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 (65) – 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?

Transition – post-pandemic career moves

Even before the latest lock-down v3.0 in Melbourne, one of the other members of my co-working space in the CBD decided they’d already had enough of being confined to a 5km radius, working from home, and other lock-down related restrictions. Having had their interstate travel curtailed over the past 12 months, and suffering from cabin fever, they have opted to spend the next few months living in and working from various Airbnb locations around regional Victoria. Even though they are used to WFH, recent experience has shown that they don’t need to be confined to one place. And this post-COVID shift in our work/life patterns (already being disrupted and enabled by remote working) is only increasing.

Likewise, a client I spoke to in the USA last week informed me that they had just settled into a new location on the west coast, and was “living the dream” of a nomadic existence.

More extreme is the recent example of a Guardian employee who, having had to travel from Sydney to the UK for a family funeral last year, then took several months to get back home (due to flight cancellations), but managed to keep working remotely from various European locations as he moved around to stay ahead of border closures.

Prior to this past weekend, and despite the city being out of Stage 4 lock-down for 3 months, private offices in Melbourne’s CBD have only been allowed to operate at 50% of capacity – the proposed move to 75% capacity has been put back. It means, for example, that even on a really good day, my local coffee shop is still only doing 60% of its pre-COVID business.

It’s my guess that the combination of office restrictions and many retail and hospitality businesses simply not bothering to re-open at all means the CBD is barely operating at 40-50%. It’s deceptive – some activities (e.g., construction) have continued pretty much unabated (even expanding while there is less traffic on the roads); while others have been shut down altogether (e.g., entertainment). Certainly food delivery services are still in demand, while some retail has been doing a bit better as customers appreciate the novelty of shopping in-person.

Monday to Friday in the CBD is like a bell-curve distribution – Mondays and Fridays are much quieter, as people choose to WFH part of the week. Which is challenging for employers, as they try to revert to “normal”. But assuming a mix of remote and on-site working continues, it probably means less overall demand for office space. (It’s also difficult to assess the impact of the CBD exodus on suburban hubs.)

So all that construction work suggests we will have an over-supply of commercial premises (offices, shops, restaurants and hotels).

Residential property is a similar story – student accommodation is far from full, as overseas students aren’t returning; and more inner-city apartment buildings are still going up, but there is something of an exodus from the city to regional and rural locations.

The latter tree- and sea-changes are being fueled by a number of factors: a desire to leave the city (which is more prone to lock-downs); low interest rates (so, cash out the equity in your suburban home and move to the country where your money buys you more); increased opportunity to WFH (see, 5G and the NBN have their benefits!); and a broader wish for a different work/life balance.

Unfortunately, this shift is also putting pressure on local housing supply – average property prices are going up faster in some regional centres than in the capital cities; and more nomadic lifestyles are driving up demand for short-stay accommodation. The combined effect is higher rental costs and reduced supply, tending to squeeze out the locals.

Ironically, we’ve heard farmers and primary producers in rural and regional Australia complain that they can’t get seasonal workers due to COVID restrictions on international visitors (especially students, back-packers and experienced fruit pickers). Conversely, we’re told that 90% of jobs lost after March last year have now been recovered – although this apparent rebound is mainly in part-time roles, not full-time positions. It would be interesting to see a detailed breakdown by industry, as some sectors (tourism, aviation, universities) are still struggling.

The hiatus (and disruption) brought about by COVID and subsequent lock-downs has no doubt prompted many people to reassess their careers: where do I want to live/work? what type of work do I want to do? which industries or companies are hiring? and for what roles? As part of a wider re- and up-skilling initiative, the Federal and State governments are offering a range of free vocational courses (mostly Cert I to IV programmes), as well as some enhanced “pathways” to trade apprenticeships.

While this is to be applauded, I can’t help feeling the effort is at least 5-10 years too late to address the technological, demographic and societal changes that began at the end of the last century, with the advent of the internet, cheaper technology, an ageing population, increased globalisation, inefficient taxation and tariff systems, and general economic restructuring. If nothing else, COVID has demonstrated the need for more resilience in the domestic economy, (and a reduced reliance on overseas imports and supply chains) such as smart manufacturing and food security.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine recently related that a nephew of his had dropped out of college (like many of his peers in the USA and elsewhere) and decided to become a self-taught expert in DeFi, as there is more chance of financial success (and career satisfaction) than obtaining an “off the shelf” bachelor degree….

Next week: Corporate Art

The Limits of Technology

As part of my home entertainment during lock-down, I have been enjoying a series of Web TV programmes called This Is Imminent hosted by Simon Waller, and whose broad theme asks “how are we learning to live with new technology?” – in short, the good, the bad and the ugly of AI, robotics, computers, productivity tools etc.

Niska robots are designed to serve ice cream…. image sourced from Weekend Notes

Despite the challenges of Zoom overload, choked internet capacity, and constant screen-time, the lock-down has shown how reliant we are upon tech for communications, e-commerce, streaming services and working from home. Without them, many of us would not have been able to cope with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The value of Simon’s interactive webinars is two-fold – as the audience, we get to hear from experts in their respective fields, and gain exposure to new ideas; and we have the opportunity to explore ways in which technology impacts our own lives and experience – and in a totally non-judgmental way. What’s particularly interesting is the non-binary nature of the discussion. It’s not “this tech good, that tech bad”, nor is it about taking absolute positions – it thrives in the margins and in the grey areas, where we are uncertain, unsure, or just undecided.

In parallel with these programmes, I have been reading a number of novels that discuss different aspects of AI. These books seem to be both enamoured with, and in awe of, the potential of AI – William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein” – although they take quite different approaches to the pros and cons of the subject and the technology itself. (When added to my recent reading list of Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” and John Lanchester’s “The Wall”, you can see what fun and games I’m having during lock-down….)

What this viewing and reading suggests to me is that we quickly run into the limitations of any new technology. Either it never delivers what it promises, or we become bored with it. We over-invest and place too much hope in it, then take it for granted (or worse, come to resent it). What the above novelists identify is our inability to trust ourselves when confronted with the opportunity for human advancement. Largely because the same leaps in technology also induce existential angst or challenge our very existence itself – not least because they are highly disruptive as well as innovative.

On the other hand, despite a general shift towards open source protocols and platforms, we still see age-old format wars whenever any new tech comes along. For example, this means most apps lack interoperability, tying us into rigid and vertically integrated ecosystems. The plethora of apps launched for mobile devices can mean premature obsolescence (built-in or otherwise), as developers can’t be bothered to maintain and upgrade them (or the app stores focus on the more popular products, and gradually weed out anything that doesn’t fit their distribution model or operating system). Worse, newer apps are not retrofitted to run on older platforms, or older software programs and content suffer digital decay and degradation. (Developers will also tell you about tech debt – the eventual higher costs of upgrading products that were built using “quick and cheap” short-term solutions, rather than taking a longer-term perspective.)

Consequently, new technology tends to over-engineer a solution, or create niche, hard-coded products (robots serving ice cream?). In the former, it can make existing tasks even harder; in the latter, it can create tech dead ends and generate waste. Rather than aiming for giant leaps forward within narrow applications, perhaps we need more modular and accretive solutions that are adaptable, interchangeable, easier to maintain, and cheaper to upgrade.

Next week: Distractions during Lock-down