Why don’t we feel well off?

The past month has seen a number of reports on the current state of the Australian economy and global financial systems, 10 years after the GFC. The main thesis appears to be: if another crash is coming, can local markets cope, as an extended period of cheap credit and low inflation inevitably comes to an end. Combined with US-Sino trade wars, a softening housing market, and a sense of economic inertia, there is a feeling that Australians see themselves as worse off, despite some very strong economic data in recent weeks.*

Picture Source: Max Pixel

First, the positive news:

The unemployment rate continues to remain comparatively low, and overall job participation is high. This is reflected in higher tax receipts from both corporate profits and personal income. The RBA has kept interest rates low, and inflation remains relatively benign.

Recent data from Roy Morgan Research suggests that personal assets are growing faster than personal debt. Significantly, “average per capita net wealth, adjusted for inflation, is 30.5% higher than it was before the onset of the global financial crisis”.

So, if more people are in work, credit is still cheap, our assets have grown, and prices are stable, we should feel well off compared to the GFC, when interest rates and unemployment rates initially both went up.

Even higher energy bills (a major bone of contention with consumers) need to be assessed against lower costs of clothing, communications and many grocery items.

Second, the less positive news:

A combination of higher US interest rates, more expensive wholesale credit, and more stringent lending rules means that Australian borrowers are already being squeezed by higher mortgage rates and tougher loan to value thresholds. This could only get worse if there is a full-scale credit crunch.

Wage growth has stagnated, despite lower unemployment and higher participation rates. There is also a sense that we are working longer hours, although this is not as clear cut as there is also evidence we are also working fewer hours.

Regardless, Australian productivity output is considered to be sluggish, adding to the overall downward pressure on wages. (More on the productivity debate next week.)

More significantly, Roy Morgan Research has identified a growing wealth disparity based on asset distribution – but this may be a combination of changing earning, saving, investing and spending patterns. For example, if younger, would-be first-time home buyers feel priced out of the housing market, they may choose to invest in other assets, which may take longer to appreciate in value, but may not require as much upfront borrowing.

Third, preparing for a fall….

If a new market crash or a credit crunch comes along, how resilient is the economy, and how will people cope? Worryingly, fewer people are able to cope with unexpected expenses due to lower saving rates and maxed out credit cards. Over-leveraged companies and individuals will be hard pressed to meet their repayments or refinance their loans if interest rates rise steeply or lending standards tighten further.

Then there is the ageing population transitioning into retirement – baby-boomers who are “asset rich, but cash poor”. If they expected the equity in their homes and/or the balance in their superannuation accounts to fund their old age, they may be in for a shock if the housing bubble bursts and stock markets decline, especially if they are expected to live longer.

Finally, the RBA may have few options left in terms of interest rate settings, and a future government may be less wiling to spend its way out of a crisis (more Pink Batts and LCD TVs, anyone?). And while Australian companies may have strengthened their balance sheets since the GFC, overall levels of debt (here and overseas) could trigger increased rates of default.

*Postscript: if there was any further evidence required of the disconnect between the value of household assets (net worth) and a lack of feeling wealthy, this recently published Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2018 makes for some interesting analysis.

Next week: The Ongoing Productivity Debate

 

 

 

Fear of the Robot Economy….

A couple of articles I came across recently made for quite depressing reading about the future of the economy. The first was an opinion piece by Greg Jericho for The Guardian on an IMF Report about the economic impact of robots. The second was the AFR’s annual Rich List. Read together, they don’t inspire me with confidence that we are really embracing the economic opportunity that innovation brings.

In the first article, the conclusion seemed to be predicated on the idea that robots will destroy more “jobs” (that archaic unit of economic output/activity against which we continue to measure all human, social and political achievement) than they will enable us to create in terms of our advancement. Ergo robots bad, jobs good.

While the second report painted a depressing picture of where most economic wealth continues to be created. Of the 200 Wealthiest People in Australia, around 25% made/make their money in property, with another 10% coming from retail. Add in resources and “investment” (a somewhat opaque category), and these sectors probably account for about two-thirds of the total. Agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and financial services also feature. However, only the founders of Atlassian, and a few other entrepreneurs come from the technology sector. Which should make us wonder where the innovation is coming from that will propel our economy post-mining boom.

As I have commented before, the public debate on innovation (let alone public engagement) is not happening in any meaningful way. As one senior executive at a large financial services company told a while back, “any internal discussion around technology, automation and digital solutions gets shut down for fear of provoking the spectre of job losses”. All the while, large organisations like banks are hiring hundreds of consultants and change managers to help them innovate and restructure (i.e., de-layer their staff), rather than trying to innovate from within.

With my home State of Victoria heading for the polls later this year, and the growing sense that we are already in Federal election campaign mode for 2019 (or earlier…), we will see an even greater emphasis on public funding for traditional infrastructure rather than investing in new technologies or innovation.

Finally, at the risk of stirring up the ongoing corporate tax debate even further, I took part in a discussion last week with various members of the FinTech and Venture Capital community, to discuss Treasury policy on Blockchain, cryptocurrency and ICOs. There was an acknowledgement that while Australia could be a leader in this new technology sector, a lack of regulatory certainty and non-conducive tax treatment towards this new funding model means that there will be a brain drain as talent relocates overseas to more amenable jurisdictions.

Next week: The new productivity tools

Corporate purpose, disruption and empathy

There’s been a renewed debate recently, about corporate purpose: why do companies and organisations exist?

Partly this existential angst comes from a sense of feeling redundant – sunset industries, declining and non-existent markets, outmoded technology, irrelevant products and services. The whole evolutionary model, survival of the fittest, etc.

Partly it comes from a shift in the balance of power – from access to resources, markets and technology, to the future of work offering people more choices in the ways they can generate their living.

Whether companies face disruption or decay, their purpose has to change and adapt accordingly – look at how Kodak is backing a project to issue cryptographic tokens to help professional photographers track the use of their IP.

Equally, employees are more invested in working on interesting ideas, and more interested in working for businesses that align with their values, rather than buying into a corporate purpose. So it’s as much about the “how” of an organisation as much as the “what” and the “why”.

I sometimes find it hard to feel much empathy for companies or industries that become outmoded – although I can feel some empathy for the people who lose their jobs as a result. However, if the political and economic response to declining industries is to focus on job losses (or job subsidies), it tends to overlook where the new opportunities are actually coming from – even though this growth does not always offer traditional jobs or work/career options. Equally, individuals need to adapt to the changing work environment – no-one can be sure of a “job for life” anymore, no matter how much some of our political leaders would like to think otherwise.

If we look at the traditional function (not the same as purpose) of many companies, it was to harness certain resources in the pursuit of creating assets or wealth. So, companies were once really good at sourcing and managing financial capital, human capital, and intellectual capital. They were even “better” at this if they had monopolistic access to, or operated within, highly controlled and tightly regulated markets.

Now, of course, thanks to disruption and other forces, companies no longer have a monopoly on these resources, as many markets have become outsourced, open source, disintermediated or decentralised. Rather than being formed by shareholders and other stakeholders for long-term ventures, “companies” can just as easily be a collective of self-forming, self-governing and self-aware resources that combine for a specific objective, for as long or short a time as the objective or enterprise requires. And technologies like Blockchain, digital assets and smart contracts will determine how, and for what reason, and for how long such entities will exist, and the resources they will require.

Next week: More musings on ICOs and cryptocurrencies  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fate of the over 50s….

In recent months, a number of my friends and former colleagues in their 40s and 50s have found themselves being retrenched. Nothing surprising in that, you might say – it’s a common fate of many middle and senior managers to be “delayered” by their organisations. And of course, redundancy is now something that everyone in the workforce must expect to face at least 3-4 times in their career.

What is surprising is that in most cases, these friends and associates have been taking deliberate steps to remain relevant, by retraining and upskilling, by keeping up to date on business trends, or by engaging with new opportunities via meetups and networking events. Nevertheless, their employers have found reason to cut their positions – and despite a bar on age discrimination, the likelihood of some of these older workers finding comparable roles is greatly reduced.

This scenario is not helped by the challenges younger workers are experiencing in finding their ideal job, at least during the first few years of their careers. I would probably dispute this assertion, for the simple fact that many younger workers do not really know what career they intend to pursue, or are not aware of what options are open to them. Plus, apart from areas like medicine, science and engineering, secondary and tertiary education should be less about getting formal qualifications and more about learning how to learn, how to engage with new ideas, how to explore different concepts, how to acquire different experiences, and above all about being prepared for life….. (In my own case, I probably didn’t find my “true” career path until about 5 years after joining the workforce – a process helped by undertaking some further training when the time and circumstances were right for me. But this “delay” did not prevent me from gaining valuable experience in a series of jobs – especially as employers did not expect younger new hires to stay more than 2 years in the same role.)

Some of the corporate job-cutting is no doubt driven by economic and financial necessity, in the face of automation – and this is a trend which probably puts older workers at a disadvantage, if they are deemed less able to learn or adapt to the new technology. But as I have argued before, being older should not mean being obsolete.

One friend noted that in transitioning to a new role, there was a higher expectation that they would adapt and learn the ropes more quickly than a younger new hire. Again, this puts older workers at a disadvantage as they will be cut less slack than a rookie in a similar role.

So it seems that older workers are seen as less able (or less willing?) to learn new technology; but at the same time, they are expected to deal with change and disruption more easily then some new entrants to the workforce. There is also a growing expectation that the older you are, or the longer you have been in your previous role, the longer and harder it will be to find a suitable new position. (Again, in my own case, after I left my last corporate gig, I spent 5 years doing a range of consulting projects and contract roles, before finding myself working in a totally new industry – one that is at the cutting edge of disruptive technology, and didn’t really exist at the time I left the corporate world.)

Finally, I was struck by the comment of a former colleague who is being tempted back into the workplace, having made a conscious decision to take earlier retirement:

“I like being retired. I also know that one day you’re the hero and the next day you’re considered part of the problem.”

Next week: Beyond Blocks, Tokyo