In the wake of the G20 Brisbane meeting, Australia’s place in the world has been under scrutiny, in particular our role in Asia Pacific. With the announcement of a Free Trade Agreement with China (following similar treaties with Japan and Korea), a flurry of extra-mural visits by G20 leaders, and our current Presidency of the UN Security Council, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Australia was now front and centre of the world stage. Well, I hate to disappoint anyone, but I’ve recently spent 3 weeks overseas, and the only news I heard from home was the death of Gough Whitlam.
However, this does seem like a timely opportunity* to consider the question: “What’s next?” after the resources bubble has burst. This was the topic of discussion at this month’s Directors Suite luncheon, where I delivered some opening remarks based on the following text:
Our theme of Australia 3.0 is not to be confused with the think tank of the same name. Although it is interesting to note that their four areas of interest are Infrastructure, Health, Government Services and Mining.**
I’m not a political or economic historian, but I would suggest that Australia’s policy agenda has followed a rough but discernible narrative:
- Australia 1.0 – from the launch of Federation to the 1960’s – post-colonial era, bookended by WWI and the Vietnam War, and despite the dominant figure of Menzies, largely a protectionist, semi-nationalised, highly collective and quasi-socialist mixed economy
- Australia 1.5 – The Whitlam Upgrade (or Experiment) – radical, short-lived, too much too soon?
- Australia 2.0 – The Hawke/Keating System Reboot – currency and interest rate reforms, major privatization, re-engagement with Asia
- Australia 2.5 – Rudd/Gillard bug fixes – a micro-managed response to the GFC, but despite the hype/promise, not much was actually achieved in macro terms, witness the 2020 summit…
What Issues Will Define Australia 3.0?
If we take it as read that there are demographic and environmental challenges ahead, I see that there are 5 Key Drivers for social and economic change, each with their own particular issues and consequences:
|1. THE BIG ONE:
Economic activity post-GFC, post-mining boom, post-dollar parity
|The “new normal”: slow/low/no growth and the struggle for sustainable growth; sunset on the baby boomer era; how to get internationally competitive, streamline SME regulations, remove the burden of tax administration
|2. THE TECH TREND:
The age of mobile, cloud and social technology
|Digital innovation backed by a new spirit of Gen Y/Gen I entrepreneurial start-ups; no more “job for life” employment – 1.3m non-employing businesses in Australia…. (40% of US workers will be freelance/self-employed by 2020)
|3. THE END OF EMPIRE(S):
Declining respect for/relevance of political structures & public institutions
|Minority governments, heightened clash of ideologies, power shift from Federal/State to Regional/Community; also reflects a failure of leadership within political parties, unions, corporations, religious bodies, professional sporting codes, armed forces etc.
|4. OUR PLACE IN THE REGION
Free Trade Agreements with Asia, realigning regional interests
|At what price? Implications for our traditional political allegiances? Challenges to Australia’s regional relevance if it’s one-way traffic only? Threat to food security?
|5. NEW NATION BUILDING
Upgrading declining infrastructure and building capacity for the future
|Who decides? Who pays? NIMBY? Too little too late?
Some international perspectives
Based on my recent travels to the UK and Hong Kong, we can make some interesting comparisons with conditions here at home. For example, like Australia, both UK and HK have very unpopular governments at present (but for different reasons); they are currently enjoying relatively higher (albeit still sluggish) GDP growth rates compared to other developed economies; and like the Australian dollar, Sterling has also declined recently against the US dollar (HK’s dollar is, of course, pegged to the US).
I got the impression that the cost of living in the UK has not gone up much since my last visit just over two years ago, although like Australia’s capital cities, London house prices are probably achieving/exceeding pre-GFC levels. (However, GDP growth is mainly due to pent-up demand from continuing austerity measures.) Relations with the EU are strained by budget issues and immigration polices. Following the Scottish referendum, there has been increased discussion on regional devolution, and Manchester looks set to acquire new regional powers (similar to the Mayor of London model). London remains as an important international financial centre, while selected manufacturing and services industries are enjoying renewed growth. There were numerous signs of major infrastructure projects (notably the Crossrail in London) and urban renewal initiatives (such as the Manchester City Library upgrade).
Meanwhile, HK is going through yet another constitutional crisis under the post-handover Basic Law (“One Country, Two Systems”). The Occupy Central protests, aka the Umbrella Movement were the most orderly demonstrations I have ever seen. The protests are multi-faceted; they are not just about Universal Suffrage, but also reflect social, economic and cultural struggles/challenges. There is another (speculative) property boom, fuelled in part by new subway systems, new commercial buildings, and a harbour front tunnel to by-pass the CBD; and in part by hundreds of new apartments (attracting mainland buyers). Property prices are at another all-time high (new developments can cost US$4-5m for less than 1,000 sq. ft.) – no wonder that about half of the population now live in public housing projects, and nearly one-fifth are estimated to be living below the poverty line. But food, clothing, public transport, eating out and general consumer goods can still be bought at modest prices (as long as you avoid high-end brands in high-end malls).
Making The Right Connections
I spent two days at a major Asia Pacific financial services conference in HK aimed at stock exchanges, banks and data vendors, where I only saw a couple of delegates from Australian banks, nobody from the ASX and no-one from the Australian superannuation or asset management sectors.
Does this matter? I think it does.
There was much talk about the convertibility (or internationalization) of the RMB, and one currency broker I spoke to suggested that Australia will be the next target for major RMB investment – it’s not just about Toorak mansions. There are huge RMB deposits sitting in HK, and Australia is an approved investment destination (and Australian-managed funds are an approved asset class) for approved mainland investors. The money has to go somewhere.***
By standalone stock market capitalisation, ASX is ranked 14th globally, but represents only about 2.2% by value. Furthermore, when taking into account recent stock exchange mergers and the new HK/Shanghai Stock Connect trading platform, the combined Hong Kong/Shanghai/Shenzhen market cap will leapfrog into 2nd place globally, and into 1st place in Asia Pacific, displacing Japan from its long-held position. And even though conference delegates often talked about the 4 key regional markets of HK, Japan, Singapore and Australia, the ASX comprises a mere 6% of regional market value, and the only exchange ASX has had serious (but failed) merger talks with is Singapore – which does not even make the global top 20.
The ASX market cap is $1.5tn; total superannuation funds and assets under management are about $1.6tn; while the equity in family owned businesses that needs to be refinanced over the next 5-10 years is estimated to be about $3.5tn.
Even financial market experts in Asia were acknowledging that wealth management, retirement planning and private banking services are gaining more significance than IPOs and equities trading. This in turn places greater emphasis on long-term investments, asset management for future returns, a new role for private equity, and more allocations to fixed income and bonds. But regulatory and operating costs threaten to erode any value that is being created in these asset classes, unless service providers and intermediaries can generate better efficiencies and/or develop additional, high-value products and services.
For our part, do we need to explore the role of alternative stock exchanges and non-traditional fund-raising platforms (especially for emerging companies and infrastructure projects)? And what is happening with Australia’s anticipated role as a regional fund and asset manager?
Implications for NEDs
As Non-Executive Directors, does this mean we should be shifting our focus from the “holy grail” of a seat on a public board, and instead look at how we can help, support and build value in the small businesses that will continue to be the long-term drivers of economic growth, and ensure that the boards of super funds have adequate governance?
*We were not alone: “Head of PwC Australia addresses National Press Club”
**See my own “3 Pillars of the Digital Economy”
***As part of the FTA with Australia, China has opened a RMB clearing house in Sydney, and granted Australia a portion of RQFII asset allocation. And soon after the FTA was announced, the NSW Treasury issued an RMB bond.
Next week: Managing Big Data Analytics and Visualization