Showing posts with label manufacturing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label manufacturing. Show all posts

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why the jobs will come, though we can't say where

Take the news that Toyota is joining Holden and Ford in ceasing to make cars in Australia, then add the news that unemployment is now the highest it has been in a decade and you see why everyone's asking the obvious question: where will the new jobs be coming from?

Bill Shorten has joined others in demanding to see the Abbott government's ''jobs plan''. If the government has no plan to ensure there are new jobs to replace the thousands being lost, particularly in manufacturing, what hope is there?

Sorry to be snippy, but although all this may be the obvious question, it's actually a stupid question. Has everyone suddenly turned socialist? Do they imagine we live in a planned economy?

It amazes me that people who spend their entire lives living in a market economy don't have a clue about how market economies work.

Well, let me give you one: market economies are driven by market forces, not governments.

I'm no libertarian and, these days, I'm a poor apology for an economic rationalist. I don't believe there's such a thing as a ''free market''. I believe market economies are the creation of government and that any government with half a brain knows its job is to provide guidelines for the market and ensure it doesn't run off the rails - as happened in the global financial crisis.

But, by the same token, it ought to be obvious that the vast majority of decisions made in a market economy are made by private sector producers and consumers, each acting in what they imagine to be their own interests.

In other words, the greatest single factor driving the economy forward is self-interest: business people trying to make a buck (and make more bucks than last year) and households spending about 90 per cent of their income, trying to get maximum satisfaction for their money.

Those silly people demanding to see the government's ''jobs plan'' and concluding that, unless it successfully pursues such a plan, few if any future jobs will be created, seem to assume the economy works like a glove puppet: unless the government sticks its hand in the puppet and moves it, nothing happens.

If you want to know in which particular industries or occupations the government plans to ensure new jobs are created - which winners the government has picked - the answer is: none. It's leaving the market to determine all that.

But it does have a ''jobs plan'' of sorts. It's a two-step plan. Step one: leave the primary responsibility for ensuring the economy keeps growing and creating jobs to the Reserve Bank. Step two: get started on ensuring we don't end up destroying jobs the way the Europeans and Americans have been by getting the budget back under control, while ensuring this ''fiscal consolidation'' doesn't weaken demand and so discourage employment in the next few years.

So what's the Reserve's ''jobs plan''? You ought to know. It's to encourage borrowing and spending on consumption and investment - and, in the process, counter the employment-dampening effect of our still-too-high exchange rate - by keeping interest rates at near-record lows. With any luck, our dollar will fall further as the US Federal Reserve phases out its policy of ''quantitative easing'' (creating money).

What makes our Reserve so confident doing this will, before too many months have passed, create lots of additional jobs and get the unemployment rate heading back down towards 5 per cent? Well, apart from orthodox economic theory, decades of experience. It's worked every other time, why won't it work now?

As for the government itself, there is more it could be doing to enhance the economy's job-generating capacity. One is to borrow as much as necessary to provide our businesses with adequate public infrastructure and ensure existing infrastructure is used efficiently through such things as appropriate pricing.

Another is to ensure our education and training system - from early childhood to postgraduate - is doing enough, and is effective enough, in raising the skills of our labour force. As part of this, the Gonski reforms are a good start towards increasing the employability of kids at the bottom end.

And, recognising the market failure that leads to inadequate private investment in research and development, making sure economy-wide government incentives are adequate and effective.

There may be a role for ''industry policy'', though I've yet to see programs that aren't just disguised protection of favoured industries, amounting to propping up losers rather than picking winners. Most ''innovation'' programs have been a sham.

I've spent my career being asked where the jobs will come from. It's something people ask after every severe recession. It's a symptom of the pessimism that grips the public mood at the bottom of the business cycle (in reaction to the equally unreal mood of optimism that drives booms).

It's a question I've never been able to answer. But having lived through three severe recessions my answer is now: ask me again in five years' time and I'll look up the figures and tell you precisely where they came from.

I'm supremely confident they'll come because we've never yet had a downturn from which we failed to recover, with total employment ending much higher than before the downturn.

Since the last recession, total employment is now 3.6 million jobs above its peak in June 1990, an increase of 45 per cent, with full-time jobs accounting for almost half the increase.

In terms of occupations, the biggest growth has been among managers, professionals and associate professionals, with the weakest growth in semi-skilled occupations.

I don't know where the jobs will come from this time, but I'll give you a hint: virtually all of them will be in the services sector.

How can I be so sure? That's where virtually all additional jobs have come from for the past 50 years.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why the end of car-making isn't such a terrible thing

One advantage of getting old is meant to be a greater sense of perspective. You've seen a lot of change over your lifetime and seeing a bit more doesn't convince you the world is coming to an end. Unfortunately, getting old can also leave you convinced every change is for the worst as the world goes to the dogs.

A lot of people have been disturbed by the news that Toyota's closure as a car maker in 2017 will bring an end to the manufacture of cars in Australia, with the loss of many jobs also in the parts industry.

But my guess is the most disturbed observers will be the old, not the young. I doubt if many young people had been hoping for a career in the car industry. And I know that few people - young or old - buy Australian-made cars.

That's not a cause for guilt, but for being sensible. To regret the passing of an industry whose products few of us wanted is just sentimentality, making no economic sense.

A lot of the dire predictions we're hearing won't come to pass. However many jobs the vested interests are claiming will be lost, they're almost certainly exaggerating.

That's particularly true of the alleged flow-on effects, which are often calculated on the assumption that any money which would have been spent buying the product in question will now not be spent on anything.

I've never believed car making was of special strategic significance to advanced technology. Every industry claims to be special. And I've heard the claim that this spells "the end of manufacturing in Australia" too many times in the past to believe it.

You think 35,000 is a huge number of jobs to be lost? It isn't. It's 0.3 per cent of all jobs, equivalent to about two months' net job creation in a normal year. You think this could put the economy into recession? We're overdue for another recession but this isn't nearly big enough to be the main cause of one. Even if it was, it wouldn't happen until 2017.

It's true some of the workers who lose their jobs won't be able to find alternative jobs, and some that do won't find jobs as well paid. But far more will find jobs than many of us imagine. Naturally, it's important for governments to give affected workers a lot of help to retrain and relocate.

Some people assume an imported car creates no jobs. Far from it. Are you able to buy an imported car for anything like the price at which it crosses our docks? Of course not. Most of the gap between the landed price and the retail price goes on creating jobs for Australian workers in our extensive car-distribution industry.

The fact is the sale, fuelling, servicing and repair of cars has always involved far more jobs than the making of cars and car parts has.

I've been responding to people's fears about the decline in manufacturing for almost as long as I've been a journalist because manufacturing's share of total employment began declining well before I joined Fairfax in 1974.

The truth is the industrial structure of our economy has been changing slowly but continuously since the First Fleet. A lot of angst has been generated over that time but the fact remains we're infinitely more prosperous today than we were then - with a much higher proportion of the population in the paid workforce.

The changing mix of industries is actually a primary cause of our greater affluence. Countries that try to prevent their industry structure changing are the ones that stop getting richer.

To put the latest developments into context, let me show you the bigger picture of Australia's economic history, drawing on a Reserve Bank article. Throughout much of the 19th century, agriculture accounted for about a third of the nation's total production, with mining bigger than manufacturing.

By Federation, agriculture provided about 25 per cent of total employment, with manufacturing providing 15 per cent and mining about 8 per cent. By the 1950s, however, manufacturing had grown to 25 per cent, agriculture was falling towards 10 per cent and mining was down to 1 per cent.

So as the shares of agriculture and mining declined, manufacturing's rose. But from the 1960s, manufacturing's share of total employment started falling from its peak of about 25 per cent to be down to about 8 per cent today.

Remember, however, that an industry's declining share of the total doesn't necessarily mean it's getting smaller in absolute size. Although today agriculture accounts for only about 3 per cent of the total, the quantity of rural goods we produce has never been higher. And manufacturing's output began falling only in recent years.

So an industry's share falls mainly because other industries are growing faster. And, with the exception of mining, the sector that has provided virtually all the growth is services. It accounted for half our jobs even in the 19th century, but from the 1950s its share took off, rising sharply to about 85 per cent today. Most of the growth has been in health, education and a multitude of "business services".

Many older people find the relative decline of manufacturing disturbing but I can't see why. Services sector jobs tend to be cleaner, safer, more skilled, more value-adding, more satisfying and better paid.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Holden's fate will have little effect on economy

Contrary to appearances, the economy is not falling apart nor has the Abbott government taken leave of its senses.

The threat to the economy from Holden's decision to cease making cars has been greatly exaggerated by those with axes to grind - the opposition, the motor vehicle union and other industry apologists, plus the overexcited media.

The greatest threat comes not from what happens to the car industry - nor from Qantas' plan to lay off 1000 workers - but from the risk that all the talk of job losses could leave people in industries far removed from the troubled sector with an exaggerated impression of their chances of losing their own jobs, prompting them to become more cautious in their spending and housing decisions.

There is no denying the Abbott government is off to a rocky start, with its backing and filling over the Gonski education reforms, its ruminations over continued Australian ownership of Qantas, and its refusal to permit the foreign takeover of GrainCorp casting doubt over Tony Abbott's election-night claim that Australia is now ''open for business''.

What we have had from Abbott is clunkiness. It's been hard to detect the hand of a government that knows what it is doing and where it is heading, let alone one that can articulate its destination and reasons for wanting to take us there.

But its most controversial decision so far - to decline to keep paying the protection money demanded to defer General Motors' departure from production in Australia - offers hope that this is a government with the courage to give genuine leadership, to make the unpopular decisions needed to secure our economic future.

If we want the economy to return to a healthier rate of growth, with rising job opportunities, the answer is for our businesses to find new and better ways to make profits, not for them to become ever more reliant on government subsidies.

It is for us to face up to, and adapt to, a rapidly changing world economy, not use taxpayers' money to try to prevent change, eventually turning our economy into an industrial museum.

If we want the federal budget to be returned to balance without huge hikes in taxation, part of the answer is to stop providing welfare to industries as well as people.

It is understandable for older Australians to be sentimental about the end of car making by our first car maker - even though most of us stopped buying locally made Holdens many moons ago, just as most of us have stopped using Qantas to fly overseas.

How much tax are you prepared to pay for sentimental reasons?

It is also understandable for older Australians to worry about the decline of manufacturing. If we stop making things, where will the jobs come from?

Employment in manufacturing has been falling since the early 1970s, during which time the workforce has doubled. Manufacturing now accounts for only about 8 per cent of total employment.

Do you really believe the remaining 92 per cent of us have phoney, inconsequential jobs? The big jobs growth has been in education, health, community and business services. Where will the jobs come from? That's where. The same thing is happening in all the rich countries.

The prospect is for the rate of unemployment to keep creeping up next year until the effect of record low interest rates causes spending on consumption, home building and business investment to recover and take the place of the now-declining investment in new mines.

What happens in car-making will have a negligible effect on what happens to unemployment everywhere except Adelaide. For a start, few jobs will be lost until the plants close in 2016 and 2017.

It's planned that 2900 jobs will go from Holden, with a greater flow-on to the parts-makers. But car and component manufacturing account for only about 0.4 per cent of total employment.

Even the end of local car-making wouldn't mean the end of cars. Saul Eslake of Bank of America Merrill Lynch reminds us there are five times as many people employed in the wholesaling, retailing and maintenance of cars as are employed building them.

Car-making ended in Sydney in the 1980s. Steel-making ended in Newcastle in 1999. Since then, both cities have not only survived, but prospered.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Pain hits business before it hits the budget

As we approach the budget next week we're hearing a lot about how the strangely weak growth in nominal gross domestic product has hit tax collections, particularly from company tax.

But we're hearing a lot less about what this implies is happening to the "real" economy.

What's causing nominal GDP to be so weak - weaker than real GDP - is that although the prices of our mineral exports have fallen a fair bit, the dollar hasn't also fallen, as it was expected to. This means we're getting the worst of all worlds.

The miners are getting lower prices, but still losing as much from the high dollar. The other export and import-competing industries - farmers, manufacturers, tourist operators and others - who gained little from the resource boom are still being robbed of their international price competitiveness when they could have expected to be getting a bit of relief by now.

If company tax collections aren't growing as strongly as had been expected, this must be because corporate profits are weak.

In fact, the national accounts version of corporate profits ("gross operating surplus") has fallen in nominal terms for five quarters in a row and by 4 per cent over the year to December.

So company profits are being squeezed - which is really only what you'd expect when the dollar's been so high for so long. Even so, it helps explain why businesses are so unhappy and blaming the Labor government for their troubles.

But the consumer price index for the March quarter showed puzzling things are happening to a sector you'd expect to benefit from a high dollar: retailing.

It showed that whereas the retail prices of "non-tradeables" - goods and services not able to be traded internationally - rose by a hefty 1.3 per cent in the quarter and 4.2 per cent over the year to March, the retail prices of "tradeables" fell by 1.2 per cent in the quarter and 0.2 per cent over the year.

This is further evidence manufacturing and tourism are under a lot of pressure.

But it's also a puzzle because it's only when the dollar is rising that you would expect the prices of tradeables to be falling. As Paul Bloxham of HSBC bank has observed, the Australian dollar has been broadly steady for more than two years.

According to the CPI, retail furniture prices fell 6.8 per cent in the quarter and 2.3 per cent over the year.

Household textile prices fell by 6.7 per cent and 4.3 per cent. Appliance prices fell by 2.5 per cent and 4.4 per cent.

Retail prices of audio-visual items fell 4.7 per cent and 13.5 per cent, while overseas holiday prices fell by 5.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent.

Michael Workman of Commonwealth Bank argues the lower prices of imported goods and services are a reflection more of weak global consumer markets for European and Asian producers than the effect of the high dollar.

That is, foreign suppliers are cutting the prices they charge Australian importers so as to keep their sales up. If so, the lower prices our retailers are charging customers aren't coming out of their own hide.

Well, that's one theory. But others aren't so reassuring. Another theory is that weak demand and intense competition between retailers is obliging them to cut their prices at the expense of their profit margins.

They may be starting to feel the heat from customers using the internet to discover the lower prices being charged overseas, or using their smartphones to seek lower prices from other stores while haggling with shop assistants. If so, their profits are being "compressed" as the econocrats put it.

I have a theory retailing is suffering from a lot of excess capacity - too many stores - because it geared itself to a world where the rate of household saving kept falling, so that consumer spending grew consistently faster than household incomes.

Now the saving rate seems to have stabilised at 10 per cent, spending can grow no faster than incomes, meaning stores are competing to see who survives and who doesn't.

If so, this would be squeezing profits - at least until the losers shut up shop, so to speak.

Yet another possibility - which would apply to the manufacturers and tourist operators as well as the retailers - is that several years of heightened competitive pressures have obliged firms to find tough ways of lifting their productivity and then pass the savings through to their customers rather than taking them to the bottom line.

Whatever the truth of the situation - maybe some combination of all the various possibilities - it's not hard to see why the retailers are just as unhappy as the manufacturers. And don't forget a big part of small business is in retailing.

But not to worry, chaps. As soon as Julia's out and Tony's in, he'll fix everything.

Pain under the Libs is much easier to take.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why voters seen the economy as in bad shape

Despite last week's excitement, Julia Gillard's early announcement of the election date is unlikely to change much. It's certainly unlikely to change many voters' perceptions on a key election issue: her ability as an economic manager.

It's long been clear from polling that the electorate doesn't regard the government as good at managing the economy.

Why this should be so is a puzzle. As Gillard rightly claimed last week: "As the global economy still splutters, unlike the rest of the world we have managed our economy so we have low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment, solid growth, strong public finances and a triple-A rating with a stable outlook from all three of the major ratings agencies."

I've said elsewhere that part of the reason for this yawning gap between perception and reality is that many people's perception of how well the economy's being managed proceeds not from independent observation but from their political alignment. Once I know who I'm voting for I then know whether or not the economy's travelling well.

But there's another part of the explanation: the public's inability to distinguish between cyclical and structural factors. Most of the bad news we heard last year was structural in nature, meaning it changed the shape of the economy rather than its overall size, adversely affecting some parts but favourably affecting others and having little effect on most.

But such analysis is too subtle for most punters. To them, all news is cyclical: good news means the economy's on the up and up; bad news means it's going down and downer.

Add the media's inevitable predilection for trumpeting bad news, underplaying good news and totally ignoring anything that doesn't change, and structural change can't help but be perceived as an economy in trouble.

The resources boom is the classic case of structural change. It's in the process of giving us a bigger mining sector and bigger non-tradeable services sector, but a relatively smaller manufacturing sector and internationally tradeable services sector.

The mechanism that brings much of this about is the high dollar. It harms all export- and import-competing industries, but benefits everyone who buys imports (which is all of us). It marginally benefits three-quarters of our industries, which are non-tradeable (they neither export nor compete against imports) but do buy imported supplies and equipment.

Now consider the recent performance of unemployment. Over the year to December, the unemployment rate rose from 5.2 to 5.4 per cent.

Admittedly, the rate at which people of working age were participating in the labour force by holding a job or actively seeking one fell from 65.3 to 65.1 per cent. This decline in participation is probably explained mainly by some people becoming discouraged in their search for a job.

Even so, it's surprising people became a lot more worried about unemployment last year. Why did they? Because they get their impressions about the state of the labour market not from the official statistics but from stories on the TV news about people being laid off from factories.

If voters were more economically literate they'd respond to this news by thinking, "Gosh, isn't manufacturing being hit hard by the high dollar - but fortunately I don't work in manufacturing and only 8 per cent of workers do." What many actually thought was: "Gosh, maybe I could lose my job, too."

Thus was a structural problem affecting only a small part of the economy taken to be a cyclical, economy-wide problem.

It's a similar story with the much-publicised tribulations of the retailers, which arise from their need to adjust to various structural problems, such as the inevitable end to the period in which household spending grew faster than household income, and the rise of internet shopping.

With all the silly talk about "the cautious consumer" and with punters blissfully unaware that retailing accounts for only about a third of consumer spending, all the highly publicised complaints of the Gerry Harveys helped convince the public not that the retailers have their own troubles but that the economy must be going down the tube.

Then there's the contribution of the unending fuss about "debt and deficit", in which the government has been completely outfoxed by the Liberals.

Although every economically literate person knows Australia doesn't have a significant level of public debt, the opposition has had great success exploiting the public's ignorance of public finance and of just how big the economy is ($1.5 trillion a year) by quoting seemingly mind-boggling levels of gross public debt.

With much of this argy bargy being reported by political rather than economic journalists - how many times have you heard talk of "the economy's deficit"? - it's hardly surprising the public has acquired an exaggerated impression of the economic significance of the budget deficit.

Ironically, the budget deficit is a case where a cyclical (temporary) problem has been taken to be a structural (long-lasting) one.

But Labor has to accept much of the blame for this bum rap. Rather than standing up to the nonsense the Libs were talking, it took the path of least resistance, purporting to be just as manic as they were. Then came Gillard's foolhardy decision to take a mere Treasury projection of the budget outcome in three years' time and elevate it to the status of a solemn promise.

By now, the voters' majority perception that the economy's in bad shape and Labor isn't good at managing it is deeply ingrained.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

White paper shows way to Asian century

When governments make grand policy unveilings, as Julia Gillard has with her white paper on the Asian century, it’s terribly tempting for people in jobs like mine to sit back and criticise. After all, unlike you and me governments tend to be less than perfect.

If you’re disposed to criticise, there’s never a shortage of material - particularly if you’re prepared to offer mutually inconsistent criticisms, or shift your angle of attack from one week to the next.

Sometimes the media are so eager to fan controversy they hardly pause to summarise the content of a 300-page document before launching into their own and other people’s criticisms. And no matter how weighty the subject matter, you can bet it’ll be done and dusted within a week.

I prefer to be a little more considered, even more co-operative with our elected leaders (and nor do I regard a diet of unrelieved negativity as a smart way to sell news). So, though I have some major criticisms of my own, I’ll leave them for another day.

Throughout the life of the Rudd-Gillard government people have criticised its failure to articulate an ‘overarching narrative’ - an encompassing story of what Labor stands for and what it’s on about. A vision of the future; something that gives meaning and direction to our national life.

Well, it may have taken five years, but here’s Gillard’s best shot. It’s not, as some have imagined, the report of another committee headed by Dr Ken Henry; it’s a white paper, a firm statement of government policy intention.

So what do the critics say? It’s just more talk. Where are the new decisions? When will we be getting them? What about my pet project?

You may say this is a narrative with an arch that stretches from the economic to the commercial via the financial (and I may agree), but that makes it an accurate depiction of the breadth of this government’s priorities.

Some say suspiciously that the white paper includes a mention of just about every project Labor is working on: the carbon price, the national broadband network, education reform etc. Sure. That’s what overarching narratives do.

It’s a vision of increasing our material prosperity by ensuring we fully exploit the opportunities presented by our proximity to Asia, which is transforming itself from poor to rich within the short space of our lifetimes.

Within that limited purview, it’s on the right track. It’s hard to imagine our equally materialist opposition disagreeing - though you can be sure it will find plenty to criticise.

The white paper says that, to succeed in this objective, Australians need to act in five key areas. First, we need to build on our own economic strengths. In particular, we’ll need ‘ongoing reform and investment’ across ‘the five pillars of productivity - skills and education, innovation, infrastructure, tax reform and regulatory reform’.

Second, we must do more to develop the necessary capabilities. ‘Our greatest responsibility is to invest in our people through skills and education to drive Australia’s productivity performance and ensure that all Australians can participate and contribute.’

Third, we need businesses that are highly innovative and competitive. ‘Australian firms need new business models and new mindsets to operate and connect with Asian markets.’

Fourth, we need stable defence security within the region. And finally, we need to strengthen our relationships across the region at every level. ‘These links are social and cultural as much as they are political and economic.’

It’s easy to say there’s nothing new in the white paper. We already knew about the rise of Asia. And prime ministers have been banging on about our need to get closer to Asia since Malcolm Fraser.

It’s all true. But it misses the point. The experts may be full bottle, but public doesn’t know as much about Asia as it should; this is an attempt to lift our ‘Asia literacy’ as well as getting more study of Asia and its languages into curriculums.

And governments bang on about a lot of things; this is a decision to give our relations with Asia top priority. This is a long-term project and it didn’t start yesterday. It doesn’t hurt to have a grand renewal of our commitment. It maybe old to us oldies, but to our kids it’s new and sparkling.

The white paper seeks to dispel a lot of misperceptions among Australians. For one thing, it’s not just about China. It’s also about India, South Korea and developing Asia in general - and hugely populous Indonesia in particular.

For another, it’s not just about mining. Though the mining boom has further to run, it’s also about selling a lot more food and fibre to Asia at much higher prices, and supplying Asia’s burgeoning middle class with education, tourism, sophisticated niche manufactures and many services.

But deepening our economic (and, inevitably, social and cultural) relations with Asia is two-way street. Exporting more to Asia will mean importing more from it (giving the lie to criticism this is about exploiting the poor people to our north)
And increasing our business investment in Asia will mean accepting more Asian investment in our businesses.

And, as we’ve already seen with the mining boom, maximising our benefit from the rise of Asia will inevitably mean accepting change and upheaval in our economy. The more we try to preserve the world as it was, the more we pass up the opportunities Asia presents.

The other bad news is that full benefit from Asia isn’t something this government or any other can deliver us on a plate. It needs to be a national effort, with most of the heavy lifting done by business, schools, universities, unions and individuals.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

National productivity comes from firms' productivity

We've been debating what needs to be done to lift Australia's flagging productivity performance for a year, but only this week have we stopped using it in the unending political blame game and got down to some solid economic analysis.

The breakthrough came in a much-discussed speech Dr David Gruen, of Treasury, delivered to the annual Australian Conference of Economists in Melbourne.

Gruen made the apparently hugely controversial point that the primary responsibility for the productivity of the private sector - its output per unit of input - rests with the firms making up that sector and only secondarily with the government.

The government's role is in supporting the productive capability of the economy through investment in education and training, science and research, and infrastructure.

"Government involvement in these sectors is important," Gruen says. "Markets left to their own devices will tend to result in too little investment where there are social or spill-over benefits [in the jargon, 'positive externalities'] to the broader community beyond the returns available to a private investor.

"Governments influence the environment in which firms engage with each other and make investment and production decisions. They set the rules of the game, if you like, and affect the incentives that firms face, and their flexibility to respond."

But it's businesses that do the playing. So what do we know about the drivers of productivity improvement in the private sector? Well, a fair bit of empirical research has been done locally and overseas in recent years.

It shows that overall productivity improves in two different ways. One source is greater technical efficiency through innovation within the firm. Technical improvement comes about through research and development within the firm, or in partnership with the formal research sector.

But as a small country, most of the technology put into production in Australia is first developed overseas, Gruen says. A survey by the bureau of statistics shows only a small fraction of our innovative firms do things that are genuinely new to the world, or even new to Australia. Much more innovation is simply new to a particular industry.

"What usually distinguishes leading organisations is not so much their ability to create knowledge, but rather their ability to absorb technology developed elsewhere and apply it to their own circumstances," he says.

Why do firms innovate? According to the bureau's survey, three-quarters of innovative firms report undertaking innovation to improve profits. About 40 per cent also wanted to increase or maintain their market share and a quarter needed to develop products that were more competitively priced.

That's pretty much what you'd expect, but the second source of productivity gain is less obvious and less benign: it improves when production in an industry shifts from low-productivity firms to high-productivity firms.

A study of Australia firms in the 1990s found a remarkably wide range in their efficiency. The labour productivity of the most efficient firms was about four times that of the least efficient. Only about half this difference seems to be explained by differences in size.

So the productivity of an industry is improved when low-productivity firms are taken over or otherwise cease to exist, and also when new businesses with bright ideas start and grow.

Few people realise how much turnover there is of firms, even when the economy is growing strongly. According to figures from the bureau, about 8 per cent of firms close down each year. And about 40 per cent of new firms exit in less than four years.

Get this: overseas estimates suggest the net effect of the entry and exit of firms accounts for between a fifth and a half of the improvement in labour productivity over time. In high-technology industries, in particular, start-ups play an important role in promoting technological adoption and experimentation, Gruen says.

Hint to politicians: "Policies that act to slow the movement of resources will tend to limit this source of productivity improvement."

Another way to study productivity at the firm level is to look at management practices. Like productivity, management is about how well resources are used in production. So if you can rate particular management practices and give management teams a score, maybe this will help explain productivity differences across firms and even across countries.

One long-running study is doing this for 9000 medium and large manufacturing firms in 20 countries. It gives good ratings to firms that monitor what's going on in the firm and use this information for continuous improvement; set targets and track outcomes, and promote employees based on their performance.

The study shows management practices in Australia are mid-range: well below the United States, Germany, Sweden, Japan and Canada, but similar to France, Italy and Britain. And we have a larger tail of companies at the poor management end of the distribution compared with the US.

Looking at the performance of Australian firms, large manufacturers tend to be much better managed than small ones - a worry because our firms tend to be smaller than those in other countries. And it does seem clear better-managed firms are more innovative and have higher productivity.

Gruen argues periods of significant structural change - as at present - are often periods of growth and reform for the economy.

For a firm that's been doing the same thing for a long time, changes in business models are risky, difficult and may well require staff lay-offs. But when structural change means doing the same old thing is likely to be unprofitable, the opportunity cost of transforming work practices is substantially lowered. Structural change usually involves firms coming under greater competitive pressure. And tough competition and innovative activity seem to go together.

In Australia, firms that report having more competitors, that are in industries with low mark-ups, that export, or that experience downward pressure on profit margins are more likely to be innovators.

Case studies of Australian manufacturers hit by the reduction of import protection in the 1980s and '90s show the firms that succeeded did so by changing their practices. The number of plants diminished, plants became more specialised, model ranges were cut and world-best technology introduced.

Of course, some firms close down and leave the industry. But that's the harsh part of the lovely sounding productivity improvement: Competition boosts productivity partly by moving resources to more successful firms.

Get it? When politicians protect firms from closing, they risk stifling productivity improvement. For countries, comfortable and rich don't go together.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The economy isn't a Sunday school - it often hurts

When I was a kid marbles were the rage. When you played at home with your brothers and sisters, mum made sure that, whoever won, everyone got their marbles back when the game was over. When you played at school, however, the big boys insisted on "playing for keeps", so kids like me went home with a lot fewer marbles.

I also went to Sunday school, which was run by kindly mothers. If you forgot to memorise your verse of scripture, there was no comeback. If you misbehaved there was no punishment, just a look of disappointment on the face of your teacher.

We've been hearing a lot lately about people losing their jobs. Firms in manufacturing, but also other industries, are announcing redundancies. There've been so many they could give you the impression employment is falling. Fortunately, it isn't; the people losing their jobs are being more than made up for by others gaining jobs (including people who lost their jobs earlier).

Sometimes people are laid off because the economy is in recession, but at present it's happening because powerful forces are changing the industrial structure of the economy. Older industries are shrinking while newer ones are expanding.

It must be a terrible thing to lose your job through no fault of your own, even if they do give you a fat cheque as they push you out. It's anxious waiting after an announcement to see if you'll be among those tapped on the shoulder. When "downsizing" was the fashion in the 1980s and '90s, it was said even those who kept their jobs suffered "survivor guilt".

When you're a victim of structural change - or just a feeling person looking on - it's tempting to look for someone to blame. Managers have been altogether too ruthless in protecting the business's bottom line; they took too long to recognise the problem and when they did respond they could have done it far better. The government should have stepped in to protect the industry.

Since managers are as subject to human frailty as ordinary employees (just extraordinarily more highly paid), there's often some truth to these criticisms - especially with the wisdom of hindsight.

If businesses weren't so quick on the trigger in laying off workers in the early stages of a downturn, fewer downturns would turn into full-blown recessions. If they were more imaginative and innovative they'd find less painful solutions to problems (they'd probably also anticipate a lot of problems that didn't materialise).

But when there are major changes in the forces bearing down on an industry, there's no point imagining change could have been resisted, nor any way that all human pain could have been avoided.

The economy isn't run like a Sunday school. In an economy like ours, everyone - bosses, workers, customers - pursues their self-interest. The economic game is played for keeps. So everyone runs a greater or lesser risk of losing their job. Even bosses get the bullet.

All of us act in self-regarding ways that, whether or not we realise it, contribute to someone's job insecurity. And that means a fair bit of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, disappointment, loss of status, self-doubt, frustration, family discord, despair, humiliation, depression, belt-tightening and worse are part of the deal.

Nor is the risk of pain fairly distributed. Some people never lose their job in a long career, some make the transition to a new job relatively easily, some move into retirement earlier than they'd bargained for, some have considerable difficulty finding another job, some never work again.

Perhaps the greatest force driving structural change is advances in technology - people inventing new products, new things to do or new ways of doing old things. The digital revolution is reshaping our economy - destroying jobs here, creating them there - in ways and to an extent we as yet see only dimly.

Does anyone suggest we should halt technological advance because of all the economic disruption it brings - and has brought since the days of the Luddites? Does anyone imagine such an attempt could work?

Another major force driving economic change is globalisation - the lowering of natural and government-made barriers between countries, caused by technological advance and, to a lesser extent, deregulation.

The historic re-emergence of the mighty economies of China and India - and the rapid economic development of the poor countries generally - is shifting jobs around the world.

Most rich countries are benefiting from cheaper imported manufactures (gains to consumers, but job losses in manufacturing), but Aussies are also benefiting from higher prices and quantities for our rural and mineral exports (increased income for the whole nation, but pressure for capital and labour to shift to mining).

Think the poor countries' pursuit of prosperity should be stopped because of the economic disruption it's causing? Think it could be?

For decades we tried to shut out change from the rest of the world by protecting particular industries. These days we use taxpayer subsidies. But jobs in particular industries can be protected only at the expense of jobs in the unprotected industries. Import restrictions and subsidies merely shift the job pressure (which never troubles the people demanding assistance).

When you're in the thick of it, it's easy to imagine structural change leads to ever-rising unemployment. But businesses have been installing new, "labour-saving" technology continuously for two centuries without it leading to mass unemployment.

Structural change doesn't reduce jobs overall, it destroys them in some industries and creates them in others.

Market economies deliver almost continuously rising material prosperity. But they do so by continually changing, and that change comes with a fair bit of pain for many people.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Subsidies no way to fix high dollar problem

Emeritus Professor Max Corden, of Johns Hopkins University, formerly of Oxford University and now back at the University of Melbourne, is probably Australia's most distinguished living economist. So when he writes on what we could do about "Dutch disease" we ought to take note.

What follows is my account of his paper for the Melbourne Institute, The Dutch Disease in Australia: Policy Options for a Three-Speed Economy. As is often my custom, it will consist largely of direct quotes, indirect quotes and paraphrases of his paper. This practice is known as "reporting". If I misreport his views, feel free to criticise; but don't be silly and accuse me of stealing them.

Corden is an expert on Dutch disease - the economists' term for a situation where a boom in one export industry leads to an appreciation in the exchange rate, which reduces the profitability and the output of other export and import-competing industries.

He starts by dividing the economy into not two, but three sectors according to how they're affected by the boom. First is the "booming sector" (mining and related industries, in our case), then there's the "lagging sector", consisting of the other trade-exposed industries hard hit by the high dollar (part of manufacturing, agriculture and tradeable services such as tourism and some education).

But then there's the "non-tradeable sector" consisting mainly of those service industries whose prices are determined only by domestic supply and demand. This third sector is important because it's the largest part of the economy and "there are almost certainly net gains" from the boom.

The gains arise because the boom causes increased domestic spending on non-tradeables and because of the reduced prices of imported items.

Corden argues there are three broad options for the government to choose from in responding to the difficulties Dutch disease causes for the lagging sector.

Option 1 is "do nothing". "The real exchange rate appreciation is an inevitable consequence of the terms of trade boom and the capital inflow, both of which have benefits," Corden says.

"Some industries rise and some decline, and some declines, in any case, may be temporary. The government can help in the adjustment process, but should not try and stop or slow up adjustment," he says.

"This is one point of view, though it may not be politically attractive," he says. But "doing nothing" doesn't prevent the government from fostering the flexibility of the economy, improving the skills of the labour force, removing obstacles to people moving, temporarily assisting losers, providing information or improving infrastructure.

Option 2 is "piecemeal protectionism". "Of the various groups of industries adversely affected by Dutch disease it is manufacturing - or perhaps particular manufacturing industries, or even firms - that are usually selected for deserving special assistance, whether in the form of subsidies or import tariffs," Corden says.

But this option is "highly undesirable" and "based on questionable economic thinking". (Note that when Corden uses the term "protection" he's including subsidies as well as import tariffs.)

What's wrong with piecemeal protection? Apart from all the usual arguments against protection, there's one that applies particularly to Dutch disease, but is usually overlooked. Corden calls it the "general equilibrium effect".

"Suppose extra protection is provided for the motor car industry," he says (writing well before last week's announcement of extra assistance to General Motors). This reduces imports of cars, as is the intention of the policy, but will lead to extra appreciation of the exchange rate.

If all manufacturing industries were significantly protected there would be a substantial appreciation, which would actually worsen the Dutch disease effects on other industries in the lagging sector - agriculture, tourism and education exports.

Similarly, protection for selected manufacturing industries would have adverse effects on other industries in the lagging sector, including those parts of manufacturing that didn't receive the extra assistance.

"These losers would thus suffer not only from the effects of the mining boom but also from the political success of their industry colleagues in extracting protectionist measures from the government," he says.

It's been suggested that the miners should be required to source various supplies domestically rather than import them. A similar requirement could be imposed on government spending and on private suppliers to the government.

Such requirements would also lead to greater exchange-rate appreciation than otherwise. They would thus benefit some industries and workers but, through their aggravation of the Dutch disease effect, would damage other industries and workers.

The third option the government could choose in responding to Dutch disease is "fiscal surplus combined with lower interest rate". The government cuts spending or increases taxes to achieve or increase a budget surplus.

This would have a contractionary effect on demand in the economy, but its reduction of inflation pressure would allow the Reserve Bank to ease its monetary policy and lower the official interest rate. This, in turn, would lead to some depreciation of the exchange rate because our lower interest rates relative to those in other countries would reduce the net inflow of capital to Australia.

So the Dutch disease effect would be moderated, but at the cost of politically difficult changes in taxation and spending.

The advantage of this option is that it benefits all lagging-sector industries evenly. But, Corden argues, it's just one way of providing "exchange-rate protection". So it, too, creates winners and losers.

All tradeable industries benefit from the lower exchange rate (including the miners), but the much larger, non-tradeable sector loses from it by having to pay more for imports. The lower dollar also reduces the incentive to invest in Australian development.

I conclude from Corden's analysis there's no easy, costless way to ameliorate the downside that comes with the blessing of the mining boom. There are just options that carry more disadvantages than others.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why the economy isn't splitting in two

The news from last week's national accounts seemed very clear and very worrying: the economy was splitting in two, with the mining-boom states of Queensland and Western Australia roaring off into the future, leaving the rest of Australia going nowhere fast.

Over the year to December, state final demand grew by more than 11 per cent in WA and by 10 per cent in Queensland, but by about 1.5 per cent in the rest of Australia.

Fortunately, the true position isn't nearly as bad as that, as Kathryn Davis, Kevin Lane and David Orsmond explain in an article in the March quarter Reserve Bank Bulletin, issued this week.

The trick was that label "state final demand". When we talk about "growth" in the context of the national accounts we're talking about growth in (real) gross domestic product - the value of all the goods and services produced by the market during a period.

We focus on production because it's production that creates jobs and generates income. The equivalent of GDP at state level is gross state product.

So if you want to compare how the states are travelling you compare the growth in their GSP.

Trouble is, the Bureau of Statistics doesn't publish GSP quarterly, only annually. What it does publish quarterly is state final demand, the national equivalent of which is "domestic final demand".

Because these are the only figures available, the media (and some economists who should know better) have fallen into the habit of assuming state final demand and GSP are much the same thing.

Wrong. State final demand differs from GSP in one minor respect and one major respect: it takes no account of exports and imports. And that's not just overseas exports and imports, it's also exports and imports between the states.

In other words, when you make state final demand a substitute for GSP you're implicitly assuming each state has no trade with either the rest of the world or even the other states. Or that its trade is always in balance.

Guess what? Make such unrealistic assumptions and you get misleading results.

The authors point out that growth in spending on home building and non-mining investment over the year to December didn't vary much between the states. There were two main differences. One was that whereas consumer spending grew by about 3.5 per cent in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, it grew by 6 per cent in WA.

The other difference was the huge growth in mining investment spending in WA and Queensland. This was what did most to explain why their growth in final demand was in double figures whereas NSW and Victoria's demand growth was so modest.

But here's the point: the Reserve estimates that roughly half the spending on mining investment goes on imported equipment. Take this into account and the gap between the mining and non-mining states gets a lot smaller.

Another factor narrowing the gap is that part of the miners' spending on investment (and their ordinary operations) goes on goods and services, such as accounting and consulting services, produced in other states. And some of the workers who fly-in/fly-out take their income home to other states.

To give you an idea of how the shift from state final demand to GSP narrows the gap between the states, let's look at the most recent figures, for 2010-11 as a whole. The final demand figures show spending growth ranging from 1.4 per cent in SA to 6.5 per cent in WA - a spread of 5.1 percentage points.

But the GSP figures show production growth ranging from 0.2 per cent in Queensland (get that) to 3.5 per cent in WA - a spread of 3.3 percentage points. After WA came Victoria on 2.5 per cent, SA on 2.4 per cent, NSW on 2.2 per cent and Tasmania on 0.8 per cent.

In other words, state final demand provided a quite misleading guide to the states' ranking. Queensland does so well on spending but so badly on production because, though it gains from having a fair bit of mining, it loses from being so dependent on tourism (hard-hit by the high dollar).

In the absence of more up-to-date figures for GSP, the trick is to examine independently estimated direct and indirect measures of state activity. If the mining states really were growing five or six times faster than the other states, you'd expect that to mean they had much lower rates of unemployment and much higher rates of inflation than the others.

It's true WA's trend unemployment rate was a very low 4.1 per cent in February, but the other mainland states were all tightly bunched around the national average rate of 5.2 per cent. As for inflation, over the year to December the mining states had the lowest rates rather than the highest.

If the gap between the mining states and the rest turns out to be narrower than you expected it's because you've been misled by all the talk of a two-speed economy: mining in the fast lane, manufacturing in the slow.

In truth, and as the distinguished economist Max Corden, of the University of Melbourne, reminded us this week, it's actually a three-speed economy, with mining in the fast lane and manufacturing (plus other export and import-competing industries) in the slow lane, but with almost all other industries - the non-tradable sector - in the middle lane.

This matters because the non-tradable sector benefits from the mining boom and the high dollar in two ways: from the increase in national income brought about by the high commodity prices, and from the lower prices of imports brought about by the high dollar.

Guess what? This non-tradable sector accounts for the great majority of production and employment in all states bar WA (where mining accounts for an amazing 33 per cent of GSP).

The people of Victoria see their state as weak on mining (true) and heavily dependent on manufacturing. Not true: manufacturing accounts for 8 or 9 per cent of GSP in all states bar WA (5 per cent). Where Victoria and NSW stick out is in their dependence on the business services sector (particularly financial and insurance services), which accounts for 28 per cent and 30 per cent of GSP, respectively, compared with about 17 per cent in the other states.

It's because business services are mainly in the not-hard-hit non-tradable sector that Victoria and NSW aren't travelling too badly compared with the mining states.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

All work creates wealth

You'll find this hard to believe but not every reader of my columns agrees with everything I write. And when I wrote recently that jobs lost in manufacturing would be offset by jobs gained in other parts of the economy, one reader emailed to say he could see a gaping hole in my argument.

My point was that the high dollar wouldn't destroy jobs so much as "displace" them: shift them from contracting industries to expanding industries.

This would happen because the high dollar was the market economy's way of helping us restructure our economy to take full advantage of the marked and long-lasting change in what the rest of the world wants to buy from us at higher prices (primary commodities) and sell to us at lower prices (manufactures and tradeable services such as tourism).

So employment would fall in manufacturing and tourism but would increase in mining and construction, as well as in the services sector.

(This is not to imply that all the workers losing their jobs in manufacturing would move simply and easily to jobs in the expanding industries. Some may encounter difficulty making the switch, which is why governments should help them retrain and relocate. Some older workers will never make the transition. And some of the new jobs will go to people from outside manufacturing.)

People are often vague about which industries are included in the services sector, so I offered some examples of those likely to expand: "health, education and training, public administration, the science professions and arts and recreation".

Ah, said my reader, gotcha. "Surely the funding for many of the job types identified comes from the public purse, that money being generated by taxes on employees, companies, profits from investment in local manufacturing and [from] the businesses, secondary and tertiary, generated from manufacturing," he wrote.

"Where is your viable break-even point here between job creation and taxes/wealth creation sufficient to create those [public sector] jobs?"

See his argument? You have manufacturing and the rest of the private sector it supports, which creates the wealth and the jobs and pays the taxes governments use to finance all their activities, creating public sector jobs in the process.

If you allow the manufacturing sector to contract, you erode the economy's wealth- and job-creating capacity, thus reducing the tax governments are able to collect and use to create jobs in the public sector.

So there must be some point below which you can't allow the private sector to fall, otherwise you also destroy jobs in the public sector.

Convinced? I'm not. The reader's riposte is built on two related misconceptions.

One is that the private sector is productive - it generates the wealth and creates the jobs - whereas the public sector is essentially parasitic: it appropriates some of the private sector-created wealth via taxation and redistributes it to presumably worthy causes, employing public servants in the process.

Sorry, not true. What is this "wealth" that's being created? It's more accurately described as income: the income that's generated when employers and employees produce all the goods and services that make up the nation's gross domestic product.

So "wealth" is generated when people go to work and their employer provides them with the equipment and direction to do what they do. The workers receive income in return for their work. They pay some of that income in direct and indirect taxes but most of the rest they spend on the goods and services they need, which generates continuing demand for all the stuff that they and other workers have produced.

If you think this description of the economy is circular, you're right: supply (production) creates demand (spending) and demand leads to supply. Point is, there's no important distinction between goods and services produced in the private sector and those produced in the public sector. Nor between goods and services paid for in the marketplace and those paid for via taxation.

To imagine otherwise is to imply that someone working on a production line producing cans of beans is productive (generating "wealth") but doctors and nurses who fix broken legs and save lives, or people who teach our children to read and write, are unproductive (generating no wealth).

Many doctors are self-employed and there are plenty of private hospitals; many teachers work for non-government schools. We're being asked to believe that those in the private sector are productive wealth-generators but those in the public sector are unproductive wealth-appropriators.

We could, if we wished, leave the whole of healthcare and education to the private sector. Would that make the economy vastly more productive? Hardly. (What it would mean is a lot of people being unable to afford education or healthcare.)

The reader's argument also implies that only people working in the private sector pay tax and contribute to the cost of publicly-provided goods and services. Rubbish. Everyone who works is productive and everyone who earns and spends income pays taxes, regardless of their sector.

The second misconception is that economies are built like the pharaohs built the pyramids: one level on top of another. You start with a base of primary industry (farming and mining), then put secondary industry (manufacturing) on top of that and tertiary industry (services) on top of that.

Take away one of the lower building blocks and you lose the basis on which to build the levels above it. If you had no manufacturing sector, for instance, how could you have a services sector?

If you were building a closed economy - one that didn't trade with other economies - that's the way you'd do it. But, like all economies, we have considerable trade with other countries. Why? Because it makes us wealthier.

We specialise in producing things we're relatively good at, they specialise in producing what they're relatively good at, and we trade. That leaves both sides better off and means you don't have to do everything to have a viable economy. Indeed, the more you insist on doing things you're not good at, the more you forgo wealth.

These days, the rich countries of Europe have little mining and waste taxes propping up their inefficient farmers when they could buy from us more cheaply. Our natural endowment (plus 200 years of experience) makes us highly-efficient producers of rural and mineral commodities, which are now in great demand as poor countries develop. The workforces in the rich countries are too highly skilled and expensive for them to be used to make things in factories, so manufacturing in these countries is shifting to Asia.

So where are the jobs being created in the rich economies? In the services sector. The range of simple to sophisticated services we can perform for other people in our country - or for foreigners - is infinite.

And everyone with a job that involves "doing things" is generating wealth.

Monday, February 27, 2012

How manufacturing will survive the high dollar

Beware of dire predictions that manufacturers will be wiped out by the strong dollar unless they're propped up by the government. All our experience says it won't happen.

Manufacturers and their (highly vociferous) unions gave us the same warning in the 1980s when the Hawke-Keating government decided to take away their protection from imports. It didn't happen - the industry adapted, and survived to complain another day.

Though manufacturing's share of the nation's total output (gross domestic product) and total employment has been declining for the best part of 40 years, little of this is due to the removal of protection.

Most is explained by the services sector growing at a faster rate than manufacturing grew. On the employment side, it's also explained by computerisation and other technological advances raising the productivity of labour in manufacturing, so that the same quantity of output could be produced using fewer workers. (Agriculture and mining have the same characteristic, in contrast to the labour-intensive services sector.)

So it's only in recent years that the absolute quantity of Australia's manufacturing production has begun to decline. Manufacturing survived the removal of protection by rationalising its production, becoming leaner and fitter.

And probably by hastening its introduction of the latest labour-saving technology. When employers get their unions to pressure Labor governments to provide protection (or, these days, direct government grants), the workers imagine they're protecting jobs.

In truth, all they can protect is profits. That's certainly the history of what happened in manufacturing during protection's last hurrah in the decade before 1987.

One way manufacturing responded to the removal of protection was by getting into the business of export. That was utterly contrary to the prediction that without protection against imports it would cease to exist.

When vested interests make such claims they're playing on the public's lack of knowledge of economic history, lack of imagination and lack feel for how market forces work.

In a market economy, nothing stays static. Industries could just sit there doing nothing until their last customer leaves, but they don't. They take evasive action. They cut their coat according to their cloth. More formally, they adapt to their changed economic environment.

Individual firms may bite the dust, but the industry regroups and survives. Consider the advent of television from the mid-1950s. Many people imagined it would spell the end of radio.

Instead, radio changed its programming markedly and survived. It went from being something people sat in the living room listening to, to something they carried around with them, particularly in their cars. They listened to it while they were doing something else: driving somewhere or cooking the dinner.

Many people imagined television would spell the end of the cinema. It's true most of the cinemas in every suburb were converted to supermarkets, but then along came the video cassette recorder and video lending shops.

Finally, someone invented the multiplex cinema, a classic example of exploiting economies of scope (producing more than one product at the same plant). Today a wider range of movies would be showing in any city than when suburban cinemas were at their height.

So what can we say about how manufacturers may adapt to a prolonged high exchange rate? Well, one possibility is that they simply move their production abroad to where labour is dirt cheap.

You have to suffer all the illusions and delusions of protectionism and mercantilism to think that would be a terrible thing; that most of the displaced workers wouldn't be able to get work elsewhere in the economy. But, in any case, I doubt if nearly as much of it will happen as is feared.

So what else? People say the high dollar reduces the international competitiveness of our manufacturers. Actually, it reduces their price competitiveness. So one way to respond is to search for ways to reduce their production costs - by becoming yet more capital intensive (raising the productivity of their labour) or finding other efficiency improvements.

Another response is to find non-price ways to stay competitive. A reputation for high quality can justify pricing at a premium. Indeed, if you're smart you can get into the space where the causation is reversed: people take your higher price as a sign of higher quality (utterly contrary to the most basic assumptions of conventional economics).

You can use superior design to justify charging higher prices. You can beat the foreign mass-producers by being more carefully and quickly attuned to changing fashion. Or you can be more willing and adept at customising your product. If all else fails you can get yourself a reputation for giving good after-sales service.

This is an old Australian angle, but still relevant: look for niches to occupy. One advantage of our smallness relative to the rest of the world is that what seems too small to the big boys seems quite big to us.

If manufacturers are to get their cut from the much-foreshadowed blossoming of the Asian middle class, it's pretty safe to be in niche areas that are too small for our bigger rivals to worry about, or that somehow exploit the novelty of our Australianness.

I think this time it is quite likely manufacturing's output will decline. But it's even more likely we'll retain a manufacturing sector that's leaner and fitter than it is today.

If it does survive and prosper it will be because manufacturers and their employees find ways to raise their productivity and respond with a wave of innovation. There's nothing like having your back to the wall to call forth such an uncharacteristic response.

And it's a safe bet those firms that do best in adapting will be those that do best at enlisting the engagement and initiative of their employees.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jobs aren't lost, just moved

As the media keep reminding us, the many pressures for change in the structure of our economy are causing some workers to be thrown out of their jobs. But this is unlikely to cause a decline in overall employment. Huh?

The structure of the economy - as represented by the relative sizes of the various industry sectors - is always changing. Normally the rate of change is so slow we don't notice it. At present, however, the pace of change is much quicker than usual.

These pressures are coming from outside Australia. Many are the consequence of the rapid transition of various populous economies from developing to developed. Some of these "emerging" economies are in South America; most are in Asia.

One big consequence of this development is that much of the manufacturing undertaken in the world is moving from the developed to the emerging economies, where labour is more abundant and thus cheaper. This is hitting manufacturing in all the developed economies, not just us. (They're not enjoying it, either.)

Because the emerging economies' immaturity means they're growing a lot faster than the rich economies, another consequence is that most of the growth in the global economy comes from them. That's been true for years; it will be even truer in the coming decade because the North Atlantic economies damaged their prospects so badly with their financial crisis.

A further consequence is that the cycle in the world prices of primary commodities - food and fibre, minerals and energy - is now driven more by the emerging economies than the rich economies.

And the different needs of the emerging economies - for energy, steel and high-protein foodstuffs - have produced a long-lasting change in the structure of world trade, where the demand for primary commodities is growing faster than the demand for manufactures, meaning the prices and volumes of commodities are growing faster than those for manufacturing.

Because the emerging economies have much more economic development to do, and because there's a pipeline of countries coming behind China and India, the increased global demand for commodities relative manufactures is likely to last for many moons.

This is bad news for the real incomes of most of the developed countries (which tend to import most of the primary commodities they use, while gaining most of their export income from manufactures), but great news for us, since our imports are mainly manufactures and our exports mainly commodities.

Of course, both the big advanced economies and we face painful structural change as a consequence of this shift in the structure of the global economy, but I know whose shoes I'd prefer to be in.

In Australia we have to shift resources of labour and capital to the expanding mining (and agricultural) sectors from the declining manufacturing sector and elsewhere in the economy.

The improvement in our trading fortunes relative to the rest of the world is reflected in our higher exchange rate - which is thus likely to stay high for the foreseeable future. To many people, this sounds like terribly bad luck (when they're not thinking about their next overseas holiday, that is).

To economists, however, it's all part of the same deal. Our trading position has improved, so our exchange rate has appreciated to help us bring about the change in the structure of our industries needed to fully exploit that improved position.

In other words, by making it harder for our manufacturers (and tourist operators and education providers) to compete on international markets, the higher dollar is helping shift resources out of manufacturing and into mining and elsewhere.

Of course, the era of the emerging economies isn't the only factor forcing change on our industries. The other big one is the continuing information technology revolution, which is presenting considerable challenges to our established media companies, the book industry, retailers and shopping-centre owners.

I started by asserting that the job losses being caused by structural change were unlikely to lead to a fall in employment overall. Why not? Because what creates jobs is the spending of income.

Starting with the mining boom, it's bringing a lot of additional income to Australia (first from higher prices per tonne, then from a lot more tonnes). But, people object, mining is highly capital intensive so it doesn't employ many people. It may account for 10 per cent of the value of all we produce (gross domestic product), but it accounts for only 2 per cent of total employment.

True, but what happens to all the income the miners earn that isn't paid to their employees? Some of it goes to foreign owners and is spent abroad, but the rest goes to local shareholders and local suppliers to the industry, with Australian governments also getting a big chunk (as they should).

When the local shareholders, suppliers and governments spend that income, jobs are created. Where? At present, a lot are in the construction industry but, more generally, all round the services sector.

How can I be so sure? Because the services sector (including construction) accounts for about 85 per cent of all employment and because it has accounted for all the net jobs growth for the past 40 years.

Next, the advent of new technology often prompts employers to retrench staff as machines replace workers. People imagine these jobs have been "lost", but economists know they've merely been "displaced" (moved).

Why? Because when companies make changes that improve their productivity (output per worker), they raise the economy's real income. The company shares the benefit from its higher productivity among its remaining workers, its shareholders and the taxman, but often competition forces the benefit through to its customers in the form of prices that are lower than they otherwise would be. And lower prices mean higher real incomes.

The point is that as this income is spent around the economy it creates jobs around the economy. Where? Somewhere in the services sector.

Ah, you say, but are all the workers "displaced" from manufacturing able to take up the new jobs in mining or the services sector? A lot more are than you imagine will be able to, but some will have a struggle and some individuals won't make it.

That's why the smart response from governments to pressures for structural change is not to help companies carry on as if nothing in the world had changed, but to help individual workers adjust to that change with help to retrain and relocate.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Invest in children of knowledge revolution

It's annoying the way business people keep slipping the words ''going forward'' into almost every sentence and it was even worse when Julia Gillard kept repeating the slogan ''moving forward'' in the last election campaign. But I have to admit they've got the right idea: we do need to keep our minds focused on the future and what we need to do to secure it.

The world keeps changing and we must respond appropriately to that change. Most of us feel threatened by change, and it's only human to want to resist it. The temptation is to try to preserve things as they are, rather than adjust to the way they will be.

As we wonder what to do about the threat to our manufacturing industry, it's tempting to see that threat as temporary. We're in the middle of a resources boom which has lifted the value of our dollar to a level which could wipe out some of our industry. But the boom won't last long and, if we're not careful, we could find ourselves high and dry: no boom and a big chunk cut out of manufacturing. What do we do then?

This is a serious misreading of our situation. What we're dealing with isn't just another of the transitory commodity booms we've experienced many times before. It's a historic shift in the structure of the global economy as the Industrial Revolution finally reaches the developing countries. The two biggest countries in the world, China and India, which were also the biggest economies before that revolution, are rapidly industrialising and within the next 20 or 30 years will return to their earlier position of dominance.

Does that sound temporary to you?

As part of their urbanisation and industrialisation, those countries - and the Vietnams and Indonesias following in their wake - will require huge quantities of iron ore, coal and other raw materials. Not for several months but for several decades. Much of what they need will be coming from us. That says it's likely to be many moons before our dollar falls back to the US70? levels our high-cost manufacturers are comfortable with.

The other side of the re-emergence of China and India is the global shift of all but the most sophisticated manufacturing from west to east. This is a disruptive trend affecting all the developed economies, not just us. All the rich countries are having to find other things to do as their manufacturing migrates to the poor countries.

This, too, is not a process that's likely to stop, much less reverse itself. So it's not a question of hanging in until the world comes back to its senses and things return to normal. The day will never come when we're able to reopen our steel mills and canning factories.

It's a question of whether we dig in and try to prevent our economy changing, or we adapt to our changed circumstances and move into areas more suited to a rich, well-educated, highly paid economy.

In truth, we're making so much money from our sales of raw materials to the developing countries that we could afford to use a fair bit of that income to prop up our manufacturers. That wouldn't make us poorer, just less prosperous than we could be (though keeping labour and capital tied up in manufacturing would mean a lot more immigration and foreign investment to meet the needs of our rapidly expanding mining sector).

And the fact is that, throughout most of the 20th century, we diverted a fair bit of our income from agriculture and mining to subsidising our then highly protected manufacturing sector. This may help explain why so many people - particularly older people - are so ready to do whatever it takes to stop factories being closed. It's the traditional Australian way of doing things: passing the hat.

But what's the positive, future-affirming alternative? What else can we do?

Embrace the newer revolution in the developed world, the Information Revolution. While the poor countries are becoming manufacturing economies, the rich countries are becoming knowledge economies.

The knowledge economy is about highly educated and skilled workers selling the fruits of their knowledge to other Australians and people overseas. It covers all the professions and para-professions: medicine, teaching, research, law, accounting, engineering, architecture, design, computing, consulting and management.

Jobs in the knowledge economy are clean, safe, value-adding, highly paid and intellectually satisfying.

The developed economies are fast becoming ''weightless'', as an ever smaller proportion of income and employment comes from making things and an ever increasing proportion comes from providing services. Some of those services are fairly menial, but the fastest growing categories involve the highest degrees of knowledge and skill.

Employment in Australian manufacturing has been falling since the 1980s. It's sure to continue falling whatever we do to try to prop it up. By contrast, since 1984 total employment has grown by almost three-quarters to 11.4 million. Get this: all of those 4.8 million additional jobs have been in the ''weightless'' services sector.

Notwithstanding our future increase in the production of rural and mineral commodities, our economy - like all the rich economies - will continue to lose weight. The real question is whether the services sector jobs our children and grandchildren get will be at the unskilled or the sophisticated end of the spectrum.

And that depends on how much money and effort we put into their education and training. We've gone for the past two decades underspending on education and training at all levels, falling behind the other rich countries.

If we've got any sense, we'll use part of the proceeds from the resources boom to secure our future in the global knowledge economy.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Our future is mining, not making

The lessons from BlueScope Steel's decision to sack 1000 workers in Port Kembla and Western Port are that, in the economy, benefits always come with costs: we can't have everything and one country can't do everything well.

Leaving aside the continuing fallout from the global financial crisis, the most momentous, long-term development in the global economy is the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the developing countries, with Asia as the epicentre of this trend.

For the economic emergence of the developing countries to be occurring at a time when the major advanced economies of the North Atlantic have made such a hash of their affairs is a great blessing to all of us. Whereas we're used to America and Europe providing the motivating force to the world economy, now it's the strong growth in the developing countries that will keep the world growing.

Among the developed economies, Australia is almost uniquely placed to benefit from the emergence of the poor countries. That's because we're located so close to the epicentre, but also because the main thing we sell the world is raw materials, and raw materials are the main thing the developing countries need to import: energy, food and fibre and, above all, the chief ingredients of steel - iron ore and coking coal.

The world prices of all these things have shot up in recent years and all Australians - not just the miners and farmers - have benefited from them. Although these prices are sure to fall back soon enough, they're still likely to stay much higher than they were. That's because the process of economic development in Asia has so much further to run. As people in poor countries get richer and seek more protein, agricultural prices will probably go a lot higher.

But as well as higher prices, our resources boom has entered a second phase of massive investment in expanding our capacity to supply coal, iron ore and natural gas to the rest of the world. This hugely increased investment spending is set to run for years. It will underpin our economy, protecting us against recession.

That's the good news and, overwhelmingly, this is a good-news story - even though, remarkably, we seem to be in the process of convincing ourselves times are tough and that no one who's not a miner has benefited from the boom: we didn't really have eight income tax cuts in a row; the NSW and Victorian governments aren't really getting bigger shares of the revenue from the goods and services tax at the expense of Queensland and Western Australia; none of us has benefited from the high dollar; we're not taking more overseas trips; not buying cheaper electronic gear and not paying less than we would have for our petrol.

And now, just while we're feeling so uncertain and sorry for ourselves in our immense good fortune, we're reminded that with all the benefits of the resources boom also come costs. Who'd have thought it? Quick, double the gloom.

For decades we thought we were losers, being a country obliged by its history and natural endowment to earn most of its export income from raw materials. Now we discover we're winners. But world trade works by each country specialising in what it's good at. You can't specialise in everything and the truth is we've never been good at manufacturing.

Our domestic market has been too small to give us economies of scale and we've been too far away from

the developed countries that buy manufactures.

The flipside of our increasing specialisation in the export of raw materials is our Asian trading partners' increasing specialisation in what they're best at: using their abundant but mainly unskilled and thus cheap labour to produce manufactures, including steel.

Increasing their exports of manufactures is the way they pay for our raw material exports to them, including the chief ingredients of steel.

Our manufacturers are copping it two ways: increased competition with the growing supply of cheaper manufactures from the developing countries, and our high dollar, which makes our manufacturers' prices high relative to those of other countries' manufacturers.

There are limits to the resources of labour and capital available to us in Australia, so the expansion of mining will tend to pull resources away from other Australian industries, particularly those we're not relatively good at, such as manufacturing. Our high exchange rate - which always rises when commodity prices are high - is part of the market mechanism that helps shift workers and capital around the economy.

There are bound to be a lot more job losses in manufacturing. And a lot of those displaced workers are likely to end up in mining or mining construction. Some, of course, will take the places of other workers who've been attracted into high-paying mining and construction jobs. Others will fill vacancies that have no obvious links to the resources boom.

It will be tough for those workers obliged to make this transition and even tougher for those who don't make it. Fortunately, it's happening at a time when unemployment is low. Even so, governments

need to do all they can to help displaced manufacturing workers find jobs elsewhere.

What governments shouldn't do is increase protection and other assistance to manufacturing industry itself in an attempt to stave off change. It needs to adjust to the reality of a significantly changed world economy.

Efforts to help manufacturing resist change can come only at the expense of all other industries. There are no free lunches in industry assistance.

It would be a good way to fritter away the proceeds from what the governor of the Reserve Bank has called "potentially the biggest gift the global economy has handed Australia since the gold rush of the 1850s".


Monday, June 27, 2011

How to blow the boom: cocoon manufacturers

The fusspots are right when they say we must make sure the nation gains lasting benefit from the resources boom. But doing so is as much about what we shouldn't do as what we should.

The first thing to note is that, even if the boom were to end a lot earlier than the policy-makers expect, the main thing we will be left with is a very much larger mining sector, producing and exporting a lot more minerals and natural gas than we do at present - and earning a good living in the process.

The sceptics who fear we'll be left with nothing when the present sky-high prices fall back - as they will - need reminding that higher prices are just one way to make a quid. The other way is with increased volume. And that is what we'll end up with.

Mining will account for a lot higher proportion of gross domestic product than its present 9 per cent. It is true that, mining being so highly capital-intensive, its share of total employment is likely to be just a few per cent.

It is true - but irrelevant. What matters is how much income mining brings into the country. When that income is spent - by the companies, their employees, governments and shareholders - jobs are created somewhere in the economy. Where exactly? In the services sector, where else?

Those who worry about us suffering Dutch disease - in which the high exchange rate caused by a minerals boom wipes out the manufacturing sector, leaving us with nothing when the boom's over - are themselves suffering from various misconceptions.

For a start, as a matter of historical accuracy, the manufacturing industry in the Netherlands wasn't wiped out in the 1970s and is alive and kicking to this day. Industries are invariably more resilient than they fear they will be - especially when seeking special assistance from governments.

Next, we need to avoid the mercantilist fallacy that the only way to make a living is to sell things to foreigners. At least three-quarters of our workforce makes its living selling things to other Australians. The only reason we need exports is to pay for imports - but the money earnt by the miners will help us with that.

We also need to avoid the physiocratic fallacy that the only way to make a living is to produce something that can be touched. If that is true, please explain how the three-quarters of the workforce toiling in the services sector - from the Prime Minister down to the lowliest cleaner - make their living.

We won't wipe out our manufacturing sector but even if we did, there is no shred of doubt where the jobs would come from: the same place all the extra jobs created in the past 40 years have come from - the services sector.

Yet another point to remember is that, with the economy already close to full employment in the early stages of the resumption of the resources boom, and with the ageing of the population causing the demand for labour to outstrip the supply of it, the one thing we won't have to worry about in coming years is: ''Where will the jobs come from?''

No, the problem here is not the threat of mass unemployment; it's just the matter of making sure we don't pee too much of the proceeds of our resources' good fortune up against a wall.

Why is that a worry? Because that is what we've done in the past.

In terms of export income, our economy has been riding on a sheep's back or on a coal truck since its earliest days.

What we've never had is a vibrant manufacturing sector. Our economy has been too small to get sufficient economies of scale, too far from North Atlantic markets and too good at mining and agriculture (by definition, you can't have a comparative advantage in everything).

But, for most of the past century, we hankered after a big manufacturing sector like all the other rich countries had. So we erected huge tariff barriers and set up a manufacturing industry behind them, thus forcing Australians to pay a lot more for their manufactures than they could have paid had they been given access to cheaper imports.

In other words, we took a fair bit of the proceeds from our rural and mineral wealth and used it to cross-subsidise a manufacturing sector far bigger than could have stood on its own feet. And now, with all the cries about the high exchange rate, we are being asked to do it again.

Since old-style protection in the form of tariffs and import quotas is now so unfashionable, the industry's lobbyists - including its unions - are pushing for disguised protection in the form of tighter anti-dumping restrictions and handouts in the name of ''innovation''.

There is no denying our manufacturers will need to be - and will be - innovative in their efforts to survive in an era of high exchange rates. But the more governments yield to rent seeking by pretending to be subsidising ''innovation'', the longer it will take the industry to accept responsibility for its own destiny.

No, if ever there is a time when it is obviously stupid for rich countries to prop up their manufacturers against competition from developing Asia, it is now.

The obvious way to maximise our lasting benefits from the resources boom is to let secondary industry take its chances and put all our effort into boosting tertiary industry - with all its clean, safe, well-paid, high value-added and intellectually satisfying jobs.

And the obvious way to do that is to invest in a lot more education and training, thereby increasing the nation's human capital and the saleability of Australians' labour.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

When the price is right you're on the right track

if economists wore T-shirts what they'd say is PRICES MAKE THE WORLD GO ROUND. Conventional economists are obsessed by prices. It took me ages to realise that economics isn't actually about the economy. It's about markets. So economists tend to ignore those parts of the economy that don't involve markets, such as the production and consumption of goods and services that go on inside households.

Economic sociologists also study markets and what they see is the way unwritten rules of social relationships influence the behaviour of producers and consumers, sellers and buyers.

Economists, however, don't see any of that. What they see is the way prices adjust until supply and demand are in balance ("equilibrium"). They see the price mechanism as the fulcrum on which the market economy rests.

Sometimes economists say economics is the study of incentives. That's just a fancy way of saying they study prices. Lower prices are an incentive to consumers to buy more, but an incentive to producers to produce less. Higher prices create the opposite incentives. Higher wages (which are a price) are an incentive to work more, and so forth.

But what fascinate economists are relative prices - the price of this item compared with the prices of other items. They think changes in relative prices have an almost magical ability to change people's behaviour.

Inflation involves rises in the level of prices generally. Economists disapprove of inflation mainly because when the prices of everything are rising this makes it harder for people to see and react to changes in the thing economists really care about: relative prices.

Last week an assistant governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr Philip Lowe, gave a speech in which he predicted the resources boom would cause a significant change in the structure of Australia's industries. What would bring this change about? Changes in relative prices, of course.

The most basic relative price in this story is our terms of trade - the prices we get for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports. The super-high prices we're getting for our coal and iron ore make our terms of trade possibly the most favourable they have ever been and about 90 per cent better than their average for the 1990s.

The change in this relative price is the main reason for the change in another key relative price: our exchange rate - the price of our dollar relative to the price of the US dollar, the yen or the euro.

But Lowe points to some relative price changes that are much less remarked. One is the price of manufactured goods (such as clothing, footwear, furniture and floor coverings, vehicles, audio, visual and computing equipment) relative to the price of other goods and services.

The prices of manufactures have been falling relative to the prices of services around the world for many years. This is because productivity in manufacturing has improved faster than productivity in services and because more of the world's manufacturing is being done in developing countries where labour is cheap.

But in recent years that process has been accelerated in Australia by the appreciation of the dollar. So much so that the Australian retail prices of manufactured goods (many of which are imported) have not only been falling relative to the prices of other goods and services, but also falling in absolute terms.

Looking at the consumer price index over 2010, the prices of other goods and services rose by about 7 percentage points more than the prices of manufactured goods.

The next important change in relative prices is the price of "investment goods" (machinery and equipment) relative to the price of "output" (all goods and services produced in Australia). When the price of new machines is low relative to the price of the goods and services produced using those investment goods, investment in new machines tends to be high - which is just what we've seen over the past decade.

The relative price of investment goods tends to be cyclical, but there is also a clear downward trend over time. This secular decline is driven largely by technological improvements lowering the price of computing power. But, again, the decline over the past decade has been particularly large because of the high dollar (much machinery is imported).

The final key change in relative prices is the price of labour. For workers, what matters is their wage relative to the price of the goods and services they buy with that wage. Economists call this the "real consumption wage".

For firms, what matters is the wages they pay relative to the prices they get for the goods and services they produce and sell. This is the "real producer wage". Usually, these two relative wages should be pretty similar because the goods and services people buy are much the same as the goods firms produce.

In recent years, however, this correspondence has broken down because of the improvement in the terms of trade. By definition, Australian firms produce exports but not imports, but Australian consumers buy imports but not exports.

Since 2000, the economy-wide ("aggregate") real consumption wage has risen by about 25 per cent (great news for workers), whereas the aggregate real producer wage has risen by only about 10 per cent (good news for firms).

But these aggregate figures conceal big differences between industries.

In industries where productivity is improving quickly - such as manufacturing - the real producer wage tends to rise because competition passes the benefits of the higher productivity through to customers in the form of lower prices.

By contrast, in many service industries real producer wages have been pretty flat. And in mining the real producer wage has fallen significantly: although miners' wages have grown very strongly, the prices the mining companies have been getting for their coal and iron ore have risen infinitely faster.

See where this is leading? All the relative price changes we've discussed will be working to change the allocation of resources within the economy in the same direction: away from manufacturing (and other export or import-competing industries, such as tourism) and towards mining and those parts of the manufacturing and services sectors that hang off it.

Mining's share of total annual private and public sector investment spending has reached almost 20 per cent - roughly double its usual share - and may rise as high as

25 per cent before long.

However, the great bulk of the economy - the services sector, accounting for more than three-quarters of total employment - will be little affected.