Productivity not population key to Aussie living standards | Macrobusiness

From Leith van Onselen at Macrobusiness:

Former ALP minister Craig Emerson has penned an article in The AFR calling on the Morrison Government to tackle Australia’s declining productivity growth, which is central to boosting the nation’s living standards:

“Productivity growth has contributed 95 per cent of the improvement in Australians’ material living standards since 1901”.
“From the turn of the century, Australia’s productivity performance began to slide and the longer it has gone on the worse it has gotten”.
“Over the period from 2015 until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, actual productivity growth was worse than the low-productivity scenario included in the 2015 intergenerational report”.
“In the decade since 2010 – even excluding last year – Australia recorded its slowest growth in GDP per capita of any decade in at least 60 years”.
“Without a comprehensive economic reform program, Australia will inevitably have weak growth in living standards during the remainder of the 2020s and into the 2030s”.

Craig Emerson’s assessment is broadly correct, as evidenced by the stagnant real per capita GDP, wage and income growth experienced over the past decade (even before the coronavirus pandemic).

Sadly, however, the Morrison Government with the help of the Australian Treasury seems hell bent on leveraging the other ‘P’ – population growth – to mask over Australia’s poor productivity performance and to keep headline GDP growing, even if it means per capita GDP, income growth and living standards deteriorate.

Rather than using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to reset the Australian economy to focus on quality over quantity, the Morrison Government is intent on repeating the policy mistakes of the past by returning to the lazy dumb growth policy of hyper immigration.

Rebooting mass immigration will inevitably contribute to Australia’s poor productivity growth by:

  • Crush-loading cities, increasing congestion costs and rising infrastructure costs;
  • Encouraging growth in low productivity people-servicing industries and debt creation, rather than higher productivity tradables; and
  • Discouraging companies from innovating and adopting labour saving technologies.

It’s time to put the Australian Treasury’s Three-Ps framework to rest once and for all, along with the snake oil solution of mass immigration.

Policy makers must instead focus first and foremost on boosting productivity, followed by lifting labour force participation. These are the two Ps that actually matter for living standards.

We agree with the concern over poor productivity growth, but focusing on labor force participation is putting the cart before the horse. The key cause of low productivity growth is declining business investment.

Business Investment

Without business investment, new job creation and wages growth will remain low. The way out of this trap is to prime the pump. Boost consumption through infrastructure programs — investment in productive infrastructure that will boost GDP growth (to repay the debt). Boost business investment through strong consumption, a lower Australian Dollar and tax incentives (like accelerated write-off) for new investment.

The lower exchange rate is important to rectify a serious case of Dutch disease1 from the resources industry. There are only three ways to achieve this:

  1. Increase imports, which would be self-defeating, destroying jobs;
  2. Reduce exports; or
  3. Export capital, of which Australia has little.

China is doing its best to help us with the second option, by restricting imports of a wide variety of Australian resources, but that has so far achieved little. David Llewellyn-Smith came up with an interesting alternative:

If we accept that the CCP is the latest manifestation of the historical tendency to give rise to political evils intent on dominating the lives of freedom-loving humanity, then why don’t we cut the flow of iron ore right now…….

The results would be instant. The Chinese economy would be structurally shocked to its knees. 30% of its GDP is real estate-related. 60% of the iron ore that drives it is sourced in Australia. Roughly speaking that is 18% of Chinese GDP that would virtually collapse overnight. Vast tracts of industry would fall silent. An instant debt crisis would sweep the Chinese financial system as its bizarre daisy chain of corruption froze. Local governments likewise. Unemployment would skyrocket.

…..What we can say with confidence is that it would pre-occupy the CCP for many years and hobble it permanently. Its plans for regional domination would be set back decades if not be entirely over.

The problem is how to convince the old boys around the boardroom table at BHP that this would be in their interest as well as in the country’s interest.


  1. Dutch disease is a term coined by The Economist to describe the impact on the Netherlands’ economy of a resources boom from discovery of large natural gas fields in 1959. The soaring exchange rate, from LNG exports, caused a sharp contraction in the manufacturing sector which struggled to compete, in export markets and against imports in the domestic market, at the higher exchange rate.

The S&P 500 and Plan B

The S&P 500 penetrated its rising trendline, warning of a re-test of support at 3000. But selling pressure on the Trend Index appears to be secondary.

S&P 500

Transport bellwether Fedex retreated below long-term support at 150 on the monthly chart — on fears of a slow-down in international trade. Follow-through below 140 would strengthen the bear signal, offering a target of 100. The bear-trend warns that economic activity is contracting.


Brent crude dropped below $60/barrel on fears of a global slow-down. Expect a test of primary support at 50.

Brent Crude

Dow Jones – UBS Commodity Index broke primary support at 76 on the monthly chart, also anticipating a global slow-down.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

South Korea’s KOSPI Index is a good barometer for global trade. Expect a re-test of primary support at 250.


While Dr Copper, another useful barometer, warns that the patient (the global economy) is in need of medical assistance.

Copper (S1)

The Fed can keep pumping Dollars into financial markets but at some point, the patient is going to stop responding. In which case you had better have a Plan B.

Trump gets his Deal

Donald Trump signed the Phase One US-China trade deal with China’s Vice-Premier Liu He in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

The deal is important for Trump politically as he needs to disrupt media focus on his impeachment playing out in the Senate.

China attempted to downplay the significance of the deal by sending their Vice-Premier rather than Xi Jinping for the signing ceremony. But the deal is no less important for them in order to halt/slow the relocation of manufacturing jobs by multinationals to avoid US tariffs.

Trivium China sum up the outcome:

  1. We are still in a trade war. Tariffs remain levied on hundreds of billions of USD worth of goods.
  2. A phase two deal looks dead in the water. US President Trump has already said that he might wait until after the November election to negotiate the next phase. More importantly, there is little appetite in China to make concessions on any of the remaining issues.
  3. Third countries are getting screwed. China’s overall import bill is unlikely to jump by USD 200 billion over the next two years, so increased purchases of US goods will come at the expense of producers in other countries.
  4. This deals another blow to the multilateral trading system. The world’s two largest economies just bypassed the multilateral rules-based system to negotiate a deal that undermines the principles of free trade.
  5. China is downplaying the deal. The fact that Liu He – not Xi Jinping – signed the deal sent a strong signal domestically that this is not a big deal. And Chinese officials have said that most of these measures would have happened irrespective of a deal.
  6. Finally, the deal is a positive for stability. This will serve to halt – or at least slow – economic decoupling. That’s a positive for the global economy and security.

Rhodium Group in The Good, The Bad and The Missing focus on what should have been in the deal but isn’t:

  1. Chapter 1 Pledges greater protection for a handful of specific products – pharmaceuticals, medicines and unlicensed software – and generally more enforcement against counterfeit products but the concerns of other industries are not addressed
  2. There are no robust enforcement mechanisms in Chapter 7. It provides a forum for discussion and consultation but not arbitration. If unable to resolve the issue, the aggrieved party can withdraw from the Agreement. This creates little incentive to resolve issues and may result in a logjam.
  3. The managed trade approach does not even start to remedy systemic concerns like the predominance of state enterprises, the prevalence of foreign investment limitations in the vast set of industries that did not get early attention in this deal, the lack of consistency in competition policy treatment and the general asymmetry of information and the playing field for private firms foreign and domestic.
  4. Phase One fails to address growing challenges at the intersection of economics and national security: Huawei and 5G telecommunications, detentions and pressure on expatriates and travelers from the other side, foreign investment screening and export controls, and the threat of financial decoupling.

Rhodium concludes:

The agreement is a limited one, primarily capping the potential for further escalation of protectionism on both sides rather than taking serious steps to address long-standing issues in Chinese trade practices. The managed trade outcomes in which China promises additional US imports are the most significant substantive commitments made, but China’s capacity and willingness to meet these targets remains in question. Significant tariffs remain in place on both sides, uncertainty about the future path of the US-China relationship will persist, and the broader decoupling trends in security-sensitive areas of the bilateral relationship will continue. Progress toward any Phase Two agreement is likely to be minimal in 2020. (The Chinese side immediately said after the January 15 signing that it wanted to go slow before any further talks.)

The deal attempts to head off further escalation but falls well short of addressing long-standing issues with Chinese trade practices. Trade tensions and decoupling are likely to continue.

Trade deal announced

Donald Trumps latest tweets on a trade deal with China:


As Trish Nguyen predicted, Trump was never going to introduce the Dec15 tariffs as they directly impact on US consumers, not producers as in earlier rounds of tariffs.

Prof Aaron Friedberg (Princeton) gives an interesting summary of the impact this deal will have. The bottom line is that China will not change its ways:


  • CCP-ruled China has long exploited advanced industrial economies – by pursuing a variety of predatory and market-distorting policies

  • The CCP is exceptionally unlikely to offer any fundamental concessions on these policies – they are deeply embedded in China’s economic system and the CCP views them as essential to its hold on power

  • Even if CCP-ruled China were to modify some of its more objectionable economic practices, so long as its domestic political regime remains unchanged, it will continue to pose a serious geopolitical and ideological challenge to the U.S.

  • In light of these realities, the U.S. should pursue a four-part strategy for defending U.S. prosperity and security, by moving toward a posture of partial economic disengagement from China.

De-coupling will continue.

S&P 500 and Europe: New deal or a false dawn?

Donald Trump and is making noises about an interim trade deal with the CCP, while Boris Johnson appears to be making progress on a Brexit deal with Ireland premier Leo Varadkar.

Trump’s announcement is little more than a sham, intended to goose financial markets, with nothing yet committed to writing:

“Trump said the deal would take three to five weeks to write and could possibly be wrapped up and signed by the middle of November….”

…what could possibly go wrong?

The economy continues to tick along steadily, with unemployment and initial jobless claims near record lows.

Unemployment & Initial Jobless Claims

But high levels of uncertainty are likely to create a drag on consumer spending and stock earnings.

At the outset of Donal Trump’s presidency, value investor Seth Klarman, who runs the $30 billion Baupost Group hedge fund, predicted the impact that Trump would have on financial markets:

“The erratic tendencies and overconfidence in his own wisdom and judgment that Donald Trump has demonstrated to date are inconsistent with strong leadership and sound decision-making…..

The big picture for investors is this: Trump is high volatility, and investors generally abhor volatility and shun uncertainty…. Not only is Trump shockingly unpredictable, he’s apparently deliberately so; he says it’s part of his plan.”

In his letter, Mr Klarman warned: “If things go wrong, we could find ourselves at the beginning of a lengthy decline in dollar hegemony, a rapid rise in interest rates and inflation, and global angst.”

While not entirely prescient — we have low interest rates and low inflation — Klarman was right about the decline in dollar hegemony and the rise in global angst.

Markets are clearly in risk-off mode.

US Equity ETFs recorded a net outflow of $824m this week, compared to a net inflow of $2,104m into US Fixed Income. Year-to-date flows present a similar picture, with a 3.3% inflow into US Equity compared to 13.9% into US Fixed Income (Source:


Long tails on the S&P 500 candles indicate buying support. Expect another test of our long-term target at 3000. Volatility remains above 1%, however, indicating elevated risk. Breach of 2800 is unlikely at present but would offer a target of 2400.

S&P 500

According to Factset, the S&P 500 is likely to report a third quarter this year with a year-on-year decline in earnings.

S&P 500 Earnings

The Nasdaq 100 paints a similar picture, with another test of 8000 likely.

Nasdaq 100

It is becoming impossible to justify current heady earnings multiples when reported earnings are declining.


If Johnson’s “free trade zone” for Northern Ireland can break the Brexit impasse, then there may be room for optimism over the future UK – EU relationship.

Europe seems to be stirring. Trailing a distant third, to North America and Asia in terms of investment performance, there are some early encouraging signs. A higher trough indicates buying pressure and breakout above 400 on DJ Stoxx Euro 600 would signal a primary advance.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie shows similar early signs of a potential recovery. A higher trough on the trend Index indicates buying pressure. Breakout above 7600 would signal a primary advance.

FTSE 100

Let us hope that this is not a false dawn and the UK and EU are able to resolve their differences.

For the present, our outlook for the global economy remains bearish and equity exposure for International Growth is a low 34% of portfolio value.

Trade talks: ‘Extend and pretend’

Donald Trump

Donald Trump has been weakened by the impeachment process, with more than half the respondents in a recent Fox News poll wanting the troubled President impeached:

“A new high of 51 percent wants Trump impeached and removed from office, another 4 percent want him impeached but not removed, and 40 percent oppose impeachment altogether.”

Criticism in the right-wing press is growing, with Judge Andrew Napolitano on Fox News:

“A CIA agent formerly assigned to the White House – and presently referred to as the “whistleblower” – reported a July 25, 2019 telephone conversation that Trump had with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. That conversation manifested both criminal and impeachable behavior.

The criminal behavior to which Trump has admitted is much more grave than anything alleged or unearthed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and much of what Mueller revealed was impeachable….”

In an attempt to shore up his ratings, the embattled President has softened  his stance towards an interim trade deal with the Chinese.

“President Donald Trump said Friday that the U.S. and China had reached a “substantial phase one deal” on trade that will eliminate a tariff hike that had been planned for next week.

Trump announced the deal in the Oval Office alongside members of his economic and trade teams, as well as Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and his team, who were in Washington for negotiations.

Trump said the deal would take three to five weeks to write and could possibly be wrapped up and signed by the middle of November….”

The deal is likely to be limited in scope, which will suit China. More from NBC News:

“The White House and China are expected to announce that Beijing will buy more agricultural products, particularly pork and soybeans, from the U.S.

“It seems like they’ve already begun to buy pork,’ said Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, pointing out that a swine fever epidemic has decimated China’s domestic pork industry. “They want to contain domestic prices,’ he said. “They’re not doing this just to please Trump. They’re doing this because it suits them.’

While there is little expectation that the Trump administration would roll back existing tariffs, a further delay of two looming deadlines would send a key signal to the markets about the trajectory for future trade relations……”

None of the hard issues will have been addressed and an interim deal is effectively a retreat by the Trump administration:

Thornier — and more fundamental — trade issues pertaining to intellectual property protections, market access and America’s push for China to change its legislation around these and other contentious issues would likely fall by the wayside, analysts said. “There aren’t going to be any of these other issues addressed, unless Trump caves,’ Kirkegaard said. “It certainly doesn’t address any of the structural issues…he went to war for.’

….“It’s a ceasefire. It’s not a peace treaty,’ Kirkegaard said. “It’s what the Chinese wanted all along.”

This was always the likely outcome, with the US economy in a stronger position to withstand a trade war but Xi and the CCP stronger politically and able to absorb more domestic pressure than the fragile Trump administration.

What we are likely to get during Trump’s remaining time as President is more ‘extend and pretend’ — a ceasefire rather than a resolution of the underlying issues regarding protection of intellectual property and reciprocal market access.