Alan Duncan, Curtin University and Rebecca Cassells, Curtin University

Successive Australian governments are usually judged on how they balance the budget and spend taxpayers’ dollars. The stereotypes are that Liberal governments keep a tight hold on the purse strings, while Labor governments are spendthrifts. The Conversation

While total government spending has increased from around A$240 billion in 1998-99 to a predicted A$451 billion in the 2016-17 financial year, it’s also accompanied by an increase in revenue from around A$250 billion to A$417 billion over the same period.

But the pressure on the budget under a Turnbull government is more acute now than ever before, because spending is outpacing revenue. It’s now at an estimated 26.6% of GDP in 2016-17, higher than at any point since before the start of the millennium.

When you look at the mix of government spending over the past fifteen years, you start to see some of the drivers of the growth.

To compare spending over time, we have adjusted for the effect of inflation by using real measures.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

Social security continues to dominate government spending at A$161.4 billion, constituting around 35% of all government outlays on latest figures. This has fallen from a high of 39% during the Rudd government stimulus package in 2009-10 and is similar to levels at the beginning of the millennium.

In the graph below “other” spending includes the distribution of GST revenues to states and territories as well as spending in areas such as job seekers assistance, industrial relations, vocational training, tourism and immigration. This constitutes the second highest share of government spending, at 18% (A$83.4 billion) of the total spend. General revenue assistance to states and territories accounts for two thirds of spending in this category.

Governments spend almost as much on defence and public safety (around A$32.6 billion) as they do on education (A$34.3 billion), although the states ultimately pick up most of the education bill.

The global financial crisis saw a temporary blip in the mix of general government spending. Social security spending rose by 22% in the year to June 2009, and education expenditure jumped 60% a year later as a result of Rudd’s economic stimulus package.

Government spending on public debt interest has more than tripled in real terms to A$15.4 billion since the start of the global financial crisis, and now accounts for 3.7% of all government spending.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

Many of the changes in real government spending between 2008 and 2010 were driven by the impact of the global financial crisis, which resulted in a slowdown in economic growth, rising unemployment and a negative hit on the sharemarket.

The Rudd government response was a stimulus package. The main spending increases came from a combination of accelerating public debt interest, increased payments to assist the unemployed, but mainly the government’s stimulus measures channelled through increased spending on education, housing and cash payments to families.

If a spending measure is truly temporary, a rise in real spending should be followed by an equivalent fall in subsequent years when the spending runs out or the program ends. This is evident to some degree for the social security and welfare and fuel and energy portfolios, but less so in other areas.

For example, the 45% rise in fuel and energy spending in 2008-09 was primarily driven by the introduction of the Energy Efficient Homes package within the Rudd stimulus suite. The scheme ended in February 2010, resulting in a 33% drop in spending.

On the other hand, spending on education rose by A$16 billion as part of the Rudd stimulus package, but remained A$10 billion higher than pre-global financial crisis levels in subsequent years.

Overall government spending has continued to grow since 2010-11, but less dramatically than during the heart of the global financial crisis, by around 8% in real terms over the five years to 2015-16.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam

Social security and welfare spending constitutes the largest spending commitment of any government budget. It has risen by 70% in real terms over the past fifteen years, from A$91 billion at the turn of the millennium in 1999-00 to A$155 billion in 2015-16.

The biggest welfare spending is for assistance to the aged, families with children and people with a disability. Together, these three items make up almost 85% of all welfare spending.

The 2008-09 Rudd stimulus package had a substantial yet temporary effect on welfare spend, with “bonus” cash payments to families in the 2009 calendar year increasing assistance to families by around A$10 billion. Additional cash payments were also made to students, pensioners and farmers under the stimulus program. And 8.7 million Australian workers earning $100,000 or less also received a cash payment.

Australia’s ageing population and increases in both disability prevalence and disability support are the main driving forces behind welfare spending growth. These factors will continue to exert pressure on future government budgets, especially with the full rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

More than 40% of the government’s 2015-16 health budget of around A$71.2 billion was committed to community health services spending. At A$28.7 billion, spending in this sector has nearly doubled since the start of the millennium and by a quarter since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008-09.

This stems from the need to deliver medical services to a growing – and ageing – population, and the increased prevalence of chronic disease. In this respect, Australia is little different to most countries around the world.

Specific measures contributing to this growth included the expansion of health infrastructure, the costs of enhanced primary care attracting higher Medicare rebates, and indexation of health related payments to states and territories. Pharmaceutical spending increased by 12%, from A$1.4 billion year-on-year to A$12.1 billion in 2015-16.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

Education spending rose dramatically during the global financial crisis, with spending on primary and secondary education increasing 81% to A$24.7 billion in the year to 2009-10 as part of the economic stimulus package.

Rudd’s “education revolution” led to a 12% growth in education spending in the 2008-09 budget, quickly followed by a further 61% spending increase in 2009-10 as part of the economic stimulus package. Spending in the following year fell as the temporary stimulus measures came to an end, but overall, education spending has remained significantly higher in real terms than pre-global financial crisis levels.

Spending on the university sector rose to around A$10.9 billion over the same period, but has remained relatively stable since.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

Federal government money given to the states and territories

The federal government committed A$60.8 billion in general revenue assistance to states and territories in 2015-16, almost all of which came through the distribution of GST revenue. General revenue assistance spending rose A$3.8 billion in real terms in 2014-15, up 7% on the previous year, but has since stabilised.

Spending on superannuation interest has grown by a quarter since the end of the Howard years, reflecting the increase in the government’s superannuation liability. Lower public sector wages and employment have led to superannuation interest payments stabilising over the last two budgets to around A$9.4 billion in 2015-16.

Immigration spending rose between the Gillard and Abbott governments to a peak of A$4.7 billion in 2013-14, but has since fallen back to around A$3.8billion in 2016 dollars.

Much of the growth in immigration spending occurred during the Rudd and Gillard governments, by an average of 23% annually. This compares to an average of 7% during the previous Howard years. Additional government spending on detention facilities for irregular arrivals was the principal reason for this spending growth.

Natural disaster relief spending spiked between 2009 and 20-11 to assist with the damage and recovery costs from the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, and the 2010 Queensland floods.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

Government approaches to supporting various industries has typically been applied on an ad hoc basis. Budget spending on specific industries has risen from A$3.2 to A$5.6 billion in real terms. Agriculture, forestry and fishing typically received a greater share of industry spending during the Howard budgets, reaching a high of A$4.8 billion in Swan’s final 2007-08 budget.

Growth in industry spend slowed during the Rudd years, picking up again with the Gillard and Abbott governments, with a greater preference towards spending in mining, manufacturing and construction projects.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

Spending on housing and community amenities has increased from A$2.7 billion to A$7.6 billion, reaching a high of almost A$12 billion in the Rudd years. Spending in this portfolio increased with the Rudd stimulus package, incorporating a number of housing affordability measures including the First Home Buyers Grant Scheme and a boost in investment in social housing.

Spending on sanitation and protection of the environment also expanded rapidly during the Rudd/Gillard government, relative to the Howard years. The establishment of the Climate Change Action fund introduced by Rudd in 2009-10 and the Clean Energy Futures package in 2010-11 have been the main drivers behind this increase. Spending in each has been pared back since the Liberals came to power with Abbott at the helm.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

Commonwealth spending on transport and communications projects has more than doubled from A$3.1 to A$7.5 billion over the last 15 years. Spending remained relatively stable under Howard’s government, and then got a further injection on roads in the last two Swan budgets. The Rudd government continued this trend, with Gillard following suit with increases in both road and rail projects.

Spending in this portfolio has been clawed back since the Abbott government, falling from A$9.2 billion to A$7.8 billion between the final Labor government budget (2013-14 financial year) and the first Liberal government budget (2014-15 financial year). The most recent Turnbull/Morrison budget has reaffirmed spending commitments under this portfolio, committing to more than A$11 billion in 2016-17.

The Conversation/Emil Jeyaratnam, CC BY-ND

The Howard/Costello years were characterised by good economic times, with an extended period of strong revenue growth, yet this prosperity wasn’t matched with any significant spending growth. In fact, overall government spending fell as a share of GDP – from 25.7% in 2000 to 23.6% in 2006-07 – the lowest share since the start of the millennium. And the combination of strong revenue and limited spending commitments under Howard drove down public debt, and public debt interest payments.

We saw some pretty dramatic increases in real spending when Rudd came into power in December 2007. Rudd’s first budget in 2008-09 saw some substantial spending commitments in the area of education but nothing exorbitant.

However, the major turning point in government spending has been driven by the response to the global financial crisis. There were significant spending commitments over the course of the crisis, some of which are still present.

Spending on public debt interest has increased to A$15.4 billion since the global financial crisis - more than the spending on transport and housing combined. And it’s projected to increase further to A$18.7 billion by 2019-20. This just emphasises how high the stakes are for Scott Morrison in delivering a credible budget repair strategy.

The spending of incumbent governments inevitably draw from the commitments of previous administrations, especially for those programs – in infrastructure, education or housing - that involve medium-term funding commitments.

The growth in real spending in areas that directly affect households – social security, NDIS, health or pensions - is an issue that no government can ignore. NDIS costs have been hugely underestimated already, and social security and health spending will inevitably increase with the ageing population.

Set against this context, it’s clear that a piecemeal approach to budget repair is unsustainable. A drop in revenue has ramped up budget pressures, and highlights the compelling need to return to a sustainable spending path and a credible budget repair strategy.

The Turnbull government cannot shy away from making the big decisions that secure a sustainable future for Australia. And the roadmap towards a sustainable future has to include revenue as well as spending as part of the recovery narrative.


The graphs in this article were created by The Conversation’s Multimedia Editor Emil Jerayatnam

Alan Duncan, Director, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and Bankwest Research Chair in Economic Policy, Curtin University and Rebecca Cassells, Associate Professor, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It has been rumoured in many media outlets that Amazon will commence operations in Australia next year.  Richard Goyder (CEO Wesfarmers) has often quipped that Amazon won't just 'eat our lunch, they will eat breakfast and dinner too'.  So with such a large threat to the status quo of retailing in Australia, many of whom enjoy some of the largest retailing margins in the world, we examine what this may mean for investors.

It may comes as a surprise  that online penetration is less than 15% in most developed countries - in fact many countries online presence is below 10%.

Source:  Forager Funds Management

 

Clearly when Amazon commences operations in Australia, there will be much fanfare, but investors need to ask how much market share are they likely to pick up.  the next chart shows Amazon's share of online retail sales.  While Amazon is the largest online retailer in the US and Europe, it by no means has a majority share of these markets.  Globally it tends to gain about a 15-20% share of e-commerce.  If the same mathematics was applied to the Australian market, Amazon could expect to gain around 1 - 1.5% of total retail sales.

Source:  Forager Funds Management

 

Finally we consider that not all retailing is equal when approaching the idea of online sales.  The furniture division of Amazon has been a 'disaster' while apparel and electronics have shared greater success.  When we approached the subject with senior management at Perpetual, they said "Fresh Food would be almost impossible for Amazon".  The last chart is a summary from the Aust Financial Review outlining the view of Citigroup of the market share that Amazon is likely to gain in each market segment.  The chart also highlights an estimate of earnings lost by the incumbent retailers assuming these market share estimates prove correct.

 

 

 

We have nothing but respect for Amazon and their business model, and investors are encouraged to ensure that their investment strategy takes into account the likely entry of Amazon into the Australian market in 2017.

Saul Eslake, University of Tasmania

Opinion polls, statistical prediction models and betting markets are now all predicting a fairly comfortable victory for Hilary Clinton in the United States presidential election. However, they all said much the same about the prospect of British voters opting to remain in the European Union, before a majority of them actually voted to leave at the Brexit referendum in June.

In Brexit those wanting “change” felt much more strongly about it and were thus more inclined to vote, than those favouring the status quo. This might also be the case with Trump voters. So the possibility of a Trump victory can’t be entirely dismissed – and the possible economic consequences of such an outcome are worth considering.

Precisely because a triumph for Trump has by now been so widely discounted – including by the financial markets – this outcome would prompt a much larger financial market reaction than a Clinton victory.

The unexpected outcome of the Brexit referendum saw the London share market fall by more than 5%, and the British pound by more than 8%, in the following 24 hours. And although the share market has since more than recouped its initial losses, the pound is now almost 18% below its pre-referendum level against the US dollar.

The financial market reaction to a Trump victory in the US presidential race is likely to be sharper. As the Reserve Bank of Australia governor Philip Lowe noted earlier this month, “the possible election of President Trump wouldn’t be as benign an event”, as Brexit turned out to be. A paper published this week by Justin Wolfers and Eric Zitzewitz (of the University of Michigan and Dartmouth College, respectively) suggests that the US, UK and Asian share markets could fall by 10-15%, and that the Mexican peso would fall by 25%, in the event of a Trump victory.

From an historical perspective this is an extraordinary prospect, given that, as Wolfers and Zitzewitz note:

In almost every case back to 1880, equity markets have risen on the news that Republicans win elections and fall when Democrats win.

This is also because, at least superficially, Trump is proposing policies that are more likely to benefit rich households (who are more likely to own equities), while Clinton is explicitly advocating higher taxes on capital.

These findings are more understandable in the light of mainstream economists’ assessments of the likely implications of the policy proposals put forward by the two main contenders. Out of 414 respondents to a survey conducted by the US National Association of Business Economists, 55% thought Hilary Clinton would “do the best job as president of managing the economy”.

Only 14% thought that Donald Trump would (and that was 1 percentage point less than the proportion who nominated Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson). It’s perhaps worth emphasising that this was a survey of business, not academic, economists.

This overwhelming view likely reflects three particularly important concerns to mainstream economists about the Republican presidential candidate’s policies.

Differences in policies

Donald Trump’s policies would significantly increase the US Budget deficit. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) last month estimated that the combination of tax cuts and spending increases proposed by Donald Trump would add US$5.3 trillion to US public debt over the next decade, lifting it from 77% to 105% of GDP.

Hillary Clinton’s policies would add US$200 billion to public debt in the next decade, despite her recent claim that she will ‘not add a penny to the debt’. Mike Blake/Reuters

By contrast, the spending and tax measures (cuts for some, increases for others) advocated by Hilary Clinton would boost public debt by US$200 billion, to 86% of GDP, over the next decade. A more recent analysis of Donald Trump’s tax proposals by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center suggests that they would increase US Federal debt by US$7.2 trillion over a decade.

While both candidates assert that their policy proposals would boost economic growth, which would in turn result in lower (rather than higher) budget deficits, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) calculates that economic growth would need to average 3.5% per annum over the next decade in order to stabilise the debt-to-GDP ratio without further tax increases. According to the CRFB, that would “likely require a level of productivity growth that has not been achieved in any decade in modern history”. Whereas the same objective would require economic growth averaging 2.7% per annum under Hillary Clinton’s proposals.

In addition to this, Donald Trump has consistently advocated a major upheaval in US trade policies, including the repudiation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the designation of China as a “currency manipulator”. This is something which under existing US trade laws would allow the imposition of tariffs of up to 45% on goods imported into the US from China.

The greatest adverse impact of such measures would be on low-income households in the US, as the result of having to pay much higher prices for goods that make up a large proportion of their spending. But there would also be an obvious negative impact on the Chinese economy – since China’s exports to the US account for 18% of its total exports, and just under 4% of China’s GDP.

It’s also hard to imagine that China wouldn’t seek to retaliate in some way against any such measures by a Trump Administration. In a study published by the Petersen Institute, Marcus Nolan, Sherman Robinson and Tyler Moran suggest that in such circumstances, the US economy would experience a recession in 2018 and 2019, with unemployment rising to 8.6%.

It’s hard to imagine how a trade war between the world’s two largest economies, Australia’s largest and third-largest trading partners, could have anything other than negative consequences for Australia.

Current US president Barack Obama tried to forge closer ties with China over his two terms. Stephen Crowley/Pool/Reuters

Another concern for mainstream economists arising from Donald Trump’s economic agenda is his contempt for the independence of the US Federal Reserve. Trump’s suggestion that the Federal Reserve should have been more willing to raise US interest rates this year is not without some basis.

But his personal criticisms of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, combined with the fact that there are already two unfilled vacancies on the Fed’s Board of Governors, suggests that the Fed could quickly become much more politicised in the event of a Trump victory. That would likely undermine confidence in US monetary policy, potentially leading in turn to a weaker US dollar and higher US bond yields.

Relationships between the US and other nations

Beyond these concerns to mainstream economists, the Republican candidate’s attitude to longstanding US strategic alliances – with European countries, Japan and Korea – threatens to create much greater political uncertainty around the world. It may even prompt an “arms race” entailing greater proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Trump hasn’t specifically listed Australia as being among the US allies who “aren’t paying anywhere near what it costs to defend them”. It could be that Australia’s status, as one of the few countries with which the US runs a trade surplus, puts us in a different category. Nonetheless, a deteriorating regional security environment could result in the Australian government concluding that it needs to spend more on defence.

It’s important to note that not all of the foregoing concerns will be completely alleviated should, as seems more likely, Hillary Clinton becoms the 45th President of the United States. If that result were to be accompanied by a “clean sweep” of both the Senate and (less likely) the House of Representatives, left-wing Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will have a much larger influence on US economic policy.

The differences between Donald Trump and the left wing of the Democratic Party on trade policy, or on the independence of the Federal Reserve, are in reality quite small. So while a Clinton victory on 8th November is much the better outcome from an Australian perspective, it would not be in Australia’s interests for her to win too well.

The Conversation

Saul Eslake, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, 25 June 2016 08:26

Brexit stage right - what it means for Australia

Written by

 

Ben Wellings, Monash University

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has opened a fundamental crack in the western world. Australia’s relationship with the United Kingdom is grounded in the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Given Australia’s strong and enduring ties with the UK and the EU, the shockwaves from this epoch-defining event will be felt in Australia soon enough. Most immediately, the impending Australia-EU Free-Trade Agreement becomes more complicated and at the same time less attractive.

What will happen to trade ties?

The importance of Australia’s relationship with the EU tends to get under-reported in all the excitement about China. We might ascribe such a view to an Australian gold rush mentality. Nevertheless, Australia’s trading ties to the EU are deep and strong.

Such ties looked set to get stronger. In November 2015 an agreement to begin negotiations in 2017 on a free-trade deal was announced at the G20 summit in Turkey. Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said in April 2016 that an Australia-EU free trade agreement:

… would further fuel this important trade and investment relationship.

When considered as a bloc, the EU consistently shows up as one of Australia’s main trading partners. Consider the statistics below:

  • in 2014 the EU was Australia’s largest source of foreign investment and second-largest trading partner, although the European Commission placed it third after China and Japan in 2015;

  • in 2014, the EU’s foreign direct investment in Australia was valued at A$169.6 billion and Australian foreign direct investment in the EU was valued at $83.5 billion. Total two-way merchandise and services trade between Australia and the EU was worth $83.9 billion; and

  • the EU is Australia’s largest services export market, valued at nearly $10 billion in 2014. Services account for 19.7% of Australia’s total trade in goods and services, and will be an important component of any future free trade agreement.

This is all well and good. But when not considered as a bloc, 48% of Australia’s exports in services to the EU were via the UK; of the $169 billion in EU foreign direct investment, 51% came from the UK; and of Australia’s foreign direct investment into the EU, 66% went to the UK.

You get the picture.

The UK was Australia’s eighth-largest export market for 2014; it represented 37.4% of Australia’s total exports to the EU. As Austrade noted:

No other EU country featured in Australia’s top 15 export markets.

In short, the EU is not as attractive to Australia without Britain in it.

Beyond trade numbers

But the Australia-EU-UK relationship cannot be reduced to numbers alone. It also rests on values shared between like-minded powers.

Brexit represents the further fracturing of the West at a moment when that already weakening political identity is in relative decline compared to other regions of the world, notably Asia (or more specifically China).

EU-Australia relations rest on shared concerns such as the fight against terrorism advanced through police collaboration and the sharing of passenger name records. The EU and Australia also collaborated to mitigate climate change at the Paris climate summit. And they work for further trade liberalisation in the World Trade Organisation – but don’t mention agriculture.

Without the UK, these shared political tasks become harder.

Clearly, Australia-UK relations rest on a special historical relationship. However, it has seen efforts at reinvigoration, as British governments buckled under the pressure of the Eurosceptics among the Conservatives.

David Cameron addresses the Australian parliament in 2014.

Beyond everyday trade, historical links have been reinforced through the centenary of the first world war and the UK-Australia commemorative diplomacy that has come with this four-year-long event.

Cultural ties are most regularly and publicly affirmed through sporting rivalries such as netball, rugby and most notably cricket. Expect these ties to be reinforced as the UK seeks trade agreements and political support from its “traditional allies”.

For those with British passports, there will be a two-year period of grace as the UK negotiates its exit. After that, it will be quicker to get into the UK at Heathrow, but this might be small consolation for the loss of a major point of access to the EU.

The vote to leave is a major turning point in Europe’s history. It marks a significant crack in a unified concept of “the West”. It is not in Australia’s interests.

It’s time for Australia to make new friends in Europe.

The Conversation

Ben Wellings, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Richard L. Gruner, University of Western Australia

Woolworths is ditching its Select private label range. It intends to launch a new brand for a more focused range of products that promises more bang for the buck. The move comes after Woolworths decided in March to axe its Homebrand label as part of its strategy to compete with Aldi.

The move makes sense, but will likely do little to restore consumer trust and sales growth.

Management guru Michael Porter has long argued that products need a clear positioning in consumers’ minds as either special and expensive or convenient and cheap. Woolworths Select was neither, stuck somewhere in the middle. This positioning was confusing for customers.

But will fixing this problem make a difference, and perhaps even keep growing Teutonic supermarket force Aldi at bay?

Unlikely. After all, similar efforts are only baby steps towards what truly distinguishes growing companies: the ability to make consumers' lives simpler. Think of Uber, Netflix, Amazon, but also Aldi. That’s the common denominator.

And yet, research shows that most companies keep confusing the gobbledegook out of us. A lot has been written about how consumers get more than they want, and how more product choice often makes us less happy.

But consumer confusion extends to other tactics too, like pricing and discounting. Shoppers increasingly ask questions such as: why are some products almost always on special (while others never are)? Do half-price offers mean that we usually pay twice as much as we should?

At best, discounts have become meaningless. While discounts were used successfully in the past to move excess merchandise, they have become ubiquitous and permanent, providing little incentive to respond. It’s a bit like the guy in the audience of a stadium that stands up to see more: it’s an effective tactic so long as not everyone else is standing up too.

Another major concern that emerges is product claims and packaging; for example, most consumers do not know the difference between “Product of Australia” and “Made in Australia”.

Also, products claiming to be “natural”, “real”, or “healthy” are usually hiding behind meaningless terms, undefined in labelling law and merely meant to persuade rather than inform people. The result is ever more confusion.

So what should brands do to simplify the consumer experience? Ironically, the answer to this question is not simple. It takes an awful lot of work to make things less confusing. An app that you visit once in a while and find easy to navigate may be the result of years of painstaking work, with many difficult decisions made behind the scenes about what should go where, and just as importantly, what to leave out.

Companies should start making every aspect of their product offerings simpler. Consumers do not appreciate clutter; they appreciate everything being transparent, clean and easy.

Marketers should understand that consumers rarely inherently care about brands. In some countries, only about 5% of brands would truly be missed. Whether consumers order an Uber ride, or buy a carton of milk, they often want to invest the least amount of effort and time in making the right decision.

Overloading consumers’ already saturated brains with all kinds of marketing tactics, including dynamic pricing and even heavy discounts can backfire or fall flat. This was clear when consumers showed a lack of interest in even 90% discounted product at Dick Smith’s closing down sale.

Instead, every decision brands make should be guided by a desire to help customers feel confident about their choices. Fortunately, we can learn from a handful of companies that have long understood the principle of simplicity in driving customer satisfaction.

Aldi’s success, for example, is often attributed to its simple business model of providing consistently low and transparent prices for a reduced range of high quality products.

No discounts, no confusing ads, no loyalty cards, no bullshit.

The Conversation

Richard L. Gruner, Asst Professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

John Lingard, Newcastle University

British dairy farmers are once again protesting over the low prices on offer for their milk. They worry that too many producers are going bust, and that long-term milk supplies are at risk.

Supermarkets are usually cast as the villains in this piece and this time it is no different. Farming unions are meeting Morrisons to ask for a fairer deal – and protesters in Stafford even took two cows into an Asda branch to help make their point.

However it is too simplistic to blame the supermarkets – the real problem is global. Too much low-value milk is being produced around the world.

Too much milk …

Over the past decade, UK milk production averaged 14 billion litres per year, of which around 500m litres are exported. Just 139m litres are imported. Milk made in the UK tends to stay in the UK.

What happens to that 14 billion litres? Defra

Nonetheless the number of dairy farmers continues to decline, from 40,000 at the start of the 1990s to 14,159 in 2013. This is alarming to some, but it shouldn’t be. For long-term security of milk supplies, it doesn’t really matter how many dairy farmers pack up production. The cows often move to another farm and it is easy enough to step up production through more intensive feeding and selective breeding.

After all, even though the total number of cows in the UK has halved since the 1970s, production has remained steady thanks to the fact average yields have doubled. Farmers are literally squeezing more out of each cow.

… that no one wants

Half of domestic milk production has to be diverted from the more lucrative liquid market into cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, butter and other manufactured products.

This is partly because people drink a lot less milk these days; from five pints per week in the 1960s to around three pints today. Consumption is down 8.1% in the past ten years alone. Any industry would struggle in such circumstances.

This supply and demand problem is replicated across the world – and there is currently a massive oversupply of manufactured milk products on world markets due largely to increased production in China, India, Brazil and New Zealand (where they are dealing with similar issues).

Got milk? gwire, CC BY

This surplus, combined with a collapse in global demand especially in China, has depressed prices. A Russian import ban in retaliation for EU action over Ukraine has also hit prices. Russia used to buy 27% of the EU’s cheese exports and 19% of its butter.

The Global Dairy Trade auction, the industry’s main dairy commodities index, hit a 13-year low in August 2015. The GDT has now lost 64% of its value since a record high in February 2014.

What this means for your local farmer

The amount paid to farmers – the UK’s farm gate price – has declined sharply since early 2014 to just 23.66p per litre. When it costs farmers around 30p to produce each litre, it’s easy to see why they are annoyed.

The major milk processors have to balance their operations across the various markets they sell in and, as a consequence, pay dairy farmers an average price. Farmers will not get, and should not expect to get, the supermarket price for liquid milk. Some supermarkets – Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose – have agreed direct contracts with dairy farmers that allow them to recover their production costs, but these only involve a small number of farms.

Retail supermarket prices for liquid milk are much higher than farm gate, at typically 55-60p per pint (£1.30 or so per litre), but there is no evidence that milk is being used as a “loss leader”. Four pints for 89p at Asda is probably as low as they can get, but the price spread is understandable, appropriate and market-justified; we can’t just hold supermarkets alone responsible. If there is a villain in this piece, it is the world market.

With too much supply and not enough demand, farmers have two options. Those near big cities can opt out of the globalised milk market through establishing farmer co-operatives to supply just the local area where they can possibly charge higher prices. Or they can seek high-value, niche markets such as yoghurts, farm-produced ice cream and organic milk.

One other way of dealing with supply-demand imbalances would be to bring back dairy quotas, at least at lower levels. The EU introduced quotas in 1984 to control milk production and eradicate butter mountains but they were abolished in April this year.

The problem currently facing the British dairy industry is that it is easy to produce milk in the UK’s green, wet and pleasant land, but it is very difficult to find profitable markets for 14 billion litres of the stuff. Until dairy farmers resolve this overproduction dilemma, many will continue to go out of business.

Uneconomic dairy farms, like uneconomic coal mines, must close down and the adjustment process is harsh and painful for farmers and miners alike. In today’s highly globalised world a more humane outcome is unlikely.

The Conversation

John Lingard, Associate, Centre for Rural Economy, Newcastle University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bruce Muirhead, University of Waterloo

The Australian government’s intervention in the dairy crisis by offering concessional loans to struggling farmers has prompted suggestions that other types of regulation - such as a dairy floor price - might be needed.

The dairy industry was deregulated more than a decade ago; perhaps it’s time Australia looked to other countries for models to fix the system.

The current situation facing the Australian dairy industry is the same the world over. The European Union and the United States come to mind, as milk supply outweighs demand. But they provide assistance to their dairy farmers through subsidies or other support that helps to keep them viable.

Canada does not compete internationally in the dairy sector as it maintains a supply management system introduced in the early 1970s. Dairy is not subsidised, as government provides no support, and the price paid to farmers is negotiated among stakeholders.

When I explained this Canadian supply management model to Victoria dairy farmers, as part of my research earlier this year, they rejected the idea. However the current situation may cause some of them to reconsider this position.

While the Canadian model works for Canadian farmers, a supply managed system would be more difficult for those in Australia given that about 40% of Victorian dairy is exported and exports don’t happen with supply management. But Australia’s share of the global market is decreasing over time, despite the best efforts of Australian dairy organisations and farmers, and the number of farms continues to decline. Perhaps Australia will end up with a system resembling a supply managed one through market mechanisms.

I interviewed a total of 45 farmers and dairy stakeholders in Australia during February and March of this year, nearly half in Queensland and the remainder in Victoria and Tasmania. I was interested in how the Australian dairy model works, especially as it is cited by the business press in Canada as one that we should adopt given their dislike of Canada’s regulated system.

What is the supply management model? Briefly, it matches domestic demand with domestic supply and exports are non-existent. The system is based on quotas - for example a kilogram of milk solid costs C$25,000 in the province of Ontario where I live, and it represents about one cow’s worth of production. Producers need at least 50kg of milk solids to run a decently remunerative operation.

Stakeholders representing producers, consumers, processors, the restaurant association and others meet annually to determine price, not government. Included in this is a profit guarantee for farmers that allows them to make long-term decisions and maintain a middle class lifestyle while milking on average about 70 cows. It also means they are immune to this latest global crisis, and to future ones.

And if supermarkets decide to use milk as a loss leader, it is the deep-pocketed supermarket that takes the hit, not the farmer. The price paid to the latter is guaranteed by negotiation, which creates stability.

Clearly, this is not how it operates in Australia where the supermarkets, according to one Queensland dairy producer, “must bruise the farmers to give them a loss leader.” Nor is the price consumers pay for milk in Ontario out of line with that charged by Coles and Woolworths, the real regulators of Australian dairy. Southern Ontarians pay the equivalent of the infamous A$1.00 per litre – A$4.00 for Canada’s four litre container, and have done so for years.

I found in my research that Victoria’s dairy farmers are in favour of privatisation and deregulation. They talked a lot about efficiency and how they are among the world’s more efficient farmers, and Canadians must surely not be, given their system.

Perhaps this is true if efficiency is measured by getting the greatest amount of milk for the least input. But Australian dairy farmers fall behind by other parameters.

Ontario dairy farmers, for example, employ robotic technology at a much greater rate than their Victorian counterparts. New dairy barns are being put up all over the province and a majority of them install robots to do their milking. Ontario now has hundreds of farms using milking robots.

The situation in Victoria could well come to that of New Zealand’s, where cows may be culled and the survivor’s rations severely cut back, as farmers are unable to feed supplements in such an adverse economic climate.

In an interview, as part of my research, one New Zealand dairy farmer told me he was into “starvation mode” for his cows because of cost. He was feeding them with grass only and when that ran out, there was nothing else. He was certainly running an efficient farm, but at a significant cost to his own mental health and to that of his cows’ wellbeing and ability to provide milk.

One Victorian farmer told me that even before the announcement of cuts to the milk solids price, he and his colleagues “farmed at the margins". When prices are robust, so are farmer’s livelihoods, but when they collapse, as they always do in a commodity situation, so do their livelihoods.

This results in another vicious cycle of dairy farmers quitting the industry which leads to further instability. As another interviewee told me, following the cut:

“We will wait and see and hang on for dear life.”

Might the future of Victorian dairy be Queensland, where farmers suffered much of what their Victoria counterparts are now experiencing more than a decade ago after deregulation, and dairy is now a niche industry?

As one Queensland interviewee emphatically instructed me about Canada’s model:

“Don’t give away [the] regulated system!”

Now is the time for Victoria to consider the advice of this farmer and introduce more regulation.

The Conversation

Bruce Muirhead, Professor of History and the Associate Vice President, External Research , University of Waterloo

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 29 April 2016 15:39

2016 Federal Budget - A Preview

Written by

Westpac expects the underlying budget deficit for 2016/17 which will be announced by the Federal Government on Budget night, May 3, will be $29bn. That is a near $5bn upgrade from the Government's December forecast, published in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO). Across the four years to 2018/19, the improvement is $17bn.

The economic environment is somewhat more favourable than anticipated. Real output growth has surprised to the high side in 2015/16. Commodity prices have also surprised, bouncing off historic lows, driving an upgrade of the terms of trade forecasts. In 2016/17 the terms of trade is set to swing from a major negative for national income to a small positive. Partially offsetting this: the currency has moved up from its lows; and general inflation pressures have weakened.

On the Government's forecasts for real GDP growth we expect just the one change, a 0.25% upgrade for 2015/16. That yields a profile of: 3.0%, 2.75%, 3.0% and 3.0%. The forecast for nominal GDP growth is upgraded by 0.25% in both 2015/16 and 2016/17 but downgraded by 0.25% in 2017/18, giving a profile of: 3.0%, 4.75%, 4.75% and 5.25%.

The iron ore price is expected to be revised higher from US$39/t fob in MYEFO to US$50/t (fob) for 2016/17 and US$46/t (fob) beyond that. This adds an estimated $7.8bn over the 3 years to 2018/19.

The budget impact from the improved economic backdrop, together with prospects for the 2015/16 deficit to be $1bn smaller than expected on lower expenditures, is $4.5bn in 2016/17 and $3bn a year thereafter, we estimate.

We anticipate that the balance of new policy measures, including the drawing down of the contingency reserve, as occurred in the May 2015 Budget, will be neutral for the budget in 2016/17 and improve the budget position by $2bn in 2017/18, increasing to a $5bn contribution in 2018/19.

The 2016 Budget is to focus on competition, innovation, investment and infrastructure. There will be tax cuts to boost investment and activity, as occurred in the 2015 Budget, funded by revenue integrity measures. A new infrastructure delivery agency is to be created, with private sector involvement. Any potential impact of the new infrastructure agency on government borrowing is unclear and has not been incorporated in our figuring.

The budget returns to balance in 2019/20, which now rolls into the four year forward estimate period. That is one year earlier than expected in MYEFO.

Net debt peaks at 17.9% of GDP in 2017/18, which is below the 18.5% peak forecast in MYEFO. In dollar terms, net debt climbs to $330bn in 2018/19, some $17bn below that in MYEFO.

 

 

Bill Evans

Westpac Economics

 

 

Thursday, 31 March 2016 07:43

$AUD likely to resume downtrend

Written by

Introduction

After hitting an almost seven year low of $US0.6827 in January the Australian dollar has rebounded by 12% or so hitting a high of $US0.7680. The rebound begs the question as to what is driving it and more fundamentally whether the 38% decline from its 2011 high against the US dollar has now run its course. This note looks at the main issues and what it means for investors.

Why the rebound?

A classic aspect of investing is to be wary of the crowd. When investor sentiment and positioning in an asset reaches extremes it often takes only a slight change in the news to drive a big reversal in the asset’s price. And so it is with the Australian dollar. After its large fall to below $US0.70 big speculative short (or underweight) positions had built up. This coincided with a lot of talk about a “big short” in Australian property, banks and the $A. This can be seen in the next chart.

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

And then over the last month or so the news for the Australian dollar has turned more positive with commodity prices bouncing back (from their recent lows oil is up 50%, copper is up 15% and iron ore is up 45%), the Fed sounding more dovish and delaying rate hikes which has pushed the $US down generally and Australian economic growth holding up well. The combination of a more dovish Fed and better Australian data has seen a widening in expected interest rate differentials between Australia and the US, which makes it relatively more attractive to park money in Australia. So with more positive news on Australian export earnings and the relative interest rate in favour of Australia, speculators and traders have closed their short positions and the Australian dollar has rebounded.

More broadly the rebound in the $A has been part of a return to favour by growth assets since January/February that has seen shares, commodities, corporate debt and growth sensitive currencies rebound as worries about a global recession receded. This is often referred to as “risk on”.

Will the rebound in the $A be sustained?

In the very short term the $A could still go higher yet as long positions in it are still not extreme and the Fed’s new found dovishness could linger. A rise to $US0.80 is possible. However, it’s premature to say that the $A has seen its lows and the trend is now up. In fact my view remains that the trend is still down. First, just as the long term upswing in the value of the $A from $US0.48 in 2001 saw multiple setbacks, including a 39% plunge in 2008, on its way to the 2011 high of $US1.10 the secular down trend that started in 2011 is likely to have several reversals too. There will always be short term/cyclical swings.

Second, the recent rally looks a bit like the 9% short covering rally that occurred in early 2014. After falling through parity in 2013 the $A hit a low of $US0.8660 in January 2014 by which time large short positions had been built up. These were then closed as the RBA saw it prudent to opt for an extended “period of stability” in interest rates and commodity prices bounced higher which pushed the $A up and left it stuck around $US0.94 for five months. Once short positions had reversed, commodity prices resumed their downswing and it looked like the RBA would have to cut rates again the $A resumed its downswing.

Third, fundamental drivers still point south for the $A:

  • Commodity prices - while the worst is probably behind us, commodity prices likely remain in a long term, or secular downswing thanks to a surge in supply after record investment in resources for everything from coal and iron ore to gas and slower global demand growth. As can be seen in the next chart raw material prices trace out roughly 10 year long term upswings followed by 10 to 20 year long term bear markets. This long term cycle largely reflects the long lags in supply adjustments.

    Source: Global Financial Data, Bloomberg, AMP Capital

    Plunging prices for commodities have resulted in a collapse in Australian export prices and hence our terms of trade and this weighs on the value of the $A. This is highlighted by the iron ore price which at the start of last decade was below $US20/tonne rising to over $US180/tonne in 2011 and is now running around $US55/tonne.
  • Interest rates – the interest rate differential in favour of Australia is likely to continue to narrow, making it relatively less attractive to park money in Australia as part of the so-called “carry trade”. While Fed hikes have paused recently in response to global growth worries, they are likely to resume at some point this year in line with the so-called “dot plot” of Fed officials interest rate expectations pointing to two 0.25% hikes this year.

    Meanwhile, although it’s a close call we remain of the view that the RBA will cut interest rates again in the months ahead: as mining investment continues to unwind; the contribution to growth from the housing sector via building activity and wealth effects starts to slow over the year ahead making it critical that $A sensitive sectors like tourism and education are able to fill the gap; to offset possible further out of cycle bank interest rate hikes; and as inflation remains at the low end of the target range. The strengthening $A also adds to the case for another rate cut.

A final critical driver of the Australian dollar is the US dollar itself – but it has become more ambiguous. The ascent of the US dollar from 2011 was a strong additional drag on the $A both directly and via its impact on commodity prices. However, it also added to concerns about the emerging world (as a rising $US makes it harder to service US dollar denominated loans raising the risk of some sort of financial crisis) and as a rising $US constrains US economic growth, doing part of the Fed’s job for it. Consequently, the sharp upwards pressure on the value of the $US may have run its course. But with the Fed still gradually tightening a sharp fall in the $US is unlikely either. Rather it’s likely to track sideways.

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

$A likely to resume its downswing

So while the big picture outlook for the $US has turned neutral, the combination of soft commodity prices and the relative interest rate differential between Australia and the US set to narrow point to a resumption of the downtrend in the $A in the months ahead. How far it may fall is impossible to tell. One guide is via what is called purchasing power parity (PPP), according to which exchange rates should equilibrate the price of a basket of goods and services across countries. The next chart shows the $A/$US rate against where it would be if the rate had moved to equilibrate relative consumer price levels between the US and Australia since 1900.

Source: RBA, ABS, AMP Capital

Right now the $A is around fair value on this measure of $US0.75. But it can be seen from the chart that the $A rarely stays at the purchasing power parity level for long and is pushed to extremes above and below. Right now the commodity down cycle is likely to push the $A to overshoot fair value on the downside. In a way this could be seen as making up for the damage done to the economy during the period above parity. This is likely to take the $A towards $US0.60 on a 12 month horizon.

Implications for investors

There are a several implications for investors. First, the likely resumption of the downtrend in the $A highlights the case for Australian based investors to maintain a decent exposure to offshore assets that are not hedged back to Australian dollars (ie remain exposed to foreign currencies). Put simply, a declining $A boosts the value of an investment in offshore assets denominated in foreign currency one for one. This has been seen over the past five years to February where the fall in the value of the $A turned a 7.1% pa return from global shares measured in local currencies into a 12.9% pa return for Australian investors when measured in Australian dollars.

Second, having an exposure to foreign currency provides a useful hedge for Australian based investors in case we are wrong and the global growth outlook deteriorates significantly. The $A invariably falls (and foreign currencies rise) in response to weaker global growth.

Finally, the fall in the value of the $A to levels that offset or more than offset Australia’s relatively high cost levels is very positive for sectors that compete internationally including manufacturing, tourism, higher education, agriculture & miners. This in turn should continue to help the economy weather the mining downturn and is in turn positive for the Australian share market. Roughly speaking each 10% fall in the value of the $A boosts company earnings by 3%.

 

Shane Oliver

AMP Chief Economist

To modify Benjamin Franklin, it seems that in Australia nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and endless debate about property prices. Why is it so unaffordable? Are foreigners to blame? Is it a good investment? Is negative gearing the problem? Are property prices about to crash?

Worries about a property crash have been common since early last decade. In 2004, The Economist magazine described Australia as “America’s ugly sister” thanks in part to a “borrowing binge” and soaring property prices which had seen it become “another hotbed of irrational exuberance”. At the same time the OECD estimated Australian house prices were 51.8% overvalued. Since the GFC, predictions of an imminent property crash have become more common with talk that a property crash will also crash the banks and the economy.

Our view since around 2003 has been that overvaluation and high levels of household debt leave the housing market vulnerable. As such it could be seen as Australia’s Achilles heel. However, in the absence of a trigger it’s been hard to see a property crash as a base case. Not much has really changed. This note takes a look at the key issues and what it means for investors.

Overvalued, over loved and over indebted

The two basic problems with Australian housing are that it is expensive and household debt is high. Overvaluation is evident in numerous indicators:

  • According to the 2016 Demographia Housing Affordability Survey the median multiple of house prices in cities over 1 million people to household income is 6.4 times in Australia versus 3.7 in the US and 4.6 in the UK. In Sydney it’s 12.2 times and Melbourne is 9.7 times.
  • The ratios of house prices to incomes and rents are at the high end of OECD countries and have been since 2003.
  • Real house prices have been above trend since 2003.

Source: ABS, AMP Capital

The shift to overvaluation more than a decade ago went hand in hand with a surge in the ratio of household debt to income, which took Australia’s debt to income ratio from the low end of OECD countries to now being around the top.

Source: ABS, RBA, AMP Capital

Overvaluation and high household debt are central elements of claims that Australian house prices will crash. These concerns get magnified whenever there is a cyclical surge in prices as we have seen recently in Sydney and Melbourne.

But a crash seems elusive

However, given the regularity with which crash calls for Australian property have been made over the last decade and their failure to eventuate, it’s clear it’s not as simple as it looks.

First, the main reason for the persistent "overvaluation" of Australian home prices relative to other countries is constrained supply. Until recently Australia had a chronic under supply of over 100,000 dwellings, as can be seen in the next chart that tracks housing completions versus underlying demand. Completions are at record levels but they are just catching up with the undersupply of prior years.

Source: ABS, AMP Capital

Consistent with this, vacancy rates while rising are below past cycle highs. In fact, in Sydney they are still quite low.

Source: Real Estate Institute of Australia, AMP Capital

Secondly, Australia has not seen anything like the deterioration in lending standards other countries saw prior to the GFC. There has been no growth in so-called low doc and sub-prime loans which were central to the US housing crisis. In fact in recent years there has been a decline in low doc loans and a reduction in loans with high loan to valuation ratios. See the next chart. And much of the increase in debt has gone to older, wealthier Australians, who are better able to service their loans.

Source: APRA, AMP Capital

Third, and related to this, there are no significant signs of mortgage stress. Debt interest payments relative to income are low thanks to low interest rates. See the next chart.

Source: RBA, AMP Capital

By contrast in the US prior to the GFC interest rates were starting to rise. Yet in Australia bad debts and arrears are low. While new loan sizes have increased, Australians seem focussed on cutting their debt once they get it.

Finally, while some seem to think that because property prices in mining towns like Karatha are now crashing this is a sign that other cities will follow. This is non-sensensical. Property prices in mining towns surged thanks to a population influx that flowed from the mining boom. This is now reversing. Perth and Darwin are also being affected by this but to a less degree. By contrast the surge in property prices in cities like Sydney and Melbourne that occurred into early last decade predated the mining boom and their latest gains largely occurred because the end of the mining boom allowed lower interest rates.

The current state of play

Our assessment is that the boom in Sydney and Melbourne is slowing thanks in large part to APRA’s measures to slow lending to property investors. However, house price growth is likely to remain positive this year. Price growth is likely to remain negative in Perth and Darwin as the mining boom continues to unwind. Hobart & Adelaide are likely to see continued moderate property growth, but Brisbane may pick up a bit. Nationwide price falls are unlikely until the RBA starts to raise interest rates and this is unlikely before 2017. And then in the absence of a recession or rapid interest rate hikes price falls are more likely to be 5-10% as was seen in the 2009 and 2011 down cycles rather than anything worse.

Source: CoreLogic RP Data, AMP Capital

What to watch for a property crash?

To see a property crash – say a 20% average fall or more – we probably need to see one or more of the following:

  • A recession – much higher unemployment could clearly cause debt servicing problems. At this stage a recession looks unlikely though.
  • A surge in interest rates – but the RBA is not stupid; it knows households are now more sensitive to higher rates.
  • Property oversupply – this is a risk but would require the current construction boom to continue for several years.

Implications for investors

There are several implications for investors:

  • While housing has a long term role to play in investment portfolios it is looking somewhat less attractive as a medium term investment. It is expensive, offers very low income (rental) yields compared to all other assets except bank deposits and Government bonds and it’s vulnerable to possible changes to taxation arrangements around property.
  • There are pockets of value, eg in regional areas. You just have to look for them.
  • As Australians already have a high exposure to residential property (directly and via bank shares and property trusts), there is a case to maintain a decent exposure to say unhedged global shares because it could provide an offset if it turns out I am wrong and the Australian property market does have a crash.
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