China slowdown worse than now expected
Date: Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Author: Henry Thornton
One always worries that a totalitarian government might have rigged the numbers.
Could China's rate of consumer inflation be somehow higher than the 4.1 % reported in the year ro December?
Could real GDP growth be lower than the 8.9 % annual rate reported in early January?
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says that China's slowdown is serious, more serious than the official numbers, swallowed by the global press, suggest.
'I could not help noticing that China’s imports from Japan fell 16.2pc in December. Imports from Taiwan fell 6.2pc.
'The Shanghai Container Freight Index fell 1.4pc to a record low of 919.44 in November, after sliding relentlessly for several months. It has picked up slightly since.
'The Baltic Dry Index [an old favourite of Henry] measuring freight rates for ores, grains, and bulk goods, has fallen 44pc over the last year. Kasper Moller from Maersk in Beijing said weak Chinese demand for iron ore was the key culprit.
Courtesy TickQuest and
'Cautionary warning. The BDI index also reflects the shipping glut, so it is not a pure indicator.
'However, rail, road, river and air freight volume for the whole of China fell to 31780m tons in November (latest data), from 32340m tons in October. Not a big fall, but still negative. (National Bureau of Statistics of China.)
'Chinese electricity use was flat in over the Autumn, with a sharp fall in the (year-on-year) growth rates from 8.9pc in September, to 8pc in October, and 7.7pc in December.
'Residential investment has been contracting on a monthly basis, and of course property prices are now falling in all but two of China’s 70 largest cities.
'So how did China pull off an economic growth rate of 8.9pc in the fourth quarter?
'I strongly suspect that the trade and power data reveal the true state of China’s economy'. Read on here.
Saturday Sanity Break, 17 January 2015
Date: Saturday, January 17, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton
The global economy has been dealt another blow as Switzerland abandons its policy of capping the Swiss Franc, and associated support for the clock and choclate industries.
Currency capping was initiated in 2011 to protect Swiss industry. But the cost of keeping the Franc low required massive buying of foreign exchange - mainly US dollars and Euro - financed by printing Swiss Francs to pay for it. When the cap was removed, the Swiss Franc exploded up against the Euro, initially by 40 %, with correction back to a 'mere' 18 %. The reason seems to be that the Euro is expected to depreciate against every other currency when the Eurozone starts 'quantitative easing' (QE) to combate deflation and depression.
The Swiss central bank also cut its 'discount rate' from -0.25 % to -0.75 %, though this is unlikely to deter people seeking protection againt further cuts in the Euro. No need to blink, gentle readers, these bizarre numbers are not typos, just indicative of the fragile, hairtrigger state of international finance, instability that will foster further volatility and policy experimentation.
The AFR has reported 'veiled wrath' of IMF Chief Christine Lagarde, which suggests 'private fury among the European elite'. Also that the gnomes of Switzerland have set up a 'blockbuster European central Bank meeting next Thursday'. The US Fed, meanwhile has ended its QE as US jobs growth strengthens. US economic recovery means that now market participants are betting on the first increase, from near zero, in the US discount rate.
The Australian dollar was, of course, tossed about in the wake of the global financial chaos. Smart punters now put potential downside for the Aussie dollar at US$0.70, which for some time has been Henry's best guess at a stopping point of Australia's currency weakness. Memo to self: consult the blind seer about whether 60 cents might be the new low.
Of course, we now have a new boss of the Australian Treasury, John Fraser. His brief tenure has included the surprise report of jobs strength in official (ABS) statistics. Also continued failure in the initial attempts of the Abbott government to achieve a convincing budget outlook, with backflips and hints of further backflips to come. The news from the mining sector is for massive jobs loss, and it is highly unlikely that jobs growth will be anywhere strong enouth to give the government a real chance of its promise - or was that just an 'aspiration' - to create a million new jobs in its first 5 years in office.
Recent chatter among the elderly members of Henry's social circle focusses on whether Mr Abbott's government has any real chance of being re-elected in a bit over 18 month's time. Even the Labor members of friends in their twilight years add the caveat that Bill Shorten does not have what it takes to run the country, and the second most favourite topic is whether it's too late to put hard-earned savings offshore.
Henry's favourite journo, Grace Collier of the Oz, commends the government, and Josh Frydenberg, for its latest really good idea about a new tax. 'It is obvious more taxation is urgently required and the timing of the Assistant Treasurer’s proposal is perfect. This kamikaze government needs to restore its standing in the eyes of the populace. If starting the new year by talking loudly about a new plan to increase the cost of living doesn’t work, then I cannot imagine what will.'
Read on here, and ponder where the Australian dollar will go as the degree of Australia's fiscal deadlock is fully revealed.
Welcome to Country, Mr Fraser.
Having triumphed in the long form of the game, Steve Smith's all conquering heros have put away their white gear for their green jammies and taken on the Poms and Indians in a one day (actually, afternoon'n'evening 'tri-series') under George Baily's leadership and with the real captain doing stretches in the grandsstand. Young Mitch Stark struck again in the first over and it took an Irishman to make England's score respectable enough to ensure a full evening's fun'n'games under the lights.
Henry will take a rest from cricket in order to be properly fit for the tennis. Roger Federer is Henry's choice for the men's trophy and Slammin' Sam Stouser for the lady's, on the grounds that she needs to come good on home courts sometime soon.
I am aware that readers, if any, are thinking: 'Stick to your day job, Henry, if you have one'. In fact, Henry has just had printed and bound 530 pages of historical analysis of the state of Optimism and Pessimism in the USA and England. Sources are magazines and books from 1843 and the plan is to turn this literary material into an index that may help explain share prices. Will report back in a month or so, and then again when the formal statistical analysis is completed.
Image of the week
Old economics-new economics
Date: Monday, January 12, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton
The US economy added 252,000 jobs in December, confirming 2014 as the best year for job creation since 1999. The good news for the US economy's competitiveness is that growth in wages and US government bond yields remained subdued.
The strong job growth reinforces other evidence that the US is outperforming other large hi-income economies. In particular, the Eurozone, is reentering deflation for the first time in more than five years, and the Japanese economy is still struggling.
While investors are betting that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this (Northern) summer, expectations are growing for the European Central Bank to embark on a full-blown programme of bond-buying to stimulate its economy.
The FT reports that the US Fed officials 'are in broad agreement that US interest rates are unlikely to rise until at least April, according to minutes from their policy meeting in December.
'Most people on the 10-strong Federal Open Market Committee agreed with Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen that the move to drop the central bank’s forecast about keeping interest rates low for a “considerable time” should be seen as a signal that it will not raise rates at its January or March meetings. Read on here.
Most interest rate experts say US cash rates are unlikely to begin to rise until mid 2015. But this is contested by some old-fashioned types who remain committed to pre-GFC economics. The old-fashioned types expected excess money to generate goods and services inflation. While the labor and goods markets remained depressed it was possible to rationalise lack of response of goods and services inflation. Smart old-fashioned types - eg Rupert Murdoch - could also rationalise excess money raising asset inflation.
The emerging global issue is deflation of goods and service markets, and the recovery in the US economy is hardly strong enough to drag the global economy into the full-employment zone. Unless and until this happens, global excess money, generated in Japan and the Eurozone, even if no longer by the US Fed, is likely to continue to flood into asset markets. When the Fed begins to raise interest rates global asset inflation may be checked, but while excess money keeps coming, this may be only a temporary check.
The economic textbook are already out-of-date, and 2015 may see wider recognition of this vital point.
Henry's first attempt to write the next generation of text book is available here.
Saturday Sanity Break, 10 January 2015
Date: Saturday, January 10, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton
The year has started with a barbaric act of terrorism by Islamists who object to people who are free to make fun of religious ideology. As we write, Australian law enforcement agencies are supposedly keeping tabs on likely would-be perpetrators of another act of terror. Endless future diligent detective work seems likely to be required to minimise these atrocities, but there is no obvious alternative.
'Why not simply decline to accept any immigrants from the Middle East?' asked a visitor during the holiday break. No short run relief from such a policy, and it may make things worse as existing people with imagined reasons to attack Australia's multicultural civilisation would presumably be given a fresh reason to feel aggrieved.
If such a draconian approach is not acceptable, surely we need a more rigorous filter for people from places with a generally hostile view of western values. Evaluation of applications for permanent residence or citizenship could be far more thorough, with interviews by pairs of people trained to detect latent hostility to our prevailing culture.
When interviewing job applicants, I have often found revealing the answer to a question like 'Why are you interested in working for XYZ corporation'. People with real expertise should be able to sort out likely trouble makers, especially if records of the interviews are kept and reasons for accepting people who later become terrorists are scrutinised carefully.
A cheaper solution would to be only to accept people from cultures known to be sympathetic to Australia's values, though one hopes even such people should be scrutinised more closely than current practice suggests is the norm.
Martin Wolf of the FT presents the best overview of likely global economic developments this year Henry has read. As Henry has often advised Australian astrologers, Wolf presents a base case but also major risks. He says global growth in 2015 is 'extremely likely' to be not too far short of 4 %. Developing countries may grow faster (as they catch up to current high income economies) and developed nations slower than the average, perhaps at 2 % rate.
Risks to this benign scenario are various: financial meltdown in China; messy Eurozone dismemberment; dollar strength creating developed nation economic crisis; geopolitical shock; and I would add global equity crash as US interest rates rise.
The Australian economy would normally be part of the high income group, but with our reliance on China's growth a crisis there would intensify the pain already being felt by plunging commodity prices. While our budget problems are (or should be) well known the current state of political hostility and Senate gridlock is unusual. As Henry has said, only a widened GST at a higher rate will fix the budget, and we must all hope this is achieved by some political alchemy currently hard to imagine.
In the short run, the greatest impediment to 'high income' growth is our cost disequilibrium. This will be remediated if the Australian dollar keeps sinking and yet wage and price inflation stays low. Remediation would be faster if there were a productivity boost, but political gridlock is likely to be a blocker here too.
Readers are advised to save money, be unaggressive about remuneration claims and make it clear to government that they want the budget problem to be fixed and economic reform to encourage innovation and boost productivity. Passing these views to local members is likely to be effective, especially now when every one from John Howard down are expressing views on how to do better.
Martin Wolf wisely reminds us that economic forecasts exist to make astrology (or, we must add, alchemy) respectable. Read on here.
Finally we saw some real form from the Indian cricket team under its young new captain Virat Kohli. That said, the number of dropped catches during the Indian innings was unusual and Ravi Ashwin's brilliant dismissal of Dave Warner was another sign of growing Indian confidence. Henry will be watching the last day of the fourth test today and expects it to be a real contest.
Why the futball world cup begins at 10 pm on Friday is beyond Henry's ability to understand or explain. Fine for unemployed couch potatoes, but what about people with jobs that require alertness by 8 AM Saturday? Henry nevertheless sat up last evening and was entranced by the ebbs and flows of a fascinating game in which the Aussies overcame a bad start to beat Kuwait 4-1.
Soon the tennis will be front and centre. A win for little Lleyton Hewitt and/or Slammin' Sam Stouser would bring great joy to the Thornton household, but must be regarded as less likely than a serious geopolitical accident.
Image of the week - Courtesy The Oz
Bull market - how long?
Date: Thursday, January 08, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton
The UK stock market is in its 70th month of a bull market, which began in March 2009. There are only two other occasions in history when the market has risen for longer. One is the period leading up to the great crash in 1929 and the other before the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s.
The graph puts current performance into perspective.
The article from which this graph is extracted is called 'Ten warning signs of a market crash in 2015'.
Work smarter to find work.
Date: Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Author: Henry Thornton
Every offspring of Henry's friends has had trouble finding a regular job in an area trained for at one of Australia's finest universities. The luckiest have found a spot thanks to the intervention of family friends. The most innovative have become unpaid 'interns', and in some cases this leads to paid employment. The restless will find work in a remote outback town. The rest either take a job stacking shelves at a supermarket or return to university to try another profession. Teaching is currently one of the most popular options in the leafy Eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
We guessed this was a global problem, because if Australia - a 'miracle economy' - is having this trouble, what about less miraculous places? This week's Economist has filled in the story in a leader called: 'The on-demand economy' or 'Workers on tap', with accompanying graphic.
To be sure, the venerable mag's approach is from the view of the entrepreneur, rather that the struggling young would-be worker, but there is an implied message here. This was the theme of a movie, 'Nightcrawler', Henry watched with young Bert during the holiday season. The chief character in this movie was a bloke who had turned to crime to create work for himself, dangerous and providing only a meagre income. He happened upon a newsworthy event and when the newshounds arrived the lightbulb went off. He became a newshound, selling stories to any TV station that would pay for them.
Being a man of great entrepreneurial drive, he figures out how to do the newshound job better than any of the regulars. Partly this involves making the news, his first instance being to move a corpse to create a more dramatic image. Where this leads I shall not divulge, but the trailer, linked here, offers hints.
As the Economist says: 'Some of the forces behind the on-demand economy have been around for decades. Ever since the 1970s the economy that Henry Ford helped create, with big firms and big trade unions, has withered. Manufacturing jobs have been automated out of existence or outsourced abroad, while big companies have abandoned lifetime employment. Some 53m American workers already work as freelances.
'But two powerful forces are speeding this up and pushing it into ever more parts of the economy. The first is technology. Cheap computing power means a lone thespian with an Apple Mac can create videos that rival those of Hollywood studios. Complex tasks, such as programming a computer or writing a legal brief, can now be divided into their component parts—and subcontracted to specialists around the world. The on-demand economy allows society to tap into its under-used resources: thus Uber gets people to rent their own cars, and InnoCentive lets them rent their spare brain capacity'.
And in conclusion: 'But even if governments adjust their policies to a more individualistic age, the on-demand economy clearly imposes more risk on individuals. People will have to master multiple skills if they are to survive in such a world—and keep those skills up to date. Professional sorts in big service firms will have to take more responsibility for educating themselves. People will also have to learn how to sell themselves, through personal networking and social media or, if they are really ambitious, turning themselves into brands. In a more fluid world, everybody will need to learn how to manage You Inc'.
More information is available here. If your offspring cannot find a decent job, show him this blog or tell her there is more than one way to create a future. If teaching fails, there is always setting up a baby-sitting business, or walking dogs for a living.
`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.