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?

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.