“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

Startup Vic FinTech Pitch Night

The Australian tech sector, especially at the startup end of the industry, is having to grapple with what is fast becoming a major structural and operational challenge: how to hire, remunerate and retain staff. With closed international borders cutting off the supply of overseas students and graduates, and a lack of sufficient home-grown skills, it’s a problem that established businesses and startup ventures alike are having to address. Just last week, the AFR reported that some wages in the tech sector have gone up 30% in the past 12 months. Perhaps this issue was on the minds of the four founders who presented at the recent Startup Victoria FinTech Pitch Night.

The judges for this on-line event, sponsored by LaunchVic, were: Nicole Small, Investment Director at Rampersand; Kim Hansen, Co-founder and CEO of Cake Equity; Caitlin Zotti, Operations Manager at Pin Payments; and “the people’s judge,” Eike Zeller, Community Lead at Stone & Chalk Melbourne. Compered by Josh Sharma, Head of Labs & Startups at LUNA, the evening also featured a virtual fireside chat between Rebecca Schot-Guppy, CEO of FinTech Australia, Dom Pym, Co-Founder of Up, and Julia Bearzatto, Head of Technology for Financial Services at MYOB.

The four startups in order of presentation were (links in the names):

Elbaite

Claiming to be the “first non-custodial cryptocurrency exchange“, part of Elbaite’s mission is to prevent theft or misappropriation of crypto assets held in exchange wallets. What makes Elbaite different from other decentralized exchanges (DEXs) and peer-to-peer platforms is that they escrow the fiat involved in any transaction. While they may not be charging the fees of centralized exchanges (CEXs), they are charging a 1% on crypto purchases (although there is 0% commission on sales). Elbaite is hoping to target institutional clients who may not be as comfortable trading on “traditional” crypto exchanges – although in my experience, many institutional clients actually need third-party custody services as part of their governance and compliance obligations. The judges felt that this is a crowded space (there are more than 250 crypto exchanges globally, plus numerous fiat on/off ramps, brokers, OTC desks and P2P platforms).

Sequrr

Speaking of custody and escrow, who would have guessed that stolen house purchase deposits are such a major issue, unless the team at Sequrr had told us? Despite the use of Real Estate Trust Accounts within the industry, apparently there is not much to stop the account holders from walking off with the deposits. Which rather begs the question why the industry does not already use something like multi-signature digital wallets, which mean that the funds can only be moved once all parties to the transaction agree. Even though this is a tech solution using a 3-way verification model (innovation patent pending), the different real estate laws in each State means that it’s not that simple to roll out nationally. However, the team also see opportunities for other professional and commercial sectors: solicitors, builders, aged care. (Note to the founders: I know that invented brand names were once flavour of the month for tech startups, but I question the wisdom of adopting a word that reads like a spelling error, and sounds like someone coughing up phlegm – especially if you want to be taken seriously by banks and solicitors. Just a thought.)

Nextround

Another issue of trust exists between employers and employees when it comes to reward and recognition schemes. There’s always a risk that whatever structure and incentives companies use, someone will try to game the system (or collude with colleagues) especially if the stakes are high; or, if the rewards are simply handed out for turning up and doing your job, their currency becomes debased. Then there’s the (ill-advised) link between rewards and recognition on the one hand, and performance reviews (plus bonuses and salary adjustments) on the other. It’s a balancing act which Nextround are addressing by making it easier (and less expensive) to reward and recognise all of your staff, not just the usual top 5-15%. They do this by offering managers and team leaders access to rewards of a smaller (yet still meaningful) value, which can be easily redeemed by the recipients, for hospitality rewards, events and experiences. The commercial model relies on an annual corporate subscription fee, and taking a cut of the reward vouchers. Nextround consults with employers on their preferred merchants and suppliers, who don’t necessarily see the vouchers as eroding their margins – rather, it’s another sales channel. This is not a hospitality app (e.g., loyalty program), more of a procurement app. And although there are numerous competitors for reward and recognition schemes, the “smarts” are in the way managers and HR teams can budget and allocate accordingly, without the need for onerous expense form claims because the transactions can all be tracked from the point of redemption back to the point of issuance. The resulting data will also generate a further revenue stream from the valuable analytics, although would I want my employer to know how I used my vouchers (assuming they are not tied to a specific reward)? My other reservation is that if the rewards really are as small as a cup of coffee, or even a round of drinks at the pub, isn’t it a bit like tipping?

SpendAble

Letting people make their own financial decisions is also a form of trust. Most of us would feel we can be trusted to spend our own money how we like. But this assumption may be challenged when it comes to people with a disability. SpendAble is developing payment, saving and investment solutions for people who face physical, societal and intellectual barriers to managing the financial affairs. Starting with a budget-based spending app, SpendAble helps users to allocate, identify and track their purchases more easily, and with much of the payment friction removed. The team will also develop specific applications such as voice-controlled functions for the visually impaired. Largely reliant upon the NDIS for funding and end users to cover transaction costs, SpendAble will plug into existing banking platforms – which might be a better way to underwrite the app? However, some of the online chat on the night suggested that SpendAble could provide well-needed general financial education to school kids as part of its offering, as well as helping to address financial inclusion.

Such was the enthusiasm for SpendAble that they took out the Peoples’ Choice as well as the Judges’ Award.

Next week: Accounting for Crypto

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?