Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Friday, September 23, 2011

National planning for global downturn

I concluded my last post, Global economic gloom, with the comment:

Like many, I have been mulling over what all this means (for Australia). I thought that it might be helpful, at least to me, if I did some of the same type of very basic economic analysis that I did during the GFC. You know, the simple stuff based on first principles. That's a better guide than the more complex analysis at a time of change.

As I write, the stock exchange and financial markets have been all over the place, with some of the type of breathless reporting that I have commented on before. One minute we are all ruined, the second everybody seems to breath a sigh of relief!

From a practical business perspective, what is important first is changes in the marketplace in which the business operates, rather than overall trends. I make this point simply because the two are not the same, but may diverge quite widely. Then there are the effects on funding of changing conditions in financial markets. This raises a different set of issues independent of individual market conditions. I make these points because there is a tendency to focus on general trends when some businesses may in fact be doing very well.

wbc-acci-history There is no doubt in my mind that the Australia economy has weakened, although the pattern is variable across the country. The latest Westpac-ACCI survey of Australian industry shows this quite clearly.

We have a number of effects working in combination here. One is the rise in the value of the Australian dollar relative to some other currencies. This has affected certain trade exposed industries in particular. Then, and as has happened before, anecdotal evidence suggests that business is cutting back on discretionary spend, creating flow on effects in related areas including legal services. Then, too, housing has been weak, as has retail spending,

Australia operates in a global marketplace and is affected by changes in that market. These flow through to Australia along four dimensions:

  • Direct changes in demand for exports
  • Financial affects associated with exchange rate movements and in the availability of funds to the banking system
  • Psychological affects as people respond to global changes
  • The impact on superannuation funds of global changes in an environment where a significant proportion of funds are invested in equity and off-shore. This one is insufficiently discussed for with compulsory superannuation it actually has major impacts on domestic behaviour.

Australia may be exposed to international conditions, but that exposure is more limited I think than most realise:

  • Our main exports, minerals and primary products, have something of a natural buffer in that there is a stable base demand. Prices may fall - I have argued that present commodity prices are unsustainable -  but demand will continue
  • Our floating exchange rate means that falling export income would (should) translate to a lower Australian dollar, with domestic stimulus effects. Quite a bit of Australian industry wouldn't mind in the slightest if all the hype about the mining boom #2 proved false!
  • We are exposed to international financial markets, but the proportion of bank borrowings funded domestically has increased as local savings have increased
  • We have strong institutional structures and relatively low Government debts, giving plenty of capacity to expand spending.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, one of the problems that I pointed too was the way in which many countries had lost their public infrastructure investment pipelines. This linked to changing approaches to public administration in many countries. I suggested that one practical result was that Government plans to expand infrastructure spending could not be realised in the proposed time limits.

Putting aside special pleading, there appears to be general agreement in this country that Australia has been under investing in public infrastructure for many years. We have also been under investing in housing, given population growth. Managed properly, there is scope for considerable expansion of public or even public private investment that is likely to yield considerable paybacks in economic terms.

The problem with the previous Rudd Government stimulus measures in this area is that, in the absence of a real investment pipeline and with a need for urgency, we arguably didn't get a long term return for our dollars.

This need not be the case if proper planning is put in place now.

If you accept conventional wisdom about mining boom mark two, then the place for such spend is limited. But who, now, would argue with certainty that that boom will occur? We really do need to have a fall-back position in the event that it doesn't.       

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