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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
China`s next revolution
Date: Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Author: Henry Thornton

While Australia  squabbles over its political leadership, China's continuing strong economic growth is under question.

First there is the current weakness, the consequences of the recession in the North Atlantic nations following the global financial crisis.

As reported yesterday, one expert group sees a 10 % chance of a hard landing in China, and a 25 % chance of a soft landing. 

A hard landing would do immense damage here, with falling GDP, double digit unemployment and a massive shake-out in house prices.

Even a soft landing would create a local recession.

As the Rudd-Gillard-Swan governments have already spent the legacy  of Howard and Costello, and incurred large budget deficits and rebuilt government debt there is far less room for fiscal stimulus.

And, in any case, Mr Swan has already promised a return to a (tiny) surplus in 2012/13, with no caveats this writer could spot, and reiterated after news of slowing activity in China.

Now the longer term Chinese future is suddenly clouded also.

This comes courtesy of the World Bank and the Beijing's Development Research Centre, as told by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.

'Few countries escape the middle-income trap', illustrated nicely by the following graph.

 Courtesy World Bank

From 1950, of many contenders, only Korea and Japan have broken from the pack, though for a while Iran looked promising.

Others (not shown) to have done well include Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Mauritius, Israel, and Equatorial Guinea.

'In the early 20th century Argentina and Australia were twin economies trading similar goods in the informal British Empire. Half a century later, the Australians were five times as rich. Shows what good governance can do.

'By contrast, the Peronists forced farmers to sell their produce to state export boards, at ever lower prices, until they killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The damage was gradual, but lethal'.

China has built its spectacular success partly on cheap labor, but that luxury (for business and political) leaders is nearing its end.

'Pay has already been rising at 16pc to 18pc annually in the Eastern cities for several years, and this is now happening in Chengdu and Chongqing in the heartland'.

There is also the issue of China's relaxed attitude to the acquisition of intellectual property. Evans-Pritchard says that when he was in Dalian in September he heard China’s software king, Lee Kaifu, warn that 'the economic prize will elude the country unless it cleans up its intellectual property laws. Firms are already going off-shore to protect their inventions, and the best entrepreneurs are already moving to states with a commercial rule of law, he said'.

"The role of the private sector is critical," said the World Bank less directly. "Innovation at the technology frontier is quite different in nature from catching-up technologically. It is not something that can be achieved through government planning."

There are powerful vested interests who will oppose the free market revolution that is required now.

China can no longer rely on imported technology to keep up blistering growth averaging 9.9pc since Deng Xiaoping began to throw open the economy in 1978 and unleashed the nation’s pent-up commercial energy. "China has reached another turning point in its development path when a second strategic, and no less fundamental, shift is called for," the report said.

'The report has been seized upon by Politburo reformers battling hardliners and vested interests. Li Keqiang, groomed to take over as premier this year, offered his "unwavering support" for the findings.

'He faces tenacious resistance from factions within the party, who insist that the country’s resilience through the global capitalist heart attack of 2008-2009 has vindicated state control of key industries and banks.

'The report said China’s growth will slow to 7pc later this decade and 5pc by the late 2020s even if China embraces deep reform. Stagnation lies in wait if it clings to the dirigiste model'.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard concludes: 'If all goes well, China will be a "high-income" economy by 2030 and perhaps as dominant as Britain in 1870 or the United States in 1945, or indeed as flourishing as the Qing Empire itself in 1820 before the onset of catastrophic decline. Politics will decide'. 

Australia's economic reform had better get kick-started again.  Clearly we cannot rely forever on pennies from heaven, correction, the Middle Kingdom.  As a immediate step, a competent Foreign Minister would help.  Pity Bob Carr is ruled out by the self interest of lesser politicians.

Related articles.

Here is The Economist's view, with useful links to other sources and the report itself.

And a local opinion, that of Rowan Callick.

The economy - proposed narrative
Date: Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Treasury has told us that economic growth will be the weakest for 50 years. A key question is why they did not tell Rudd'n'Gillard'n'Rudd that the commodity boom they enjoyed so much would end soon (as all previous commodity booms had) and they should therefore not spend like drunken sailors?  If such a message was delivered, it would be good to know, Dr Parkinson, preferably now but at least as soon as you are free to write your biography.  Today's blog aims to provide a draft narrative to position the tough decisions needed now to minimise future misery for many Australians.

Of course,  it seems highly likely Treasury did not sound the relevant warnings.  If they had, Treasurer Swan would presumably not have constantly predicted a strong economy whose budget would whirr back into surplus not too long into the future.  Did Treasury and/or successive governments really think Australia was a 'miracle economy' owed a living high on the hog for the feasible future?

Now it is time to sort it out, and Messrs Abbott and Hockey are hard at work telling us it is a whole lot worse than Treasury and Treasurer Swan believed only 6 or so short months ago. Gor blimey, comrades, it now looks pretty gruesome.

We have been told, correctly, that budget repair is going to take a unified effort from all Australians. Rich folk will cop a tax levy. While pensioners will have their pensions left alone, future pensioners can expect to work for longer. Families earning over $100 K will have to manage without handouts, which seems fair enough  to the Thornton family.

Big spending schemes will need to be downsized/implemented more slowly, as even the PM's paid parental leave plan has been trimmed.  Since Tassie has turned its back on the NBN, the largest and least useful white elephant of the Rudd'n'Gillard'n'Rudd administrations, why not just cancel the whole idea and let people make their own arrangements for fast internet?  Radical, perhaps, but the simplest way to save a lot of money Henry can imagine.

Henry has been privileged to be the recipient by email of a lovely punch-up between Terry McCrann on one side and John Stone and Des Moore on the other.  McCrann has supported the mooted 'tax levy' even if it will raise a relatively small amount, perhaps $2 to $3 billion.  Messrs Stone and Moore say this is tiny relative to the overall budgetary problem and suggests it indicates lack of appropriate resolve to cut spending. Whilst one can agree with them on the size of the proposed levy, the political imperative of 'sharing the pain' is presumably the reason it is in the mix.

And on another point of political economy, every responsible commentator agrees that Labor's drunken sailor spending is most of the reason for the budgetary mess, along with the end of the best part of the commodity boom. Current attempts by Labor (and Labor's coalition partners, the Greens) to frustrate the government's attempt to fix the budgetary mess is full of contradictions and illustrates either blind stupidity or gross hypocricy.

The government is taking a beating in the polls and one hopes by budget time it has sorted out the 'narrative' into a few simple propositions.

Here is a first draft:

1  The budget is in big trouble, and Australia has become very uncompetitive. (Provide examples.)

2. Australia's strategic mistake was to assume record terms of trade would last forever, which produced overspending by governments and unsustainable increases in incomes, including welfare payments generally.

3. The Labor Green alliance boosted government outlays with a number of overly-ambitious spending programs.   (Specify)

4. The current government is responsible for fixing the budget, which involves cancelling programs we cannot afford, slowing and/or making less ambitious programs Australia currently cannot afford in their current form.

5. Every Australian must share the pain, which includes a modest levy on marginal rates of tax on incomes above $xxx K. It will include a 20 % temporary cut in politicians' salaries (or, if this is not feasable, a voluntary cut in government salaries or equivalent  payments to a recognised charity.  The government also urges all Australians who feel they can afford to do so to increase their contributions to recognised charities.)

6. Companies whose costs are making them uncompetitive are urged to talk with their workforces to seek changes to remuneration practices, either temporary or permanant, to restore competitiveness.  Top managements should take the lead in accepting cuts to their remuneration of a similar proportionate magnitude they wish their staff to adopt.  To the extent that productivity can be improved, remuneration cuts can and should be smaller.

7. Specific promises made before we knew the magnitude of problems facing the nation may need to be postponed in whole or in part.  We apologise for this but note that officials did not warn of the size of the problems we are now dealing with, nor did the major business representative groups, or indeed most economists or journalists.

Give us your thoughts.

Readers are invited to contact Henry here if you wish to contribute to the debate we have to have.

Reposted at Online Opinion.

Saturday Sanity Break, 26 April 2014
Date: Saturday, April 26, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Treasurer Joe Hockey has said that all Australians have to share in the task of producing a sustainable budgetary position. David Uren of the Oz has discussed the productivity slide that is part of Australia's double-digit competitiveness handicap.As he says: '...many of the household income gains of the past decade may have to be surrended if commodity prices drop back to the long-term trend, as they have after every previous mineral boom in the past 150 years. In the same report, linked here, Uren says: 'Insiders say [Tony Abbott] was dismayed by his first reading of the Commission of Audit Report. He knew the budget was in poor shape but had no idea the turnaround would demand such a profound rethink of so many things government does'.

David Uren also tackles the challenge of productivity reform, with the help of Australia's productivity supremo.

'Productivity Commission chairman Peter Harris says he has never worked for a government that did not want to undertake productivity reforms. “The great difficulty they have is not what to do but how to do it.”

'Reform, he says, must be sequentially structured, with the people most affected having the reasons carefully and clearly explained in ways they appreciate. He says you can’t succeed by telling people they should “eat their greens” because it will be good for them'.

“You can’t jam it down people’s throats.”

Henry's favourite hound from hell, Grace Collier, provides another example of why business leaders do not have to bargain with truculent union officials. Put your case direct to the workforce, business leaders, and if you win the union will very likely go away. More than two decades ago, Henry conducted such a dialogue with his staff of almost 1000 souls.  From over 60 % of the workforce when Henry took over, the percentage in unions had dropped to 16 when Henry moved on.

Read on here - 'If bargaining is killing your business, just stop doing it'.


Essendon blitzed Collingwood for the first quarter, then Collingwood blitzed Essendon to catch up by half-time.  From then it was an arm wrestle eventually won going away by the Magpies. A stirring victory for the black'n'whites, one that sets them up for a potentially tough fight with Caaaarlton! if the Blues can play like they did against Julia Gillard's Doggies and beat West Coast this afternoon.

At long last, Australia has a boxer with a realistic chance of becoming world heavy-weight champ. Go Alex Leapai, we will be watching and cheering you on.

The visit of the Royals has moved the nation, especially the appearance of baby royal, boy George, coinciding as it does with the deep thoughts caused by the occurrance of ANZAC Day.

Here is a link leading to a very noisy video after a very long advertisement.

Image of the week

Here is a link to Henry's editor's portfolio of paintings of Uluru.

Lest we forget
Date: Friday, April 25, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Courtesy The Australian

Monetary policy - mixed up confusion
Date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Author: PD Jonson

Earlier this week we were told that Treasurer Joe Hockey was 'unhappy with' the RBA.  Knowledgable RBA watcher, Terry McCrann, scotched this suggestion in a thoughtful article that also explained the Treasury Secretary's twice delayed marching orders.  In both cases, McCrann concludes, 'just as Hockey has bonded well with Parkinson, he’s done the same with Stevens. Hockey’s personality is one of winning friends and influencing people; not barking pointlessly at key allies'.

But something odd is going on.  Today the AFR's Economics Editor, Alan Mitchell says 'The IMF's tacit seal of approval for central bank intervention in asset booms can be seen as a concession to the RBA's approach'.

The RBA's approach, Mitchell claims, is one of 'leaning into' asset booms by raising interest rates.  He claims this is what the RBA did succesfully at the start of the current decade - even though the politics of leaning against asset price bubbles is 'appalling' and its success - avoiding an asset crash by heading off an asset bubble - is impossible to prove.

Alert readers will recall John Howard as Prime minister say something like: 'Nobody comes up to me in the street to complain about increases in the price of their house'. Nor do many voters tell the PM or Treasurer, 'please get that nice Mr Stevens to raise interest rates to stop me getting rich'.

However,  a policy of 'leaning into' asset boom by raising interest rates is not the answer to the logical contradictions now bedevilling Australian and global monetary policy.

In the countries which have have severe recession, interest rates have been set at record low levels, virtually zero, while share prices go through the roof.  Should the US Fed have 'leaned into' the share boom with, say, cash interest rates at 2 %, while the real economy was struggling to avoid severe recession becoming depression?  No way, Jose, is the sensible answer.

In Australia, while the Aussie dollar was widely perceived as too high, while the economy was struggling, cuts to cash interest rates were widely seen as a useful way to stimulate the economy while also reducing the currency, helped along by RBA's jawboning the forex  market.  This policy failed, as demonstrated by the subsequent revival of the Aussie dollar as the economy improved somewhat.  Now another set of asset prices, house prices, are widely perceived to be booming again. Should the RBA 'lean into' house prices, even if this damages the real economy and pushes the Aussie dollar even higher? Jose says 'don't be silly, comrade'.

The answer, of course, is that seperate targets require seperate policies.  I have proposed a variable tax on capital inflows to tame the dollar, and (automatic) variable asset ratios for banks and other financiers to take the sting out of housing booms and to encourage new spending in busts.  This approach would leave cash interest rates to focus totally on the state of the economy, and not provide the ugly dilemmas that have been the focus of much useless discussion.

Of course, Mr Stevens, if perfectly unzipped, might say there are other ways to influence asset prices. House prices might be lower if governments simplified planning laws and made land more quickly available to build houses. The Aussie dollar would be lower if the budget deficit were lower, and reduced spending or higher taxes in a tough budget might also have a useful impact on house prices. Both points are fair enough, but we are where we are. Glenn Stevens must indeed be hanging out for a tough budget, in the reasonable expectation that it would take pressure off both the currency and the housing market.

But unless and until policies other than cash interest rates are brought to bear, there will be a natural (but painful) end to asset booms.  My fear is that the US Fed will not be able to prevent a big fall in global share prices as it seeks, ever so slowly, to normalise US monetary policy.  I also fear that when the Aussie dollar finally corrects its current overvalued levels, it will undershoot , producing another destructive lurch in the structure of the Australian economy. Ditto for the eventual but inevitable correction of house prices.

Milton Friedman, a far greater economist than anyone mentioned in this blog, famously said 'monetary policy cannot serve two masters'. I must confess I did not fully understand what he meant at the time. My greatest fear is that no-one now in power in Australia yet understands this point.

More here for those willing to learn.

Today's news, consumer inflation slightly less than feared, still within the RBA's target zone, does not dispose of the issues canvassed above.  It does provide time for the RBA to rethink its 'one instrument, multiple targets' approach.  This writer had the searing experience of abandoning support for the 'monetary projection' approach to setting cash interest rates, and it would be no disgrace if the RBA adopted a multiple aims, multiple policies approach to monetary policy and macroprudential policy.

Professor Warwick McKibbin, 2/5

I agree that interest rates should NOT be used to bring down the dollar. The RBA has already probably  injected an asset bubble into the economy so that foreigners will want to hold appreciating Australian assets which hurts the original goal of lowering rates to bring down the exchange rate. In my view the nominal interest rate (lets use the corporate bond rate) should be equal to the nominal growth rate for policy to be neutral. Corporate borrowing rates are around 3.75% which when compared to the nominal GDP growth rate of 5.5%  shows that monetary policy is very loose in Australia.

I disagree with a capital flow tax because as I have written before this raise the cost of access to external finance and reduces the equilibrium capital stock in Australia because you need to get a higher MPK to cover the additional cost of borrowing.  We need foreign capital to help fund our growth. Far better to concentrate on cutting input costs  (i.e. raising productivity) through a range of policies like tax reform, removing inefficient government regulation, raising the infrastructure capital stock etc) so that the currencies strength does not lead to unemployed resources. Also a good idea to reduce government borrowing so we need less foreign capital.

The fact that the US and other countries that have had a financial crisis have low policy interest rate does not mean Australia should follow suit because we do not have the balance sheet problem they have – although we might soon generate our own if we keep the current stance of monetary policy!.

PD Jonson replies.

I understand your reason for rejecting a tax on capital inflow, and I agree that reducing input costs by raising productivity would be a better way of coping.

However, as you know, increasing productivity might at best produce 1 to 2 % improvement per annum, and if the overall cost level is 20 to 30 % above any sensible equilibrium, fixing it that way is just not feasible.

I also disagree that capital inflow would dry up.  Indeed, with Australia showing the strength not to allow its industrial structure to be determined by foreign investors, capital inflow might even increase for a time.  Something like this happened in Germany half a century ago.

Tough budget on the way, Caaaarlton! finally wins a game
Date: Monday, April 21, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

The budget leaks and imspired guesses continue. It will be tough, pension age increased to, say, 70 years, but not until 2030, no means test for pensioners, cutting and scraping at Commonwealth public service, and so on and so forth.  But no broader GST, or broader and with a higher rate GST, the one reform virtually all econmomists see as the least bad way to balance the books with least damage, indeed some benefit for, incentives to work, to take risks and to save.

Henry suggests a Commonwealth version of Queensland's slick ads would be worth showing on prime time telly. 'Do you prefer spending cuts, tax increases or sale of assets?'. One gathers that neither 'None of the above' nor 'All of the above' are on the list, but at least this set of options is a nice way to tell people there is no such thing as a free lunch, a fact that oppositions keep suggesting is possible.  Click here to vote at the  'Advice to the Queensland premier' website and it seems you can vote multiple times, even if you live in Victoria, Burma or even Sweden.

When perfected, with a logically complete set of options, this approach may revolutionise politics, back to the old Athenian town meetings, conducted electronically.

Des Moore's view

Speculation continues on the federal budget without substantive economic analysis to support the large spending reductions needed to prevent, as Shanahan suggests below, a damp squib.

Let me be clear here: while there is no doubt that Labor left irresponsibly large spending commitments stretching into the future, commitments for next year (2014-15) are “only” 2 percentage points of GDP above what they were in the final year of the Howard government in 2007-08. It should be politically practicable – and not damaging to the economy unless Keynesianism is allowed  – to return to 2007-08 GDP rates or close to them in 2014-15. Such action would also come close to eliminating the deficit.

But Shanahan has felt it necessary, so close to the budget date, to raise the possibility of a damp squib and to leave the impression that the Coalition has not settled on the main aggregate outcomes. Given the lengthy period since it assumed office, that is a disheartening perspective.


At least Caaarlton! has won a game.  And it was without Judd, two-and-a-half men down in the last part of the game and using Brett Rattan's hard tackling, helter skelter, straight up the guts style ditched by Supercoach Mick Malthouse. One hopes this was the result of the players telling Mick thhat they preferred their old style and were thus empowered for the first time since Mick came along to destroy Caaartlon!'s free flowing, attacking style.  Could this be a collingwood plot? Stranger things have happened in the James Bond movies, and we all think truth can be stranger than fiction.

More here.

Easter meditation
Date: Friday, April 18, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

16" x 36"
Oil on old kitchen cupboard door
Signed bottom left Jonson 68

Painted on an old kitchen cupboard during a time of adolescent religious fervour, the piece was rejected by the organisers of the local Church Art Show.  ("Far too modernist" might have been the comment but apparently the committee objected to the nail holes. "You have problems with the nail holes" was my response, but the stout Presbyterians failed to see my point.)  With Crowdy Bay, still my favourite painting.

Sunday Sanity Break, 13 April 2014, updated 16 April
Date: Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Greetings from Wuhan, a small, well, smallish, town of 20 million souls, situated on the Yangtze River, two hours flight from Hong Kong. We are here to meet some brilliant scientists, and even more brilliant PHD students, all dedicated to remediating the environment. As we are reading Stephen Baxter's Transcendence, whose subplot is the final destruction of the Earth's environment, the subject assumes additional drama.

Henry has been struggling with the Chinese censor and the (alleged) shortcomings of his steam-powered notebook. He has three ways to communicate with home, with Mrs Thornton presiding - Skype, gmail and bigpond.com. Skype was not available in Hong Kong, and is also not available in Wuhan. Google was not available in Hong Kong, and so far at least is not available in Wuhan - 'It is intermittantly available', as one native said. Bigpond.com is available, and informed Henry of the disgraceful Caaarlton! loss to Melbourne - what were they smoking Mick? Whose tenure, and/or that of others, must now be under scrutiny.

Bigpond.com is available, as I said, but when I tried to open Webmail I got the same messages given by Skype and Google - 'No security certificate available' - which is not what one gets in Melbourne, London, Tokyo or New York, or for all I know Burma.  What is the reason for blocking these sites, if that is what is going on? Facts plus factoids (Google); communication with the outside world (Skype) or bigpond webmail (ditto).

I must confess that the hotel staff in Wuhan have attended in large groups and are implying it is Henry's steam driven notebook that is the problem.  More tomorrow, provided Henry's site is allowed to continue broadcasting.  It was unavailable in Hong Kong, and suddenly was available in Wuhan. Who knows what will happen in  Shaoguan?

So far we have travelled by aeroplane - 14 hours to Hong Kong, on CX 104, then after a brief sleep in the Regal Airport Hotel, within walking distrance of the airport, 2 hours by Dragonair to Wuhan. Tomorrow it is the bullet train to Shaoguan, another meeting and dinner, another sleep followed by the bullet train to Hong Kong.


Attended a great conference today mainly very bright young Chinese students reporting on their research. Then headed for the bullet train for Shaoguan a city about halfway between Wuhan and Hong Kong. The line goes on to within 45 minutes by road to Hong Kong. 'China would complete the link to Hong Kong in a year or so, but Hong Kong has a democratic government that is weak', explained our Chinese travelling companion.

Security was less than at an airport, but all luggage was scanned and bodies were frisked electronically.  Our tickets took us to the rear carriage where first class seats had been booked. The carriage was marked First/business, and we were in a small compartment with five seats almost as luxurious as those in a Gold Class cinema. Our fare was 600 RMB, and when two of us sat in the two larger 'first class' front facing seats we were told firmly that they were double the price of the mere 'normal' first class seats.  So in this socialist paradise, there are four classes of bullet train seats - Economy, Business, First and Superfirst.

The train rode near-silently on its cushion of air and quickly and effortlessly glided to its travel speed of 300 kph.  (It was 350 kpm until a vast crash at this speed had killed many passengers.)  We chatted as the green and hilly countryside glided past - neat fields and two story houses and in the hillier parts forests. Sadly saw no pandas chewing leaves. Our travelling companions told me the general Chinese view of what had happened to Malayian Flight 780. The captain, a known friend of Mr Anwar, so the story goes, had hijacked the plane to barter the life of his passsengers for Mr Anwar's freedom.  If the trade was not agreed, the captain said he would fly the plane into a prominant city building. The government said 'no way Jose' and asked the USA to shoot down the plane, which it promptly did.

Other stories abound, all with the theme that the USA, China and Japan knew at all times exactly where the plane was located.  One varient had lithium batteries in the hold, one or more of which caught fire and created a small breach in the hull.  Gradual aphixiation overcome the crew and passengers and the plane flew on until it ran out of fuel. Mr Abbott's recent very confident assertion that the black box recorder would soon be found played into the conspiracy theories. 'On the facts we know, he should not be so confident', said one of Henry's companions.

Soon the train will rocket into Hunan, birthplace of 'Uncle Mao' as one wag described his statue as we were driven to the train station in Wuhan. Like most other things in China, the railway is built on a vast scale, with wide platforms and many sets of rails.  There was notable signs of forward thinking, or poor planning, in vast apparently completed but unused freeways.

We arrived safely at the end of the rail to be picked up and driven to Hong Kong where business will dominate proceedings. We have been warned that exiting 'China' and entering 'Hong Kong' may be a bit tiresome. But then we shall be in the city that has been described as China's main exemplar of a free society, showing the path ot a more dynamic economy and a freer society. Will Henry be able to access his favourite web sites?  That will be a (minor) sign of progress, or its lack.

Return home.

Henry arrived home at about 8 AM today (16 April) after the three-movie flight from Hong Kong. All was well, except for the massive build up of unanswered emails due to lack of internet connectivity in China/Hong Kong.  One was able to read the Oz and the Fin in the airport lounge, which suddenly reminds one of the almost total lack of English newsprint or TV coverage in Wuhan and Shaoguan. In Hong Kong there is The South China Post and other options, including on TV.

The great dragon is roaring, gentle readers, but growth seems to be slowing and there are continuing concerns about property markets, the so-called 'shadow' banking system and the need for State Owned Enterprises to focus on making money instead of creating jobs.

Tony Abbot's visit and Australia's work in coordinating the search for the lost plane seems to have reinforced our status as a friend of China, also helped more indirectly by the freer trade agreements with South Korea and Japan announced on the same trip. Some of the business propositions we were presented with, involving remediation of a number of specific environmental problems in what is a seriously polluted environment, would reinforce that positioning.

Freer trade makes us stronger
Date: Thursday, April 10, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Another day, another country, and another free, correction, freer, trade agreement.  What fun the PM and his band of 600 sherpas must be happening, except of course when the big Australian Airforce plane cannot take off.  Still, this is about this government's best week, and it has produced substantitive results. Despite caveats - bad luck rice farmers - freer trade makes us stronger and builds links that go way beyond the fun of international conferences and windy communiques.

The PM has arrived in China to be greeted without a frown from his hosts (important that), allowed to review the troops (one assumes a sobering moment) and to begin talks that we hope eventually produces a freer trade agreement with China that includes the rice farmers.

Henry's review of Ian Morris' splendid Why the West Rules - For Now introduces a book that should be required reading for anyone in the China deal-making or even just the Chinese commentary business.

Meanwhile, back home, or where-ever Joe Hockey calls home these days, the battle for the budget goes on.  Today's assistance comes from the International Monetary Fund, who earlier this week was helping us get our monetary policy right. 'She'll be right as it is, comrades, said the current leaders of the financial services business in Australia.  Let's hope so, or there will be some hangings followed by a bonfire of the vanities.

The IMF points out that, while Australia still has one of the lowect ratios of government debt to GDP, that debt is rising faster than that in almost any other 'developed' nation, and it will require a hurculean job to rein in spending, raise taxes and produce a surplus.  The hurculean effort will somply stop the rot.  Repeating the effort of Howard and Costello so that the debt is wiped out and the Future Fund can start growing via new injections is just about unthinkable. 

A snippet of news today says that business insolvencies are starting to mount.  This reminds Henry of the situation in 1990, reported here to an unresponsive Treasury and RBA. Nothing like it was in 1990/91, with cash interest rates at record levels, a deteriorating budget and Australia's costs well above those of competitor nations.  Come to think about it, it is only the RBA that is (so far) acting different.

The lead up to the experience known as the 'GFC' has been called in Australia 'The Great Complacency'. Thanks to the China boom, we sailed through the GFC virtually unscathed, a 'miracle economy'. But the signs were all there - low productivity growth, costs rising faster than in competitor nations and still complacent econocrats. Having enjoyed the dance, now the piper must be paid, and we shall all share in the payments.

Luckily, the freer trade deals will make us better able to pay the piper.

Monetary policy - `the narrative` matters
Date: Tuesday, April 08, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Bugger me dead, as Henry's old footy coach used say.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is chanelling Henry, via David Uren. Medium Uren reports: 'The International Monetary Fund has urged the return of multiple objectives for central banks, arguing that an exclusive concern with price stability has been shown to be inadequate.

'The fund says monetary policy faces a highly uncertain future, with doubts about its objectives, its policy decision rules and central bank independence.

“Until these issues are better understood, monetary policy will involve more art and less science,” the fund says'.

These stunning insights allegedly come from a 'staff paper prepared for the IMF ministerial meeting this weekend'.  This is the news before the news, unless of course you have followed the debate in these pages, and summarised in Henry's submission to the Murray inquiry.  We had been steeling ourselves to be ignored, but if the IMF is on the same page, just maybe Mr Murray will ask Kevin Davis to take a look and report back.

But I digress.  Mr Uren goes on. 'The fund says the global financial crisis has challenged the notion that achieving price stability is sufficient to deliver macro-economic stability and raises the question of whether other objectives should enter the mandate of monetary policy.

'Yet the IMF says that while there is a consensus that financial stability must form part of overall economic policy, it is less clear to what extent central banks and monetary policy should deal with it.

“Would you put two million people out of work because banks are too leveraged or house prices are rising too fast? Instead, the first line of defence should be instruments that can target financial stability more directly and efficiently, including macro­prudential tools, such as loan-to-value and debt-to-income limits, and capital flow management measures.

"Yet , when these tools prove insufficient, we may have to accept a new trade-off for monetary policy, and the interest rate may have to lend a hand to maintain financial stability.”

And, after a theoretical section about whether stabilising inflation may produce greater instability of output - a proposition that Henry doubts - the narrative continues with a stunning admission for Australia's free floaters at the RBA - the 'whatever don't kill you makes you stronger' boys.

'The IMF says that the success of the Swiss central bank in putting a cap on the value of the Swiss franc raises the issue of whether central banks should also target external stability'.

Gor blimey, Comrades, what are they smoking in Washington?

Mr Uren's commentary may be accessed here. Henry presumes that confidential staff papers are only available to friends of the leaky staffer, and if anyone has such a friend Henry would appreciate a copy of the paper. 

Interested readers are referred to our submission to the Murray inquiry, which is available here.

To quote just a few of the relevant sentances. The issues [in this submission] concern better management of monetary policy, which requires additional ways to manage Australia's currency and credit growth - in short, effective 'macroprudential' policy.

Monetary policy – defined in the usual way by manipulation of cash rates of interest - cannot by itself adequately control the financial system. ... another policy instrument is needed to modify the effects of a currency value too high to allow the country to have a balanced set of industries.

Other forms of macroprudential policy are needed to modify other asset prices. ... I recommend variable prudential ratios, ratios that rise as asset prices rise and therefore provide some resistance to the development of asset inflation.

I recently presented on 'Asset inflation and monetary policy' at one of Melbourne's distinguished universities. One of the issues our team is grappling with is how to define 'monetary policy'.  Is it growth of money supply (Friedman); cash interest rates (Historic gold standard,Taylor, modern central banks); 'Chairman's discretion (Zero cash rates plus 'innovation', eg QE); or some complicated mix of all those things plus 'state of the economy'.

A young professor who had spent significent time at one of the American Federal Reserve banks said something like: 'The Fed makes a judgment on all the available evidence', which reminded Henry of Australia's long-ago dismissed 'check list'.  This is what I now call 'the narrative'.  A central bank should relate its decisions about monetary policy to the entire set of economic indicators, and explain itself in those terms.  The question for outsiders is, or should be: 'Does the narrative make sense'.

There is nothing truly original under the sun, Comrades, but it is good to see the IMF is also stumbling slowly to a better approach.  Like generals fighting an old war, however, Australia's financial system regulators are reportedly satisfied that all is well here, due to their brilliance.

Saturday Sanity Break, 5 April 2014
Date: Saturday, April 05, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Gor blimey, comrades. That Martin Parkinson has got a bit of gorm, discovered his mojo, telling the nation that we have a choice: a steadily increasing avaerage rate of income tax or a widening and broadening of the GST.  What a pity he didn't say all this when Australia's least competent Treasurer, Wayne Swan, was busy creating the complete disaster that is Australia's Federal budget.  Would have been a career limiting move way back then, of course, but them's the breaks if you are fair dinkum, Parko, old mate.

We haven't seen the report of the Audit Committee yet, but it presumably contains even more ungilded views, justifying the government's latest descriptions, collected here by the AFR's Phillip Coorey.

“Terrible”, “awful” and “horrific” Treasurer Joe Hockey told Alan Jones on Monday this week as he spoke of the legacy inherited from Labor, including a “tsunami” of spending.

An “absolute cataclysmic mess”, was how Prime Minister Tony Abbott described it to Coalition MPs and senators the week before, urging them to spend the six-week autumn parliamentary break in their electorates “reminding people of the challenge we face”.

Fixing the budget is indeed a great challenge. Australia's greater economic challenge is the overall cost level, which Henry has been saying is of the order of 30 to 40 % higher compared to that of competitors and customers.

No newspaper has seen fit to repeat this suggestion, though every week there is fresh evidence.

* In the week just past, BHP let it be known that it costs 50 % more to dig up coal in Australia than in the USA, and several more companies announced their closure here.
* Qantas is doomed as an international carrier, because Aussies will not pay the extra 30 % for the priviledge of international travel on the big bird with the flying kangaroo.
* Evey week we hear of another bunch of businesses closing down, Toyota, Holden, Forge, the list goes on.

Confirmatory indirect evidence is the detioration in the labor market. Officials and econocrats stick doggedly to the official (ABS) unemployment, which says the rate of unemployment is 'only' 6%, albeit rising slowly.

Those who ask more focussed questions, like Roy Morgan Research, or provide better research, like former Labor pollie, John Black, find a far gloomier situation.

Mr Black's expose is in two big stories in the Weekend Oz; linked here and here.

'The  Rudd government inher­ited a labour market from John Howard and Peter Costello at the end of 2007 that was generating year-on-year almost as many jobs as could be provided annual­ly by growth in members of the population aged 15 or older.

'In September last year, the Abbott government inherited a labour market from Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan that was generating jobs for only 28 per cent of potential new entrants to the workforce — 94,300 jobs for 334,700 potential new workers.

'In December, this figure dropped to 52,400, or 15 per cent of potential new workers, before climbing slowly back to 68,700 jobs in February. This means the government was then generating enough demand for the market to find places for only one in five potential new workers'.

The fallout is worst for young people, graduating at far too fast a pace for more than a few to find jobs, as discussed here earlier this week with input from Professor Jeff Boreland of Melboure University.


Fiona Prior sees what will become a Middle Eastern classic, the film Wadjda and is swept away by the Seraphim Trio.


Last night the Hawks smashed Freo, who had started well this season after giving Hawthorn a good fight in last year's Grand final.  Collingwood belted the hapless Swans last week, and meet the Catters at the 'G' today. Caaaarlton! meets Essendon on Sunday evening, a really bad time for those of us with jobs to attend, or even to watch on TV, and likely to be a really bad time for the Blues if their inconsistent form in two losses so far this season is any guide.  I suppose there is just a chance they put together four scintillating quarters to beat Essendon by a point or two, but I'd rather save that result for the 2021 grand final.

The Aussie shielas' cricket team is into the T20 final and have a fair chance of winning, though I cannot for the life of me think who they are playing.  The blokes salvaged a sliver of pride to finish one-three (three losses) by beating Bangladesh.

Otherwise it is  the dry season for sport, though we did notice that a famous Aussie swimming family roared into Commonwealth Games contention this week. No doubt there are Aussies doing well in darts or two-up contests or boomeranging throwing in foreign climes, proving yet again that 'Global sport' ranks as highly as mining, agriculture and health services in the list of things we do well enough to make a national objective.

With Mrs Thornton, Henry plans to visit the Bendigo Art Gallery for its acclaimed show, then our next kultural highlight will be a visit to St Petersburgh. (Check out the image of the week for the image of the real Henry Thornton, with Wilberforce a great anti-slavery crusader.)

Image of the week

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