May 292016

Staid, conservative Switzerland is one of the first developed countries to seriously discuss a universal guaranteed income.

While it appears the proposition will fail, the fact it is being debated indicates an acknowledgement of changing attitudes towards income and social security.

In many respects governments – particularly in the English speaking world – have ignored the personal social consequences of their economic policies over the last thirty years that have seen working people’s and increasingly the middle classes’ incomes fall and become more precarious.

Now those costs are being acknowledged in the face of increasing concentration of wealth with politicians and business leaders being forced to confront far less stable and cohesive societies.

It may be that the discussion of a universal guaranteed income forms the foundations of a new social compact that defined the mid Twentieth Century, increasingly it looks like something is needed in increasingly divided economies.

While a unified guaranteed income may not be the solution to addressing the economic and social needs of a substantial proportion of a workforce that is under employed and poorly paid, a discussion on what we can do needs to be had. At least the Swiss have started this.

May 262016
cheap robots cleaning computers

Taiwan’s Foxcomm, the world’s biggest electronics manufacturer, has announced it will replace 60,000 Chinese workers with robots.

As the cost of robotics falls and the price of Chinese labour increases, the economics of automating low skilled work increasingly looks attractive.

While automating manual work is process that’s been familiar for three centuries, this automation is now heading into the management suite as artificial intelligence increasingly becomes a viable alternative for lower level supervisory roles.

The workplace of the future is going to look very different to today’s, all of us need to be asking if we have the skills that will be needed by it.

May 142016
Future proofing your business free webinar

One of the challenges we face in looking at the economy’s future is going lies in identifying what tomorrow’s industries will be.

I’ve spent the day at the 500Startups pitch day at the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley listening to the startups on the program making their investment spiels and in many ways those businesses are a glimpse of the future economy.

While not all of these businesses will survive, and many will pivot over time, they do indicate directions the economy is taking.

The question though is what sectors will drive jobs growth over the next quarter century and whether those industries will pay enough for workers and their families to survive, let alone keep a consumerist economy ticking along.

May 082016
The Western World’s demographic chickens come home to roost. Investor John Mauldin shows nine charts that illustrate the low growth dilemma facing central banks.
For governments to stimulate economies, they are going to have to find a way to increase productivity and the spending power of populations. The current remedy of pumping cheap money into the economy isn’t enough to do this.
One concerning message for the tech sector in these figures is that simply boosting productivity will not be enough to boost the economy. In fact widespread automation of existing jobs may make the problem exponentially worse.
The statistic that indicates younger workers are dropping out of the workforce to look after older relatives should be particularly worrying for economists and a warning to politicians that thirty years of the neo-Liberal model espousing smaller governments and reduced public services now threatens to change the political dynamic – something that the rise of Donald Trump is also a symptom of.
For policymakers, the question is how to employ people in jobs that give them enough income to support their families without ringing up huge debts.
Interestingly, much of the current tech mania is based upon the same credit based consumerism that’s driven the last thirty years of western economic growth. Apps like Uber, AirBnB and the countless delivery apps are good examples of businesses based on happy consumers jamming more on their credit cards.
The era of 1980s thinking is over, we’re going to have to rethink what policies encourage employment and wealth creation along with seriously considering what capitalism is going to look like in the mid-21st Century.
Apr 242016

In the face of a volatile oil price and falling reserves, Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince is looking at pivoting the economy to knowledge based industries.

That is a hard task in the face of Saudi Arabia’s religious, cultural and work cultures. This is not a society easily dragged into the 21st Century.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans seem even more daunting when Richard Florida’s 3Ts of the Creative Class are considered – Talent, Technology and Tolerance.

It may well be easy to buy in the technology, but attracting the right talent to Saudi Arabia is going to be hard particularly given it is one of the most intolerant societies on the planet.

Saudi Arabia though has plenty of challenges, so a few big bets may be in order. Tolerance though might be the deal breaker.

Apr 182016
Innovation index versus GDP

After two complacent decades Australia’s pivot away from a mining and housing  based economy is promising to painful. In anticipation of the punishment to come, the nation’s political and business leaders have devised a safe word they hope will ease the pain — innovation.

That safe word was desperately repeated as a group of “innovation rock stars” gathered last week at Sydney’s Knowledge Nation summit, billed as bringing together the nation’s leaders to drive the implementation of the Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Knowledge Nation showed that despite having a safe word Australia’s Anglo-Saxon, male dominated elites aren’t prepared for an economic pivot and true change in the nation will have to be a grass roots movement led by small business and community groups.

A lack of diversity

Notable in the selection of “key leaders from the innovation, science and technology ecosystem, including entrepreneurs, business leaders, investors, researchers and scientists, and policymakers” was the lack of diversity.

A look of the speaker list showed only four of the fifteen speakers being women and only one of the 15 not being from an Anglo-Saxon background.

One of the baffling things about modern Australian is the how few from non-Anglo groups feature among the ranks of the business, politics or media leaders. Yet Australia’s greatest success has been in integrating the successive immigration waves over the late Twentieth Century.

A visitor to Australia could be forgiven for not noticing the country’s diverse population as the media, politics and business is dominated by those of British heritage. For the country, this is a tragic wasted opportunity and was reflected in the line up of ‘innovation rockstars.’

Disjointed government

The political ‘leadership’ also reflected that lack of diversity with three Federal government ministers — all men and no opposition, state or local figures — lined up to recite the grab bag of thought bubbles that are what now passes as policy in Australian government.

Ministers offered succession of turgid recitals of disjointed programs which do little to address Australia’s structural barriers towards innovative businesses or the wholesale defunding of education institutions although the Innovation Minister’s snarling response to an academic’s question about R&D spending told much about their defensive posture.

The political ‘leaders’ illustrated a key problem in the nation’s pivot. The long term failure of consistent planning across portfolios means no Australian investor, entreprenuer or student can have any confidence in government policies over a five or ten year horizon when policies barely survive one ministerial thought bubble.

Overall though the biggest gap in the Knowledge Nation summit was its focus on government — the real weakness however lies in the corporate sector where inward facing service industries are distributing more on dividends than in research and development.

Inward focus

That inward focus, articulated well by CEO Matt Barrie who described how almost all of the nation’s twenty biggest corporations are domestically focused service businesses, is the real problem facing Australia as it tries to pivot its economy away from being dependent on the fading Chinese commodities boom and domestic property speculation.

A lack of globally competitive businesses leaves the nation exposed as most employment is in organisations that are unable to survive outside a relatively protected domestic market. It also means these companies don’t see the need to invest in research and development as their fat profits are dependent upon market dominance rather than innovative products and services.

Barrie also had the only challenging idea in a day that promised many of them, the somewhat tired trope of abolishing Australian state governments.

Government focus

It’s quite touching that Barrie sees Australian Federal governments as being havens of intelligent, long term policy making when all the data indicates otherwise. The very idea of Canberra running education given its flip flopping on the Gonski reforms, confused policies on university funding and ideological obsession with funding elite private schools is, quite frankly, derisory.

That the most challenging idea out of the day was the old chestnut of flattening Australian government speaks volumes of the dearth of original thinking coming out of the nation’s business and political leadership.

In truth, Australian business needs to be snapped out of its inward rent seeking focus while the household sector needs to be weaned off speculating on residential property. These require real policy reform and cultural change.

Little leadership

Knowledge Nation showed there no understanding, let alone no appetite for that reform or change from Australia’s elites and as the Australian economy starts to feel the pain from twenty years of complacency we can expect the safe word of ‘innovation’ to be increasingly used by the nation’s elites.

The lesson from Knowledge Nation is Australia’s economic pivot will come from the grassroots. It will be startups, small businesses, community groups and local governments that will lead the change. Australians waiting for government support and corporate leadership will be waiting a long time.

In meantime, squealing ‘innovation’ at every sign of economic pain will be occupying much of the time of Australia’s comfortable Anglo elites.

Apr 082016

For all the talk of digital disruption, who would have thought the old fashioned steel industry would be the industry causing the greatest upheaval in today’s economy?

Globally the steel industry is in trouble. In China, the UK and Australia steelmakers are facing a painful time as chronic overcapacity bites.

Beyond the immediate domestic problems of having a major part of its manufacturing industry shut down, Australia faces an added problem as the nation’s economic policies were based on a never ending Chinese demand for iron ore and coal.

OECD “Excess Capacity in the Global Steel Industry" (2015)

OECD “Excess Capacity in the Global Steel Industry” (2015)

The impending collapse of Bohai steel shows the Chinese industrial boom is now in the past and the onus on Beijing’s rulers is to stimulate a domestic services economy.

For the UK, the collapse of their steel industry adds further uncertainty to a nation that’s already putting its global role at stake with the referendum to move out of the European Union.

Should Britain turn away from Europe, they will need to find some compelling reasons to be competitive in the global economy. Fantasies of some sort of Anglo-centric Commonwealth of Nations won’t be enough to sustain the Little Englanders and their high cost of living.

In fact, the British problems of high costs and decades of underinvestment are common across the English speaking world – although Canada, New Zealand and Australia are particularly at risk in the current economic climate given their dependency on commodities and Chinese markets.

That Chinese curse of may you live in interesting times is proving true again, we are about to enter a fascinating economic period. Our business and political leaders, along with our resilience, are about to be tested. The steel industry is the first test.