Opening Up…

This week, Melbourne is trying to get back to some semblance of normality, following 11 weeks of the current lock-down. But it’s far from “business as usual”.

Based on casual observations, people were desperate to queue up for personal grooming services, restaurants and outdoor shopping. (I did see at least one classic mullet, but I wasn’t sure if it was a fashion statement or just another case of Covid hair…)

Despite the latest changes announced by the Victorian Government over the past week, the ongoing public health provisions mean there will still be a “work from home” directive, retail and restaurants will be subject to density limits (and vax certificates) and masks will be required indoors.

One cafe in my neighbourhood, which has kept going during lock-down with serving takeaways, is deferring opening up for dining-in because they can’t get enough staff. This demand for talent within the hospitality sector means that employers are having to offer sign-on bonuses and higher wages.

While this should be good news for job seekers, the resulting upward pressure on staffing costs will likely trigger a rise in inflation (and higher interest rates?), and possibly further disruptions in supply chains.

Added hiring shortages will come from those employees who have used the lock-down to reassess their career options, and have decided to change jobs – also known as the “Great Resignation”.

Even among those employees who are returning to the office, many of them are only intending to be there 2-3 days a week. This will create a mid-week bulge in the CBD, with various knock-on effects: traffic jams, cramped public transport, and erratic trading patterns for small businesses in retail and hospitality. Employers will also be stressing how they maintain productivity levels with the adoption of extended weekends.

Finally, some industries such as tourism and international travel will take several months to get back to pre-pandemic levels – expect to see steep prices while capacity and supply remain constrained.

Next week: Crypto Regulation in Australia

 

 

“What Should We Build?”

Over the past week, the Leader of the Federal Opposition has been asking a series of questions on Twitter and elsewhere, about “what should Australia be building?”. As well as building the foundations of Labor’s Federal Election policy platform for boosting jobs in the manufacturing sector, it also provides lots of photo ops for pollies in hard hats and hi-viz clothing. (I do wonder why the potential Prime Minister hasn’t thought of this idea before, or why he appears to not know the answer – isn’t that his job? It also makes me wonder whether we need Parliament anymore, since our elected representatives prefer to conduct their “debates” via Social Media and Press Conferences…. it would save a lot of time and money!)

By this time next year, Albo could be PM (Photo sourced from Twitter)

There has been no shortage of suggestions from the Twitterati, which fall into the following main categories:

  • Renewable energy
  • Trains
  • Trams
  • Ferries
  • High-end engineering

But there has also been commentary around Labor’s ambivalence on the coal and gas sector (especially in the key state of Queensland), and the irony that we export cheap raw materials and import expensive finished goods. Then there is debate on the amount of local manufacturing content that already exists in Australia’s state-based trains and urban trams/light rail systems (skewed by the question of local vs foreign ownership). Plus, there’s the thorny issue of high-speed inter-city trains…

As I commented recently, the manufacturing sector accounts for fewer than 1m local jobs (less than 10% of the working population), and 6% of GDP. It has been declining steadily as a contributor to GDP since the 1960s, and more rapidly in recent years since we abandoned key subsidies to the car industry. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we return to the days of metal bashing and white goods. And while we’ve got to be selective about the type of manufacturing base we want to to develop, we also have to be realistic about the manufacturing capabilities we want to encourage and enhance.

The latter involves developing transferable skills, creating interoperable production lines, deploying modular designs and inter-changeable components, and recycling/repurposing. All of which should mean we don’t need to make every part of every item domestically, but we know how to assemble, service, maintain, repair and replace goods locally, and we can focus on adding value that can be fed back into the supply chain, which in turn can be exported (via know-how and services). Australia has some decent research and development capabilities, but we are not always very good at raising domestic investment, or commerciliasing our IP (so this value ends up being transferred overseas, with little to no return accruing locally).

I’m not a huge fan of simplistic “buy local goods/support local jobs” campaigns, or local content quotas. The former can degenerate into trade protectionism and economic nationalism; while the latter tend to favour inefficient incumbents within cozy duopolies (see the broadcasting and media sector). The current debate has also raised questions about procurement policies, and I for one would welcome a total revamp of government IT purchasing and deployment at Federal, State and LGA levels.

There’s also the consumer angle: Australians are notoriously “cost conscious”, so will they be prepared to pay more for locally-made goods, even if they are better designed, well-made and energy efficient, compared to cheaper, less-sustainable imports? (This is also linked to the question of wage growth and restrictive trade practices.)

The recent pandemic has highlighted some challenges for the structure of the local economy:

  • Disruption to distribution networks and supply chain logistics
  • Food security
  • Energy self-sufficiency
  • Inability to service equipment locally or source spare parts
  • Different standards across the States
  • Medicine and vaccine manufacture, sourcing and distribution

For an up-to-date perspective on where Australian manufacturing policy needs to be heading, I recommend taking a look at the Productivity Commission’s latest submission to a current Senate enquiry. (Am I alone in thinking that the PC, along with the ACCC, is doing more to develop and advance economic policy than our elected representatives?)

The PC’s submission addresses a number of key points:

  • R&D incentives are hampered by complex tax treatment
  • Policies (and subsidies) favouring one industry create uncertainty for others
  • Need for IP reform (especially “fair use” of copyright)
  • The National Interest test needs clarifying
  • More effort on up-skilling through more relevant education and training
  • The role of manufacturing capabilities in supporting supply chain infrastructure

Finally, while I agree that there needs to be some focus on renewable energy and public transport, we should not ignore food and agriculture, bio-tech, IT, automation, robotics, materials science and other high-end capabilities in specialist design, engineering and recycling (including reclaiming precious minerals from obsolete equipment).

(And did I mention the “Innovation Agenda” and the revolving door at the Federal Ministry?)

Next week: Dead Pop Stars

Where is wage growth going to come from?

How good is the Aussie economy? On the back of the stable outlook on our AAA sovereign credit rating, last week’s employment data showed a better-than-expected post-COVID recovery in terms of the headline unemployment rate and overall workforce participation. This has led to speculation of a potential uplift in wages, due to labour shortages amplified by the current halt on immigration (thanks to closed borders).

But where will this expected wage growth actually come from?

According to ABS data for February 2021, the top 5 industries by number of people employed are: Health Care; Retail Trade; Professional, Scientific and Technical; Construction; and Education. (See above chart.)

Now, contrast this with three other relevant data points: 1) the number of Australian companies by size; 2) the annual change in employment growth/reduction by industry; and 3) the national GDP contribution by industry.

First, there are nearly 2.5m registered business entities, according to ABS data. Over 1.5m of these are designated as “Non-employing” – including sole traders, self-employed, independent contractors or freelances. Over 850 thousand establishments employ fewer than 200 people. Fewer than 5,000 businesses employ more than 200 people. Although there was an overall growth of 2% in the number of registered businesses, the largest increase was in the “sole trader” category, while the largest decreases were among medium-sized companies, and large enterprises. (See table below – the next ABS data is due in August.)

Second, the largest employment growth by industry sector in 2019-20 came from logistics and healthcare – no doubt in large part to the impact of COVID. Primary industries and mining both registered decreases.

Third, the main contributors to output (GDP) are Health and Education (13%), Mining (11%), Finance (9%), Construction (8%) and Manufacturing (6%) – based on a recent RBA Snapshot. But the data is always subject to further examination and clarification – for example, while construction employs over 1.1m people, many of these are engaged as independent tradies or through sub-contractors, and in spite of the huge number of major infrastructure projects (just look at Victoria’s Big Build and all the cranes in Melborne CBD), there was only negligible growth in overall employment within the sector. And while mining is a major contributor to GDP, it does not employ huge numbers of people (it’s actually on a par with the arts…), yet the fewer than 9,000 people who are employed as mining engineers are in the top 10 occupations by salary (according to ATO data analysed by the ABC.)

Some other factors to consider as we ask, “Where will wage growth come from?”:

  • While most people are employed by SME’s, these companies are probably under the greatest strain when it comes to overheads and inputs, as they have relatively high fixed costs, and can ill-afford higher wages in the current trading conditions.
  • On July 1, the Superannuation Guarantee is due to increase from 9.5% to 10% – some commentators suggest employers (especially SMEs) may have to reduce or offset wages to pay for the scheduled increase.
  • We have an apparent choice between an asset-led recovery (inflated house prices – but risks leaving people “asset rich and cash poor” when interest rates go up ); a consumption-led recovery (reliant on higher wages so people feel comfortable to spend money); or an investment-led recovery (businesses need to invest in new equipment and projects to boost productivity, and not just bring forward planned expenditure thanks to tax incentives).
  • The sectors where we need more people (health care, aged care, child care and education) are still among the lowest paid on a per capita basis.
  • What is happening to boost manufacturing, or aren’t we interested in making things anymore?
  • Our IT and technical skills shortages have been exacerbated by the absence of overseas students and graduates – there is anecdotal evidence of wage and hiring pressures in this sector, one which is probably more important to our future economy and sustainability than mining coal or building more roads.
  • One leading economist reckons that household incomes have increased by 30% over the past 10 years. If wages have been stagnant, where has this growth come from? Is it because of tax cuts, low interest rates, quantitative easing, real estate prices (or their crypto holdings)? And do we actually feel any wealthier as a result?

Finally, will inflation and/or interest rates undermine any potential increase in wages?

Next week: Is Federation still working?

How about that AAA rating?

As the State of Victoria weighs up the costs of yet another lock down, you could be forgiven for thinking that the local economy has taken a further beating after the horrendous events of the past 15 months. Across Australia, thousands of companies and individuals accessed various government-sponsored financial aid packages to keep afloat, causing the federal government to borrow more money, at something like 8x the equivalent rate pre-COVID. National public debt is now expected to grow to more than 40% of GDP by the 2024-25 fiscal year – effectively double what it was in 2018-19.

So what has Australia done to retain its coveted AAA sovereign rating from Standard & Poor’s, and have the rating outlook upgraded from negative to stable? According to the ratings agency, and economists such as Westpac’s Bill Evans, there are probably three or four key factors that have warranted this optimistic economic reckoning.

First, while government borrowing (Quantitative Easing) has blown out as a proportion of GDP, the current low interest rates mean that the cost of servicing that debt is manageable.

Second, while the pursuit of QE has destroyed any hope of returning to an overall budget surplus, the deficit will return to similar levels last seen after the GFC, and the current account will continue to return a modest surplus over the coming quarters.

Third, despite the significant economic risks that were identified at the start of the COVID pandemic, the actual impact on the budget has been less than feared, and the economy is recovering faster than expected (as evidenced by latest employment data and consumer sentiment).

Fourth, Australian banks have seen an increase in customer deposits, meaning they are less reliant on more expensive overseas borrowing for their own funding.

Overall, just as with the GFC, Australia has managed to dodge a bullet (the shock to the system was less than anticipated) – in large part thanks to a resurgence in iron ore prices (again).

But weaknesses and disparities remain:

The over-reliance on commodity prices (mainly based on demand from China) hides the true nature of Australia’s balance of payments – we manufacture less than we used to, and our supply chains have been severely tested during the pandemic. And with international borders closed, we won’t see the same levels of GDP growth that resulted from immigration.

Our household savings rate as a percentage of disposable income has come down from its peak of 22% in July 2020, to less than 12% this past quarter, as people held on to their cash for a rainy day (or 3 months lock-down). The savings rate is expected to come down even further as consumers feel more confident and start spending again.

As with the GFC, home owners have chosen to pay down their mortgage debt – but the picture is more complex. Yes, interest rates remain low (and will likely stay so for at least another 18 months), despite commentary from another economist, Stephen Koukoulas suggesting that the RBA will have to raise rates sooner than expected. With property prices expected to increase 5-10% over the next 12 months, home owners will feel wealthier (but asset rich and cash poor?) as mortgage repayments reduce as a percentage of their home’s value. And while analysts at S&P expect banks’ credit loses to remain low while the economy recovers, the fact that two-thirds of banks’ exposures are to highly leveraged residential property could see increased stress when interest rates rise and if wage growth remains sluggish (more on the latter next week).

Australia’s sovereign credit rating is something of a badge of honour, and represents membership of an exclusive club – fewer than a dozen countries are rated AAA; no wonder it’s a big deal, and partly explains why the Prime Minister gets to attend the G7 (albeit as an observer). Comparatively speaking, Australia is doing very well when it comes to managing COVID (although we could be doing a lot better on a number of measures), and has an economy that continues to be the envy of many. Expect more on that AAA rating (“How good was that?”) as we head into the next Federal election…

Next week: Where is wage growth going to come from?