Friday, November 17, 2017

Shooting ourselves in the foot?

It is fashionable in some circles to think of Australia’s economy as one in full transition from primary production and resources into a services based economy. This goes does well in inner urban circles where white collar professionals, many of them removed from connections to life beyond a comfy three-kilometre ring around our CBDs, tend to dominate. However, it’s a mistake to ignore the economic reality which is that Australia’s export earnings continue to rely almost entirely on stuff we dig up from the under the ground or grow on top of it.

Take coal for example. In 2016 coal was Australia’s number 2 export earner, second to iron ore. The value of coal exports, for context, were nearly eight times the value of professional services exports. In a top ten league ladder of export earning industries, professional services finished 10th in size. The importance of a single commodity (coal) as an export earner makes the relentless attacks on the proposed Adani mine and related infrastructure harder to understand.

Whatever your position on renewable energy for our domestic needs might be, trying to scuttle our second biggest export earner is reckless economics and irresponsible politics. The commodity earns us all valuable foreign exchange dollars which help keep our national economy afloat. The industries around the search for, extraction of, site remediation and transport of that commodity also employ many thousands of people – which keeps a large number of regional communities alive, as well as city based professionals engaged in industries like engineering, environmental science, transport and infrastructure.

Ironically, many of the coordinated and highly emotive attacks on the coal industry and Adani in particular have come from its beneficiaries: urban residents who enjoy the benefits of Australia’s trade balance in the form of social and physical infrastructure standards which remain the envy of many countries. The evidence is incontestable: without coal exports, our economy would plunge into a massive hole, unemployment would rise, credit would be squeezed, and infrastructure projects clamoured for by the very chattering classes so vehemently opposed to coal, would cease. We all lose.

Queensland’s real gross state income surged recently, and it was down to an improvement in coal prices – as Gene Tunny from Adept Economics has noted: “To illustrate, coal royalties in 2016-17 ended up being an estimated $3.4 billion compared with $1.7 billion in 2015-16.”

Sadly, the economic reality is now lost in a debate about coal, energy and the environment where truth was an early casualty. Facebook and other social media channels carry and then amplify alarmist and simply false claims to a wider and increasingly gullible audience. The suggestion that we could have an informed discussion about the importance of coal exports to our standards of living is hard to hear above the cacophony of anti-coal protests. 

None of this should be taken to suggest I’m not supportive of the growth in professional services. As a professional service person myself, I’d be mad not to be. But I equally appreciate that our economy – even for those in inner urban circles that are far removed from coal or iron ore mines, or from manufacturing plants or farms or heavy industry – desperately needs these industries for our collective benefit. 

Being able to afford eye wateringly expensive infrastructure projects or schools or hospitals in the hearts of our city centres owes much to what we can continue to dig up or grow and sell overseas. We basically can’t have one without the other and suggesting this is possible is akin to taking a gun, pointing it at your foot, and pulling the trigger.


Monday, October 16, 2017

A new geography of urban wealth?



US based urbanist Richard Florida - once described as an “intellectual Rockstar” – shot to fame with his 2002 book The Creative Class. He was on a global speaking tour that took in many Australian cities, arguing that the secrets to economic development lay in attracting legions of creatively motivated progressives working in new economy professions. This was best done by enhancing inner urban “hipsterness” measured by a “bohemian index” with investments in public space, recreation, culture, and various other “urban chic” accoutrements. Many city leaders rushed for the Florida gospel, applying its preaching in the hope of out-hipping competing urban centres for precious jobs in the new economy. 

But Florida has since re-canted, admitting that the focus on inner urban “cool” may have worked for the wealthy and privileged but at the same time created city wide disadvantage. His latest book The New Urban Crisis suggests an alarming wealth divide is opening up between inner urban and suburban landscapes.

“Across nearly every metro area, middle-class neighborhoods are disappearing. Our cities and suburbs are being replaced by a patchwork metropolis, in which small areas of privilege are surrounded by vast swaths of poverty and disadvantage.  The rise of a winner-take-all-urbanism, with a small group of winners and a much larger span of losers, signals a profound crisis of today’s urbanized knowledge economy that threatens our economic future and way of life,” he now says. Talk about a change of heart.

While much of this may be true for major cities in the USA (where hipster havens like San Francisco or New York are losing millennials to lower cost of living centres in flyover country) is it also true for Australian cities? Are we seeing a concentration of wealth in inner urban suburbs while suburban areas languish? Certainly, the infrastructure and policy focus in most Australian cities has, for the past 15 years, been very much on enhanced inner urban amenity. But has this been enough to draw more high-income residents to the inner city and cause professionals to abandon the suburbs?

The evidence is revealing. Here’s a quick wrap of the picture across Australia’s capitals as of the 2016 Census.

Brisbane.



The household income difference between inner urban residents of Brisbane and those of the wider metro area have widened in the 2006-2016 period. Over that ten years, inner city residents (roughly within a 5 kilometre radius) have gone from enjoying incomes that were on average 13% higher than the wider metro average to now 23% more than the metro average. In dollar terms, inner Brisbane households earn on average $357 a week more than the metro average for the city.

However, the traditional patchwork quilt of high and low income suburbs remains a dominant feature. The suburb you live in still tends to define your household wealth status – be it high or low. Brisbane’s western suburbs (Fig Tree Pocket, Pinjarra Hills, Brookfield etc) are still among the highest income earners. South eastern suburbs (Carindale, Wakerley, Rochedale) are fast catching up. There are inner suburbs on the high income list (Bardon, Paddington, Bulimba etc) but there are others (like Kelvin Grove or Herston) which are well below the city wide average.

So while it is true the inner city is gentrifying, the preference among many high income households still appears to be for traditional suburban neighborhoods, many in middle to outer urban areas.

Sydney



Sydney is different. In 2006, household incomes in the Sydney city and inner south region were roughly the same as the wider metro average. By 2016 they were only 8% more. The North Sydney-Mossman inner city region actually went from being 56% more than the metro average to 37% more by 2016, while the Eastern suburbs north region stayed roughly the same – from 37% more to 38% more ten years later.

In dollar terms however, the differences are more stark: the average North Sydney-Mossman household in 2016 was pulling in $642 a week more than the metro average; and it was $667 a week more in the Eastern suburbs North.

So inner city residents of Sydney earn a lot more than the metro average in both dollar and percentage terms but it’s been that way for some time – hardly any surprise. This is entirely consistent with Sydney’s long term role as financial and business centre for Australia, which has arguably been the case for some decades now. Research would need to look back to the 1990s or earlier to find a turning point where inner urban income disparity began to widen significantly from the metro wide average – if indeed it did (or has it been so since the 1960s?)

However, proximity to the core does not preclude a number of middle and outer suburbs from joining the high income household list. Rouse Hill to the north west or Port Hacking to the south are two of several examples. In Sydney’s case, proximity to the core appears to have a significant relationship to high income households, but this has probably been the case since long before Florida published his first book.

Melbourne.



The household income gap in inner Melbourne compared with the greater Melbourne average widened from 5% more in 2006 to 10% more in 2016. The difference was greater in the Melbourne inner east area (14% more in 2016) but this was unchanged since 2006 (when it was 15%). In dollar terms, inner Melbourne households earn $155 more than the metro wide average and this rises to $213 a week more for the smaller Melbourne inner east area.

Overall, despite a widely reported acceleration of urban density programs in inner Melbourne over the past decade, this appears to have little impact on widening income disparity. In fact, it is possible to argue that Melbourne is more equitable in terms of inner urban versus wider metro household incomes than any other capital.

Melbourne also continues to exhibit a preference among high income households for a large number of middle and outer suburban areas. Any suggestion that high income professionals in Melbourne have abandoned the burbs for the inner city is not supported by the evidence.

Adelaide.



Households in Adelaide’s inner city (essentially its CBD) earned roughly 1% less than the metro average for the city in 2016 – which was down from 11% more in 2006. However, inner urban pockets such as Burnside inner (36% more in 2016) or Prospect-Walkerville (27% more in 2016) showed more disparity - but these differences seem for the most part unchanged since 2006 (when Burnside inner was 32% higher than the metro average and Prospect-Walkerville 19%).

So suburbs immediately adjoining the inner urban core of Adelaide appear to show more income differential compared with the metro average than the core itself, and these differences – 36% more in the case of Burnside – are substantial. But like Sydney, it would seem that this has been the case for at least the period since 2006 and there is no strong evidence of a widening income gap between inner and broader metro Adelaide - where the Adelaide Hills and foothills continue to be the preferred (suburban) environment for higher income households.

Perth



The gap between inner city household incomes and the wider metro area in Perth are widening – rising from 13% more in inner Perth in 2006 to 24% more in 2016. In dollar terms, inner city Perth households are now earning on average $386 a week more than the metro average for the city. At the time of the Census (August 2016) Perth was in the midst of a downturn in economic fortunes linked to the slowing resources sector.

You could speculate whether this had greater financial impact on inner urban or middle and outer urban households but without further study, this remains a topic of conjecture. For now at least, it remains the beachside suburbs north of the city that are home to the higher income households, much as it has long been.

So, what’s this all mean?

First, the Australian evidence runs contrary to suggestions that higher income professionals are abandoning the suburbs for “cooler, inner urban hipster” markets. Indeed, middle and suburban locations are where you are just as likely to find pockets of high income earning households (with the possible exception of Sydney where wealth does some more concentrated). The same, of course also applies to low income households but the point being that proximity to the core is not yet a key determinant for most cities – at least on the evidence. Larger homes and leafier environs remain for many a more powerful lure than higher density inner urban environments. There is evidence this may be changing and the gap widening, but the pace of change is not what some boosters have suggested. The suburbs have certainly not fallen from favour and remain very much desirable in the eyes of the higher income households that many inner urban markets covet.

It’s also fair to suggest that the income and wealth disparity Florida is now alerted to in cities like San Francisco and New York is of a scale that we are yet to see in Australian cities (again with the possible exception of Sydney). The enhancement of urban cores in many Australian city centres as so far mostly been insufficient to lure legions of high income creative class workers into those cores as places to live. Some will argue by pointing to anecdotal evidence (much of it owed to gushy headlines manufactured by eager boosters) but on the whole, Australian cities have avoided the problems that Florida now warns about.

For the time being at least.

Footnote: The maps used in this story came from a handy online tool published by The Guardian. You can have your own fun via this link.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Are our Universities holding back our education export potential?

Education is one of the fastest growing industries in Australia, soon to reach number four spot as an employer – ahead of the traditional retail employment machine. Not only this, but education is a spectacular export earner – now worth more than $20 billion to the Australian economy, and most of this is in higher (ie tertiary) education. Education is now worth more in exports than even tourism, and is ranked only behind coal and iron ore as an industry that earns the foreign exchange dollars needed to keep us economically afloat.

This is potentially only the beginning. Our close economic relationship with trading partners like China, India, Indonesia and other rapidly expanding Asian economies, along with the US and Europe, should logically mean the potential of our education exports has barely scratched the surface.

Many of our Universities are already highly geared to the full fee paying international student market. This is a good thing, as the evidence is that it is full fee paying foreign students that are in effect subsidising the costs of tertiary education for Aussie kids (and mature aged students). Universities need to maintain a balance between foreign and domestic student numbers and also need to maintain their academic standards: it’s not simply a case of rapid expansion to meet international demand or this could throw things out of kilter. Many Universities are also at capacity due to physical constraints on their campus or have already expanded by adding additional campuses. 

Some, like RMIT (Melbourne) have seized the opportunity to explore the international demand by opening overseas campuses. Since the year 2000, RMIT has had a presence in Vietnam and has now grown that to a 7,000 strong student body in two campuses – one (the main one) in Ho Chi Minh City and a smaller campus in Hanoi. 

I learned this visiting Vietnam a couple of years ago and it struck me as a terrific idea. RMIT is not the only Australian University to expand overseas. For example, Townsville’s JCU has - since 2003 –had a campus in Singapore. “Bringing programs direct from Australia and resident senior academic staff from JCU to ensure academic quality, students studying at JCU Singapore can be assured of the same enriching university education as our students in Queensland Australia” it says on its website. 

Many local government areas in Australia are keen to explore development of the tertiary education sector as an employment generator and as a ‘clean’, knowledge based industry. Which is also a terrific idea. Moreton Bay Regional Council to Brisbane’s north recently announced a deal to secure a new campus of Sunshine Coast University on a former paper mill industrial site, in what was widely (and rightly) regarded as quite a coup. 

But in investigating this further it also became clear that many Australian Universities just didn’t want further campus expansion: they have enough sites already. So there are regions with impeccable sites and a supportive policy infrastructure which are unlikely to get a shiny new campus of an Australian University, no matter how compelling the case. “That’s OK,” I thought to myself, “let’s just do what RMIT did but in reverse: let’s bring some international Universities here with a new campus.” 

This could mean bringing campus expansion of some leading international names with an already big appetite for education in Australia. Imagine a University of Fudan (Shanghai) or Hong Kong Polytechnic, or a University of Delhi (with an astonishing 400,000 strong student body) or Universitas Terbuka (Jakarta – and with an even bigger student body of 650,000) having a campus here? Students, teachers and researchers from overseas would be exposed to western culture and language, and Australian students would also have the opportunity to study at an overseas University without having to leave the country. Our export potential could go exponential.  We create more high value jobs in a fast growing, clean industry, we grow our export dollars and we cement valuable trading and cultural relationships within the region and elsewhere. 

But alas, this is Australia; if only it were that simple. I soon learned that this was largely an unrealistic dream. Without the full support and cooperation of our existing Universities, this can’t happen. Universities are governed (mostly) by State Legislation and are, in effect, granted a license to operate. The existing Universities would first need to agree to allow foreign competition into “their” market before anything could happen and they are – in the main – largely opposed to allowing that competition in, even though they themselves might be expanding overseas. There are only a couple of exceptions as I understand it, and both are in Adelaide - Carnegie Mellon University and University College London.

Why is it that Australian students and their International compatriots have such limited exposure to International University campuses on Australian soil? Is it just fundamentally unrealistic or is it a strategic blocking force from our own Public Administrators and Higher Education providers? The expansion of Australian Universities off shore is well supported strategy while the limited number of offshore Universities in Australia is an underwhelming frustration. 

Some developers and investment attraction agencies I have spoken with concede their interest to attract international education providers to our shores. As international investment continues to deliver the core funding for future developments it is quite logical that their home based education providers will see the opportunities missed if they don’t leverage their home based capital to support their global expansion. 

There may well be legitimate concerns by our tertiary institutions: erosion of existing fee incomes through foreign competition could jeopardise standards; foreign Universities may mean less foreign student incomes for existing Universities – pushing up fees for domestic students. No doubt there are countless more “reasons why not” – arguments which, at the end of the day, are largely designed to protect a regulated industry from further competition, even if the potential economic value to the country is limited because of it.

But would it really do that much harm? Consider the huge number of Universities in the USA for example: the competition there doesn’t seem to affect the position of the leading institutions which continue to build strong global brands with small student numbers. MIT has 11,500 students. Harvard some 22,000. Though small and despite swimming in the same sea as legions of others, they remain brands of global repute. There is no reason our own institutions should fear competition if their standards of excellence in research and teaching were such that competition was not a threat but an opportunity to elevate their reputations further. 

Australia is at the end of the day a small country with desirable education qualities in a region of mega nations with a matching appetite for the education opportunities we could potentially offer. Is shutting the door to international institutions in this way really to our best advantage?

Footnote:

For more on the value of education exports see:

http://monitor.icef.com/2016/11/australias-education-exports-surpass-aus20-billion/

Also this handy but dated RBA report: 
https://www.rba.gov.au/publications/bulletin/2008/jun/pdf/bu-0608-2.pdf

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Why we need more Springfields

Australia’s worsening housing affordability problem is a largely self-inflicted: we first restrict and then tax the supply of new land needed to accommodate people, while at the same time accelerating population growth and then compounding the problem by applauding as most of that growth is focussed on just two or three cities. There are official policies in many States that encourage a concentration of both jobs and housing in finite inner city areas – which can only exacerbate an already chronic problem.

It’s not just housing affordability that is the problem, although this gets much of the attention. The entire point of inner urban renewal in the first place – dating back to the Better Cities program of the Hawke-Keating Government – was to harness spare capacity in inner urban areas through selective infrastructure upgrades.  We wanted to avoid the ‘donut effect’ common in US cities at the time, where inner urban areas were hollowed out leaving behind empty schools and other underutilized community assets. The opposite is now the reality: urban infrastructure is not keeping pace with population growth. We are in the throes of committing tens of billions more of taxpayer dollars to invest in inner urban infrastructure from schools to public transport in the Sisyphean belief that this can be fixed, while we continue to pump yet more people into limited spaces.

You wonder why we are so slow to identify problems and grasp solutions in this country. As Donald Horne wryly observed way back in 1964, “'Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck." Those second rate people are still there driving public policy but our luck may be running out in terms of housing affordability and urban infrastructure unless there is some change of direction.

Part of the answer is, as always, under our noses even if we refuse to acknowledge it. The Springfield master planned community in South East Queensland this year celebrates a 25 year anniversary since its first humble housing lots were released. Occupying over 7,000 acres (2,860 hectares) it has clocked up some $13.6 billion in project investment to date, from housing for some 34,000 residents to education (including a University) to health (including a new hospital) to recreation, shops, aged care, industrial, offices, private and public transport connections.  That $13.6 billion investment to date is predicted to reach $85 billion on completion, by which stage there will be over 2 million square metres of mixed use space in its town centre and a population of 138,000 people.

Of critical importance is that the $13.6 billion investment to date is a multiple of many times the amount of Government support the project has received. In an era where ‘nation building’ or ‘city transforming’ infrastructure projects struggle to achieve much better than a 1:1 cost benefit ratio (and where massive leaps of faith in expert predictions are usually required to get them there) the Springfield example needs no such empirical gymnastics. The evidence in this project is that every dollar of government support spent there generates many multiples in private investment, and builds a complete community in the process. This is not just a dormitory development, but one which aims at generating its own employment from trades to highly skilled technical workers and everything in between.

Springfield is also a model of community development that has been quietly (and sometimes publicly) derided by advocates of increasing inner urban concentration.  It fits what some would pejoratively denounce as ‘sprawl’.  Everything here is new. Though obviously very popular with residents (otherwise they wouldn’t be living here) it doesn’t conform with the approved group-think which attaches great virtue to old world urban models reliant on foreign cities like Copenhagen or Paris for their inspiration – many of them first laid out in the medieval period.  Being new and suburban is heresy to much of the new urbanist and smart growth faiths that seek to recycle established communities into ever higher density communities.

Density for some has become the end in itself, not the means to an end. Despite the mounting evidence of worsening affordability, increasing congestion, a growing wealth divide between inner urban residents and the rest, the problems of lagging and prohibitively expensive infrastructure to support higher inner urban densities, mounting lists of projects which struggle to achieve even a marginally credible 1:1 cost benefit ratio – proponents continue to defy the evidence in pursuit of their faith.

Yet Springfield offers more than a solution to our emerging urban crisis: it also offers the business model. The experience gained in developing this community to this stage should, logically, be embraced by policy makers the country over. We should apply our minds to how this was achieved with only equivocal public policy support (at the time) and limited public funds, and imagine what could be achieved with just a little more of both. Interpreting, studying and then applying this model of urban development as part of a solution designed to alleviate excess pressure on just a few urban centres isn’t just an idea, it’s a hugely compelling one.


Much of what has been achieved in the name of “urban renewal” in Australia has been exemplary but increasingly the signs are that excessive concentrations of employment and housing in narrowly demarcated inner city areas are counterproductive. The opportunity to use the Springfield model of urban development to house an increasingly bigger Australia is one that deserves to be explored, and sites identified for many more Springfields to emerge in the future. The peripheries of those cities where worsening affordability and excessive congestion are just two painfully obvious signs of policy and market lag are the places to start looking. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Is investment attraction an economic distraction?


In Australia we invest a good deal of taxpayers money and public sector energy into what is known as “investment attraction.”  Designed to secure new economic opportunities for particular regions, investment attraction strategies frequently resort to a menu of features designed – it is hoped – to catch the attention of businesses looking for places to invest or expand or open new facilities.

All too often, these become cliches and are stretched to incredulity. Take this effort from the hapless South Australians (with my comments in parentheses):

“South Australia offers a range of cost advantages that no other state in Australia can match, improving your company’s bottom line. (So why are so many businesses there reportedly struggling?) … Private sector labour costs in South Australia are 10 per cent below the Australian average making our state a great place to expand your workforce. (With so many unemployed, you’d hope so) The Adelaide market continues to be one of the most cost-competitive CBD markets nationally when it comes to setting up business and leasing office space. (Because so much of it is vacant, and has been for a long time) South Australia has a range of office space and industrial land available in, or close to, the CBD at rates lower than other mainland Australian states. (They’re worth less for a reason) With a well-planned supply of affordable industrial land, linked to strategic infrastructure and transport corridors the cost of doing business here is highly competitive. (Until you try turn on a power point)”

“South Australia’s central location provides the ideal gateway into Australia and out to Asian markets and beyond through our modern air, sea and rail freight channels. (Central to what? The Southern Ocean?) Our international airport is only six kilometres from the CBD (so is Bogota’s, so what? New York’s JFK is around 25 klm from Manhattan, do they feel threatened by Adelaide because of this?) … Flights to Sydney and Melbourne also depart, on average, every 20 minutes during operating hours. (So you can escape at short notice?).”

Apologies to my South Australian friends for picking on them for this example, but the point is that any potential business looking at investment locations in Australia would likely find these heroic claims equally amusing. Being in denial is not a strategy. Propaganda is not a strategy.

South Australia has some very real, deep seated and widely publicised economic problems that stretch back for decades. Overcoming these cannot be easy. Denying they exist at all is far from achieving anything.

It’s worth noting that they – like many other regions trying to attract new investment - have resorted to the oldest investment attraction trick in the book: the bribe. They’ve set up an Economic Investment Fund and a Future Jobs Fund, which are aimed at “investment projects (that) deliver significant strategic and economic benefits for the state.”

The bribe attracts all sorts of interest, often for the wrong reasons. It can be counter productive – costing taxpayers more in upfront cash grants and foregone taxes than the benefits to the region. Elon Musk of Tesla fame is a big believer in the bribe. He played off several US states vying for the privilege of being home to his Tesla Gigafactory, finally settling on a remote site in the Nevada Desert in exchange for a reported USD$1.3 billion in up-front cash, free land and forgiven future taxes. It turns out that’s just a part of the nearly USD$5 billion in total grants and tax relief his business has managed to talk out of the hands of US taxpayers. (See my article on the Gigafactory story).  Is it any coincidence that Musk is now praising the wisdom of the SA Government, promising to work together on energy ‘solutions’?

The bribe isn’t confined to South Australia. It is immensely popular Australia wide. Competing and even neighbouring regions often get locked into bidding wars in the name of “investment attraction.” Also known as ‘the pork barrel’ the bribe is used with great political effect, and can easily run into billions of taxpayer dollars with little or no business case justification. It helps explain why, for example, Australian taxpayers are spending $50 billion on building new submarines in South Australia rather than buying them ready to go for much less. If you’re a fan of the TV series ‘Utopia’ you’ll be familiar with how ‘nation building’ and the bribe are rarely separated by much. It’s practically essential viewing to understand how this country works today.

The sad part of all the effort and money directed at “investment attraction” is that so little attention is paid to investment retention. Identifying the problems faced by existing industries and business, and ensuring we don’t make things worse for them, might be a step in the right direction. Lumbering innovative businesses in a rebounding manufacturing sector with excessive electricity costs while talking up “innovation agendas” or being in hot pursuit of technology “start-ups” is just one example of neglecting the needs of existing business while efforts are focused on attracting new ones. South Australians might find this a depressing but familiar story but they can take some comfort in knowing it’s a problem that is Australia wide.


Too often, tackling the problems faced by existing businesses are glossed over in favour of the much more glamourous role of chasing shiny new investment bling. For every new business opportunity secured, how many others receive little support or are allowed to fail?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why it’s way too early to write off retail


The bears are out in force again, this time predicting the demise of bricks and mortar retail centres due largely to the forecast impact of online retailer Amazon. How’s this for an example: “We think the magnitude of this short could be bigger than subprime," says Stephen Ketchum, the head of Sound Point Capital, a US hedge fund that manages more than $13bn in assets. That was from a story run in the AFR (17 July).

The US retail property market has been affected both by overbuilding and the accelerating impact of online. But to suggest the same impacts in Australia might be taking things too far.

There’s one very telling difference between ourselves and most US markets: overbuilding here is virtually impossible due to the “blue dot” factor. What’s the blue dot? For decades, planning schemes have enshrined restrictive land uses through rigid zoning laws. In the case of retail centres, these extended to creating a legislated “retail hierarchy” of centres with various overlaps of trade areas (based mostly but not exclusively on centre size and nature of retail offer). The hierarchy, happily supported by shopping centre owners and major retail tenants, had to be protected to avoid overbuilding or encroachment of retail uses into residential areas (so the official line went). This meant that prospects of developing a competing retail centre within the trade area of an existing centre, were very limited if not impossible.

This also led to the delicious irony of the generally pro-free enterprise shopping centre and major retail industry campaigning for more competition when it suited them (less restrictive trading hours, for example) but opposing competition when it didn’t (objecting to any new retail centres and frequently even objecting to tenancy changes or extensions in competing centres). The anti-competitive nature of our retail planning was wryly observed by retailer Gerry Harvey as posing a significant barrier to entry for the likes of Amazon. According to Harvey, quoted in Fairfax media: "Let's assume I buy a block of land tomorrow. I've got to buy it, pay for it, put in a development application. If that happens within three years, that's very quick… And I read that Amazon is going to be fully operational in late 2018."

Amazon will need more than one major distribution centre to service Australia. Finding the sites and getting the approvals will not be as easy as it might in the US. Plus, we have a particular tyranny of distance which any online retailer must confront when it comes to delivery: as customers, we are more spread out than in major US population centres.

The same hurdles faced the arrival of other retail competitors like Aldi and Costco. Both faced difficulties in finding enough sites to build a viable network – Aldi is getting there but Costco has a way to go. Both faced legal and planning objections from those invested in existing “blue dots” who did not want more blue dots on their trade area maps.

The downside of this has been that some parts of Australia’s retail property sector are vulnerable to competition not mostly because of online retailers like Amazon, but due to the lack of competition which has encouraged a laziness towards the asset. Many centres (too many to name) are little changed from their original design which could be 30 years old: a big box containing a supermarket, supported with a mix of specialty stores and a large on-grade (rarely shaded) car park. The enshrined lack of competition, described as a virtue of the planning system, has shielded these assets from the need to remain competitive and denied consumers access to a higher quality retail offer in the process.

The opportunity to anticipate some fairly obvious changes in consumer appetites and redesign these centres seems, to date, to have been largely overlooked. Leading centres are ahead of the curve, reinventing themselves as food, entertainment and community centres while other retail centres languish. The leading centres that are getting prepared for the future are typically held in institutional hands or in REIT structures so it’s ironic that these are the funds being shorted.  But the opportunities for the sector as a whole are significant, irrespective of private or institutional ownership. Health and social welfare will be the fastest growing industry by employment by a country mile in coming decades. Education is not far behind. A suburbanizing economy, enabled by advances in digital technology, means workplaces closer to home will become much more feasible. The advent of driverless cars (probably some time off) also has the potential to liberate a lot of on grade carparking from occasional to more permanent use (for something else besides a carpark). 

These and other factors present a host of mixed use offers that many shopping centres are well suited for. Nestled in amongst established urban communities with usually good transport connections, the opportunity is there to transition the land use from a purely retail use to one that combines retail with office, professional and medical suites, training and education facilities, health and wellness centres, short term accommodation, retirement living, and community uses. 

But first, the planning system has to allow it and centre owners need to want it. In the meantime, no doubt market analysts who don’t appreciate the significance of our “blue dots” and our various other barriers to entry will exaggerate the short term impact of Amazon, while the real problem – outmoded design and strategy  – poses greater long term risks (or opportunities for those smart enough to identify them).

Saturday, June 17, 2017

How the future of work will reshape our cities


The growth industries and professions of the future will shape our cities in very different ways to the industries and professions that shaped our cities in the past. There are profound implications for urban planning and property, if we’re ready for them

The biggest growth industry for coming years and for the foreseeable future, the official forecasts all seem to agree on, will be in health care and social assistance. This includes professions from surgeons to GPs to nurses to child care or aged care, various therapies and counsellors, dental, and even laundry workers, cleaners and administrative support roles. Already our biggest single industry, it employs more than 1.5 million Australians. It grew by over 20% in the five years to 2015 and that rate of growth is unlikely to change going forward. Nearly half of everyone in this industry has a bachelor’s degree or some higher education qualification so they’re not all hospital cleaners – many will be skilled professionals.

This will be followed by the professional, scientific and technical services industry and very close behind that, the education and training industry. Construction, manufacturing (yes, still growing despite all attempts to kill it off) and accommodation and food services round up the top six biggest growth industries of the future.

This is important because the nature of growth industries of the future - and more particularly where they will be located - is going to reshape our cities in a very different way to the industries that grew with and shaped our cities in the past. This was highlighted in a recent report on employment in the growing region of South East Queensland, prepared by Macroplan for The Suburban Alliance.



The health care and social assistance industry is predicted by government authorities to grow more than any other industry in the years to 2041, producing around 220,000 extra jobs. But this industry has very different spatial needs to, say, the legal industry which has the highest inner city concentration of any occupation in the region. In health and social assistance, 200,000 of those 220,000 jobs will likely be in suburban business districts or otherwise scattered across suburbia. The biggest growth industry has little need or preference for clustering in the inner city.



Consider the implications for transport networks, property development and urban planning. What will it mean in terms of additional medical centres, hospitals, professional and consulting suites, new aged care and child care, and all the peripheral jobs that hang off these occupations? Where will they go? Will we see existing shopping centres morph from a largely retail focused offer to embrace a wider range of mixed uses? And if not in existing centres, what planning changes will be needed to accommodate this growth in new centres?

Our urban model, reflecting a 100 years of employment centralization, is changing to one of employment dispersal. Jobs are not moving from the city centre to the suburbs but the industries which fuel growth are changing, and with them, the patterns of employment location.

Even in the professional, scientific and technical services industry – one you would presume is largely centralized - much of that future growth (based on current spatial preferences) will occur outside the inner city. Take for example the generically titled occupation of “professional.” There were 284,300 of these in the South-East Queensland region but only 24% of them in the inner city. A further quarter were in a number of defined suburban business districts and the balance – half – elsewhere in suburbia. This is our second biggest growth industry and those patterns of employment distribution are unlikely to change meaning of the 146,000 new jobs in this industry to be created to 2041, the clear majority will likely be suburban based.

The third biggest growth industry (education) also shows little evidence of centralization – only 7% of educators are inner city workers the rest are suburban. Even of those professionals who describe their occupation as “Chief executives, general managers or legislators” delivers a surprise: there are only 21% of them in the inner city. And for clerical and administrative workers, it’s a similar picture: only 22% are inner city workers. The rest are suburbia based.

Engineers appear to have a preference for central locations with 42% of the 16,639 engineers of South East Queensland in the inner city as do the lawyers with 65% of them in the entire region to be found in the inner city. But there are only (fortunately?) just over 9,000 lawyers in the entire region so unless there’s to be an unpredicted explosion of work in the legal profession in the future it’s hard to see this occupation fueling demand for space and transport in the inner city of the future.

Fifty years ago, cities were full of clerical and administrative, managerial and professional workers, shuffling in to centralized offices in their cars or on trams, trains or buses to clock on at 9am and clock off at 5pm. The suburbs were centres of manufacturing and heavy industry, and retailing, wholesaling and transit related industries. That pattern is still there but in another fifty years’ time, our cities will have different industries generating the bulk of jobs and many of those jobs will need to be based in suburban centres to be closer to their markets or regional transport arteries.

And what are the implications for our city centres? Will they continue to evolve to embrace yet more entertainment, recreational and culture based hubs for the regions they serve, rather than largely just places of work? And how will different cities behave, given the economic drivers can be so substantially different?

There’s much more to be explored in this because the implications are profound. Sadly, much of our thinking around urban planning seems firmly rooted in traditional models which owe more to a sentimental rear vision view of urban development rather than a forward looking one.


Footnote: If you or your organization is interested in exploring what this means in more detail, or for specific regions, please just drop me an email. I’d be very interested to discuss this with you. I’ve got a useful presentation which runs through all this in a bit more detail which I’d be happy to share. You can download the entire report prepared for The Suburban Alliance here.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Energy and industry


Predictions of the demise of manufacturing in Australia as the economy slowly becomes more service oriented are increasingly widespread. The reason – we are told – has mostly been an uncompetitive labour cost structure. We just can’t make stuff as cheap and as quickly as they can in China, Vietnam or India. 

But there are two problems with this. First, manufacturing is far from dead and remains our fifth largest employer: more than double the entire financial, insurance and property sector. The second is that it may no longer be labour costs but something else that could threaten the viability of our manufacturing sector. 

That something is energy and the cost of it. Only 20 years ago or so, Australia enjoyed some of the cheapest energy costs in the developed world. Now they are among some of the highest and most worrying is that they are predicted to continue to escalate well beyond inflation. Some hawks are even suggesting prices may double within the decade.

Responding to this is going to mean much more than turning off a few domestic lights at night or switching to energy save mode in the office. A bit like the city kid who hasn’t seen a cow and doesn’t know this is where milk comes from, we city slickers can easily get detached from the bigger reality - and in terms of energy consumption in Australia, the reality is that domestic and commercial are not the major consumers.

Manufacturing – our fifth largest industry – consumes nearly a quarter of energy in the country: more than double the entire residential sector and more than the entire residential and commercial sectors combined. This graph from the Office of the Chief Economist spells it out:



Transport is the largest consumer of energy (chiefly fuel) while in manufacturing it is chiefly electricity. What produces electricity is mainly coal, although renewables are fast on the rise (subsidised as they are for the time being). The graph below courtesy Origin Energy data shows generation by energy source:




So here’s the problem. In public policy and media discussion, much of the debate over energy costs seems to revolve around domestic and perhaps also commercial considerations. The cost of cooling or heating the home, the cost of appliances, even the cost of leaving the TV on at the wall occupy our minds and our thinking and much of the policy debate in the daily media. The answers, we are told, rest in renewables and as a nation we seem happy to embrace them: roof top solar for example was adopted quickly (many of us due no doubt to a mix of environmental responsibility plus a desire to break free from the power companies). We seem content with policies which cast coal fired power as the enemy and renewables as our saviour, without much question on the wider economic impacts beyond “will I still be able to have the lights on and fridge running?”

Where is the national debate about how rapidly rising electricity costs may cripple our fifth largest employer in manufacturing? There are countless stories of significant innovation in manufacturing where even our high labour costs haven’t been the death blow we’ve been told. Away from the trendy inner city coffee shops, energy costs – more specifically the cost of electricity – are becoming a bigger and bigger concern for these businesses and enterprises involved in manufacturing.  It would be criminal in a public policy sense if our national energy policy was more finely tuned to the sensitivities of the inner urban greenie doing their bit for sustainability by growing some zucchini plants in a broccoli box on their balcony, while the industries that power one in four jobs are left out of the debate.

I am not full of hope. The recent Federal Budget announcement of an inland freight line from Melbourne to Brisbane (hoo-ray by the way!) met with a suggestion from The Green’s Sara Hanson-Young that the steel used should be Australian, and preferably from Whyalla. “"If you care about the steel industry, then make sure Government money is being spent on Australian steel and give those steelworkers in Whyalla actually something to smile about,” she said.

Well yes. Except for one thing. Making steel is massively energy hungry. To do so, you not only need loads and loads of reliable energy, but the cost of energy is critical. Increase that cost and making steel becomes uneconomic. Massively so. Plus, Whyalla is in South Australia. Their experiments with renewables and reliability to date have hardly been stellar. What do the likes of Sara Hanson-Young have in mind? A solar powered steel smelter?

The energy source that once powered energy hungry industries like steel manufacturing is coal. And coal is very much on the nose, especially with The Greens but also the wider community too. The logical connection between the cost of replacing coal with renewables and the cost and viability impact that will have not just on steel but right across the manufacturing spectrum, seems to rate little thought.

If we are to make this energy transition, we need to have a sensible debate about the impacts on industry and how they can handle that transition without suffering needless economic hardship. Otherwise, yet more might look at closing their Australian operations and head for more cost friendly markets. Letting that happen without at least trying to prevent it would be economically reckless in every sense of the word. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Does the world need a cure for living longer?


We are quick to celebrate advances in medical science which allow us as a species the opportunity to live longer. But the consequences of living longer are often glossed over. The economic consequence is that – worldwide – there are going to be more and more people in their old age relying on a smaller and smaller proportion of people of working (and taxpaying) age. It will affect different nations in different ways, so this is a quick wrap up based on the latest predictions from the United Nations population division.

The old age dependency ratio is a formula that expresses the population of people aged 65 and over as a proportion of those aged from 15 to 64. A rising ratio simply means that there are more people aged 65 plus relative to those aged 15 to 64. There is almost nowhere in the world this is falling. The world picture shows that we have gone from around 10% in the 1980s to one in four by 2050. Meaning that there was one person aged 65 plus for every 10 in 1980 but that this will change to one for every four in 2050. Those four will have to do the work that ten did in 1980, relative to supporting the 65 plus age group.


The rising dependency ratio is going to affect higher income nations with more developed economies to a much greater extent than lower income, less developed nations. The reason is pretty simple: wealthy nations can afford better health care and higher living standards. The difference is profound though – by 2050 high income nations will have a dependency ratio approaching 50%, compared with less than 10% for lower income nations. Will they be able to remain high income nations with this future burden? 


The continents that will be most affected broadly align with income status. The worst affected will be Europe, with a dependency ratio nudging 50% by 2050. North America is not far behind and Asia will be rapidly closing the gap.


Amongst the major European nations, Germany has a particularly nasty problem emerging on the forward radar – a dependency ratio of almost 60% by 2050. Little wonder German Chancellor Angela Merkel was so keen to attract such large numbers of refugee migrants (said to be more than 1 million in 2015 alone). France and the UK are following a similar pattern although with slightly lower dependency ratios and Russia only passes 30% in around 2045.


Closer to home, Japan is facing some serious problems. A forecast dependency ratio of 70% means there will be seven people aged 65+ for every ten aged 15 to 64. Japan’s dependency ratio is already problematic and this will get worse. China is also facing a rapid escalation in its dependency ratio which will rise quickly from around 2025, effectively almost doubling in the ensuing 25 years. I wrote about China’s people shortage (being a shortage of working age people) a couple of years back. You can click here to read it.


Australia itself shares a great deal in common with the USA and Canada in terms of our aged dependency ratio. We are currently in the midst of a significant increase which will see our dependency ratio rise from a fairly stable band of 15% to 20% from 1980 to 2010, to one in three by 2035. This will pose a range of budgetary challenges on both the income (tax) and expenditure (health and welfare) sides going forward.


The good news at least is that while we are increasingly better informed about the economic challenge of an ageing society, we are not ageing quite as fast as some places. Maybe we can observe closely how nations like Germany or Japan handle this escalating dependency challenge, and essentially copy the policies that seem to work best?

The bigger challenge is that further advances in medical science and disease prevention will mean these dependency ratios could in reality be much greater challenges in the future. Living to 100 might be commonplace for today’s millennials. Their children may expect to live to 120. But the question of how world economies – which were never designed for this demographic pattern – are going to afford to support societies where there will be nearly as many people aged 65 plus as there are of working age, is a big one and it’s unanswered.

Maybe in the future old age will no longer be an ambition but something for which we need a cure?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Retirement affordability: a bigger problem than housing affordability?

Housing affordability is such a hot topic now that evidently a number of Federal backbenchers – along with Pauline Hanson - are urging that young homebuyers be able to access their superannuation to enter the housing market. This is not good policy and reeks of short term reactive opportunism. Hopefully the government will resist the idea - for the very good reason that an even bigger problem could be looming: affording retirement. The facts are sobering.

The retirement and superannuation industry likes to promote the idea of post-work lives that feature images of couples with groomed waves of silver hair, perfect teeth, dressed in pastel coloured knit wear and walking their Labrador along a deserted beach. It’s a nice image but so far removed from the reality for the majority of Australians that it’s bordering on deceitful. 

According to a 2013 OECD report, Australian’s aged over 65 were second only to Korea as having the worst seniors poverty in the world, based on the percentage of seniors with incomes below 50% of the median income. Australia came in at just over 35% of seniors with incomes below half the median – almost three times the average of 34 nations surveyed.

One in four retirees in Australia receives the full pension or close to it. A further quarter received a part pension. Two thirds of Australians aged over 65 earn less than $400 a week from all sources. Roughly one in four people aged over 65 are still paying off a mortgage or are renting. Superannuation is yet to deliver the retirement incomes promised.  The proportion of Australians aged over 65 with no superannuation at all if roughly 65%. The average superannuation balance for someone aged 70-74 is just $102,000. The median superannuation balance on retirement in 2016 was $100,000 for men and $28,000 for women. Estimates of what’s needed in superannuation at retirement vary but usually start at $500,000 and rise to $1 million. So we’re falling a long way short.

This picture may begin to improve if super contributions rise in the future, and as more people reach retirement with a lifetime of contributions behind them. But even then, the ability to look to superannuation as a retirement self-funding option for the majority of Australians is slim indeed. What’s going to make things worse is our success at living longer. If you’re a 65 year old woman alive today, the chances are you will live to nearly 90. An estimated 10% of you will reach 100. For men born in the mid-1970s, life expectancy was around 69. Meaning if you retired at 60, you needed to fund an average nine years of retirement. But for millennials, their life expectancy will be in the 80s. Meaning they will somehow need to fund 20 years of retirement if pulling stumps at 60, or 15 years if retiring at 65. For the high proportion that will live into their nineties or longer, it may not be anything to celebrate unless you're loaded. So while the next generation might have acquired superannuation over a longer period, it’s going to need to last a lot longer too.

This is going to become a much bigger problem in the near future, as the ‘boomer’ bubble ages. Australians aged 65 and over are now the fastest growing age group. They will represent a staggering one in every five Australians by 2033 – that’s just 15 years or so away. The current crop of 65 plus Australians number around 3.5 million. That will increase by nearly 3 million – effectively nearly doubling – in the next 20 years.

So not only are we living longer, but there will be millions more of us doing so. Which means spending longer in retirement and either drawing a pension from a depleting (relatively smaller) tax base or relying on superannuation. The latter looks improbable and the former is probably unaffordable.

And so into this worrying picture we have the wooly thinkers enter the debate about housing affordability by suggesting a national raid on limited superannuation balances in order to further stoke the buying capacity of an insatiable property appetite (focussed mostly on just two cities) while doing nothing about the cost side of the housing equation (which policy makers have studiously ignored for the best part of 20 years). It’s a recipe for disaster in the short term by effectively further fueling housing demand without addressing the fundamental supply side problems, and in the longer term by depleting future retirement savings, the demands on which will only increase as we continue to live longer.

You wonder where we get them from.