Showing posts with label retail. Show all posts
Showing posts with label retail. Show all posts

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Working from home takes us back to the future

If there’s one good thing to come from this horrible year, surely it’s the breakthrough on WFH – working from home. This wonderful new idea – made possible only by the wonders of the internet – may have come by force, but for many of us it may be here to stay.

If so, it will require a lot of changes around the place, and not just in the attitudes and practices of bosses and workers. With a marked decline in commuting – surely the greatest benefit from the revolution – transport planning authorities will have to rethink their plans for more expressways and metro transport systems.

If we’re talking about fewer people coming into the central business district and more staying at home in the suburbs, over time this will mean a big shift in the relative prices of real estate. For both businesses and families, CBD land prices and rents will decline relative to prices and rents in the suburbs.

In big cities like Melbourne and Sydney, as so many jobs have moved from the suburbs to office towers in the CBD and nearby areas, the dominant trend in real estate has gone from position, position, position to proximity, proximity, proximity. Everyone would prefer to live closer to the centre.

If you measure the rise in house prices over the years, you find the closer homes are to the GPO, the more they’ve risen, with prices in outer suburbs having risen least.

But if WFH becomes lasting and widespread, that decades-long trend could be reversed. If you don’t have to spend so much time commuting, why not live further out, where bigger and better homes are more affordable and there’s more open space?

Maybe apartment living will become less attractive compared to living in a detached house with a garden, with a corresponding shift in relative prices. And if we’re going to be working at home as a regular thing, maybe we need an extra bedroom to use as a study.

It’s interesting to contemplate. But before we get too carried away, let’s remember one thing: in human history, there’s nothing new about working from home. Indeed, when you think about it you realise humans have spent far more centuries working at home than not.

We’ve been working from home – not having a factory or office to go to – since we were hunters and gatherers. That was all the millennia before the beginning of farming about 10,000 years ago.

In all the years before the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 1760s, most people earned their living from farming, and farming was done next to – and sometimes inside – the hovels of peasant workers or, in less feudal times, the homesteads of farmers.

You know that in Europe and other cold climes, families lived with their farm animals during winter. Much work would have been done in nearby sheds.

In the Middle Ages, most tradespeople worked at home. Blacksmiths, carpenters, leather workers, bakers, seamstresses, shoemakers, potters, weavers and ale brewers made their goods in their homes and sold them from their homes.

This was work suitable for women as well as men, and it could be combined with childcare and other, income-earning farm work.

In the early days of capitalism, from the 1600s to until well into the Industrial Revolution, much use was made of the “putting-out” system, as The Economist magazine describes in a recent issue.

“Workers would collect raw materials, and sometimes equipment, from a central depot. They would return home and make the goods for a few days, before giving back the finished articles and getting paid,” it says.

“Workers were independent contractors: they were paid by the piece, not by the hour, and they had little if any guarantee of work week to week.”

Is this ringing any bells?

Being economists, the magazine notes that when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, it was perfectly common to work from home. Smith famously described the operation of the division of labour in pin-making – not in a dark satanic mill but a “small manufactory” of perhaps 10 people, which could well have been attached to someone’s house.

Eventually, however, the putting-out system gave way to full-on manufacturing in factories – despite the resistance of the machine-smashing Luddites who preferred the old ways.

The move to factories was an inevitable consequence of the development of bigger and better machines in the unending pursuit of economies of scale. Workers moved from the farm to the factory and then, as technological advance continued, from highly automated factories to city offices and, eventually, sitting at a desk staring at a screen.

It’s economic development and the pursuit of ever-greater material prosperity that opened the geographic divide between home and work. Which is not to say that further technological change – including the advent of Slack and Zoom – can’t make it possible to bring them back together for many, though obviously not all, workers. Provided, of course, that’s what workers and, more significantly, bosses see as being to their advantage.

Here, too, it’s worth remembering a bit of history. The Economist notes that, according to some economic historians, workers were exploited under the putting-out system. Those who owned the machines and raw materials enjoyed enormous power over those whose labour they used.

It was difficult for workers spread across the countryside to team up against the bosses and their take-it-or-leave-it offers. Crammed into a big factory, however, workers could more easily join together to ask for higher wages. Trade unions started to grow from the 1850s onwards.

Happy speculation aside, there’s no certainty how much working from home will take on. If it does, there’s a risk that will be because bosses see it as a new way to cut costs. That really would be turning the clock back.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

News from the shopping trolley: retailers are doing it tough

If I told you that a big reason we're feeling such cost-of-living pressure is the increasing profits of the big supermarket chains, department stores, discount stores and other retailers, would you believe me? A lot of people would.

But that would just show how little we understand of the strange things happening in the economy in recent years. The economy in which we live and work keeps changing and getting more complicated, the digital revolution is disrupting industry after industry, but we have far too little time to check out what's happening – especially behind the scenes – so we rely on the casual impressions we gain along the way and on our long-held views about who's ripping it off and who's getting screwed.

Which are often off-beam. Perhaps because in many respects it's a good news story, few people realise the way digital disruption is putting retailing - a pretty big part of the economy, and a big part of household budgets - through the wringer.

If this meant retail staff were being laid off in their thousands we'd have heard about it. If it meant big retail chains were jacking up their prices, we'd have been told.

Instead, increased competition between retailers is making it much harder than usual for them to put up their prices, and causing some prices to fall.

It's all explained by Matthew Carter in an article in last week's Reserve Bank Bulletin, using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Reserve's regular contact with many medium and large retailers.

The article covers about a third of the "basket" of goods and services bought by Australian households, the changing prices of which are measured by the consumer price index. That is, not just food and other things you buy in supermarkets, but clothing and footwear, furniture, household items and much else, though not motor vehicles and fuel. Nor other classes of consumer spending not done through retailers, such as the costs of housing, healthcare and education.

Since the early 2000s, the increased competition in retailing has come first from online shopping – competition not just between local and overseas retailers, but between those local retailers who use the internet and those who don't, as well as between those who do.

The other main source of increased competition in retailing is the arrival of big new international companies, such as Aldi, Costco and, of course, Amazon, which is both online and a big new arrival from overseas. (The article doesn't mention two other disruptive developments: the advent of "category killers" such as Officeworks and Bunnings, and the decline of the department store.)

The basic model of markets used by economists assumes that businesses compete with each other mainly on price. In real-world Australia, however, the two, three or at most four big companies that dominate most markets much prefer to compete via product differentiation, marketing and advertising, and avoid price competition.

That's what online shopping has changed. And it's not just that the internet has made it infinitely easier for shoppers to compare prices. It's also that, on the net, it's much easier to compare prices than to compare colours or quality.

And when a big foreign player decides to try to break into an established market, price competition is the main way it tries to gain market share.

The result is that retailing has become more price conscious. And retailers are telling the Reserve Bank that their customers have become more price sensitive – which isn't surprising considering how slowly their wages are growing.

Nor does it matter much that, so far, not many people do their grocery shopping online, or that Aldi is still much smaller than Woolies or Coles. The others have protected themselves from losing market share by matching their rivals' lower prices.

Another effect of digitisation is to make it a lot easier for retailers to change their prices (as well as to find out what their rivals are charging). And the greater price consciousness of their customers means that 60 per cent of retailers now review their prices weekly or even daily.

This means many retailers more frequently discount their prices - put them "on special" - and make the discounts deeper.

The Reserve Bank's survey of retailers shows the main reasons they lower prices is because their competitors have cut their prices or because demand has weakened.

Carter has analysed the Bureau of Statistics' industry statistics and found that the net profit margins of both food and non-food retailers had fallen by about 1.75 percentage points (that's 1.75¢ in every dollar of sales) since 2011-12.

It may not sound much, but it is – especially in supermarkets, which are low-margin, high turnover businesses. Further analysis confirms that this decline comes from reduced ability to mark-up wholesale prices, rather than higher operating costs.

However, retailers are fighting back, trying to improve their mark-ups by offering more own-brand products (cuts out the wholesaler) and more premium brands (higher mark-up), while some non-food retailers are joining the supermarkets in moving from the traditional "high-low" pricing strategy ("specials" and frequent "sales") to an "everyday low price" strategy. By selling more, they gain more power to bargain with wholesalers.

Of all the things that are making our lives tough, higher retail prices ain't one of them.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Digital disruption is changing us for better and worse

The rise of the internet and other aspects of the digital revolution has changed our working and private lives – mainly for the better. But all technological advance has its downside.

We tend to soon take the benefits for granted and are only starting to understand the costs.

To start with the latest, how many of us watched every moment of either or both grand finals, compared with how many of us actually attended the grounds?

If many of us did neither, it’s because digitisation has greatly multiplied the range of rival entertainments available to us – including while we’re supposed to be working.

Of course, the televising of sport – which has commercialised almost every (male) comp – began long before the internet. But it’s now digitally enhanced.

Trouble is, we seem to be watching more sport, but playing less. Is this a net plus?

Staying with leisure, who hasn’t passed many pleasant hours watching YouTube? Or spent hours on Facebook – still the only commercially significant social medium – thinking how much more exciting their friends’ adventures are compared to their own, or how better-looking or happier their grandkids are.

Mobile phones and social media have given us much more frequent contact with family and friends – although I agree with social commentator Hugh Mackay that digital contact is greatly inferior, in terms of emotional satisfaction and effective communication, to face-to-face contact.

We spend so much of our lives staring at screens, which seem to get smaller when we’re on the go, and ever bigger when we’re at home.

Indeed, I sometimes think there can be few white-collar jobs left – from chief executive to office kid - that don’t consist mainly of sitting at a desk in an office, staring at a screen. As a consequence, many jobs have become more office-bound.

Reporters, for instance, use up far less shoe leather. They “attend” a media conference without leaving the office. The hearings of the banking royal commission occurred mainly in Melbourne, but my colleague Clancy Yeates listened to almost every word by staying stuck to his desk in Sydney.

The internet has revolutionised banking, bill paying and how we pay for things in shops or repay a friend – and there’s a lot more to come. You need to be very old to think it noteworthy that these days we rarely darken the doors of our bank branch.

In the day, city workers devoted much of their lunch hours to walking a few streets to pay an electricity bill at the power company’s office. These days, you pay bills via the internet – or set up an arrangement to have them paid automatically.

(Lunch hours are disappearing, too. Eat something at your desk. But while you’re eating, it’s OK to switch from doing spreadsheets to catching up with the news on your favourite newspaper’s website.)

Some people find it harder to manage their money because it’s now less tangible and more conceptual. Pay envelopes stuffed with notes were long ago replaced by direct credits to your bank account. You pay for things with a plastic card (meaning many young people have trouble learning to manage their credit card). We now wave a card – or a phone – to pay the tiniest of amounts in stores.

When the Reserve Bank’s “new payments platform” – allowing you to move money from one account to another if you know, say, the other person’s mobile phone number – is fully adopted, it will be one of the last nails in the coffin of cheques, and bank notes will be a step closer to being used only by people up to no good.

Digital disruption – which has much further to run – almost always brings pain to conventional producers and their workers, but benefits to consumers. Digitised products are always more convenient and usually cheaper. They bring wider choice and easier comparison.

Online shopping is in the process of eliminating the “Australia tax”, whereby Australians pay higher prices for many items than consumers in America and elsewhere, but are sometimes blocked from accessing the cheaper foreign sites.

The digital revolution is changing the structure of our economy (as well as all the other advanced economies) in ways we don’t yet know about, don’t fully understand and don’t even know how to measure properly.

While the punters bang on about the cost of living, the Reserve Bank says one reason consumer price inflation stays so low is that heightened competition in retailing – most of it related directly or indirectly to digitisation – is forcing down prices, or holding them down.

Now we’re told that weak growth in wages is explained partly by the slowness with which advances in technology are spreading from the leading firm in an industry to the rest of them.

If so, that’s another downside from the digital revolution.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Digital disruption is stopping retail prices from rising

I’ve heard of the gap between perception and reality, but this is ridiculous. According to the experts, increased competition among supermarkets, department stores and other retailers is holding down prices in a way we’ve rarely seen before.

This fits with the consumer price index, which showed prices rising by just 2.1 per cent over the year to June. Over the past three years, the annual increase has averaged even less: 1.8 per cent.

What it doesn’t fit with are the complaints we keep hearing about the high cost of living. I read it’s got so bad parents are raiding their kids’ piggy banks to help make ends meet.

How can the experts’ reality be reconciled with the people’s perceptions? It’s simple. With a few glaring exceptions – electricity prices, for instance – the cost of living isn’t rising much.

No, the reason many people are having trouble making ends meet is because their wages aren’t growing much either. We’re used to wages rising a bit faster than prices, but that hasn’t been happening for the past four years.

Modern politicians seek popularity by reinforcing our perceptions, whether they’re right or wrong. If you doubt that, just listen to the soothing noises Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be making between now and the election.

Unfortunately, our tiresome econocrats remain committed to determining the reality and correcting misperceptions. Last week Reserve Bank deputy governor Dr Guy Debelle gave a speech which departed from the official talking points and revealed a truth which must not be spoken: the digital revolution is squeezing many retailers’ profit margins and forcing them to cut costs so rising prices don’t cost them customers.

Debelle says that, since 2015, the price of the typical food basket (excluding fruit and veg, and meals out and takeaway) has actually fallen a fraction. Fruit and vegetable prices have risen, but by only a third of their average rate over the past 25 years.

The prices of alcoholic drinks have risen more slowly since 2015, and non-alcoholic drink prices have fallen a bit.

The prices of consumer durable items, including fridges and furniture, have been falling since 2015, meaning they’ve hardly increased over the past 25 years.

The prices of audio-visual equipment – including TVs, computers and phones – have fallen significantly over the past 25 years and particularly the past three.

If you’re finding this hard to believe, there are two main explanations. The first is that, because bad news interests us more than good news, big price rises stick in our minds, but small price falls don’t. Nor do we notice when prices stay unchanged for long periods.

The second is that every new TV, computer or phone does better tricks than the previous model. The new model may cost more than old one, but when the official statisticians allow for the value of the improvement in quality, they almost always find that the underlying price has fallen. Again, this is something we should notice, but usually don’t. Our perceptions play us false.

If we’re having trouble affording the new whiz-bang, big-screen, digital, internet-connected TV, that’s not the higher cost of living, it’s us straining for a higher standard of living.

When we confuse the two we’re deluding ourselves. We’re not getting better off, we’re just having to pay more.

Debelle says changes in the cost of imported goods used to be passed straight on by wholesalers and retailers. But over the past decade or so retailers have become reluctant to pass on higher import prices.

This is only partly because consumer spending hasn’t been growing as strongly as it used to. Debelle finds evidence that net retail margins have been declining.

Cost-cutting means the productivity of labour in retail is rising faster than in other industries, with the savings used to keep prices down rather than fatten profits.

What’s been happening in recent years is intensifying competition between retailers. One cause is the advent of “category killers” such as Bunnings, Officeworks and JB Hi-Fi. These are giving department stores and smaller retailers a hard time.

The buying-power of the many chains of liquor stores now owned by Coles and Woolworths is keeping prices down and putting great pressure on independent stores.

We’ve also seen large foreign retailers setting up bricks-and-mortar operations in Australia. In clothing, these include H&M, Zara, Topshop and Uniqlo.

The biggest bricks-and-mortar disrupter, of course, is Aldi supermarkets. Aldi seems to have taken market share from independent IGA stores, while forcing Coles and Woolies to avoid losing customers by lowering their prices.

Then there’s online shopping, which exposes our retailers not just to competition from big overseas businesses but between themselves.

Online sales still make up only about 5 per cent of total retail trade, but they’re growing rapidly, increasing by 50 per cent over the year to June.

Last year local retailers trembled over the impending arrival of Amazon, but so far it hasn’t had a big impact. Not directly, anyway. Maybe the locals have taken evasive action by keeping their prices low.

Smart phones have made it easier for people to comparison shop – even while in someone else’s store.

And I believe the internet increases the emphasis on price competition, rather than the emotive advertising and marketing big business prefers.

Digital disruption is bad news for the workers in disrupted industries – including journos – but don’t let anyone delude you: it’s almost always good news for consumers.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Retailers affecting the economy in ways we don’t see

As uncomprehending punters complain of the soaring cost of living, and the better-versed ponder the puzzle of exceptionally weak increases in prices and wages, don't forget to allow for the strange things happening in retailing.

It's a point the Reserve Bank's been making for months without it entering our collective consciousness the way it should have.

The debate over the cause of weak price and wage growth has been characterised as a choice between a "cyclical" (temporary) problem as we recover only slowly from the resources boom, and a "structural" (long-lasting) problem caused by the effects of globalisation and industrial relations "reform" that's robbed employees of their power to bargain collectively.

To the annoyance of protagonists on both sides, I've taken a bit-of-both position. But the Reserve has raised a different structural contributor to the problem: the consequences of greatly increased competition in a hugely significant sector of the economy, retailing.

The media have focused on the digital disruption aspect, with the arrival in Oz of the ultimate category killer, Amazon Marketplace.

But that happened only late last year and, although retailers may already have been tightening up on wage increases and other costs in anticipation of greater threat from online competitors, much of those consequences are yet to be felt.

Of greater significance to date is the arrival of new foreign bricks-and-mortar competitors such as Aldi and Costco.

As Dr Luci Ellis, an assistant governor of the Reserve, said last month, "Australia has seen a marked increase in the number of major retail players. Foreign retailers have entered the local market in recent years and continue to do so.

"This has also induced the existing players to reduce their costs to stay competitive, for example by improving inventory management. This has probably been a bit easier for larger or less-diversified retailers than for smaller firms.

"Whether through lower costs, narrower margins or a combination of both, this competitive dynamic has weighed on prices for consumer durables.

"And for staples such as food, competition and related changes in pricing strategies (such as 'everyday low price' strategies) have contributed" to keeping prices low.

If you doubt that adds up to much, try this. According to the consumer price index, prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages (including restaurant and take-away meals) were almost unchanged over 15 months to December, and rose only 3.6 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

Prices of clothing and footwear fell by 3.5 per cent over the 15 months to December, and fell by 4.6 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

Prices of furniture and household equipment fell by 1.5 per cent over the 15 months to December, and rose by just 4.5 per cent over the previous six and a half years.

As Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe has remarked, this is good news for consumers, although not for some retailers – nor their employees, for that matter.

Sometimes I think everyone would be a lot happier if prices and wages were growing by 4 per cent a year rather than 2 per cent. This would be a delusion, of course, but the beginning of behavioural economic wisdom is to realise that illusions abound in the economy.

Low inflation is not a bad thing to the extent that it's caused by increased competition forcing down businesses' profit margins – and goodness knows the two big supermarket chains have plenty of profitability to cut into.

Indeed, the benefit to consumers – who, remember, include all employees – makes competition-caused low inflation a good thing. (What's not a good thing is low inflation caused by weak demand.)

And particularly where increased competition involves innovation and digital disruption, it usually brings consumers greater choice and convenience, not just lower prices.

The downside of increased competition and digital disruption, however, is the adverse consequences for employees. Some may lose their jobs; many may find pay rises a lot harder to extract from bosses worried about whether their business has a viable future.

Retailing is our second biggest employer, with about 1.2 million full-time and part-time workers. And whereas the overall wage price index rose by 2.1 per cent over the year to December, in retailing it rose by only 1.6 per cent. This was lower than all other industries bar mining, on 1.4 per cent.

It's likely to be some years yet before the disruption of retailing has run its course, and this may mean structural change in the sector acts as a continuing drag on wage growth overall.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tough times restore productivity performance

It's official: Australia's rate of improvement in the productivity of labour returned to normal during the reign of Julia Gillard.

How is that possible when big business was so dissatisfied and uncomfortable during Gillard's time as prime minister? The latter explains the former.

According to figures in a speech by Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens last week, labour productivity in all industries improved at an annual trend rate of 2.1 per cent over the 14 years to the end of 2004, but then slumped to an annual rate of just 0.9 per cent over the six years to 2010.

This is what had big business rending its garments over the productivity crisis. Egged on by the national dailies, chief executives queued to attribute the crisis to the Labor government's "reregulation" of the labour market, its failure to cut the rate of company tax, plus anything else they didn't approve of.

Except that, according to the Reserve Bank's figuring, labour productivity improved at the annual rate of 2 per cent over the three years to the end of 2013.

So why no crisis after all? Well, as wiser heads said at the time, much of the apparent weakness in productivity was explained by temporary factors such as, in the utilities industry, all those desalination plants built and then mothballed and, more significantly, all the labour going into building all those new mines and gas facilities.

No doubt much of the recent recovery is explained by the many mines now starting to come on line - meaning we can expect the productivity figures to remain healthy for some years. Few extra workers are being employed to produce the extra output - another way of saying the productivity of the miners' labour is much improved.

But mining hardly explains all the improvement, so what else? At the time when business complaints were at their height, many businesses - particularly manufacturers - were suffering mightily under the high dollar.

Many have been forced to make painful cuts, abandoning unprofitable lines and laying off staff. Some have gone out backwards, with the best of their workers being taken up by rival employers.

Guess what? Such a process is exactly the sort of thing that lifts the productivity of the surviving firms. In their dreams, chief executives like to imagine their productivity - which they perpetually conflate with their profitability - being improved by governments doing things to make their lives easier.

But requiring them to be lifters rather than leaners - which is pretty much what That Woman did - usually gets better results. And since the dollar remains too high and seems unlikely to come down anytime soon, it's reasonable to expect the non-mining sector's productivity performance to continue improving. Who told you productivity was soft and cuddly?

As for the convenient argument that the productivity slump must surely be explained by Labor's "reregulation" of the labour market under its Fair Work changes, it's cast into question by some figuring reported in another speech last week, from Dr David Gruen, of Treasury.

Gruen examined the rise in nominal wages over the decade to March this year, as measured by the wage price index, then compared this aggregate rise with the rise for particular industries. In contrast to the days when wage-fixing really was centrally regulated, he found a far bit of dispersion around the aggregate.

Wages in mining, for instance, rose a cumulative 9.7 percentage points more than the aggregate. Wages in construction rose by 5.4 percentage points more and wages in the professional, scientific and technical sector rose by 2.5 points more.

By contrast, wages in manufacturing rose by a cumulative 0.9 percentage points less than aggregate wages. Those in retailing rose by 4.3 points less and those in the accommodation and food sector rose by 7.6 points less.

Notice any kind of pattern there? It's pretty clear. Wages in those industries most directly boosted by the resources boom rose significantly faster than aggregate wages, though not excessively so considering it was a 10-year period.

By contrast, wages in those industries worst affected by the boom-induced high exchange rate - manufacturing and tourism - rose more slowly than the aggregate. Retail had its own problems, with the return of the more prudent consumer, and its wages grew by less than the aggregate.

That's just the dispersion you'd expect to see in a "reregulated" labour market? Hardly.

What it shows is that we now have a genuinely decentralised and more flexible wage-fixing system, delivering wage growth in particular industries more appropriate to their circumstances.

If that's reregulation, let's have more of it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Clear signs the economy is picking up

At last some good news on the economy. This week's national accounts for the December quarter show the economy speeding up and, in the process, starting its fabled "transition" away from being driven largely by mining investment.

The economy's medium-term "trend" rate of growth in real gross domestic product - the rate that holds unemployment constant - is thought to be 3 per cent a year. For much of last year the economy was seen to be travelling at only about 2.5 per cent, thus leading to a slow but steady rise in unemployment.

But this week's accounts from the Bureau of Statistics show real GDP growing by 0.8 per cent in the December quarter and by 2.8 per cent over last year. Applying a bit of judgment, we can say the economy is probably now growing at an annualised rate of about 2.8 per cent.

This isn't enough to stop unemployment rising - and we really need a period of growth well above 3 per cent to get the jobless rate heading back down to its own trend level of about 5 per cent - but it beats 2.5 per cent.

And, as I say, the accounts show reasonably convincing evidence the "rebalancing" of the economy - away from mining investment and towards the other sectors of the economy and sources of growth - is finally under way.

After quite a few quarters of weakness, consumer spending grew by 0.8 per cent in the quarter and by 2.6 per cent over the year. This strengthening is a bit of a surprise when you remember household disposable income is only crawling ahead, with no growth in employment and very low rises in wages.

Arithmetically, the explanation is a fall in the household saving rate from 10.6 per cent of disposable income to 9.7 per cent. But this ratio is volatile, so I wouldn't take it too literally. It's possible households have shaved their rate of saving - say, from the high 10s to the low 10s - but I doubt it signals a return to the low saving rates we saw in the couple of decades before the global financial crisis.

The second sign of rebalancing was long-awaited real growth of 1 per cent in spending on home building, including renovations. This is not unexpected considering the rises in established house prices and in the issue of local government building permits.

More recent "partial indicators" for the month of January confirm that consumption and home building have picked up. Nominal retail sales grew by a strong 1.2 in the month to be up 6.2 per cent on a year earlier. And residential building approvals rose strongly in the month to be up 34 per cent on a year earlier.

Public sector spending rose by 1.1 per cent in the quarter, contributing 0.3 percentage points to the overall growth of 0.8 per cent in real GDP. Most of this came from public infrastructure spending.

But now we get to the bad news. Most of the growth I've outlined so far was offset by a sharp fall in business investment spending, which dropped by 3.6 per cent.

Most of this decline is explained by a drop in mining investment as the investment phase of the resources boom comes to an end. It's now clear mining investment peaked about a year ago.

It was our knowledge that mining investment was about to fall back from the dizzying heights it reached that caused us to see the need for "transition" or "rebalancing" in the economy (plus a few other buzzwords I've forgotten).

But this brings us to the weak part in the transition so far. Although most of the fall in total business investment is explained by mining, it's clear investment spending in the non-mining sector also fell - which is not what the doctor ordered. Rough estimates by Kieran Davies, of Barclays bank, suggest it fell by 1.2 per cent in the quarter and by 7 per cent over the year.

So if most of the growth in domestic demand in the quarter was cancelled out by the fall in business investment, where did the overall growth in aggregate demand of 0.8 per cent come from? From the one place left: net external demand, otherwise known as "net exports" - exports minus imports.

The volume (quantity) of exports grew by 2.4 per cent in the quarter and by 6.5 per cent in the year, whereas the volume of imports fell by 0.6 per cent in the quarter and by 4.6 per cent in the year.
Put the two together and net exports made a positive contribution to overall growth of 0.6 percentage points in the quarter and 2.4 points over the year.

Why are exports growing so strongly? Mainly because of rapid growth in our exports of minerals and energy as new mines come on stream. Why are imports so weak? Partly because domestic demand has been weak, but particularly because of the fall off in mining investment, which involves a lot of imported equipment.

So the investment phase of the resources boom is coming to an end and leaving a hole in the economy, but the production and export phase of the boom is helping to fill the hole - helping to tide us over while the non-mining economy is getting back on its feet (to mix a few metaphors).

The resources boom's now favourable effect on net exports translates into a much lower current account deficit on our balance of payments. Whereas it used to get as high as 6 per cent of GDP in the old days, and averaged about 4.5 per cent, for the December quarter it was just 2.6 per cent.

Maybe the economy has a future after all.

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.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How what's hurting most is also what saved us

While many business people see the economy as badly performing and badly managed, our econocrats see it as having performed quite well and better than could have been expected. Why such radically different perspectives on the same economy?

Partly because business people - particularly those from small businesses - view the economy from their own circumstances out: If I'm doing it tough, the economy must be stuffed. By contrast, macro-economists are trained to ignore anecdotes and view the economy from a helicopter, so to speak, using economy-wide statistical indicators.

A bigger difference, however, is that business people are comparing what we've got with what we had, whereas the economic managers are comparing what we've got with what we might have got, which was a lot worse.

Business people know everything was going swimmingly in the years leading up to the global financial crisis of 2008-09, but in the years since many industries - manufacturing, tourism, overseas education, retailing, wholesaling - have been travelling through very rough waters.

The econocrats, however, have a quite different perspective: whereas the rest of us love a good boom, those responsible for managing the economy view them with trepidation. Why? Because they know they almost always end in tears and recriminations.

Particularly commodity booms. As a major exporter of rural and mineral commodities, we've had plenty of these in the past. They've invariably led to worsening inflation, a blowout in the trade deficit and ever-rising interest rates, followed by a recession and climbing unemployment. The latest resources boom was the biggest yet, involving the best terms of trade in 200 years, leading to a once-a-century mining investment boom. It could have - even should have - led to a disaster, but it didn't.

The macro managers' primary responsibility is to maintain "internal balance" - low inflation and low unemployment - which involves achieving a reasonably stable rate of economic growth. No wonder commodity booms make them nervous.

So how have they gone? As Dr Philip Lowe, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, said in a speech this week, over the three years to March, economic output (real gross domestic product) has increased by 9 per cent, the number of people with jobs has risen by more than half a million and the unemployment rate today is 5.4 per cent, the same as it was three years ago.

Underlying inflation has averaged 2.5 per cent over the period, the midpoint of the medium-term inflation target. "So over these three years we have seen growth close to trend, a stable and relatively low unemployment rate and inflation at target," he says.

And that's not all. The investment boom hasn't led to a large increase in the current account deficit. There hasn't been an explosion in credit. Increases in asset prices have generally been contained. And the average level of interest rates has been below the long-term average, despite the huge additional demand generated by the record levels of investment and high commodity prices.

So "we have managed to maintain a fair degree of internal balance during a period in which there has been considerable structural change, a very large shift in world relative prices, a major boom in investment and a financial crisis in many of the North Atlantic economies", Lowe says.

So how was this surprisingly OK performance achieved? Well, that's the funny thing. The two factors that have done so much to make life a misery for so many businesses - the high dollar and increased household saving - are the very same factors that have been critical to our good macro-economic performance.

The high dollar brought about by the resources boom has reduced the ability of our export industries to compete in the international market and reduced the competitiveness of our import-competing industries in our domestic market, making life very tough for many of them.

For a while, many hoped the dollar's rise would be temporary, but now "there is a greater recognition that the high exchange rate is likely to be quite persistent and firms, including in the manufacturing sector, are adjusting to this", Lowe says.

"Many are looking to improve their internal processes and address inefficiencies. They are focusing on products where value-added is highest and where the quality of the workforce is a strategic advantage. We hear from businesses right across the country that they are looking for improvements and that many are finding them."

But here's the other side of the story. Had we not experienced the sizeable appreciation, he says, it's highly likely the economy would have overheated and we would have had substantially higher inflation and substantially higher interest rates.

"This would not have been in the interests of the community at large or ... in the interests of the sector currently being adversely affected by the high exchange rate." And it's unlikely we would have avoided a substantial real exchange-rate appreciation, with it coming through the more costly route of higher inflation. (The real exchange rate is the nominal exchange rate adjusted for our inflation rate relative to those of our trading partners.)

Next, the rise in the net household saving rate from about zero to 10 per cent of household disposable income since the mid-noughties represents about an extra $90 billion a year being saved rather than consumed by households.

This reversal of the long-running trend for consumption to grow faster than household income explains much of the pain retailers and wholesalers have been suffering. We've had more retail selling capacity than we've needed, forcing shops to fight for their share of business.

But had households spent that extra $90 billion a year on consumption, it's likely there would have been significant overheating. The exchange rate would have been pushed up, the trade balance would be worse and there would have been more borrowing from the rest of the world.

"And both inflation and interest rates would have been higher. I suggest that these are not developments that would have been warmly welcomed by most in the community," Lowe concludes.

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, July 11, 2012

Why retailers aren't so greedy

When you buy something in a supermarket or a department store, how much of the price you pay is the store's mark-up? And of that mark-up, how much covers the store's costs and how much is clear profit? Everyone has their own answers to these questions. But I suspect most of those answers are based on vague impressions and long-held prejudices rather than hard evidence.

When I was growing up we were always hearing about the depredations of "middlemen". The poor farmers got terribly low prices for their meat and other produce, but by the time that produce went through many hands to reach us in the city, the prices were sky high.

These days, we hear continually about the evil practices of the two big supermarket chains. They're busy screwing the life out of dairy farmers and other suppliers, just so they can use cheap milk and bread to lure us into their stores.

This may sound like a good thing for consumers beset by an ever-rising cost of living, but don't be fooled, we're told. The wicked retailers may be undercharging for a few staples, but they make up for it by overcharging for everything else. Then there are all the people discovering from the internet just how much lower prices are in other countries. More proof we're being ripped off.

In the hands of the media, it's a morality tale. The farmers and manufacturers are the good guys getting squeezed; the big retailers and other middlemen are the bad guys raking it in and doing us down.

It would be good to measure all these impressions against some hard statistical facts - facts supplied by an article in the latest issue of the Reserve Bank's Bulletin, on which I'll be drawing heavily.

Part of the problem is our lack of imagination. Many of us have only a vague idea of the role played by the businesses that operate between primary and secondary producers and you and me.

Most retail goods - including food and non-alcoholic drinks, clothing, footwear, electrical equipment, furniture and home appliances, and motor vehicles, but not "meals out" or takeaways - are produced in factories, whether locally or overseas.

The basic cost of producing those goods includes the cost of transporting them to wholesalers' warehouses, plus import duty where still applicable. Wholesalers incur costs in storing goods and transporting them around the country to retailers' stores, plus normal administrative costs. Retailers incur costs of rent, storage, display, finance and other costs.

Naturally, wholesalers and retailers employ many workers to help them carry out their role, not of making goods, but of distributing them into the hands of consumers across the nation. Indeed, the work of this "retail supply chain" accounts for about 7 per cent of the final value of all goods and services sold in Australia (gross domestic product) and about 10 per cent of total employment. So one worker in 10 is employed as a supposedly unproductive "middleman".

On average, the manufactured cost of the goods we buy accounts for about half the retail prices we pay. About 40 per cent of the prices we pay cover the costs incurred by wholesalers and retailers, with wage costs accounting for a bit less than 20 per cent and other costs for a bit more than 20 per cent.

That leaves the wholesalers' and retailers' net profits accounting for only about 10 per cent of the prices we pay, with about three-quarters of that going to the retailers.

Of course, these overall averages differ for different products. Whereas the gross profit margin (that is, before allowing for expenses) averages 50 per cent, it's closer to 60 per cent for clothing and footwear, a bit over 50 per cent for electrical equipment, a bit under 50 for furniture and appliances, about 40 per cent for food and drink, and just 25 per cent for motor vehicles.

Gross margins also vary according to the size of retail outlets and the speed at which stock turns over. Margins are higher in boutique stores than department stores, and higher in small convenience stores than big supermarkets, where the profit-making emphasis is on rapid turnover rather than high margins.

The Reserve Bank's detailed examination covered the figures for the nine years to 2007-08, though other checks suggest they haven't changed much since then. It found the production prices of locally manufactured goods rose quite strongly over the period. As well, the wage rates and other costs paid by wholesalers and retailers rose by more than 3 per cent a year.

Even so, the final prices of retail goods rose by only about 1 per cent a year. So much for the notion retailers have been getting greedier.

But how have they managed to turn costs rising by 3 per cent or so a year into retail prices rising by 1 per cent and do so without suffering any squeeze in their net profit margins?

Because, although business people are always assuring us there's nothing they can do but pass higher costs on to us, in truth there's a lot they can do.

One thing they've done is increasingly substitute cheaper imported goods for ever more expensive locally made goods. If that worries you, have a look at my little video on the website or iPad app today.

The other thing they've done is raise the productivity of their labour, with the volume of their sales rising a lot faster than the total hours of the workers they employ. They've invested in labour-saving equipment and facilities.

And note this: why have they being working so hard to limit their price rises? Because of the power of market forces - in this case, customers who don't like paying more.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The dots linking us to Europe's woes don't join

Humans are story-telling animals. We seek to understand developments in the world around us by turning them into ''narratives''.

When several things happen in the same field, people - including journalists - have a tendency to turn them into a coherent story by stringing them together.

For instance, the biggest economic news story for months has been the trouble the Europeans are having with their currency and high levels of sovereign debt, which are causing huge financial instability.
So, when, in the midst of this, our Reserve Bank cut the official interest rate and revised down its forecasts for the economy's growth, journalists and others joined the dots: clearly, and as might have been expected, the problems in Europe have caused a marked slowing in our economy.

There's just one problem: when you examine the facts, they don't fit the sense-making narrative people have woven them into.

The first point is that, despite the downward revisions to the Reserve's forecasts - which are unlikely to be very different from Treasury's revised forecasts when we see them in the next week or two - the economy isn't expected to slow down.

The truth is we've already had our slowdown when real gross domestic product contracted by 0.9 per cent in the March quarter of this year, mainly because of the effect of the Queensland floods. The economy has been recovering since that setback - but more slowly than expected because it is taking the Queensland coalminers so long to fix their flooded pits.

Over the year to last December, GDP grew by 2.7 per cent. Over the year to March, the growth rate dropped to 1 per cent and, over the year to June, it recovered to 1.4 per cent. The Reserve's latest forecast is for growth of 2.75 per cent over the year to December. Sound like a slowdown to you?

It's forecasting growth of 3 per cent to 3.5 per cent in 2012 and 2013. Is that weak growth? No, it's about ''trend'' - the economy's actual medium-term average rate of growth in the past and also the maximum rate at which it can grow over the coming medium term without worsening inflation, given the economy is already close to full capacity.

But, if the economy isn't slowing at present and isn't expected to slow, why has the Reserve had to revise down its forecasts? Because the economy isn't taking off the way the Reserve had earlier expected it would.

Admittedly, the main reason the economy now seems unlikely to really speed up is the dampening effect of Europe. The continuing saga has hit the sharemarket and made a lot of people feel poorer, as well as sapping the confidence of consumers and, more particularly, business people.

The Reserve cut the official interest rate a click - by 0.25 percentage points to 4.5 per cent - not because it feared disaster was on its way from Europe but because it now realised it wouldn't have as much trouble as it earlier expected keeping inflation within the 2 per cent to 3 per cent range over the next year or two.

A year earlier, it had tightened the ''stance'' of monetary (interest-rate) policy to ''slightly restrictive'' - one click above ''neutral'' (normal) - because it expected the economy to take off and push inflation above the top of the range. But now that was unlikely to happen.

As well, the Bureau of Statistics' move to a new series for the consumer price index had effectively revised history, showing underlying inflation in the June quarter wasn't quite as high as first thought and, for technical reasons, wouldn't rise as much in future.

There's plenty of evidence the economy isn't slowing and isn't likely to slow. For one thing, it's clear all the talk of ''the cautious consumer'' has been overdone. The weakness in retail sales (which in any case have been growing more strongly in recent months) isn't reflected in overall consumer spending, which is growing at about trend.

It turns out consumers have been changing their pattern of consumption rather than slowing the growth in it, buying less from department stores but more from service providers, including the providers of overseas holidays.

The acid test of whether consumers have become cautious is whether their spending is growing at a slower rate than their disposable income, thus causing their rate of saving to rise. The household saving rate seems to have stabilised at 10 per cent of disposable income.

The Reserve's revised forecasts imply it will rise a fraction in the short term, but be stable at 10 per cent over the next two years. If so, the laws of arithmetic say consumer spending will rise in lock-step with disposable income.

As for the index of consumer sentiment, although it fell heavily earlier this year, it's risen for three months in a row.

The economy is still receiving - and is expected to continue receiving - huge stimulus from the rest of the world, in the form of the resources boom. It's coming from the high prices we're getting for our mineral exports, from the growing volume of those exports and from hugely increasing investment spending on the development of new mines and natural gas facilities.

Although the Reserve believes our terms of trade - export prices relative to import prices - probably reached their peak in the September quarter and will now fall back, they're likely to stay better than we're used to. Iron ore prices fell heavily, but more recently are recovering.

It's true the labour market isn't as strong as it was last year. The unemployment rate has edged up from 4.9 per cent to 5.2 per cent. It may rise a little further, but then fall back. Overall, it seems about enough jobs are being created to cover the growth in the labour force.

And remember, with economists believing the lowest unemployment can go without causing inflation is about 4.75 per cent, we aren't travelling too badly.

The new forecasts are built on the assumption that sovereign debt problems in Europe don't cause a marked further deterioration in financial and economic conditions there. ''Fears of a major [global] downturn have not been borne out so far,'' the Reserve says.

There's a fair chance it could still happen, of course. But it's in no one's interests to jump to the conclusion it will.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Retail despair as consumers spurn goods for services

There's a bumper sticker that says: if you think money doesn't buy happiness, you don't know where to shop. It's just a joke. But there's actually a bit of science in it. Research by psychologists says buying stuff doesn't bring us as much satisfaction as buying experiences - such as a holiday or even a restaurant meal.

Experiences are more satisfying than goods because they leave us with memories to think over (which we often enhance by forgetting the bad or boring bits) and give us something to talk about with our friends. And, after all, what are we but the sum of our experiences?

Experiences are services rather than goods and it's possible Australians are taking the psychologists' findings to heart because, as Dr Philip Lowe of the Reserve Bank pointed out in a speech to the Australian Economic Forum this week, consumers have been switching their spending towards services and away from goods.

The Bureau of Statistics' household expenditure survey shows that, over the quarter century since 1984, the proportion of household spending devoted to food felLby more than 3 percentage points to just 16.5 per cent.

The proportion devoted to clothing, footwear, household furniture and appliances fell from about 14 per cent to just over 8 per cent. Similarly, the share going to spending on alcohol and tobacco dropped by almost 1.5 percentage points to less than 4 per cent.

Over that period we're also spending smaller proportions of our budgets on cars and petrol and - get this - fuel and power, the latter of which now accounts for less than 3 per cent of the average household's budget.

But if we're devoting smaller shares to all those things, what things are getting bigger shares? Top of the list is housing, which is up from less than 13 per cent to 18 per cent. That includes people who are renting as well as people with mortgages and people who've paid off their mortgages.

We're also devoting higher proportions to spending on healthcare, education, household services (including childcare, cleaning, lawn mowing and gardening) and recreation (including audiovisual equipment, toys, sporting goods, pets and holidays).

As you see clearly from all that, we're devoting less of the consumer dollar to goods and more to services. While our politicians are giving speeches about the need for Australia to ''make things,'' we're busy making it a place that ''does things''.

This trend's been running for many moons but why? Long story. The first thing to remember is that just because we're devoting a smaller share of our budgets to food, clothing and footwear doesn't mean we're starving ourselves and running round barefoot and naked. It's not that we're spending any less on goods, it's that our spending on services has been growing faster than our spending on goods, thereby reducing goods' proportion of the total.

Part of the reason services' share is up is that the prices of services are rising faster than the prices of goods. That's because it's easier to increase the productivity of labour in the production of goods. People keep inventing ever-better labour-saving equipment, which allows the prices of manufactured goods to stay fairly stable or, in some cases, actually fall.

Many of the manufactured goods we buy are imported and the prices of imported manufactures are being kept low by various factors over the years: by increased competition from China and other Asian developing countries putting downward pressure on the world prices of many manufactures, by the phasing down of protection for domestic producers of clothing, footwear and cars, and lately by the higher dollar.

In marked contrast, services tend to be more labour-intensive, with less scope for better machines to increase the productivity of labour. Even so, real wage rates in the services sector tend to keep pace with the improvement in economy-wide productivity (most of which comes from the other sectors).

But though it's true we're spending more on services because their prices are rising faster, it's also true the quantity of services we're buying is rising faster than the quantity of goods we're buying. As real household income increases over time we have to spend the extra income on something, but there's a limit to how much more we can eat, how many clothes we can wear and cars and fridges we can use. By contrast, we're well short of the limit on the things we'd like to pay other people to do for us as we get more able to afford it. Enterprising businesses keep thinking of new things to do for people.

A ''superior good'' is one to which we devote a higher proportion of our spending as our income grows. And most superior goods are, in fact, services. Healthcare and education are superior goods, as is recreation and ''meals out'', as the bureau calls them.

But the glaring case in recent times is housing. Its share of our budgets has risen by more than 5 percentage points, with most of that occurring in the past decade. The reason is not higher mortgage interest rates - they go up and down - but higher house prices and bigger mortgages, thus leading to higher interest payments.

As an individual, you may think you had little choice but to pay the higher house prices. But what's true for the individual isn't true for the whole. House prices have risen so much because all of us bid them up in our (largely futile) efforts to use our higher disposable incomes to buy better housing.

That explains the long-term trend towards services and away from goods. But, as Lowe pointed out, over just the past year, the trend's become supercharged. According to the national accounts, real consumer spending over the year to June rose by 1.75 per cent for goods, but about 4 per cent for services.

Consumer spending on education services was up by 5 per cent, on hotels, cafes and restaurants by more than 6 per cent, on recreation and culture by 7 per cent, and on ''transportation services'' by 16 per cent. This last is mainly people taking cheap overseas holidays. (Other research shows that even people on lower incomes are spending more on holidays.)

So now you know why the retailers - who sell goods, not services - are doing it so tough but, despite widespread misapprehension, overall consumer spending is growing fine.


Monday, August 1, 2011

Baby boomers' wealth effect hits the retailers

Back in the early Noughties, when the property market was booming, a lot of baby boomers began contemplating their future and realised they hadn't saved nearly enough to allow them to continue in retirement the privileged lives they'd always enjoyed. They decided they'd have to start saving big time.

So what did they do? Went out and bought a negatively geared investment property, of course. Their notion of saving was to borrow to the hilt, then sit back and wait for the lightly taxed capital gains to roll in.

If you're wondering why the retailers are doing it tough at present, don't blame it all on the mug punters' conviction that Armageddon starts next July 1 with the carbon tax. Part of the explanation rests with the baby boomers learning the hard way that saving actually requires discipline.

Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank, has reminded us of the way real consumer spending per person grew significantly faster than household disposable income for the decade to 2005. Over the period our rate of household saving steadily declined until we were actually dis-saving.

And this from a nation that hitherto had saved quite a high proportion of income. Why the change? Well, Stevens is no doubt right to explain it primarily in terms of our return to low inflation and low nominal interest rates, combined with a deregulated banking system now more than eager to lend for housing.

But there has to be more to it. For most of the decade in question we fought each other for the best house in the block, forcing house prices up and up. At much the same time, the sharemarket was rising strongly as we and the rest of the developed world enjoyed the last phase of the over-confident Great Moderation that ended so abruptly with the coming of the global financial crisis.

Over the 35 years to 1995, the nation's real private wealth per person grew at the rate of 2.6 per cent a year, pretty much in line with the growth in real gross domestic product per person.

Over 10 years to 2005, however, real household financial assets (including our superannuation and direct shareholdings) grew by 5.3 per cent a year per person. The corresponding growth in non-financial assets (most of which is the value of our homes) was 7.5 per cent.

Put the two together and our total assets grew by 6.7 per cent a year. (Our debts grew, too, of course. The ratio of debt to total assets rose from 11 per cent in 1995 to 17.5 per cent in 2005.)

So what was it that gave us the confidence during this period to let our consumer spending rip and stop saving any of our household income? One almighty ''wealth effect''. Capital gain was king.

Everywhere we turned we could see ourselves getting wealthier, year after year. The value of our homes rising inexorably, the value of our super swelling nicely. With all that going for us, who needed to save the old-fashioned way? No wonder negative gearing - of share portfolios as well as residential property - was so popular.

As Stevens says, that period of debt-fuelled wealth accumulation had to end sometime. We would come to terms with the new world of lower nominal interest rates and readily available credit, loading ourselves up with as much debt as we needed (or a bit more) and calling it a day.

The recovery in household saving began well before the global financial crisis. Even so, there's no reason to doubt the crisis did much to accelerate our return to rates of household saving - 11.5 per cent at last count - not seen since the 1980s. For one thing, it reversed the wealth effect.

In principle, the behaviour of people of all ages should be affected by the knowledge of what's happening to the market value of their wealth. In practice, however, you'd expect it to have the greatest effect on those approaching retirement - the baby boomers - or even the already retired.

Consider it from their perspective. In the months leading up to and during the global financial crisis of late 2008, they observed it smash the sharemarket and take a huge bite out of their super savings. The market has recovered a fair bit since then but it hasn't regained its earlier peak and could hardly be said to be booming.

As for house prices, the boom is long gone and prices are, in market parlance, ''flat to down''. There's no reason to believe they'll be taking off again any time soon.

Many boomers have responded to this marked change in their prospects by postponing their retirement. A government-funded survey regularly asks workers over 45 when they expect to retire. In 2009, almost 60 per cent were expecting to retire at 65 or later, up from 50 per cent two years earlier.

With little prospect of much in the way of capital gains, it's a safe bet the baby boomers are leading the way in the nation's return to a higher rate of saving.

But that doesn't spell the death of retailing. As a matter of arithmetic, it's only when households are increasing their rate of saving - as they are now - that consumer spending has to grow very much more slowly than household income is growing.

Once households have reached a rate of saving they're happy with - no matter how high that rate - consumption can resume growing at the same rate as income.

But who knows? It may not be until the second half of next year that the punters - including the baby boomers - realise how much Tony Abbott & Co conned them about the depredations of the carbon tax.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mouse is mightier than the stores

Well-mannered newspapers don't spend a lot of time talking about themselves. Even so, you've no doubt heard that the future of newspapers - though not news or journalism - is under great challenge from the arrival of the internet.

Much classified advertising has moved to the net and now some display advertising is going.

Some readers are moving to the net, smartphones and tablets such as the iPad.

As you may imagine, these are anxious times for newspaper managers and print journalists.

It's dawned on me, however, that what the internet is doing to the media is just for openers.

You wait until you see what it does to retailing over the next decade or two.

Retailers have been complaining lately about people buying more stuff on the internet - and thus being able to avoid paying goods and services tax on purchases of less than $1000 - but I doubt if this does much to explain their present weak sales.

A report by Southern Cross Equities shows that by last year local online retailers had a 4 per cent share of total retail sales.

This was up from 2 per cent in 2005, but it's still not a lot.

Yet come back in 10 years and it may be a very different story.

Buying things in shops has many advantages. You're able to see, touch and even try on what there is to choose from. You can seek further information from a live human. There's less worry about the security of your payment and being able to return goods that prove unsatisfactory.

So why would people buy online? Partly because, if you know what you want, it's very convenient. You avoid having to find a park at crowded shopping malls and avoid unwanted human contact.

But a new study by Ben Irvine and colleagues at the Australia Institute, The Rise and Rise of Online Retail, finds that online shoppers give ''saving money'' as their primary reason. ''Bargain hunters'' outnumber ''mall haters'' five to one.

When bricks-and-mortar retailers also run a website they tend to charge the same prices on both. If they didn't, more of their customers would switch to online. Add the cost of postage (and ignore the cost in time and money of travelling to their shop) and it's often not particularly attractive to buy from local retailers online unless you find one offering a much lower price.

It's when people browsing prices on the internet compare prices being offered on overseas sites that they find large savings, sometimes up to 50 per cent - savings that make the freight costs well worth paying. This is true for books, DVDs, music, shoes, electronic goods and much else.

People are amazed to find that global corporations are selling the identical goods at quite different prices in different countries.

As a very broad generalisation, prices tend to be low in the United States and high in Australia, with British prices somewhere in between.

Our retailers and others try to justify these differences by reference to freight costs, differences in taxes, the high Aussie dollar and much else, but they never can.

Many people imagine prices are based on the cost of manufacture and distribution, plus a reasonable mark-up. But, in economists' speak, this is just looking at the supply curve.

You also have to take account of the demand curve, which shows the prices customers are
''willing to pay''.

Taking this into account means prices are set at the highest level ''the market will bear''. Charging different prices in different markets (whether those markets are in different countries or are different segments of the same country's market) is a long-standing business strategy.

You maximise your profit by charging whatever price - high or low - is the most the people in each market or market segment are willing to pay.

Economists call this ''price discrimination'' and regard it as perfectly reasonable.

Now here's something the economists won't tell you: people are willing to pay higher prices in Australia because that's what they're used to. People are willing only to pay lower prices in the US because that's what they're used to.

As every economics textbook will tell you, however, the trick to successful price discrimination is you have to be able to keep the markets separate, otherwise people in high-price markets will switch to buying in lower-price markets.

Guess what? The internet has broken down the geographic (and knowledge) separation between national markets. So the game is up for country-based price discrimination. It will take a while but, as e-commerce spreads, our greater ability and willingness to buy from countries with lower prices will force Australian retail prices down, particularly website prices. (The day may come when people who want personal service in a shop will have to pay a premium above the internet price.)

This will be an enormously painful process for retailers and their employees (welcome to the club). And also for the firms that own and rent out retail space.

It will be painful because it's wrong to imagine Australian retailers charging twice as much for the identical product as US retailers charge are therefore making twice the profit.

Why not? Because, over the many decades this price difference has existed, Australian retailers' cost structures have adjusted to fit (just as broadsheet newspapers' staffing levels increased to absorb most of the ''rivers of gold'' flowing from their classified ads). In particular, the rent paid by retailers would be much higher.

The internet is changing the world to make it work more like economics textbooks have always assumed it worked.

It's intensifying price competition over other forms of competition, such as marketing, and slowly bringing to reality a concept beloved of economists: ''the law of one [worldwide] price''.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

We are watching our pennies, at last

Not so long ago people used to scandalise over the rate at which we were racking up credit card debt. Not any more. These days a new frugality is gripping us and credit card and other personal debt is growing at a snail's pace.

Starting in the mid-1990s, our return to low inflation caused interest rates to fall sharply and oscillate around a much lower level - remember when the mortgage rate was up at 17 per cent? - and this coincided with the banks becoming much keener to lend to ordinary mortals.

They pushed their credit cards, offering reward schemes as a new incentive, and inventing home loans that allowed you to redraw without fuss money you had paid off the principal. Whereas for decades people had tried to pay off their mortgage as quickly as possible, now they were seizing the opportunity to add to it.

The great bulk of the borrowing was for housing - including investment housing - but we also borrowed enthusiastically for cars and other durables, as well as hitting the credit card. Over the year to June 2007, outstanding credit card debt grew by more than 11 per cent. Add in personal loans and total personal debt (excluding housing debt) grew by 19 per cent.

Over the year to this January, however, total personal debt grew by less than 2 per cent. And over the year to February, the average credit card debt rose by less than 1 per cent - way below the rate of inflation - and the number of new cash advances fell by almost 2 per cent.

So what has changed? Probably a couple of things. The first is that we've adjusted to life in a world of easily obtained credit. We've borrowed hugely in the competition to obtain a better home, pushing the price of housing to unknown heights. Housing has now become much less affordable and it has occurred to us that house prices can mark time or even fall as well as rise inexorably.

After an uncharacteristic period of allowing the proportion of our collective equity in our homes to decline, we've returned to our accustomed position of increasing our equity by keeping ahead of our repayment schedule wherever possible.

Similarly, we seem to have gained a little more self-control when it comes to wielding our credit cards.

A second factor may be the lingering effect of the global financial crisis. Many Australian households may well have realised they were carrying far too much debt, which would leave them vulnerable (or, if you prefer, vonnerable) should they ever lose their jobs. (This is certainly what's happening with a vengeance in the United States and Britain.) If so, many people would be trying to avoid new commitments and repay old ones.

Another suggestion is that it's particularly the baby boomers who have changed their behaviour. In 2008 they witnessed the sharemarket crash slash the value of retirement savings - with share prices still not fully recovered - and now they've realised they need to knuckle down and start saving while there is still time.

Whatever the reasons, the figures say that whereas in the early noughties households had "negative saving" - their consumption spending exceeded their incomes - now they are saving almost 10 per cent of their disposable incomes. That's the highest our rate of saving has been since the mid-1980s.

Saving and borrowing are closely linked, of course - roughly, opposite sides of the same coin. So it shouldn't surprise that much of the money we're saving is being used to reduce our debts. (Nor should it surprise that, while many people are reducing their credit card balance, others are adding to it, so that total debt is still rising fractionally.)

We save by limiting our consumption relative to our income, but much of our spending - on rent or mortgage interest, council rates and electricity, for instance - isn't particularly discretionary. Where we have most discretion is in our spending at discount and department stores and it's these stores (plus newspapers dependent on retail advertising) that are feeling the pinch of our new frugality.

What goes with department stores? Credit cards. Why do so many people have trouble with credit cards? Professor Joshua Gans, of the Melbourne Business School, says many poor consumer decisions have two dimensions: sophisticated versus naive, and disciplined versus undisciplined.Sophisticated consumers are adequately informed about the products they are purchasing and about the mental biases which, if unchecked, may influence their decisions. Disciplined consumers are able to overcome their own biases, even if they aren't always well informed.

Ian McAuley, of the University of Canberra, has applied this matrix to credit cards. A sophisticated and disciplined consumer uses a credit card in the interest-free period and pays it off before the monthly deadline. Sophisticated but undisciplined consumers use the credit card, intending to pay it off, but when the time to do so arrives they suffer the bias of short-sightedness and go into high-interest debt.

Naive and undisciplined consumers use the credit card, perhaps to the limit, without even considering the opportunity to pay it off in the interest-free period.

Naive but disciplined consumers may refuse to use a credit card at all.

I doubt we've become much more sophisticated, but we do seem to have become more disciplined. Certainly, the figures say more of us - about 65 per cent - are paying off our accounts in full each month.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Urge to splurge fades as savers born again

The punters, pollies and shock jocks who tell us we're groaning under the weight of the rapidly rising cost of living need to answer a question: if so, how come households are managing to save 10 per cent of their disposable income?

It has drawn remarkably little comment, but the household saving ratio - saving as a proportion of household disposable (that is, after-tax) income - is the highest it has been in more than 20 years.

You wonder why the retailers are doing it so tough? That's why. With wage rates increasing and more people in jobs, household income has been growing quite strongly. But in recent years we've been much less inclined to rush out and spend every cent that comes our way.

That's what saving is: the bit that's left over when you don't spend all your income on consumption. In fact, economists define saving as ''deferred consumption''.

Most of us think of saving as putting money in bank accounts. We've been doing more of that lately, but it's not the main way we save. Historically, the main way Australians have saved is by borrowing a shed-load of money to buy a house, then paying it off over the next 25 years. Your savings are embodied in the proportion of the house that's owned by you rather than the bank - your ''equity'' in the house.

The household saving ratio was at 15 per cent in the early 1980s, but then it fell for more than two decades to reach a low point of minus 2 per cent in the early noughties. We were ''dissaving'' - consuming more than we earnt.

How's that possible? By running down past savings or by borrowing.

Since the mid-noughties, however, the saving ratio has shot up to 10 per cent. You could be forgiven for not knowing this because much of the increase has suddenly appeared as a result of the Bureau of Statistics' revisions to the national accounts.

The bureau doesn't measure saving independently, just takes it as the residual when it compares two huge numbers: for household income and for household consumption. So any errors in measuring those two big numbers will be reflected in the figure for saving, making it volatile and subject to revision as better information comes to hand.

Since 2004 household disposable income has grown strongly, averaging 7.3 per cent a year in nominal terms (that is, before allowing for inflation). Over the same period, household consumption has grown by 5.4 per cent a year.

Dr Philip Lowe, an assistant governor of the Reserve Bank, expressed the figures differently in a speech he gave this week. In quite a few of the years during the decade and a half to 2005, household consumption increased by more than a dollar for every extra dollar of household disposable income received.

Since then, however, only about 65¢ in every extra dollar of income has been spent. (Small prize if you realised this measure is that old Keynesian workhorse, the ''marginal propensity to consume''.)

The evidence that something has changed in our attitude to saving can be seen in other indicators. One example comes from the annual survey of Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia.

In the surveys between 2000 and 2005, there was a clear trend of fewer and fewer households with mortgages reporting they were ahead of schedule in their repayments (a way of saving). But this downtrend slowed in about 2005 and then in 2009 - the most recent year for which results are available - there was a marked increase in the share of people saying they were ahead of schedule.

Similarly, over the past couple of years there has been an increase in the proportion of households who say they pay their credit card balance in full each month. It has gone from about 60 per cent to almost 65 per cent.

Then if you look at the Westpac-Melbourne Institute monthly survey of consumers you find there has been a marked increase in the number of households saying the wisest thing to do with their savings is to pay down debt or build up bank deposits.

Correspondingly, there has been a decline in the perceived attractiveness of more risky investments.

A final bit of evidence comes from the estimates of how much equity households are adding to the housing stock. Until the late 1990s, it was normal for the value of newly constructed homes each year to be significantly greater than the increase in the amount we all owed on our housing.

Why? Because, while the people buying the newly-built homes would usually borrow most of the cost of the home, other, established home owners would be trying to pay back their mortgages as quickly as they could (mainly by keeping their monthly mortgage payments higher than the bank's minimum requirement).

In other words, the proportion of the nation's total amount of housing that wasn't owed to banks would increase each year. Economists call this ''equity injection''.

But during the early part of the noughties this changed and the household sector was withdrawing equity. Now here's the point: in recent years things have changed again and we've returned to the usual pattern of increasing equity.

So what's going on? Why did we stop saving and why have we started again? Over the decade to 2005, there was a large run-up in household debt and a related rise in the (gross) value of household assets such as homes and shares, while our rate of saving declined.

This seems to have been a period of adjustment to the fall in nominal interest rates (caused by our return to low inflation) and financial innovation (banks keener to lend for housing, with new products such as home-equity loans and reverse mortgages).

Lower nominal mortgage rates allowed us to borrow more, which many of us did at much the same time, thus bidding up house prices in the process. Some of us even increased our mortgage to pay for an overseas trip.

But it seems this period of adjustment to new possibilities was largely completed by the mid-noughties and we've gone back to our usual preference for paying off the mortgage as soon as we can.

And then this episode of ''structural adjustment'' seems to have been reinforced by the global financial crisis, which has led some households to rethink their spending and borrowing decisions. Some people are a lot more cautious and a lot less sure that house and share prices can only ever go up.