Apr 142015
 
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

Yesterday this site looked at the shortcomings of the Australian government’s Inter Generational Report and criticised it primarily for its failure to imagine how society and the economy would look by 2050.

While no-one has a crystal ball, making projections on how government spending will look in the future without having some basis for the assumptions on revenues and expenditures renders a document like the IGR somewhat useless.

So what might Australia’s economy in 2050 look like? Here’s a quick list of thoughts.

Rethinking retirement

The obvious is most western societies, including Australia’s, are going to be older. This has a number of consequences, particularly with the retirement age.

In 1909 the old age pension was introduced in Australia with eligibility starting at 65 for men and 60 for women. At the time, life expectancy was 55 years for men and 59 for females.

Today age pension age has barely moved with it becoming 67 for those born after 1952. Life expectancy today 91.5 years for men and 93.6 for women, this expected to increase by 2055 to 95.1 and 96.6 respectively.

More importantly, life expectancy at age 60 will move from 16.9/19.3 years today to 21.3/23.1 in 2055.

Quite clearly the superannuation assumptions of being able to get a tax free pot of gold at 60 are doomed, few people will get enough from their lump sum to see themselves through twenty years retirement.

That throws them back on to the state. Given these numbers it’s clear the eligibility age for the old pension is going to have to be increased.

Coupled with a declining birth and participation rates seeing fewer taxpayers contributing to government coffers, the need to reform the pension age is going to become more pressing.

A healthier population

One of the differences between 1909 and today is that we’re far healthier. A fifty something today is generally in better shape than a thirty year old of their grandparents’ time.

Coupling that with the changing nature of work where most workers of a century ago were employed in exacting physical labour, today’s employees are far more likely to be sitting on a computer. This means the working life can be extended.

While the population is going to be healthier, an older population is going to mean more people with chronic conditions and those with serious issues like dementia are going to be an increasing drain on medical services, not to mention increased incidence of cancers and possibly diseases related to sedentary lifestyles.

This means the nature of medical treatment is going to change, a lot more is going to be spent on early identification and intervention of chronic and debilitating conditions.

Changing the workforce

While the workforce is going to get older, it’s also going to become more precarious. This is already clear in the long term trends since the 1980s and with the rise of ‘collaborative economy’ businesses like O-Desk, Mechanical Turk and Airtasker we can see jobs becoming more casualised.

Today’s children will not have a steady career path and governments have to plan for extended periods of unemployment. This too affects the participation rate and the levels of household spending.

A precarious income also means workers are less likely to take on large debt commitments. This trend is already apparent and is the main reason why companies with a 1960s consumer spending model are struggling in the economy of 2015.

Property stagnation

The Australian middle class model that depends upons highly indebted householders paying down mortgages is likely to be unpopular by the middle of the century as people will be reluctant to take out a huge loan to buy a property when their medium term job prospects are uncertain.

This one aspect is where the Australia government projections go badly awry. It’s understandable not to consider this given the political poison of telling the population their assumed property gains aren’t going to happen but it damns the IGR to failure.

A society with lower levels of property ownership means a dramatic shift in the tax mix and government expenditures. Assuming that today’s normal will also be tomorrow’s is very risky.

Changing technologies

The technologies themselves are changing the revenue and expenditure streams for government, just rolling out diverless vehicles might eliminate the need for half the US’s police force while reduced registration fees, taxes and fines will hit state and local government budgets.

Similarly the global nature of digital businesses is going to challenge governments as the locations of where work is done, goods are delivered and profits made becomes less certain. Right now tax officials are struggling with the revenues of multinationals but increasingly smaller companies will present the same problems.

The other changing nature of work is going to be its composition, just as a hundred years ago nearly half the workers in western countries were in agriculture, a number that’s below one in twenty today, we can expect changes in employment sectors as robots and algorithms take over many of today’s jobs.

All of this means a very different society and workforce to today’s. While it’s difficult to envision what it looks like from here, just as the current economy was almost unimaginable in 1975, it’s necessary to give some thoughts on the shifts to make informed policy choices rather than the opportunistic populism displayed by most of today’s political leaders.

So how do you see the economy of 2015 looking? And where are governments going to raise their money from? I’d be interested to hear what you see in the crystal ball.

Apr 132015
 
Does the digital divide really exist

“If you don’t know where you are now, you don’t know where you’re heading” says science presenter Karl Kruszelnicki – aka Dr Karl – in the publicity for the Australian government’s latest Inter-Generational Report.

Doctor Karl is part of a glossy campaign based around the report with the grand title of The Challenge of Change. The problem with the report is that it barely identifies any of the changes, let alone the effects, that might affect the economy over the next forty years.

The aim of the IGR is to identify the long term trends in the Australian economy and provide a basis for policy development. The first was delivered in 2001 and one has been produced roughly every five years since, making this the fourth.

An aging population

Much of the 2015 IGR hangs on the observation that Australia’s population is aging; stating the bleeding obvious that became apparent when the nation’s post World War II baby boom came to an end in 1965.

While the fact Australia’s population is aging despite massive immigration in recent years is undeniable, most of the report is a mish mash of motherhood statements that expose the key contradictions – dare one call it schizophrenia – lying at the heart of Australian politics and society.

The motherhood statements are all quite valid; the nation needs to develop better infrastructure, build a more skilled workforce and develop new industries as the mining boom sputters to a messy end.

Cutting education

Sadly the actions of Australian governments at both state and Federal level are in direct opposition to these laudable aims. The discussion on training and education illustrates the contradictions;

Under the ‘proposed policy’ scenario, Australian Government spending on education and training is projected to decline to 1.0 per cent of GDP by 2054-55. However, these figures do not take into account the significant increase in lending to students through the higher education and vocational education and training loan schemes.

Despite recognising the importance of training the workforce in order to keep the nation competitive the Federal government is actually forecasting to reduce spending on education and worker training.

Given the typical government education spending among developed nations is around 5% of GDP – in Australia total government spending is 5.1% for 2014 – this indicates a lot more cost to be pushed onto states to make up the shortfalls, if it is being made up at all.

A lack of investment

Particularly notable in the report is the scant talk about what industries are going to develop over the next thirty years or where the money for investing into them is going to come from.

The little discussion there is around private sector investment revolves around the superannuation system – the Australian equivalent of the US 401(k) personal pension accounts where workers are compelled to contribute into private schemes.

Total Australian superannuation assets have increased strongly since compulsory superannuation was introduced in 1992. At the end of 2013-14, total superannuation assets were $1.84 trillion, around 116 per cent of GDP. As the superannuation system matures and wages grow, total Australian superannuation assets are expected to continue to increase and make a growing contribution to national savings.

This statement ignores how the pool of superannuation funds is going to decline as baby boomers and Generation X reaches retirement age and starts to draw down its savings.

An even more important aspect missed by the authors are the risks Australian workers are exposed to as the only thing guaranteed by these funds are the rich fees charged by the managers.

During the global financial crisis of 2008 both the returns and asset bases of superannuation funds were hit hard with some funds suspended from trading and withdrawals restricted. The risk of similar event happening in the next forty years and its impact on household savings and business investment is simply ignored.

Ignoring the elephant

The key to understanding the Australian economic miracle of the last 25 years lies in the property market where housing lending has been boosted at the first sign of economy trouble.

As a consequence Australian households have become amongst the most indebted in the world and the bulk of domestic savings are in housing assets. Housing is the cornerstone of the Australian economy and the source of its middle class wealth.

Remarkably in the entire document the words ‘housing’ and ‘property’ only appear twice and three times respectively.

In ignoring the effects of housing on both state and Federal budgets, the bureaucrats have ignored the single most important factor in Australia’s wealth.

Given even in the most favorable projections, baby boomers and Generation Xers will be selling down their property portfolios to fund their retirements during the IGRs forecast periods, it is nothing short of amazing there is little mention of such a critical factor.

A flat line future

An important feature of the IGR is its focus on government spending with a strong ideological bent supporting the Australian political obsession with privatisation and currying favours from the deeply discredited and corrupt global ratings agencies.

This blinkered view of the world makes it hard for the authors to give a balanced analysis of the risks presented to the Australian economy and this weakness is exacerbated by poor analysis.

Each of the reports has featured ‘flat line’ projections for growth, unemployments and trade. For example here are the terms of trade projections from the current report.

Australian-terms-of-trade-projections

Such analysis is effectively useless and, because of each of the reports features such lazy forecasting, the projections in each time period end up being distorted by the circumstances of the day; forecast economic growth for the 2020s across the four report has varied between 1.6 and 2.8% over the reports.

Indeed the latest report is possibly the most optimistic with a 2.8% forecast growth rate which is at odds with the comparatively pessimistic view of 2.3% in the halcyon days of the 2002 report.

Lazy analysis

The IGR’s forecasters justify the flat line analysis by claiming long term trends will be due to underlying changes in the economy which will smooth out business cycles.

It is also important to keep in mind that the long-term projections look through business cycles and assume a smooth growth path through to 2054-55. In reality, it is almost certain that any economy will go through such cycles over a 40 year time period. However, the outlook to 2054-55 will not be driven by these cycles, but by the underlying trends in population, participation and productivity.

While this is to an extent true as short term cycles oscillate around the longer term trends, the forecasters do nothing to identify what will drive growth in the Australian economy for the next thirty years.

The IGR’s greatest failure is in not considered the structure of the economy and the workforce over the next three decades is its greatest flaw. How people are working and where they are working is going to shape the nation and government revenues.

Compounding the report’s failure to at least attempt to forecast the workforce’s changing structure, the authors’ projection of unemployment are almost an insult.

estimated-australian-unemployment

As this blog has pointed out constantly over recent years, the workforce is undergoing fundamental shifts in the face of automation, robotics and intelligent systems. While it may turn out five percent is the average rate of unemployment over the period we can expect major fluctuations in the workforce as industries are dislocated.

In turn those fluctuations are going to affect government revenues and expenditures, not to mention their influences on home prices and the superannuation balances of those facing extended periods of unemployment.

A flawed roadmap

Ultimately the Inter-Generational Report is of little use in helping policy makers and the community plan for the challenges and opportunities facing Australia over the next thirty years.

Like the Australia in the Asian Century report it’s a curiously selective document that fails to consider most of the external factors that are going to shape societies over the upcoming decades.

Just as the Australia in the Asian Century paper is a dated and discredited document a mere three years after its release shows the calibre of advice being given to the nation’s leaders.

While Doctor Karl is exactly right that we can’t know where we’re heading unless we know where we are, this report fails to acknowledge how Australia came to be in its privileged position and what the opportunities are in a radically changing world.

It may well be that The Lucky Country stays lucky to the middle of this century and caps off two hundred years of good fortune. If that does happen though it will not be because of this flawed and shallow report.

The authors of the Intergenerational Report ducked the challenge of change.

Jan 282015
 
old farm equipment

Last week’s events in Canberra shows business can’t wait for the government to lead industry change. If you want to keep up with technology, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis many of my business clients were in trouble as banks tightened their lines of credit and consumers slammed their wallets shut. After a decade of running businesses, it was time to get a job.

The job I found was with the small business division of the New South Wales Government’s then Department of State and Regional Development where I quickly discovered how many companies and ‘entrepreneurs’ came looking to the government for money and leadership.

While there were some state government support programs available for exporting, high-tech and biotech businesses almost all of those approaching the Department were hopelessly unqualified for the assistance that was at best only involved marginal amounts of money.

The toughest part of my job was gently turning those people away without upsetting them too much. Often I failed and part of the reason for that was that many of those believed the government would take leadership in a changing digital world and fund ideas that would help the state’s and nation’s competitiveness.

I was reminded of my brief period as a public servant and the futile attempt for  with last week’s disasters for the Australian tech sector; the Prime Minister’s claim that social media is little more than digital graffiti and the still born announcement of a Chief Transformation Officer.

Last week’s announcement of Chief Transformation Officer who happens to have no budget – the UK office the local initiative is based upon received more than a hundred million dollars in the Brits’ last budget –  is probably the best indication of how far behind the ball Australian governments, particularly the Federal level, are in dealing with a changing economy.

A Chief Transformation, or Digital, Officer can be an important catalyst for change but to achieve that they have to have the support of the organisation’s leadership; if the CEO or minister isn’t on board then the CTO or CDO is doomed to irrelevance.

The Prime Minister’s blithe dismissal of social media as being digital graffiti over the weekend shows just how little support an office charged with managing the Australian government’s transition to digital services will get from the executive. The sad thing is none of the likely alternatives – on either side of politics – to the current Prime Minister seem to be any more across the changes facing governments in a connected century.

One good example of the profound changes we’re seeing is in agriculture; this feature on farming robots shows just how technology and automation is changing life on the land. These applications of robotics are going to affect every industry, including government.

As we’ve discussed before, if you want digital leadership then you’re going to have to provide it yourself . If you’re going to wait for the government, then times are going to overtake you. How are you facing the changes to your business and marketplace?

Dec 072014
 
commonwealth-bank-in-lockart-nsw

On Sunday the Murray Report into the Australian Financial System was handed down with a range of recommendations on ensuring the stability and future of the nation’s banking and finance institutions.

Choosing David Murray, the former CEO of the nation’s biggest bank, was controversial but it turns out he and his team have delivered a sensible overview of the opportunities, risks and challenges facing Australia’s financial sector and economy. Many of the recommendations though require a change in both the culture of banks and that of the country’s population towards investment and savings.

A key part of the review is identifying the lessons learned from the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 in an attempt to reduce the country’s vulnerability to external economic shocks and limit the taxpayers’ exposure to any consequential bank failures.

In proposing ways of strengthening the nation’s banks against similar future shocks The report identifies a cultural problem in the finance industry.

Culture of financial firms

Since the GFC, a persistent theme of international political and regulatory discourse has been the breakdown in financial firms’ behaviour in failing to balance risk and reward appropriately and in treating their customers unfairly. Without a culture supporting appropriate risk-taking and the fair treatment of consumers, financial firms will continue to fall short of community expectations. This may lead to ongoing political pressure for additional financial system regulation and the undermining of confidence and trust in the financial system.

Interestingly, exactly this sentiment is echoed by last week’s World Of Business on BBC Four where host Peter Day reported from the recent Drucker Forum spoke to various economists, bankers and market commentators.

Breaking the debt culture

A key point raised in Day’s story was best expressed by Gary Hamel, Management expert and professor at The London Business School who said; “I think what the global financial crisis revealed — in addition to a lot of mendacious bankers who had lost touch with their social role — was the fact we’d been sustaining living standards through debt. I think that overhang is still there.”

The Global Financial Crisis was a warning the late Twentieth century model of using debt to sustain living standards was coming to an end, of all the western countries Australians had been one of the most enthusiastic nations about using debt to underpin consumption and that debt obsession had allowed the nation to skirt the worst of the GFCs effects.

With personal debt still at astronomically high levels it’s unlikely Australia will be able to avoid the next global financial shock and part of Murray’s recommendations are aimed at making both the economy and the banking sector more resilient to those shocks.

A fall in income

For the bankers this means lending less money and stricter financial controls; it almost certainly will mean their incomes will fall and it will be harder for millions of Australians to borrow money for easy speculation in the property market.

Creating a more resilient economy will take a culture shift in more than just highly paid bank staff, it will require a change in the way all of us think.

Nov 212014
 
different technology standards like video cassettes cause problems

One of the irritations of being in Australia is the often insular and myopic view many of the nation’s business and community leaders have.

A consequence of that insularity is that business operates at a slower pace than in more competitive markets; there could be up to a five year lag between technologies being introduced in North America, Europe or East Asia and them being rolled out Down Under.

That lag creates an arbitrage opportunity for canny local investors, this post on the Investment Biker Analyst blog illustrates the thinking .

I’m not sure about the barriers to entry for potential competitors to Digivizer because part of my view as an investor since I got back to Australia is the way the markets geography has always insulated it from quick counter-punches. Think about the way the UK always seems to be the second place North American business rolls out it’s plans for sector domination. We’ve seen it over and over again. Australia on the other hand is well down the list as the market, while affluent is at 25million quite small. Also it’s a long way to come if you have to get on a plane . . . Oh, and besides that the “Aussies” can find us themselves without investing extra start-up capital.

Mike’s model is the standard for the Aussie start community; local entrepreneur looks at the hottest businesses in Silicon Valley, sets up a minimum viable copycat, pitches to investors who put money in on the hope of making a profitable exit to a dumb local player or to selling out to the market leader when they finally decide to set up an Australian operation.

Increasingly the second option isn’t working as the big player are either moving into the market quicker, which also screws the first exit option, or the locals are asking too much for their cheap knock offs.

As a consequence the local copycats are increasingly finding themselves stranded in the marketplace.

Quickflix is a good example of the local knock offs being stranded, having copied Netflix’s business model, the company has toddled along for a decade with its movie and entertainment delivery business and now faces Netflix starting an Aussie operation.

With a formidable competitor entering the marketplace, Quickflix is frantically trying to shore up its defenses, having made a $5.7 million capital raising and committing to cut costs.

One suspects though this will be nowhere near enough to build up defenses against Netflix, incumbent cable operator Foxtel, fellow steaming service Fetch TV or the bizarrely named and probably doomed Stan service setup by an uneasy coalition of fading old media companies.

In an increasingly connected world relying on the tyranny of distance to protect your business is a losing game, something that many Australian companies and investors are yet to learn.

Then again, as long as the coal trains keep running, maybe Australians don’t have to worry.

Aug 212014
 
crown-melcro-macau

A few days ago this site covered Patrick Chovanec’s views on the changes the world faces as China moves from an export focused economy to one that relies more on domestic consumption.

Chovanec highlighted that some industries will be winners — retailers for instance — while others such as property developers and exporting manufacturers will be losers.

It seems we can add casinos to that list of losers; the big gamblers aren’t spending money as their property collateral falls and the government tightens up on corruption.

As Quartz reports, Macau’s casinos have encountered their second consecutive quarter of revenue falls and gambling stocks are falling.

That’s bad news for Macau’s economy but it’s also not good for those who’ve hitched their fortunes to Chinese gamblers — Steve Wynn and James Packer are two people immediately spring to mind.

In the case of James Packer this is also bad news for the Australian economy as Packer’s Aussie casinos are increasingly focused on attracting Chinese ‘whales’.

For Sydney and the state of New South Wales, this is particularly bad news as the government gifted a prime site of land to build a new casino that was going to be the mainstay of the city’s tourism industry.

Not that Sydney is alone in its cargo cult like hope that building a casino will attract Chinese. In Northern Queensland, the struggling city of Cairns is pinning the future of its tourism industry on a massive complex in a flood mangrove swamp.

Should that project collapse it will be another example of the folly in believing Australia could ride on the back of a booming China for decades and staking everything on that belief.

In the 21st Century, business is more than just building a shiny object and hoping rich Chinese will come.

Aug 202014
 
hilton-hotel-digital-squatters.jpg

“My ambition is to only spend four or five hours in the office,” said Vodafone Australia CEO Iñaki Berroeta when asked at a lunch in Sydney today about how he would like to structure his working day.

For many Australians, this is becoming the reality of work as increasingly their job is following them home and into their social lives according to Microsoft’s Life On Demand white paper released this week.

The blurring of the lines between home and work is no surprise to small business owners, senior executives or those establishing a startup, however according to Microsoft this is becoming normal for the majority of workers.

In their paper, Microsoft found 30% of Australian workers are checking work emails on devices at home before they leave for work and 23% are doing work activities while they are socialising with their friends.

Overall, more than a quarter of Australians work from anywhere which has more than doubled in the last five years.

This is largely due to the rise of tablet computers and accessible wireless broadband. A direct consequence of this is nearly half of commuters work or study while on public transport.

Being able to work on the train, bus or tram is changing the usage of public transport with many commuters preferring to use the usually slower option (at least in Australia) over driving as it’s seen as more productive time. This is a cultural change that governments have been slow to understand.

Equally slow have been many businesses in understanding they have to deploy the tools that allow workers to be efficient while out of the office, this is the whole point of cloud services.

The workplace is changing as mobile internet becomes an expected part of society. How is your businesses catering to both your staff and customers’ needs in the age of the smartphone and tablet computer?