Want a glimmer of hope? Look at this.

Things look bad.

Today, economic growth figures are coming out (at 11.30am) and for the first time in ages, people are predicting negatives.

Recession talk is in the air. I have my doubts about that. But the talk alone is very suggestive, and there are lots of reasons for it.

Chinese markets are falling, our own stock-market is in a sustained slide, and with all that bubble talk our housing construction sector looks weaker.

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 8.36.13 amIs Australia about to get a surge of growth, or a slump?

One way to answer that is to look at what business is up to. In May, we checked in with business spending plans and they gave me intestinal cramps. Things have changed, sort of…

Capital expenditure is what makes your business bigger, lets you employ more people, etc. It’s one of the big signals of future economic growth. And it’s going backwards.

The mining sector is in such a funk that it won’t bring us any growth. This next graph shows the plans the mining industry has for capital expenditure.

The grey bars show actual expenditure. The last one for 2014-15 is the lowest in four years. The white ones are plans for next year. The latest white bar (3rd estimate for 2015-16) is the lowest 3rd estimate in five years.Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 8.25.14 amThat is having a seriously negative effect on Australia’s total capital expenditure. Check out the increasing steepness of that slope at the end.Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 8.26.15 am  Manufacturing won’t save us.Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 8.25.06 am But there’s other parts to the economy. Other selected industries are investing more than ever.

Other selected industries sounds like a miscellaneous grab-bag. But check out the labels on the vertical axes. This is a massive part of our economy. Not only that, it just invested more than it expected, which is more than ever. Plans for 2105-16 are more modest, but increasing fast.Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 8.24.55 amOther selected industries* includes:

Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services
Construction
Wholesale Trade
Retail Trade
Transport, Postal and Warehousing
Information Media and Telecommunications
Finance and Insurance
Rental, Hiring and Real Estate Services
Professional, Scientific and Technical Services
Accommodation and Food Services
Administrative and Support Services
Arts and Recreation Services

In other words, a whole lot of important parts of our economy that we can actually believe in.

And there’s one simple reason why they might grow. Our falling dollar.

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 8.57.45 amThe fall in our currency is a bit like being a lobster in a boiling pot of water. Unlike stock market fluctuations it happens slowly and we don’t pay it so much mind. But it matters a lot.

The slow growth of non-mining industries in the last few years can be attributed to our high dollar. America’s incredible recovery from its recession in the same time period can be explained by its low currency.

A falling dollar could flip slow growth on its head. And we’d be too busy worrying about mining to notice.

The current mood of widespread gloom may prove to have been peak fear.

*This whole private capital expenditure data-set excludes healthcare and social assistance, which as we know, is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. In Melbourne, a billion dollar new cancer hospital is being built, for example. That’s not in the stats. Further reason to hope.

Amazon is lazy in the one place it should be hard-working.

The New York Times published a great story about Amazon 10 days ago. I’ve thought about it a lot. Amazon treats its employees harshly. It fires a lot and forces even more out by making their lives hard.

I wrote a story last week about how this won’t work well. Most people can’t hack 80 hours a week. Our productivity drops. But a tiny percentage thrive.

Amazon wants to hire the best and brightest. And that’s terrific.

red=smarrrrrt.
Top 2.5% of smart people are marked in red

There’s a bell curve of bright people. Amazon wants the ones on the right. The red group who represent the top 2.5 per cent. And it is prepared to pay for them. Pay is very good. Software engineers get $76,00 to $148,000 a year in salary. And there are big stock bonuses if you can hang around.

But it also wants to hire the people who want to work first and live second. The 80-hour a week crew. That’s great. Those people need a place to work that welcomes people like them.

Amazon has a right to target such people and it should expect benefits. Here’s a distribution of people by how much they want to work. Amazon wants the red people on the right.

red = diigent.
Top 2.5% of hard workers are marked in red. Emails after midnight! Woo!

But here’s the thing. The red group in graph 1 is not the red group in graph 2.

There is probably some correlation between the two groups, but it will be imperfect.

Here’s a hypothetical distribution of best and brightest, with the people from the top of the willing to work graph marked red.

red lines are tough bastards.
Where the hard workers might fall on the ability spectrum.

Amazon has a problem. The people they want to hire are very few. It can hire smart people, but they won’t all be willing to work hard enough. It can hire hard workers, but they won’t all be smart enough.

There are two ways of solving this problem. The easy way and the hard way.

The easy way is to throw people in the deep end and see who swims. This is a scatter-gun approach that says “recruiting candidates with a high chance of success is hard, and we are lazy.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.40.08 pmThe hard way to solve the problem is to narrowly recruit more people with a higher chance of success.

Rather than hiring “high volume recruiters” maybe they should look into hiring “high-accuracy recruiters.” This will cost money in the short-run. But it will probably be smart in the long-run.

Staff learn on the job. I’ve never had a job where I reached my potential in my first year. By burning so many staff so fast Amazon misses out on improvements. Working people to the bone in their first six months probably gets as much performance from them as they would achieve if they’d been there six months longer.

It’s not smart and the PR cost of hiring so many people that hate working there has blown up.

If you add the “externality” effect of lives damaged, marriages ruined and kids’ birthdays missed, then the cost of Amazon’s lazy recruiting strategy is even higher.

There is a moral imperative for Amazon to stop hiring so widely. Seriously. Stop it. Now.

The one piece of good news in all of this is that the New York Times piece will probably weed out some applicants who are unsuited for the company.

I suspect the names of journalists Kantor and Streitfeld are mud at Amazon HQ right now. But their expose may have actually done the company a favour.

The puzzle of where men outnumber women, and vice-versa.

The concentration of men and women in various parts of Victoria is stronger than you’d expect according to random variation.

There’s some real trends in place that seem like a genuine puzzle. (These charts are made from fascinating data released by the ABS this week.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 11.51.11 am Fully a third of postcodes have a gender ratio that’s skewed more than 5 per cent one way or the other. There are slightly more postcodes where women outnumber men by 5 per cent (79) than those where men outnumber women by 5 per cent (62.)

That’s to be expected because there are 99 men per 100 women in Australia.

But where men outnumber women they do so by a lot more.

The top result is Port Melbourne Industrial, which is a place I’m surprised anyone calls home. And indeed there are just 9 males to 4 females (ratio 2.25). Security guards who sleep among the containers? Who knows.

The next one is Braeside. A similar story with a ratio of 12 men to 6 women.  Then Alps East with 18 and 9. I’d like to imagine those 18 men have swags and wake each day to see their horse breathing steam under an old ghost gum.

Anyway, we can discount those three because the samples are tiny.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 11.50.54 am
Female dominated suburbs include Chelsea and Rosebud. More men live in Seymour. Is this another case of nominative determinism?

Rosedale is the real thing. 2645 men to 1863 women (ratio 1.42). A little hamlet out in the Latrobe Valley, it is probably full of people working in the coal-fired electricity industry. A hard place for a fella to get a date, no doubt. Although the photos on the Rosedale Tavern’s facebook page suggest that’s where the local ladies go. (and it’s not as bad as East Pilbara where men outnumber women 350 per 100.)

It’s easy to explain some locations of high concentrations of men by reference to workforce pressures. They are found around heavy industries and agriculture.

Some are more tricky. Why is Footscray so full of testosterone? Why Docklands?

And why do women crowd into the expensive eastern suburbs? We see Burwood, Camberwell and Armadale in the top 10 with less than 90 men per 100 women.

Toorak, the suburb most emblematic of wealth, has a ratio of 91 men to every 100 women. Are there many young single women there perhaps? Or families whose daughters live with them for a long time?

The CBD , meanwhile, has a ratio of 107 men to every 100 women.

Perhaps we are seeing women self-select into suburbs they deem are very safe, while men are more willing to live in supposedly rough areas?

Do you have another explanation? Please feel free to share it in a comment below!

EDIT

Commenter Matt points out that women live longer, which is a very good point (that I wish I thought of). This is definitely part of the explanation as we can see in the graph for the most skewed suburb, Burwood:

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 1.21.51 pmBut it’s not the whole explanation. If it were, Footscray would look similar up til the mid-40s, when men start dropping off. Instead Footscray has more men at every age.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 1.33.30 pmI think the puzzle has had a lot of pieces added, but there’s still some blank spots… Any further ideas?

The curious case of poll-driven political reporting.

The Guardian published a report yesterday about Bill Shorten. The author set out to repent for calling  Bill Shorten a “tired accountant”. The impetus for the story was the turn around in the polls.

“Shorten is still leading the Labor party in the wake of this latest credibility disaster for the Coalition, after last week’s credibility disaster (blocking a free vote on marriage equality) and the preceding week’s credibility disaster (chopper-friendly Bronwyn Bishop). He’s now sitting atop polls from both Ipsos and Morgan that have the Coalition facing a loss of between 36 and 44 seats.

Is it time for a rethink?”

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and I don’t like it.

Interpreting what a political leader does through the polls is intellectually vacuous. It’s easy to write. There is no need to have a view on tough questions about policy effectiveness or priorities, the merits of intriguing questions about whether the head of the AWU should be matey with big business, or the management and composition of their front bench.

The author of yesterday’s piece is not especially guilty. She has written about policy more than polls. But overall, allowing poll numbers to drive judgment of politicians’ merits is now commonplace. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9].

The rise of this sort of reporting means a swing in the polls does double business.

Not only does a poll bump get the leader kudos in their party, but it changes the tone of reporting about them. The new, glowing stories therefore amplify swings in popularity. That may be responsible for the increasingly binary popularity positions we see among our political leaders (They’re often wildly popular like Baird or old Abbott, or wildly unpopular, like Gillard and new Abbott).

This kind of reporting validates the paradigm that political hacks of the most cynical kind push inside their parties: We can do good once we’re in power. For now let’s focus on winning. It sidelines those inside a political party who think they should focus on making the country better, not just making the polls better.

Here’s a choice example of the kind of reporting I’m talking about.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers not policy ideas to choose their leader. Is he right?
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers to choose their leader. Is he right?

I can only imagine the cognitive dissonance some reporters must experience when they write articles demanding more policy substance and less poll-driven rubbish.

Of course, we do need some political reporting. It’s helpful to peek behind the curtain from time to time and see the way the magician performs his tricks. You feel like an insider.

But it can’t be all we have, most of what we have, or even a substantial minority of it. It’s a sometimes food.

Our meat and veg must be stories about policy.

Worried about having too many messaging apps? Boy do I have bad news for you.

Today my twitter app offered me the option to integrate my Instagram. I said no. Shortly afterward I started reading about a service called “Slack”.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 3.25.02 pmThe line about the email killer made me laugh.

If you hope one day your email, your twitter, facebook, sms, skype, postal mail and home phone will all be in one app, you’re dreaming.

Likewise, if you invent a messaging app you intend to be the one to rule them all, you’ll end up contributing only clutter to the landscape.

This is not a bad thing.

We have specific needs for different types of communication. Each will be best served by different kinds of technology.

I think this argument is best served with an analogy.

The area of our lives where technology is most mature is the kitchen. What we see is not a streamlining of technology but hyper-specialisation.

I just counted and there are thirteen separate heat sources in my kitchen.

  • Oven
  • Grill
  • Microwave
  • Toaster
  • Kettle
  • Espresso machine
  • Sandwich press
  • Hot tap
  • Rice cooker
  • Four gas burners

There has been no major technological innovation there for years. And human tastes when it comes to food are very well-established. We can’t pretend the current state of technological proliferation is due to rapid developments or uninformed consumer prefereneces.

In theory I could use a single hot plate to get (almost) all the tasks done. But the cost of proliferation is small compared to my preference for getting the job done properly.

The microwave promised to do it all too
The microwave promised to do it all too.

For the same reason I have a cutlery drawer, not a Swiss Army knife.

The idea human communication needs can be met with a single “killer” app is crazy. We talk, we write, we draw, we sing, we shout and whisper. Even in the medium of “mail” we send not just letters but also bills and postcards.

In the future we’re going to have phones full of messaging apps, each subtly different. We’ll appreciate them all and look back with amusement on this naive era – an era where entrepreneurs who aimed to be all things to all people invented apps that ended up with a very specific purpose.

One of the leading candidates for President in the US is a socialist.

We all know about Donald Trump and his mad plans to do mad things, fired by a madness rich and deep.

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 11.08.23 amBut there’s someone else in the US Presidential race who is even further from the American mainstream and who could be even more influential.

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 11.28.39 amVermont Senator Bernie Sanders is ahead of Hillary Clinton in the poll for the New Hampshire primary – the vote to select the Democrats presidential candidate. He leads 44-37.

New Hampshire is the first primary vote held and is therefore seen as a key marker in the Presidential race. It gets a vast amount of media attention. The last seven Presidents have all come first or second in their New Hampshire primary.

Sanders is currently ranked about third for odds of winning in 2016. He’s rated by the betting agencies as having about a 7 to 8 per cent chance of becoming president. That maybe doesn’t sound like a lot, but at this stage of the process when the field is littered with contenders, it’s pretty good. Only Jeb Bush and Clinton are ahead of him.

All this matters because Sanders is not another cookie-cutter centrist. He offers real policy alternatives. He’s genuinely left-wing. (A socialist in American terms although maybe not by the criteria of the rest of the world)

For example, these are from his 12-point agenda for America, on his website:

Trade Policies that Benefit American Workers: We must end our disastrous trade policies (NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China, etc.) which enable corporate America to shut down plants in this country and move to China and other low-wage countries. We need to end the race to the bottom and develop trade policies which demand that American corporations create jobs here, and not abroad.

Taking on Wall Street:  The greed, recklessness and illegal behavior of major Wall Street firms plunged this country into the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. They are too powerful to be reformed. They must be broken up.

Growing the Trade Union Movement: Union workers who are able to collectively bargain for higher wages and benefits earn substantially more than non-union workers. Today, corporate opposition to union organizing makes it extremely difficult for workers to join a union. We need legislation which makes it clear that when a majority of workers sign cards in support of a union, they can form a union.

Those are not the kind of things other Democrats are proposing.

Now, I’m not saying that Mr Sanders will beat Hillary Clinton. One poll ahead of one primary is not enough. Endorsements also matter and on that front Hillary Clinton is miles ahead.

But the way politics works is that a successful candidate with more extreme views pulls the whole field in their direction.

In US politics, the primaries see candidates tack out to the political extremes as they chase the votes of the party members who vote in primary elections. They then tack back to the middle as they chase the votes of ordinary citizens in the actual presidential election.

But the process of winning the primary forces a candidate to nail some colours to the mast. Sanders’ success will pull Clinton to the left as she tries to neutralise him. That effect will fade after she beats him, but it can’t be erased completely.

And as the two eventual candidates face off for President, trying to capture the centre, Clinton’s extra leftness will pull the eventual Republican nominee slightly leftward too.

So even if he loses the Democratic nomination, the effect of Sanders’ run will be to shift the whole of the US ever so slightly to the left.

Rising house prices: not a wealth fountain. A money-go-round.

RBA deputy governor Phillip Lowe gave a great speech last night. Lowe is the guy most likely to replace Glenn Stevens when Stevens quits as Governor and it is worth paying attention to what he says.

Last night’s speech was pretty radical. In the guise of a dry discussion of Australia’s balance sheet, Lowe single-handedly deflated arguments for rising house prices.

That puts him in direct opposition to noone other than Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott, of course, said in June “I do hope our house prices are increasing.”

The argument Lowe makes is so smart and so obvious it’s amazing we don’t hear it more often. He starts out by showing that the rise in “house prices” is really a rise in land prices.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.33.46 am“[T]he figures that I have presented invite the conclusion that our national wealth has risen largely because of higher land prices. But is such a conclusion really warranted? Have we really become wealthier as a nation simply because the value of our land has increased?

“The answer would clearly be yes if this increase was because we had discovered more land. To my knowledge, though, this has not happened.[7]”

Lowe argues that the rise in house prices is not a nice neat story about the returns to city life increasing. He says prices rose because of financial deregulation and supply constraints.

This creates not a wealth fountain but a money-go-round, he explains.

“from the perspective of society as a whole, much of what is gained on the one hand is lost on the other: there are windfall gains from higher land prices but then everyone pays more for housing services.”

Lowe also reveals that the “baby boomers are ripping off the kids” narrative has some credibility even in that palest of economic ivory towers, the RBA.

“For an older person who owns their own home and has no children, the capital gain from the higher land prices more than offsets the expected higher future housing costs. Such a household is better off. The same is true for owners of investment properties, since they own multiple dwellings on which they earn a capital gain. In contrast, for young homeowners with multiple children, the calculation can look quite different. If they care about the future housing costs of their children, then, in some circumstances, it is possible that the higher future expected housing costs could exceed the capital gain on their dwelling. In a welfare sense, the increase in land prices could make them worse off, even though they own land. The same is obviously true for renters as they do not have any capital gain to offset the higher future housing costs.”

“I think many Australians have an innate understanding of the concept and share the concern. Many parents around the country look at the high housing (really land) prices and worry that their children will not be able to afford the type of property that they themselves have been able to live in, even if their children were to have the same life-time income profile as they have had.”

“So it is arguable that the main impact of higher land prices is not really to increase our national wealth, but to change the distribution of that wealth.”

He goes on to argue that if parents help their kids buy houses, high house prices are perpetuated. But their wealth effect is diminished because the people that have expensive assets are using them as collateral for buying more expensive assets. That is to say the high prices bring no benefit.

If, however, parents don’t help their kids buy houses, and instead spend up big (say on trips overseas) then house prices are more likely to moderate.

This latter scenario, as unpleasant as it may seem to some, is actually the better one for social stability. Because with Australia’s strong immigration profile, not everyone has parents who own property in Australia. The divide between new migrants and established citizens will only grow larger if property wealth is transmitted across generations.