Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Australia in the Pacific century

Interesting short piece by Robert Gottliebsen (Obama spearheads an Asian coup) in Business Spectator on the implications for Australia of the US's re-engagement with Asia. The key point is that Australia risks being sidelined. 

I'm not sure that's right, but it is a risk. Over on my personal blog I have been musing from time to time about the changes taking place globally and the implications for Australia. It's a sort of check and update thinking series. We all have to do this from time to time.

This morning (Art, pop music & a dash of fracking) I mused in part about the implications of the US's growing energy self-sufficiency. The US is a very big economy. I know that seems self-evident, but we tend to forget it in all the discussion on the rise of China. As the US changes direction, it has a lot of economic levers to attract Asian interest.

How this might affect Australia is unclear. Here Mr Gottliebsen's point is worth considering. Australia may be a member of the G20 and may have passed Spain to become the world's twelfth largest economy, but it's still a small economy. 

Focus not on Asia, but on the Pacific. Where might Australia fit in a world where the economic centre of the Pacific gravity shifts to the US?  Should Australia be talking about a Pacific rather than Asian century?   Just a thought.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Keddies and the need to revisit billing practices

My major post yesterday was on my personal blog - Sunday Essay - Keddies and the importance of values. That post looked at the growing avalanche affecting the partners and former clients of Keddies, previously a major Australian personal injuries law firm. The post includes links to previous writing on my part as well as external sources.

In writing the post, I looked back over my previous posts on alternative professional services billing practices. It's probably time to revisit this. There is no perfect answer, but the Keddies approach actually bet the firm. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The future for the Australian economy


Note to readers: This column appeared in the June/July edition of Australian Business Solutions magazine. It was written just before the budget. It's not on-line, so I have re-published it here.

In my last column I spoke of the economic forecasting mess. Since then, the International Monetary Fund has released its latest forecasts on global growth. This was greeted by some in the Australian media with glee - “Australian economy leads the world” screamed one headline.

The reality is a little different, for the IMF is actually a good example of what I have been taking about. In recent years, its forecasts have been all over the place like a dog’s breakfast! So what did the IMF actually say? Well, not quite what the headline would suggest.

To begin with, the IMF suggested that there was some strengthening in the global economy, although this was heavily qualified in some ways with recognition of the various risk factors. But what did the IMF think of Australia? The IMF actually projected some further weakening in the Australian economy. We are still forecast to do relatively well by the standards of other developed nations, but hardly well enough to suggest that the Australian economy leads the world!

But in all this confusion what can we actually say about the Australian economy? The first and most important point is that world commodity prices will continue to weaken, reducing returns on our major exports. Why do I say this? It’s simple. The structural imbalances that developed in the global economy over the long boom are still there. They will take time to unwind. So long as they continue, global economic growth will continue to be weak. In turn, this means weakened demand for commodities.

Yet despite the fall in commodity prices, the Australian mining investment boom will continue, if at a lower level than previously forecast. Work already under way guarantees that. This means, in turn, that pressures on the non-resource sectors will continue. However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

A very significant proportion of the inputs required for all those new mines and supporting infrastructure, over 40 per cent, will be imported. With lower export prices, the current account deficit will grow. This will place downward pressure on the Australian dollar.

The Australian dollar may not go lower than now, but it will go lower might otherwise have been the case. Both export and import competing industries will be better off as a consequence. There will be more time to adjust.

But the story doesn’t end here. World growth may be slow, but it is still positive. This means that the total marketplace for Australia’s non-resource exports will grow. Importantly, the fastest growing marketplaces will continue to be in our immediate region, which gives us an advantage. The decline in commodity prices will also increase the relative return on non-mining investments, encouraging investment outside mining.

Taken together, we are likely to see a smaller resource sector than would otherwise have been the case, a larger non-resource sector.

For the present, the Australian economy should continue to grow if below the trend rate - and the biggest immediate economic risk? It’s actually the budget!

By the time you read this, we will know what Treasurer Swan has in mind. Looking at the numbers, the size of the apparent spending cuts required to return the budget to surplus will place considerable downward pressure on economic activity. That pressure will be felt most by the non-resource sectors of the economy, just those sectors adversely affected by the mining boom. That would be a pity.

Coming back online

Just a short note to say that I have largely been of-line for personal reasons. I am now coming back on-line, so you can expect more regular posts here.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Australian budget day

A post on my personal blog, Australian budget day - what will I examine?, briefly looks at tonight's Australian budget. I will bring the follow up post here tomorrow.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Navigating the economic forecasting mess


It is extremely difficult to keep a level head in the face of current economic forecasting and reporting. One minute it’s all doom and gloom, the next things suddenly seem better.

The gyrations have been quite remarkable, beyond anything in my own experience. They have also continued for some time now - since the onset of the global financial crisis, in fact. Measures of consumer and business sentiment have followed the gyrations.

From a practical business perspective, both economic forecasting and reporting have become a burden. They affect, but do not inform.

So how do you navigate your way through this mess? The first thing to remember is that forecasts are just that - forecasts. In all cases, they rely on past data and incorporate assumptions about the structure of the economy and of the relations between different types of economic activity.

But there is a further problem. Most prominent business economists work for financial institutions. Because their primary internal role is to provide advice on what might happen in financial markets, the economic reporting that follows from their public utterances is also markets’ focused. This means that both forecasts and reporting often do not provide the type of longer term information most businesses require.

Business wants answers to questions like: What’s happening to my market place or to my costs? By contrast, many forecasters and reporters are concerned with the immediate market impacts of changes in longer term expectations. How will it affect the dollar or shares, or the financial markets in general?

Perhaps the best course may just be to ignore the whole lot unless there is something there that seems directly relevant to your business! If this sounds extreme, consider all the reporting of interest rates over the last twelve months. How much of that has actually been in any way useful to the majority of Australian businesses?

I am not saying that you should ignore economic conditions or all economic reporting. I am saying that you should be selective and focus on information relevant to your needs.

Say that you an engineering business that provides components to certain firms in certain sectors. It is safe to say that you have a direct interest in developments in those sectors and especially in your own customer base. This includes the likely demand for your own products or services, as well as payment patterns. It is critical that you know if your customers paying more slowly and, if so, why?

If, like most businesses, you have borrowings, then you are interested in interest rates. But, more importantly, you are also likely to interested in the availability of credit.

Each business needs to define the economic information that is directly relevant to their needs. A lot of people in business do not focus properly on the economic and industry conditions that are relevant to their businesses. They will tell you how awful the economy is when, in fact, their business is doing just fine. These perceptions about the economy can affect actions, and the results can be quite damaging.

Note to readers: This column appeared in the April/May edition of Australian Business Solutions magazine. It's not on-line, so I have pre-published it here.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Cloud computing, consolidation and the carbon tax cull Australian data centres

My posting continues to be irregular. I have lots to say, but am struggling to find the time away from my professional activities.

My last post was Problems with cloud computing - and paperless offices. Following on from this, I was interested in a story in IT Wire on Australian data centres. 

According to Gartner the number of Australian data centres will peak this year just shy of 50,000. That's a huge number. However, by 2015 the number of Australian data centres is forecast to drop to around 45,500.

According to Gartner's Phil Sargeant, there was a great deal of consolidation going on in the Australian market, and that more and more companies were looking to satisfy their ICT needs through a move to cloud computing.  The impost of the carbon tax would also have an impact.

Most Australian data centres are relatively small by global standards.

“You get economies of scale in the big data centres and they can bring that to bear re their ability to purchase energy,” Mr Sargeant said. “They have better energy characteristics than smaller data centres.”

The energy issue is important, for the data centres chew power.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Problems with cloud computing - and paperless offices

Just at present I am working on site with an organisation that has moved its computer systems to the clouds. It is also replacing its paper based records system with a paperless electronic one. I have been observing the results with interest.

Cloud computing is very popular at the present time. Quite the buzz in fact!

It is easy to forget in all this that the concept is not new. What is new is the scale of application. It is easy to forget, too, that the performance parameters are not new. They are just the same as any other computer system.

I mention this because the single greatest user complaint is simply slowness. Everything just takes more time as compared to either the local WAN or single computer use. The results are quite noticeable.

The mover to the paperless office is interesting, too, because the first apparent effects have actually been an increase in paper usage. The reason for that is a simple one.

With a properly maintained paper file, you can read stuff quickly, see the chronology quickly. With a full electronic system, access becomes more time consuming. People checking documents who see something interesting are more likely to print it off simply because it is easier to do so than to take a note of the document location and then return later. They then throw the printed document out when finished.   

Saturday, January 28, 2012

How do we break free from the ratings entanglement?

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A number of people have asked to see my Australian Business Solutions January column. It's not on-line, so  is repeated below.

In December, Treasury Secretary Dr Martin Parkinson took a swipe at the global ratings agencies.

They were, he is reported to have said, “becoming mechanistic and excessively simplistic, running the risk of moving from excessive optimism to excessive pessimism every time they look at a country or firm.”

It’s worse than that. The global credit rating agencies have become a cancer eating away at the global economy, one that affects every business.

In the lead-up to the global financial crisis, they gave triple A credit ratings to institutions and securities that were clearly not. That helped fuel a global financial bubble.

As the crisis unfolded, the variations the agencies made to country and institutional rankings added to market instability.

We saw the same thing in the unfolding crisis with the Euro.

The credit rating agencies provide no new information to the market. The standard of their economic and financial analysis is clearly suspect. Yet despite all this, a shift or threat of a shift in a county’s credit rating can have damaging or even catastrophic market effects even though it tells us nothing that we didn’t already know.

It’s actually our own fault, yours and mine. Let me explain.

Our problem, and it is our problem because it affects us all, lies in the way that we awarded the ratings agencies authority without responsibility. We created the cancerous monster.

Back in a now dim and distant past when I was working in the Commonwealth Treasury, I remember discussions on the possibility that Australia might get a triple a credit rating for the first time. We did, lost it in 1986, then finally got it back in 2003.

Australia’s original concern with its credit rating at state and Federal level made a lot of sense.

In those days, both State and Federal Governments borrowed to fund infrastructure. We needed access to global capital for both private and public purposes. A high credit rating made it easier for a small relatively remote country like Australia to access funds and at a lower cost.

Sadly, from being a means to an end, the maintenance of a triple A credit rating became an end in itself. All Australian Governments preached this as a badge of honour.

Those in the business community nodded their heads and made approving noises, even though it was obvious even to Blind Freddy that much of the ratings shifts actually didn’t matter very much.

Governments throughout the world then did something worse. They built the ratings into policy, procedures and regulation. Business and especially the finance sector followed.

This institutionalisation of agency ratings, their incorporation into so many regulations and arrangements, meant that variations in credit ratings had direct flow on market effects in ways that no-one had foreseen. The ratings system itself had become a direct cause of market instability and on a large scale.

You would think that we would learn, but no! Even as Treasury Secretary Parkinson is complaining about the agencies, we see Federal Treasurer Swan, NSW Treasurer Baird, quoting rating changes approvingly as evidence of their good economic management.

Politicians respond to their electorates, that’s part of their job. But surely it’s time for the Australian business community as a whole to say enough is enough, that Australia and the world must break free from the ratings entanglement that we have created?