Mopping up after the LNP

The incoming Labor government in Australia is currently enjoying a post-election honeymoon period. And while the new Prime Minister has spent about as much time overseas as he has been at home, there is sense that domestically, something has changed under Mr Albanase.

First, the strident, discordant and caustic tone of federal politics is subtly being dialled down, even if much of the same partisan rhetoric remains. Second, it has been suggested that Mr Albanese is seeking to evoke the spirit of Bob Hawke rather than looking for inspiration from either of his immediate ALP predecessors. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were technocrats (rather than being natural politicians) and neither of them enjoyed a solid or stable power base within their own party (hence, they were both rolled while in office). Third, there does not appear to be any radical departure from the previous LNP administration, apart from a commitment to an indigenous voice in Parliament, a plan to establish a federal anti-corruption commission, and a greater focus on renewable energy.

Of course, the new administration faces a number of challenges in the budget deficit and in key areas of economic activity, most of which they have inherited from the outgoing LNP government. Federal largesse (in the form of industry subsidies, public grants, welfare payments and pandemic handouts) is under pressure. The era of “cheap money” is coming to end as we witness higher inflation, lower unemployment, skills shortages, and a very mixed set of economic results. Interest rates are on the way up to try and prevent parts of the economy overheating, and are designed to reduce both borrowing and retail spending. But there is a risk that higher interest rates will result in a decline in house prices and an increase in mortgage stress; and reduced discretionary consumer spending may dent employee expectations of wage growth. Despite the low level of unemployment, there can be no reasonable hope of higher wages without an accompanying increase in productivity. Perhaps the issue is that too many people have fewer hours of employment than they want or need, while those already in full-time employment seek to maximise the amount of work they have. Or productivity gains are difficult to achieve in sectors where wages are the biggest input cost, or where operating margins are already very thin, or where investment in technology has been lacking.

Despite the increase in domestic travel and tourism during and since the height of the pandemic in 2019-21, we should remember that domestic borders were also closed for extended periods. As a result, local tourism was hit hard, and even as things started to open up again, the hospitality industry struggled to find staff or was unable to operate economically due to capacity limits – and a lot of small operators haven’t come back.

I would expect to see bankruptcy numbers to rise – especially among sole-proprietors and SMEs (the latter of whom, in aggregate, account for the bulk of employment by headcount). This is always a lag economic indicator, given the time it takes for insolvencies and liquidations to work through the system. Despite the overall increase in the number of business in 2020-21 (see table below), 93.0% of businesses had turnover of less than $2 million, and 28.7% of businesses had turnover of less than $50,000. There was a 12.5% increase in businesses with turnover of less than $50,000, and only a 0.5% increase in businesses with turnover of $5 million to $10 million and $10 million or more. Given that 81.7% of exiting businesses had turnover of less than $200,000, there is a likelihood that more businesses will go under. This period is going to be especially challenging for sole traders and SME owners who typically mortgage their principal home to fund their business. The next ABS business entry/exit report in August will be very interesting.

Past stimulus packages have been spent on household goods (computers, mobile phones, HDTVs, etc.) that aren’t manufactured in Australia; or put towards the mortgage; or saved for a rainy day – and it’s highly likely a similar pattern emerged with the recent pandemic-related measures. All of which means their net effect on the domestic economy and the balance of payments was probably negligible. Sure, during the pandemic some consumer spending was diverted from things like overseas travel towards domestic purchases, but recent data suggests consumers are cancelling their internet streaming services and curbing their on-line shopping (in part because they are no longer working from home).

During the federal election campaign, one of the few areas of economic “policy” that both ALP and LNP ventured was the promise of financial incentives for first-time home buyers. The idea being, I suppose, helping people onto the property ladder enables them to establish long-term household wealth, while taking some pressure off the rental market. Although there has been a softening in city house prices, price increases in some regional areas have more than compensated for those recent declines (thanks to an urban exodus from cities like Melbourne and Sydney). If you’ve just paid at the top of those regional markets, and now face interest rate hikes (as well as coming off introductory fixed mortgage rates), I’m sure this will bring a new layer of mortgage stress.

Finally, it’s still not clear where the wage growth will come from (apart from a lift in the minimum wage?). Businesses (especially SMEs) that struggled during lock-down won’t easily be able to afford pay rises, and the skills shortages are in many areas where there is a lack of local talent, so increased skilled immigration quotas may actually depress salaries. Something of a vicious circle.

Next week: Literary triggers

New Labor?

At the time of writing, ballot papers in the recent Australian Federal Election are still being counted. Although it is clear that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has secured more seats in the House of Representatives than any other party, and its leader, Anthony Albanese has already been sworn in as the new Prime Minister, the ALP is yet to establish an overall Parliamentary majority – although it is highly likely they will.

While the final results are still to be tallied, it’s fair to say that this Election has been like no other, and the ALP will need to find a new style of Government, given the following facts:

  • Albanese is only the fourth Labor leader since WWII to lead the ALP to Government from Opposition – given the fixed three-year terms of Australian Parliaments, this is an achievement in itself;
  • The ALP secured less than 33% of the national primary vote (compared to the outgoing LNP Government’s 36%); this means nearly one-third of first preference votes were divided between the Greens, Independents, and other minor parties, and in theory breaks the two-party stranglehold on Federal politics;
  • The two-party preferred tally shows a remarkable similarity to the Brexit Vote: ALP 51.7% vs LNP 48.3% (Brexit: Leave 51.9% vs Remain 48.1%) – which might suggest a less than an overwhelming mandate for the ALP;
  • Candidates for the so-called “Teal Independents” secured more new seats than perhaps even they expected, and will form the largest group on the expanded cross-bench;
  • The Greens won three new seats, all in Queensland, which is surprising given the party’s stand on the mining, coal and gas industries;
  • Although Katter’s Australian Party retained its solitary member in the House of Representatives, neither of the other Queensland-based, right-wing parties (One Nation and the United Australia Party) picked up any lower house seats.

These election results have also highlighted (even exacerbated?) the differences that exist between regional, metropolitan, and suburban areas (both within each State and nationally) that represent significant fault lines across the Federal electorate.

Even if the ALP manages to secure a majority in the House of Representatives, the incoming Prime Minister has acknowledged the need to engage more with the cross-bench than previous administrations – in particular on climate policy and the establishment of a Federal independent commission against corruption. (And in the Senate, the ALP will likely be reliant upon the Greens to pass legislation.)

On climate policy, the main debate is on achieving lower targets for carbon emissions, how to do it, how soon, and at what cost. The biggest challenge will be on transitioning the mining, coal and gas industries (especially in Queensland and Western Australia), and on tackling the heavy polluters (in particular, energy generation, construction and agriculture). Given that both Queensland and Western Australia are under Labor Governments, and that these industries are heavily unionized compared to most other sectors of the economy, perhaps the Prime Minister will find it comparatively easy to sell his Government’s policies – but bringing the rest of the population with him will be key, and there needs to be a clearer path to decarbonizing the economy, including incentives for change.

Regarding a Federal anti-corruption body, the challenge will be to draw up practical and consistent terms of reference (especially given that such bodies already exist in some form or other at State level). For example, in addition to elected representatives and civil servants, should a new Commission have oversight of political parties, charities, unions, non-for-profits, industry associations, professional sporting codes, non-government bodies and anyone else that receives any sort of public funding? And what about whistle-blower protections and the public’s right to submit a complaint or other matter for investigation? How will it deal with freedom of information requests that appear to be denied on political grounds, or manage the transaction of investigations that may involve multiple parties? And should such a body have oversight of truth in political advertising or deliberate misinformation campaigns by those running for public office?

A glaring omission from the Federal election campaign was any meaningful debate on the need for structural economic reforms. Many of the published policies were heavy on how much funding would be allocated to favoured industries and pet projects, but they were very light on evaluating expected outcomes or measuring the quality of results. The only financial topics to get regularly aired were wage growth, inflation, interest rates, and incentives for first-time home buyers – all of which may be important, but they are largely “more of the same” that we have seen for the past 20 years of tax-based tinkering. Not since the introduction of GST (sales tax) in 2000 have we seen any significant policy implementation, and certainly nothing like the major economic reforms introduced by the Hawke/Keating administration. To be fair to the Greens, they did advocate new taxes to fund some of their carbon-related policies (including nationalising part of the renewable energy sector) but I don’t recall seeing a specific cost analysis or balance sheet on how they would achieve their goals. There are also tensions emerging between the need to bolster wage growth (off the back of improved productivity, which hopefully includes removing archaic restrictive practices and encouraging further competition?) and the need to address growing skills shortage (to be partly offset by increased immigration, without risking wage deflation?). Any discussion of the economy must also recognise the realities of the changing work environment, including new technology, remote working, casual employment and the need to encourage innovation and sustain the small business and start-up ecosystem.

Finally, if the Prime Minister is going to be successful in selling his vision of “New Labor” (my term) then he will need to:

  • ensure that the ALP does not again disintegrate into factional party warfare and rolling incumbent leaders that plagued the previous Labor administration (and which was adopted with equal gusto by the outgoing Coalition);
  • steer a renewed path to economic modernisation begun by his predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s;
  • embrace new technology and change the way public sector IT procurement is conducted;
  • acknowledge that the Government (featuring, as ever, so many career politicians who lack direct experience of working in industry or running commercial businesses) doesn’t know all the answers – but they know how and where to find them;

And while it’s not the Prime Minister’s job to actually “hold the hose”, he does need to make sure those who do are competent to do so, and that he and his Government will hold themselves, their appointees and their representatives directly accountable to the electorate.

Next week: Renzo Piano & the Centro Botín

 

 

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