Posts Tagged ‘retail’

Deleveraging in the Australian economy bites

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

If you read the newspaper headlines and billboard advertisements recently, you may notice something interesting (if not, strange) happening. National Australia Bank (NAB) announced that it is ‘breaking up’ with the rest of the banks in a new campaign. That immediately provoked reactions from the other banks, including Suncorp with its “breaking up” theme in a recent billboard advertisement.

Soon, bank investors are fretting about a price war among the banks, which means the race is on to the bottom for profits. As this news article reported,

Investors are becoming nervous about the prospect of a price war breaking out between the banks, with one major brokerage labelling the attacks a ?negative sum game?.

What on earth is happening?

Only as recently as four months, politicians were aiming their gun sights on the banks for ‘lack’ of competition, when Commonwealth Bank (CBA) initiated a rise in their mortgage rates that was almost twice the rate rise of the Reserve Bank (RBA). There were talk about building a “fifth pillar” in the banking system. Today, the banks seem to be starting a price war among themselves, in a race to the bottom.

Well, the reason is dead simple. To put it simply, banks are in the business of lending money. That’s their core business. As we wrote before in The dark side of rising bank profits,

One way to make more money is to increase lending.

Banks, as publicly listed companies in the stock exchange, are always under pressure to increase their profits year after year (i.e. seek growth). Heavens forbid that their profits ever fall! All hell breaks lose if that ever happens!

But there’s one big problem for them today- the savings rate of Australians have shot up to 10%, which is the highest since the early 1990s! That means that Australians are saving more money and repaying their debts. In other words, the Australian economy is now undergoing a deleveraging process. Consequently, it is becoming harder for the banks to make more money by lending more money. A very crude (and thus, inaccurate) analogy would be to compare the banks to dogs fighting among each other for a shrinking pie. As that article reported,

The infighting is an indirect result of the sluggish credit market, with banks under pressure to find growth, the report said.

What does this mean for the Australian economy?

As we explained in detail in Significant slowdown for Australia ahead?, deleveraging sucks away the aggregate demand from the economy. The first to get hit will be the retail sector that is related to discreditionary spending. The structural shift of Australian consumers from shopping in retail stores to shopping in the Internet is a symptom of deleveraging.

Given that the retail sector accounts for approximately 60% of the economy, continuation of this structural shift in consumer behaviour imply that more pain is in store for the retail sector.

How the government rip you off with hidden taxes when you go shopping

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

In Australia, one of the major secular trends that is happening is the growth of online shopping. More and more consumers are discovering the joys of bargain hunting through the Internet, thereby bypassing the traditional bricks-and-mortars retailers in the local shopping malls.

One of the pet complaints by Australian retail businesses is that they are unfairly burdened by the need to pay GST. Australian consumers avoid GST by buying from overseas web site. Worse still, the strong Australian dollar makes overseas products even cheaper.

So, is GST really the root of the problem for Australian retailers who find themselves increasingly unable to compete with foreign web sites?

Well, let’s hold a thought experiment. Imagine that all the goods at your local retailers are reduced by 10% (which is the GST amount). Will that make your local retailers more competitive than their overseas online competitors? Will that make you switch from buying from overseas web site to your local retailer? If the answer is “No,” then it means that we have a structural problem in Australia.

For one, consumers are complaining that the range of products sold by our local retailers are too small. In other words, they can’t get what they want locally and therefore, have to shop in foreign web sites to get them.

More importantly, many goods sold by foreign web sites are very much cheaper than identical ones sold at your local shopping mall, even after you include shipping costs. For example, when you compare the prices at your local Dymocks bookshop and Book Depository, you will find that the latter is much cheaper (by the way, if you shop at Book Depository through our link, you will help us and help yourself financially). That means that even if the government can somehow enforce GST on foreign online retailers, our local retailers will still bleed.

So, if you accept the theory that this is a structural problem, what could it be? Recently, we found this very interesting comment that may possibly answer this question,

How can local retailers compete with overseas retailers when their operating cost here are significantly higher than overseas. The biggest single cost, after labour, is commercial and retail rents, which are at least 50% higher here than overseas … this is reflected in the price of the goods.

The enquiry should centre around why retail rents have skyrocketed in Australia, and why the institutional property owners force retailers and small business to pay extremely high rents. Try starting a small business here when you have to pay $200- $400 per sq metre in suburban Sydney, yet in the US, the same premises rent out for $50 – $150 per sq metre.

The Government is complicit in that it has a vested interest for property values to be as high as possible to ensure the land tax revenues keep coming in … Australians are being taxes artificially at all levels in the community .. from the goods they buy to the cost of electricity .. behind all of these costs are hidden government fees.

So, this is another example of unintended consequences of the property bubble in Australia.

Significant slowdown for Australia ahead?

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion

Recently, we noticed a trend emerging in the Australian economy- retail discretionary spending seems to be falling off significantly. As this news article reported,

But conditions in the retail sector are savage. Consumers are buying less, despite one of the most ferocious discounting wars in history. With the two department store heavyweights, Myer and David Jones, battling it out for customers, the smaller retailers are caught in the crossfire, forced to match the prices or do better.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the household goods sector posted a sharp fall in prices, down 3.6 per cent, making it the second-biggest quarterly fall over the past 11 years. The first-quarter CPI showed particularly large price falls for furniture and furnishing, down 3.8 per cent, and audio visual and computing down 5.9 per cent. The next figures will be even uglier for retailers, whose margins are being cut to ribbons.

Elsewhere, Virgin Blue suffered a big fall in share price as it warned that

… earnings could plunge as much as 75 per cent due to a ”rapid deterioration” in demand from leisure travellers.

It seems that the retail industry is doing it tough. Sectors of the Australian economy related to consumer spending are in pain. Like the US economy, most of the Australian economy are related to consumer spending (say around 60%). Therefore, this trend, if continued, indicates that a major slowdown in the Australian economy is coming. A recession cannot? be ruled out.

The mainstream media will quote mainstream economists and put the blame on rising interest rates, Greek contagion and China? slowdown and so on. Blame will be laid on these “shocks” to the economy that cause consumers to “lose confidence.” That implies that to reverse this trend, consumers will have to be brainwashed to be ‘confident’ in order to spend their way to economic prosperity.

This is an example of voodoo economics for the masses. If this is the correct diagnoses for the ills of the economy, then we have a better idea for an economic ‘stimulus’ package (that will be much far more effective than the Rudd government’s $900 cash splash during the GFC)- distribute $900 worth of Myers/David Jones vouchers (that? will expire in 3 months time) to the masses. We can guarantee that within 3 months, consumers will regain their ‘confidence’ and spend, spend and spend.

Since consumer ‘confidence’ is the wrong diagnosis, then ‘stimulation’ is the wrong cure.? As we wrote in Will governments be forced to exit from ?stimulus??,

In fact, the word ?stimulus? is the most misleading word in economics lexicon because it conveys the idea of a surgeon ?stimulating? a heart into self-sustained beating. In reality, what government interventions did was to put the economy on a crutch.

What is the root of the problem?

Remember, back in Australia?s credit growth is still falling, we wrote that

… for an economy that is addicted to debt, all it needs to tip it into a recession is for credit growth to slow down- no contraction of credit is required. Also, as Professor Steve Keen explained, at this stage of the debt cycle, the aggregate spending in the economy is made up of income plus change in debt.

To understand why, consider this highly simplified hypothetical situation in the economy:

$80 (income) + $20 (change in debt) = $100 (Aggregate spending)

As you can see, of the $100 of economic activity, $20 is the result of an increase in debt. Assuming that next year, the situation looks like this:

$83 (income) + $15 (change in debt) = $98 (Aggregate spending)

Income goes up, but people decide to borrow less. Note that when there’s less borrowing, it does not mean that the total amount of credit in the economy has declined. Instead, it means that credit is still growing, but it is growing at a slower pace.

As you can see from this example, if income remains stagnant and credit growth slows down, the total amount of aggregate spending in the economy will decline, tipping the economy into recession (unless it is the government which increase the spending to fill the gap).

What if next year, everyone decides to stop borrowing (i.e. total credit remains the same)? The equation will look like this:

$83 (income) + $0 (change in debt) = $83 (Aggregate spending)

If aggregate spending falls from $100 to $83, it will be a depression for the economy. What if everyone decides to save, and thus repay their debts? The equation will then be:

$83 (income) + $ -5 (change in debt) = $78 (Aggregate spending)

The situation is worse!

Thus, you can see that for an debt-addicted economy like Australia, if wage growth is constricted, the only way for the economy to grow well (in nominal terms) is for debt to grow at faster and faster rate. Obviously, this is unsustainable because if debt grow faster and faster than wage growth, it will be only a matter of time before the entire economy becomes sub-prime. When that happens, there will be an almighty crash, which in Australia’s case, is likely to result in a currency crisis (see Serious vulnerability in the Australian banking system).

If the government decides to borrow to supplant the private sector’s decline in borrowing in order to maintain economic growth, then the budget deficit will continue to grow. Again, this cannot go on indefinitely because Australia will end up like the PIIGS countries.

One more point, up till now, all these growth are in nominal terms. But what about in real terms?

As we know, it wasn’t long ago that there were media reports of “skills shortage” in Australia. Also, it is clear that Australia requires more “nation building” due to lack of infrastructure. This means that Australia is at the limits of its productive capacity. That means that even if Australia somehow manages to grow in nominal terms, it will be achieved at the expense of higher price inflation. That will attract more interest rate hikes from the RBA. As we wrote two years ago in Why does the central bank (RBA) need to punish the Australian economy with rising interest rates?,

The Australian economy was already running at full steam. Accelerating price inflation is a sign that there are insufficient resources in the economy to allow for all investment projects to succeed and all consumptions to carry on. If this trend is not arrested, the economy will run out of resources, resulting in a crash. Therefore, in order to put the economy back into a sustainable growth path, consumptions and investments have to slow down in order to allow for the economy to catch a breather for the rebuilding of its capital structure. The rebuilding of capital structure is necessary for the economy to replenish its resources for the future so that growth can continue down the track. Unfortunately, this rebuilding itself requires resources now. Therefore, current wasteful consumptions have to be curtailed and mal-investments have to be dismantled to make way for the rebuilding. The curtailment of consumption involves consumers spending less and saving more, while the dismantling of mal-investments involves retrenching workers, liquidating businesses, e.t.c. These involve pain for the people of Australia.

As we all know, the RBA raised interest rates 6 times already and that is the probable reason consumers are de-leveraging (i.e. borrow less and/or repay debts).

To put it simply, a glass ceiling is blocking the Australian economy. If you can feel that the quality of your life is also hitting the glass ceiling, then you know this is the reason.