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.

Next week: The Ongoing Productivity Debate

 

 

 

Banks under the spotlight (again)

About 6 months ago, I posted a blog on the current state of banking and financial services. It was published before the proceedings at the Royal Commission got underway, and since then we have heard a litany of complaints of malpractice and other inappropriate behaviour by some of our major financial institutions. We have also seen the publication of the Prudential Report into the CBA, commissioned by APRA. But despite the horror stories, is anyone really surprised by either of these findings?

Image: Jacob Edward; Source: Flickr; Some Rights Reserved

Some have suggested that our banking culture is largely to blame – but to me, that is somewhat simplistic, since I don’t think that the culture within our banks is so very different to that of other large companies or statutory corporations. (But I will explore this topic in a future blog.)

We have a love-hate relationship with our financial institutions, especially the 4-pillar banks. The latter have continued to be regarded as some of the most stable, profitable and prudent banks in the world – they are probably among the top 30 banks globally based on their credit ratings. Moreover, during the GFC, it was largely agreed that, despite their participation in complex financial products such as mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, the big 4 banks helped to prevent a total meltdown in the local capital markets because they had reasonably strong balance sheets, and they worked closely with the RBA to avert the full effects of the GFC.

In fact, so enamoured are we of our banks that, despite the Royal Commission, the banks will not face significant regulatory reforms. One economist at a major fund manager I spoke to suggested that even an in-coming Labor Government would have to confine itself to some sort of bank tax. Anything that would undermine the 4-pillar policy (such as increased competition, rationalisation or foreign ownership) would likely be seen as unacceptable in the current political environment. In addition, since the financial sector makes up such a significant part of the market capitalization of the Australian stock market, most voters hold shares in the banks, either as direct or discretionary investments, or through their superannuation fund. Impacting the financial performance of the banks will have a knock-on effect for customers and shareholders alike.

Despite the relative strength of Australia’s financial services regulatory regime, it’s clear that part of the blame for the current malaise lies with the regulators themselves. None of the transgressions complained of at the Royal Commission or uncovered by APRA’s report on CBA suggest that new regulation is needed (unless we are talking about structural reforms…) In the wake of the GFC, and in line with global banking standards, banks have had to adjust the levels of risk-weighted capital they hold, and meet more onerous compliance costs – as well as rein in riskier lending practices. Yet, it feels like the regulators have not been as vigilant or as pro-active as they might have been – or there is such a “checklist” mentality towards compliance and risk management that banks and their regulators have lost sight of the substance of the law, not just the form.

Having read the APRA report on the CBA, there are a number of issues which need to be addressed, as I suspect that they are replicated (in whole or in part) among the other major banks:

  • All of the incidents covered by the APRA report occurred since the GFC – so, maybe increased compliance obligations are not the answer to these problems, but better supervision and enforcement?
  • Technology is only mentioned about a dozen times in the report – and technology was placed very low in the organizational framework for CBA’s Better Risk Outcomes Program (BROP) – yet banks are increasingly becoming technology businesses
  • Decision-making was seen as being too slow and too reactive, in part due to a collegiate and collaborative environment (surely, the signs of a positive culture?)
  • I would suggest there was a lack of external or independent input at the executive and even board level, and an over-reliance on in-house technical experts – especially in the areas of IT and risk
  • Further, the typical silo structures within large, complex organisations like banks, are the result of an over-emphasis on products and processes, rather than on customers and outcomes. To quote the APRA Report:

“…too many handoffs between silos and layers, with accountability often not clear enough and agreements hard to reach…”

  • Equally, a lack of delegation (especially to front line and customer facing staff) only compounds the lack of empowerment, accountability and transparent decision-making

Despite the strength of the 4-pillar banks and the market share they command, they face disruption and disintermediation from digital platforms, Blockchain technology, decentralized applications, P2P solutions and challenger brands. In fact, banks will increasingly become the digital custodians of our financial data – we will end up paying them to manage our data (rather than simply charging us transaction fees). Banks will also need to restructure their products and services around our personal financial needs and obligations according to our stage of life and other circumstances (rather than simply selling us products), along the lines of:

  • Essential – housing, living, education, health, retirement
  • Mandatory – superannuation, taxes
  • Discretionary – investments, holidays, luxuries

That way, banks will also have a much better “whole of client” view of their customers, rather than the current product bias.

Next week: Culture Washing

 

 

 

Revolving Doors At The Lodge

Since his unceremonious dumping as leader by his colleagues in the Parliamentary Liberal Party, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must be wondering why the party that spat him out twice (despite benefiting from his personal donations) accepted his membership in the first place. So adamant were his conservative enemies that Turnbull was “not one of us”, they were willing to sacrifice not only Turnbull’s status as preferred Prime Minister, but also his popular deputy, Julie Bishop, and their own preferred leadership candidate, Peter Dutton.

Turnbull’s farewell speech – image sourced from The Australian

All of which suggests Australian democracy (or at least, the version played out by our political parties) is seriously damaged, if not actually broken.

Turnbull is the fourth sitting Prime Minister to be dumped by his or her own party in less than 10 years (and let’s not forget he himself ousted his predecessor). This latest incident suggests that the problem is not with the electoral system, but with the party system that controls the management and exercise of political power – and with scant regard for the voters who directly elect their constituency representatives.

Here’s why I think party politics are the root cause of Australia’s current leadership malaise:

1. No legal or constitutional basis

Quite simply, political parties are neither mentioned in the Constitution, nor formally defined in any Act of Parliament. Their role in our democracy is entirely by custom and convention – in a way, we tolerate them as a “necessary evil”, because we are led to believe that Parliament cannot function without them. At best, Parliamentary parties operate under a license, one which should not be seen as a right, but as a privilege. And like all such licenses, this privilege should be subject to being revoked at the will of those who granted it – the electorate.

2. If our political parties were treated like corporations….

…. they would likely be hauled before the ACCC every time they broke an electoral promise, for misleading, unconscionable or deceptive conduct. Sure, circumstances can change once governments are elected – but should it be a requirement for governments to re-establish their political mandate before they make a significant u-turn? In fact, political parties are exempt from a number of legal provisions that apply to companies. Political parties may have a paying membership that determines policy, candidate selection and other procedural matters – but they are not directly answerable to the customers they purport to serve: the general electorate.

3. Our elected representatives are not even accountable to their electorates….

…. except at election time. The notion that voters elect parties into power needs to change. Voters elect individual candidates who stand for office. Even if a candidate aligns with a specific political party, there is no binding obligation on them to sit as a member of that party once they are elected. By switching party allegiance, elected representatives who cross the floor are being disrespectful of the same (flawed) party system that saw them selected to stand for election. But they are also disregarding the wishes of their electorate, who may have been convinced or persuaded to vote for them on the basis of their stated party allegiance.

4. Voters are increasingly excluded from choosing their Prime Ministers (and their governments)

Of course, we do not directly elect our Prime Ministers. The parliamentary convention is that the elected member who commands a majority in the house of representatives is invited by the Governor General to form government. The parliamentary custom and practice is that the leader of the parliamentary party that holds most seats becomes the de facto leader of the government, and hence Prime Minister. Increasingly, the largest party bloc may not command a majority. So formal and informal coalitions have to be formed, often between competing political parties, to enable minority government to function. Such alliances may be politically expedient, but they cannot be said to represent the will of the people, if we assume that the electorate is expected to vote along formal party lines. Besides, if the party system is to retain any credibility, shouldn’t voters be entitled to expect that the leaders of the parliamentary parties, which they have (indirectly) elected to lead that party, should continue to lead unless and until they have been voted out by that same electorate?

5. Voters are not even consulted when Prime Ministers are rolled mid-term

Since Prime Ministers are not directly elected, voters have also been excluded from the process when political parties choose to roll their own Prime Minister (and effectively change the government without having to call a general election). Do the party factions who seek a leadership change bother to directly consult their paid-up local party members, or their own party voters, or the local constituents they purport to represent (regardless of which way they voted at the previous election)? To me, this represents a huge fraud on the population – and the party system is at the heart of this “madness”.

6. The failure of (party) political leadership

During the 2013 general election I commented on the lack of public support for the then leaders of both major political parties – part of what I saw as a broader failure of leadership across multiple public institutions that claim to represent our interests. Regardless of their party allegiances, the electorate seems increasingly disillusioned, if not repelled, by the party back-stabbing, treachery and disloyalty. The result is, we are poorly served by our elected representatives and the governments they form along supposed party lines.

7. Politics is not binary….

…. but the party system forces us to think this way. On most party-driven policy questions, the answer cannot be reduced to “for” and “against” – there are just too many shades of grey. This is especially true of the key policy area that seems to have brought down the last four Prime Ministers – climate change, energy and the environment.

First, Kevin Rudd abandoned the ETS, a decision which he later regretted. He claimed that the main actors in his own demise were the ones who agitated for this policy u-turn.

Second, Julia Gillard avowed that she would not introduce a carbon tax – and the electorate never forgave her for her later u-turn, resulting in her being dumped by Rudd.

Third, Malcolm Turnbull was unhappy at the direction Tony Abbot was taking the Liberal Party on climate change.

Fourth, Turnbull came a cropper on energy policy (linked to climate change), even though he had decided to capitulate to the right-wing views in his own government and Party.

You have to think that something as important as climate change demands a bipartisan solution – but the party system just keeps getting in the way.

8. “Power, corruption & lies”

Finally, in recent years we have seen a litany of corruption and other cases involving our major (and some minor) parties, and the factions within – a further cause of the lack of public trust and respect for parties, politicians and power-brokers. Add to this mix the relatively small numbers of directly paid-up members of political parties, issues of party funding and campaign donations, the party stuff-ups on disqualification due to dual citizenship, and the ongoing saga of MP’s expenses, a key conclusion is that the political party system is not conducive to modern democracy or the electoral, parliamentary and government processes. And while it is sometimes said that we get the type of governments we deserve, I don’t think any member of the general electorate would say they voted for the current situation.

Next week: Separating the Truth from the Facts

 

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