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?

Aug 192014
 
patrick-chovanec-china-economy

The problem facing commentators on the Chinese economy is a lack of clear narrative and the rest of the world needs to understand the story believes economist Patrick Chovanec.

Chovanec was speaking at Sydney University’s China Studies Centre last night on how the Chinese economy is shifting from being export lead to relying on domestic consumption, a process that isn’t without challenges.

“There’s a kind of schizophrenia about the Chinese economy,” says Chovanec who describes how the news swings from extremes of all good news to dire warnings. This, he believes, is because of a lack of understanding of the processes underpinning the country’s changing position.

Comparisons with Japan

China’s growth has been underpinned by export lead growth model which is a very good way for a poor country to become rich quickly but reaches limits when the exporters’ markets become saturated and the buyer countries can no longer buy.

This was the dilemma Japan hit in the 1990s and Chovanec sees similarities which happened at an earlier stage of China’s economic development because of its far greater size.

In another respect is the cost of labour which sees the country in the same position as Japan in the 1960s where where manufacturing started moving to Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong due to high Japanese wages.

The problem of soaring labour rates is covered by Peter Cai in today’s China Spectator which includes this chart showing how selected emerging economies wages compare.

eui_graph_of_east_asia_labor_costs

Cai points out manufacturing is already shifting out of China with Vietnam being a favourite destination.

This has already had an impact on companies’ decisions to manufacture items in China. In 2000, China made 40 per cent of all Nike shoes, while Vietnam made 13 per cent. Fast-forward to 2013, and China’s production share was 30 per cent, Vietnam’s increased to 42 per cent.

Vietnam however has its own problems and Cai sees China having advantages in having superior infrastructure, integrated supply chains, and a better educated workforce that will slow relocations.

Building productivity

Chovanec is more optimistic about the Chinese economy seeing bringing sectors like agriculture and medicine up to Western standards of productivity as potential growth areas for China.

“Having worked in China for many years, I see a lot of productivity gains across the Chinese economy.”

Many of the earlier productivity gains were low hanging fruit – labour was cheap making it easy to improve productivity. As workers become higher paid, that low hanging fruit is gone with reforms harder to implement along with many more affluent interests who would be losers in a rebalanced economy.

Among the losers in the transition from today’s economy would be property developers and export focused manufacturers while winners would be retailers and service industries.

The switch to consumption

In his view, China is capable of making the transition: “The most precious global commodity is domestic demand,” Chovanec says. “China has that cushion to invest in the face of fall in consumption, that doesn’t have to mean a fall in Chinese living standards.”

For the rest of the world the question Chovanec believes has to be asked is what will that consumption led Chinese economy look like and what does it mean for those with a stake in China?

“Other countries are going to be winners and losers from China’s rebalancing. You have to think about what you want to be.”

Australia has a particularly difficult problem in the face of a rebalanced China, Chovanec believes.

“The problem for Australia is that the country has been the supplier to China’s investment boom. If China’s investment boom comes to an end then Australia no longer has no market.”

Optimistism and the future

Despite the challenges Chovanec is optimistic about China. “My experience in going to China in 1986 is that the Chinese government and Communist Party deserve a lot of credit for getting out of the way.”

The success of China’s economy over the last thirty years has been driven from the grass roots; “this was a bottom up process, not a top down model.” Chovanec says.

Unlike many of the populist writers on China, not to mention more hysterical politicians and commentators, Chovanec provides a nuanced view on the underlying dynamics and the evolution of the Chineses economy.

That we need to consider a world where the Chinese economy is very different is an important message and one that policy makers and business people need to think very carefully about.

Aug 142014
 
Enlighten electorates PH 2011

In mid 2003 I put an employment ad online for two computer technicians. I was expecting a healthy response as it was the depths of the computer industry’s depression following the tech wreck two years earlier.

A healthy response is what I got. Two thousand job applications came in; it took me a week to wade through them.

I was reminded of that story with the Federal government’s recent thought bubble requiring those on unemployment benefits to apply for forty jobs a months.

Like most of the business community I was appalled at the thought of being buried under hundreds of pointless job applications that served nothing but to fulfil a Liberal Party staffer’s ideological fantasies.

Within a week an Adelaide grandfather had come up with the idea of a jobseeker app that would automate the task which shows just how far out of touch both sides of politics have become with the modern world, particularly the digital economy.

The Australian political classes’ lack of understanding of technology has been on painful display over the last week with the Federal government’s fumbling over proposed data retention laws; one gets the impression George Brandis needs other people to use the toaster for him, let alone be trusted to use a computer without assistance.

This incomprehension of what’s driving the modern economy among our political leaders is no longer a joke – when the Prime Minister himself proudly states ‘I am not a geek’, it’s clear this nation is being led away from having any serious role in the 21st Century.

In fairness, this is not the fault of any single party or individual; it’s the result of Australians – particularly Australian businesses – voting like sheep for the blue team or the red team at every election.

As a consequence, Australian politics is now dominated by comfortable, arrogant and somewhat dim careerists who have little in skills beyond being able to float to the top of the shallow, fetid sewers that are the party political machines.

This is our fault and it is where Treasurer Joe Hockey is right in bemoaning how business won’t stand up and strongly lead the nation’s reform agenda.

Unfortunately for Joe, a true reform agenda is about making the nation more competitive in an era where the world’s economy is radically changing. The old ‘ship out resources and watch your property go up in price’ model that has sustained the Aussie economy is not a recipe for long term success.

If Australia is going to compete in the Twenty-First Century then we are going to have to invest in modern training, education and capital equipment while putting in the tax and social security systems that reward genuine entrepreneurs and job creators over property speculators and corporate ticket clippers.

Right now Joe, and his friends in both the Liberal and Labor parties, are doing exactly the opposite.

Joe’s right. We need to voice our concerns loudly. We also need to demand our politicians at least take the time to understand the basics of the technologies that are radically changing today’s world.

Next time you see a politician, of either colour, try to get five minutes of their time to explain how technology is changing your business. Hopefully it might make them pause before the next thought bubble.

Aug 112014
 
Apple launches a new smaller iPad

Today Australian electronics retailer JB Hi Fi released its annual results. They confirm what’s been becoming apparent over the last year that tablet computer sales seem to have peaked.

A plateauing of tablet sales is bad news for retailers like JB whose stock price fell by 8% on the news.

It’s not surprising that tablet computer sales have peaked as the growth had been spectacular and, unlike PCs of a decade ago, there isn’t an obvious five year replacement cycle.

That the old PC industry business model doesn’t apply to tablets is why Apple is focusing on other revenue sources like the App Store and internet of things plays such as HomeKit and HealthKit.

Once again, the industry leaders are finding they have to pivot to stay up with a rapidly evolving market.

The other notable point from JB’s management was that Australian consumer confidence is tanking, which might indicate the economy is entering its first recession in twenty years.

If it is true that the Aussie economy is entering a recession, then it might be time for the adults to take charge in a very immature government. Some of the Liberal Party’s pampered princelings may have to start earning their salaries soon.

Jul 092014
 
barry-mckenzie-australian-politics

An interesting observation about life in Australia over the last twenty years is how the nation decided to look backwards and become insular in many fields.

One of the manifestations of this insularity is the sensitivity towards outside criticism by many of the nation’s business and political leaders.

Today saw an example with two Members of Parliament on the ABC’s The World Today program responding to criticism from a former Thatcher government minister, Lord Deben, over the government’s climate change policies.

GEORGE CHRISTENSEN STATEMENT (voiceover): The last time I checked, the House of Lords, that undemocratic anachronism in a modern British democracy, and its Privy Council, had no jurisdiction over Australia, thank God.

Yet Lord Deben has waded into Australian affairs, whingeing about what we are doing regarding climate change when we contribute less than 2 per cent to total global carbon dioxide emissions.

If this whingeing pom thinks the carbon tax was actually doing something for the planet, can he please advise us lowly commoners how many degrees the Earth would have cooled to because of the carbon tax?

IAN MACDONALD: I think the Australian Government and Australian policy should be run by Australians not by some retired English Lord.

MacDonald’s and Christensen’s sensitivity towards criticism from a ‘whingeing pom’ is notable – as is their contempt for the British House of Lords despite being members of a political party that supports the English Queen as Australia’s head of state.

On their own, the ramblings of a pair of insular rural apparatchiks doesn’t count for much but the same hostility towards educated outsiders was on show two days earlier when US economist Joseph Stiglitz appeared on ABC Television’s Q&A program.

An early audience question to Stiglitz set the scene;

Thank you for taking my question. My question is for Professor. Sorry, excuse me. What gives you the right, as an American, to come to Australia and criticise our budget, especially the $7 co-contribution payment, which is capped at $70 per year?

The ‘what gives you a right as an American?’ theme was gleefully picked up by Professor Judith Sloan, the token government apologist on the panel – faux news balance beings as alive and well in Australia as much as anywhere else in the world – who dismissed many of Stiglitz’s observations on the Australian economy as being the misguided views of an ill informed outsider.

Dismissing the whingeing poms and arrogant yanks harks back to an earlier time in Australia’s development. It may well be the nation has gone back to the days of Barry Mckenzie where Down Under is the working man’s paradise that the rest of the world desperately wants to be part of.

Strangely, the immigration officials in that 1972 movie could well pass for today’s Australian politicians.

As it turned out, the 1970s were a tough decade for Australia as it looked like the luck had run out. It may well turn out the Twenty-First Century is a lot tougher for the Lucky Country.

 

May 182014
 
ferry-sign-palm-beach-to-ettalong

Newcastle, a 160km north of Sydney is a drive easily done in less than two hours but for masochists and commuters there’s the three hour train trip affectionately known as the shitkansen by the locals.

The train trip itself has parts that are genuinely spectacular as it winds through the hills and rivers of the New South Wales’ Central Coast, albeit at speeds that are slower than in the 1933 timetables.

One of the reasons for the slow and spectacular trip is the Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay and that presents a natural barrier between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle.

That natural barrier also presents an opportunity for a third, prettier route between the two cities using the private ferry service that runs between Central and Sydney’s northernmost suburb of Palm Beach.

Catching the slow train

slow-train-newcastle-sydney-shitkansen

Starting from the original Newcastle Railway Station, the trains run twice an hour during the day with one ‘fast’ service taking two-and-a-half hours and slow trips taking three.

interior-of-newcastle-sydney-slow-train

Inside the trains things are relatively comfortable although quite grubby. The purple colour scheme are the refurbished older carriages, the original 1970s ones being in a fairly awful green. The news trains feature a modern vandal proof colour scheme although the seats are more uncomfortable for a three hour journey.

Another weakness with the train service is the spartan facilities, apart from graffiti covered toilets there are absolutely no passenger amenities so bringing your own food and drink is essential along with fully charged electronics as there are no power outlets available.

closing-newcastle-sydney-railway-line

Amazingly, rather than improving the railway service to the state’s second biggest city the government plans to abandon the last five kilometers and replace the trains with buses. If there was one example of the 1960s thinking that dominates Australian politics, this venal and ill-thought out proposal is a wonderful example.

The Central Coast

While the parts of the ride between Sydney and Newcastle are spectacular, the stretch south to the Central Coast are the boring parts featuring little more than housing estates and low grade scrub until arriving at Gosford where the train runs alongside Brisbane Water until Woy Woy.

woy-woy-shopping-centre

On alighting the train at Woy Woy, the immediate impression is a town that won’t win any heritage awards with its neglected main street and an anonymous shopping mall. All of which is a pity as its location between the hills and waterways is sensational.

Sadly there’s little reason to hang around so getting a bus to Ettalong is the best thing to do.

bus-woy-woy-to-ettalong

From Woy’s Woy’s dismal transport interchange – a fate that waits Newcastle’s truncated railway service – buses leave every few minutes for the 15 minute journey to Ettalong. If you have a Sydney transport travelpass then your ticket is valid on the private bus service.

Ettalong

If you’re stopping for lunch or a break during the journey, Ettalong isn’t a bad choice with a lot more coffee bars, restaurants and bakeries than the rather depressing choices at Woy Woy.

Since this writer’s last visit to the town three years ago when its centre was struggling with many empty shops; its fortunes have improved dramatically and it’s gone back to being a good destination for a day trip in itself.

Catching the ferry

ettalong-palm-beach-ferry

The ferry itself is a twenty minute trip including a brief stop at the village of Wagstaffe. Its route winds through the sandbanks of Brisbane Water before getting to the open water of Broken Bay.

lion-island-hawkesbury-ettalong-to-palm-beach-ferry

Midway across the bay, the ferry passes Lion Island and the mouth of the Hawkesbury River before entering Pittwater and the Northern Suburbs of Sydney.

Palm Beach

arrival-at-palm-beach-ferry-wharf

The wharf at Palm Beach is a classic wooden structure in a lovely location. Across the carpark and road is a general store, the Barranjoey House restaurant and a fish and chip shop.

For a takeaway meal, the fish and chip shop is nicer than the general store but you can enjoy either at the park alongside the ferry wharf.

For a sit down meal, Barrenjoey House has an expensive restaurant along with a bar with an outdoor seating area if you’re looking for a cold drink while waiting for a bus to Sydney.

The bus to Sydney

l90-bus-from-sydney-to-palm-beach

The bus back to Sydney takes about 90 minutes. It isn’t the most comfortable journey however the views of the city’s gorgeous Northern Beaches are worthwhile if you’re sittiing on the left side when heading south.

Once past Long Reef, the journey is mainly suburbia except when crossing the Spit and Harbour Bridges. A more interesting option that will add another hour to the journey is to switch buses at Warringah Mall and travel to the city via the Manly Ferry.

Taking the Slowkansen from Newcastle to Sydney isn’t the trip for anyone in a hurry with it adding up to two hours to an already slow three train hour journey but it’s a lot more interesting than the regular way to travel between the two cities.