From R&D to P&L

Last week, the leader of the Federal Opposition announced a $15bn reconstruction fund aimed at job creation if Labor wins government, saying Australia must be a country “that makes things”. With a specific focus on cars, trains and ships, this policy pledge sounded like a clarion call to the metal-bashing industries of old (and recalls either an 80s movie or a 60s pop song…). This followed the launch by the Victorian government of the $2bn “Breakthrough Fund”, aimed at enhancing the State’s R&D capabilities.

While this type of government largesse and targeted economic stimulus sounds welcome, I can’t help feeling the money could be better spent on covering some basic building blocks in the search for innovation and economic development – upgrading the primary, secondary and tertiary education for the 21st century (e.g, an integrated STEAM curriculum); funding budding entrepreneurs (e.g., job maker for the newly self-employed, especially those under 25); enhancing the SME loan market (e.g., making it easier to access working capital without first having to own real estate); and overhauling the procurement and “panel” regimes in the public and private sectors (e.g., giving more equitable access to start-ups and scale-ups).

The “reconstruction fund” talks about making equity stakes, and co-investing with the private sector and superannuation funds. This sounds great, but is it the role of government to pick winners? Surely it should be in the business of enabling innovation and facilitating the growth of SMEs (which is where much new employment is created, rather than in legacy industries and/or declining sectors). Also, because of the way their mandates are written (as well as their ROC models and fiduciary duties), traditionally, superannuation funds and other institutional investors find it very difficult to write cheques for less than, say, $200m. Such a figure is generally far beyond what most start-ups or scale-ups are seeking – so these institutional funds are often placed with external managers who can slice them up into smaller allocations, which adds to the overall investment costs.

The role model for the $15bn fund is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which returned a cumulative 4.75% as at June 30, 2020. Certainly a higher return than the cash rate, but hardly competitive with other asset classes or investment returns, if that is a key measure of success. The CEFC performance is currently running below its own benchmark, and while the efforts of the CEFC have no doubt led to more jobs in the renewables and sustainability sectors, hard data is not easy to come by. In its favour, the CEFC has made a large number of small scale investments, which may well provide a template for Labor’s manufacturing fund (although it’s not evident what form those investments have taken).

In speaking to a range of people over the past few weeks (civil servants, start-up founders, VCs, CEOs of listed companies, etc.), the following mixed messages emerged:

  1. Well-meaning government officials tell you that they are “here to help” founders, start-ups, entrepreneurs, SMEs etc. Problem is, these bureaucrats can’t effect necessary systemic change in the way innovation is funded – they can only operate at a transactional level. Also, many entrepreneurs would politely suggest that the government could do more by getting out of the way…
  2. One VC took issue with my suggestion that Australia needs a better manufacturing supply chain that produces more local components that are interoperable/interchangeable, and which also encourages more user-serviceable (and therefore more sustainable) devices and appliances – he was advocating in favour of sealed units and thus a continued dependance on the manufacturer/distributor service model; whereas I think self-sufficiency in manufacturing also means more consumer choice in post-sales support.
  3. An innovative Australian fintech chose to list overseas because the local capital markets did not “get” its business model, while another locally-listed fintech faced similar obstacles with its own listing.
  4. A start-up founder looking for a modest amount of money for an R&D project (in the sustainability sector) had already secured an equal amount of funding “in kind” from a government agency – but was finding it somewhat difficult to match it with the equivalent private capital.
  5. Neighbours building a passive house have had to import energy-efficient triple-glazed window units – because they are not easily available locally, and the only supplier they could find would have cost at least 50% more.

Finally, the new Labor policy (especially if it aims to support the EV sector) will need to demonstrate it has learned the lessons of Australia’s subsidised car industry, and that the proposed fund is part and parcel of an integrated approach to public transport infrastructure, encompassing high-speed inter-city trains, smart cities with self-drive vehicles, better orbital routes connecting suburbs, and regional hubs that aren’t reliant on cars.

Next week: Synchronicity

Rebooting the local economy

Continuing the theme from my previous, post-lockdown blog, there are definitely some growing challenges ahead as the local economy tries to gather momentum. Yes, the jobs recovery looks encouraging for the hoped-for recovery (at least, based on headline numbers); and property prices (that staple of banks and economists alike) are getting very frothy again. But the end of JobKeeper later this month will hurt both employees and employers – it will be especially hard to stomach when you consider that a few household brands have chosen to keep their government-funded windfalls, despite making significant profits even during (or as a result of) the pandemic, while these same public companies have also been paying out shareholder dividends.

It will be very interesting to monitor ABS data on the number of business entries and exits (CABEE), which is now also being reported quarterly, instead of just annually. The latest annual data released in February (for the period ending June 30, 2020) shows that there were more new businesses registered than the number of businesses that were de-registered – but the net gain was a lot lower than in recent years, as can be seen from this graph:

Even after a few months of the pandemic, the number of new entries looks to have declined significantly, with a corresponding rate of increase in exits – and the net increase was already on a steep downward trajectory from 2017-18.

According to the ABS data, “In 2019-20 three industries accounted for more than half of the net annual increase in businesses, these were:

  • Transport, postal and warehousing
  • Professional, scientific and technical services
  • Health care and social assistance”

None of this data should be too surprising; further, we should expect to see a significant number of exits from the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors. Government support in the form of domestic travel vouchers and discounted air tickets will only go so far to reverse the fortunes of airline, hotel and tour operators. (The folks in Queensland must be happy with the twin benefit of being a desirable destination for both domestic holidays and Hollywood film production.)

While on-line shopping has helped to keep retail afloat, bricks and mortar retail has been dealt a heavy blow, from which it will take a long time to recover – many people have no doubt got used to e-commerce, and can’t be enticed back to the shops.

From what I see in Melbourne, the CBD is still running at 40-60% capacity (depending on location, sector, and day of the week). Mondays are definitely quiet, it gets busier on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and then starts to taper off again on Fridays, with people opting to “work from home” as the weekend draws near. Last week, one business group wants companies to close at 4.00pm on Fridays, to encourage workers to hang out in the city after work – but Fridays has always been known as POETS day, so I hardly think anyone still here at the end of the week needs any encouragement to down tools any earlier…

There are still so many construction sites within the CBD, both new build and renovations. But who is going to be occupying this new and refurbished real estate – especially as offices are still limited to 75% capacity, and employees seem reluctant to come back to the office full time? Many shops (old and new) remain boarded up. Some cafes have not even bothered to re-open at all, let alone just on the busy days. Doubtless some current construction projects have been brought forward to take advantage of JobKeeper payments, quieter streets and low interest rates – but it means that in some areas, whole blocks lie empty and virtually devoid of any business, and it feels that many shops don’t see a customer all day.

Unfortunately, with politicians distracted by non-economic matters (plus the small tasks of managing hotel quarantine and rolling out a vaccination programme), we are only seeing short-term responses and band-aid solutions, rather than strategic and visionary policy-making. Neither our governments nor the opposition parties (of all persuasions) seem willing or capable of serious (and non-partisan) debate on things like Universal Basic Income, structural reform of the economy, and instilling innovation across all areas of industry. Instead, they prefer to tinker at the edges (tax, superannuation, industrial relations), engage in Parliamentary point-scoring, and maintain the status quo within their respective supporter base. Something has to change, and soon.

Next week: Victorian Tech Startup Week

The “new, new normal” post-Covid-19

After the GFC of 2007-8, we were told to get used to the “new normal” – of low/slow/no growth, record-low interest rates, constant tech disruption and market dislocation as economic systems became increasingly decoupled from one another. And just as we had begun to adjust to this new reality, along comes Covid-19 and totally knocks our expectations sideways, backwards and upside down, and with it some negative long-term consequences. Welcome to the “new, new normal”.

Just what the doctor ordered: “Stay home and read a book!”

In the intervening years since the GFC (and don’t those days seem positively nostalgic from our current vantage point?), we have already seen ever lower interest rates, even faster disruption in business models and services, and a gradual dismantling of the trend towards a global economy. The pre-existing geopolitical landscape has either exacerbated this situation, or has been a prime beneficiary of the dismantling of the established structures of pluralistic, secular, non-sectarian, social-democratic and liberal societies.

First, relations between the Superpowers (USA, Russia and China) have not been this bad since the Cold War. Second, nationalism has not been as rife since the 1930s. Third, political leadership has tended toward the lowest common denominator of populist sloganeering. Not to mention the rise of fundamental religious sects, doomsday cults and tribal separatist movements. Let’s agree that even before the current pandemic, our resistance was already low….

Whatever your favourite conspiracy theory on causes and cures for Covid-19, it’s increasingly apparent that populist leaders of both the left and the right will use the pandemic as vindication of their policies – increased xenophobia and tighter border controls, increased centralisation of power and resources, greater surveillance of their citizens, a heightened intolerance of political dissent, a continued distrust of globalisation, and a growing disregard for subject matter experts and data-driven analysis.

The writing’s on the wall? Message seen in East Melbourne

There are obviously some serious topics up for discussion when we get through this pandemic. Quite apart from making the right economic call (“printing money” in the form of Quantitative Easing seems the main option at the moment…), governments and central banks are going to have to come to grips with:

  • Universal Basic Income – even before Covid-19, the UBI was seen as a way to deal with reduced employment due to automation, robotics and AI – the pandemic has accelerated that debate.
  • Nationalisation – bringing essential services and infrastructure back into public ownership would suggest governments would have the resources they need at their disposal in times of crisis – but at the likely cost of economic waste and productivity inefficiencies that were the hallmark of the 1970s.
  • Inflation – as business productivity and industrial output comes back on-line, the costs of goods and services will likely increase sharply, to overcome the pandemic-induced inertia.
  • Credit Squeeze – banks were already raising lending standards under tighter prudential standards, and post-pandemic defaults will make it even harder for businesses to borrow – so whatever the central cash rates, commercial lenders will have to charge higher lending rates to maintain their minimum risk-adjusted regulatory capital and to cover possible bad debts.
  • Retooling Industry – a lot of legacy systems might not come out of the pandemic in good shape. If we have managed to survive for weeks/months on end without using certain services, or by reducing our consumption of some goods, or by finding workarounds to incumbent solutions, then unless those legacy systems and their capacity can be retooled or redeployed, we may get used to living without their products all together.
  • Communications Technology – government policy and commercial settings on internet access, mobile network capacity and general telco infrastructure will need to be reviewed in light of the work from home and remote-working experience.
  • The Surveillance State – I’m not going to buy into the whole “China-virus” narrative, but you can see how China’s deployment of facial recognition and related technology, along with their social credit system, is a tailor-made solution for enforcing individual and collective quarantine orders.

Another policy concern relates to the rate at which governments decide to relax social-distancing and other measures, ahead of either a reliable cure or a vaccine for Covid-19. Go too early, and risk a surge or second wave of infections and deaths; go too late, and economic recovery will be even further away. Plus, as soon as the lock-downs start to end, what’s the likelihood of people over-compensating after weeks and months of self-isolation, and end up going overboard with post-quarantine celebrations and social gatherings?

Next week: The lighter side of #Rona19

 

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