henry with some chilling arithmetic. 'When the commodity boom was at its peak, the current account deficit was around $17 billion. What it will be now commodity prices have collapsed is anybody's guess, but it will not be pretty. Overseas investors are likely to abandon Australia, forcing the dollar even lower. (As you know, Henry, financial markets almost always overshoot.)

'A much lower dollar will be very damaging for the banks, who still fund a lot of their lending from offshore.  And now it seems punters are waking up to the risks with so-called 'hybrid' securities. Remind your readers to 'Fasten seat belts' Henry.  There has never been a commodity boom that ended well. You predicted recession more than a year ago - and here it comes. And domestic inflation will soon be the problem du jour, and the RBA will have another dilemma. Bloody hell!'

'The glass shall be dry, Henry, not just half-empty'.

ISIL, ISIS, Islamic State, whatever.

Gary Scarrabelotti shares his thoughts on developments in the Middle East and suggests an approach, including 'No boots on the ground', at least for now.

Even if Islamic State were one day to control a territory that stretched from Damascus to Baghdad, Gary says, that would not represent, in and of itself, a strategic threat to Australia.

True, the glamour won by Islamic State, for upending the political geography of the Middle East, would drive waves of influence across the globe and inspire would-be Sunni insurgents elsewhere.  And true, it would be a real worry for Australia if, for example, Islamic State imitators were, one day, to take hold in some part of Indonesia and could not be rooted out.  That would have strategic implications for Australia. Right now, though, that’s a far-off scenario.

Long before that could happen, an Islamic State triumph would energise its natural rivals: Iran, certainly; and, very likely, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia. With any great Islamic State victory, the survival instincts of its neighbours would kick in.  The result would be general war in the Middle East.  It’s a war Australia would not need to fight, any more than we needed take sides in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.

So why are we so agitated, then?

It comes down to our “light on the hill” social experiment with culturally colour-blind immigration. We imported the Middle East into our suburbs.

So, yes, we do have a problem. Do we, however, have to go to Iraq (and maybe also Syria) to remove the temptationto join jihadthat Islamic misfits into our society find so alluring?

No, I don’t believe so.

Our focus should be on pre-empting terrorist attacks in Australia.  As for cutting off the supply from our shores of recruits to foreign wars we don’t like,well, I wouldn’t make it a priority.  If it were up to me, those who want to ‘do’ jihad in foreign climes, I’d let them go: give them time to reach their destinations, cancel their passports, and let fate take its course. The prospect of being rendered stateless should, in any case, sober up a certain number of angry young men. Genuinely penitent jihadis could always be re-issued with a passport as an act of mercy.

Read on here.  

Saturday Sanity Break, 27 September 2014
Date: Saturday, September 27, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

The coalition of the willing is beginning its task of dismantling the Islamist fanatics with overwhelming air power, but one naturally wonders if this job can be done effectively even with lots of boots on the ground.  There are many different views on whether the current approach (without Western boots) can work but, with the terror coming to Western nations so decisively, what other approach is feasable?  We sincerely hope that moderate Muslims, of whom there are many, rally around team Australia at this difficult time.

The efforts of disaffected youths is a particular problem.  With middle class youth in the affluant suburbs of Melbourne finding it difficult to get jobs, one has great sympathy for young unemployed people in the poorer areas of our great cities. Poor parenting must be part of the problem, and the stories about the parenting of some of our indigenous football stars in today's press shows it is possible to do a good job in even the direst circumstances.  Australia must fix the jobs crisis as part of any anti-terror  program that has a chance of working. Is the Labor opposition willing to embrace this notion?  Time to ask them, Mr Abbott.

A close friend has pointed out that Australia has embraced many immigrants, on balance at great benefit to the nation. But perhaps the skeptics about large-scale immigration from troubled parts of the world have a point.  Henry's friend said: 'I never thought I'd see the day when police and military personal, including school cadets, are instructed not to wear their uniforms when travelling about. I understand why this is necessary, but what a comment on an overly generous "multicultural" immigration policy'.


Henry found some supporters at 'The Melbourne Forum' this week, as reported here. The economy is in a parlous state, and headed for 'The recession we did not need to have'.  The powers do not seem to understand, but it now seems certain that the problems of insufficient jobs, especially for already disaffected youths, are likely to get far worse.

Yet the budget deficit we do not need to have - check New Zealand if you doubt this assertion - is still mired in the Senate and there is very little sound policy on offer, although the BCA's efforts are worthy of praise.

3D printing - this is a vital part of a viable part of a modern manufacturing industry, and here is a nice illustration.

Film piracy is also a key activity for disaffected youth.  The good guys in this debate are removing the excuses of pirates by offering small if any times between release overseas (especially the USA) and reasonable fees, though US levels will be hard to achieve with Australia's relativey high levels of costs.  More here.

Did you see the report this year that average levels of wages in US mines are twice Australian levels?  Even truck drivers in mines are being replaced by robots, gentle readers.


The AFL season comes to an end today, barring a draw in the Grand Final.

It promises to be a battle for the ages. Sydney Swans have the 'Bondi billionaires' plus a bunch of home grown, well drilled stars from previous finals campaigns.

Hawthorn, last year's champion team, has lost Buddy to Sydney but is full of even more well drilled stars with a relentless commitment to winning whose tradition was established by 'Kennedy's commandos all those years ago.

The pundits are mostly favouring Sydney, but all of them think it will be close, so a draw is a distinct possibility. Sadly, Henry cannot say 'Go Blues'.

But, in fact, what a boilover.  Hawthorn was relentless and brilliant, to the point that Sydney seem shell-shocked from the get-go. Hard to watch, and indeed Henry switched off at half-time. Lot's of implications for 2015, but it would be best to enjoy the festive season and some cricket before thinking about this generally depressing subject..

Image of the week - iron ore mine working a low level.  (More paintings here.)

Monetary policy, asset inflation and the exchange rate
Date: Thursday, September 25, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

As widely reported, the RBA's latest Financial Stability Report has confessed concern at the hot property market, especially in Melbourne and Sydney. It has said it is looking at action, perhaps even what APRA calls 'countercyclical macroprudential policy', especially applied to investment properties. Another area of scrutiny is houses purchased by overseas buyers.  The rules say such purchases should only apply to second hand houses but 'everyone' except the regulators say there is a lot of overseas buying of new houses. In any case, trying to limit overseas buyers to new houses would be guarenteed to fail.

The AFR calls any sort of 'macroeconomic policy' a return to the failed direct controls of the past, and says instead interest rates should be raised. This would be a 'return to the failed macroeconomic policies of the past', when monetary policy - the use of movements in cash interest rates - failed to fix an overvalued exchange rate, and failed to restrain runaway house prices.  This is no great problem, however. In both cases this was because monetary policy should stick to its primary strength, which is nudging the overall economy into a state of sustainable growth with low goods and services inflation.

Many years ago Milton Friedman said 'monetary policy cannot serve two masters' and current dilemmas show exactly why this is so. Assuming it was planning to control the overall economy plus the currency and house prices with monetary policy - movements in cash rates of interest - which way would it move at present?  Raising rates would help restrain house prices.  Reducing cash rates would help reduce the overvalued exchange rate. The RBA is entitled to ask: 'Que?'

Today Henry had the chance to debate this weighty matter at Melbourne University, like a Chinese dissident of 30 years ago being allowed slight renewed access to the political leaders. Kevin Davis from the Murray Inquiry and Glenn Stevens from the RBA amongst other worthies were the stars. To prepare, Henry read the RBA's 64 page Financial Stability Report. War and Peace it aint, but it is well written and crammed with facts. The next breakthrough for central banks is to debate policy, even with discredited former leaders.

Great but (naturally) guarded speeches by Kevin and Glenn which I shall link to when links are available. Janine Dixon presented some simulations of the likely effect on unemployment of a substantial currency depreciation not met by price and wage restraint.  She said that this meant an increase of unemployment  of 4 percentage points, to 10 or eleven percent!  This is broadly like it was in the recessions of 1981 and 1991 and so has some inherent plausibility.

Then Nicholas Gruen presented some seriously radical ideas about really deregulated banking which cheered the room and bankers (except central bankers) are regarded by academics as among the more villanous members of polit society.  Max Corden reported that he is reading the ('brilliant') manuscript of Martin Wolf of Financial Times fame, and thought that Nicholas was on a similar tram. Professor Helen Sullivan, director of the Melbourne School of government spoke of some highly relevant matters of governance.

Henry's comment was on 'Monetary policy and macroprudential policy', a matter that will not be new to readers of this blog. However, the thrill of the occasion produced a new thought, or at least a new way of looking at a favourite subject, which is why one should attend and speak even at soires where everyone are either old friends or (ahem) enemies.

'In the 1990s, during the so-called "Great Moderation", monetary policy seemed under control, with inflation targets widely believed to be an excellent guide to monetary policy. Yet asset inflation was out of control and this led directly to the Global Financial Crisis. Obviously not all was under control in the monetary garden, and now we know we need macroprudential policy, even 'counter-cyclical macroprudential policy' to quell the weeds of excess asset inflation (='bubbles')'.

This led to my advocacy of taxes on capital inflow and 'dynamic asset ratio' policy' (='counter-cyclical prudential policy') to help bring the exchange rate to heel and to contain house prices. Naturally I mentioned negative grearing as an important cause of house price inflation and, in a burst of generosity, pointed out that reform of negative gearing would do much to fix house price inflation, a matter for which Gov'nor Glenn was carrying the can. He risked a wry smile at that point, though he had earlier dismissed tax on the exchange rate with 'we need capital which means we are stuck with a high exchange rate'.  Henry did not bother to point out that we need less capital than we've been getting as that seemed an obvious counterpoint.

Other matters.

Do not miss the latest Raff Report. The Raff explains why he is not yet wading into mining stocks.

And Henry has posted another new painting, of a large open cut iron ore mine in the Pilbara.

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