The changing nature of work and what to do about it

Tue, 28 Nov 2017  |  

The changing nature of work is causing significant disruption within the economy and for workers confronting an erosion of their take home pay and basic workplace conditions.

The precise nature of these changes is still unfolding in line with the spread of technology, the move to a more casualised workforce, globalisation and the steady decline of union influence.

The recent Per Capita round table discussion of these issues was particularly enlightening, not least because the participants helped to articulate how widespread these trends in the labour market are becoming, but they also covered what these changes might mean for the economy and the policy settings needed to ensure strong growth and a decent society.

One of the most potent manifestations of the workplace changes in the past decade or so has been the hit to wages. After several decades of annual wages growth around 3.5 per cent (which equates to an increase of around 1 per cent per annum in real terms), wages growth has slumped in recent years.

Each of the different measures of wages show the same thing – wages growth has fallen to record lows. The wage price index is rising at just 2.0 per cent, average weekly earnings are up by a pitiful 1.6 per cent and real household disposable income is starting to fall as inflation outpaces incomes growth. It is no exaggeration to suggest these wage trends risk undermining bottom line economic growth as householders’ spending is curtailed by severely constrained purchasing power.

This is certainly an issue the RBA Governor, Phillip Lowe has been noting in his commentary on the economy. He even openly suggested that an acceleration in wages growth would be a good thing for the economy as it would boost incomes and household spending and with that increase the probability of inflation returning it its target band.

And recall, the current real wage stagnation is happening at a time where Australia is in its 26th year without a recession, with record low interest rates, a booming export sector and unprecedented wealth.

Casual workers are finding increasingly difficult to argue for certainty in weekly hours worked and wage levels are often determined by the employer or an intermediary. These factors leads to uncertainty in income which in quiet weeks reduces the take home pay of the employee and in many cases, generates hardship.

A quick look at the recent trends in consumer sentiment and spending show how these issues are having a real economic impact with sentiment skewed towards entrenched pessimism and retail spending starting to go backwards.

A near record number of people – around 1.1 million of them – have a job but would prefer to work more hours. These underemployed workers have an unfulfilled need or even desire to work. Often it is a simple financial imperative for them to work more hours so that they can afford to pay the bills. The fact so many cannot is a major economic problem.

These people are constrained in their spending because of the erratic nature of their income flow which is undoubtedly a critical aspect of the explanation for the persistent consumer malaise.

The discussion about what to do about it was surprisingly straight forward and probably not all that controversial.

In no particular order, the round table discussion raised the following points. Delivering sustainable increases in the minimum wage was fundamental to providing a living wage, as was the tightening of the regulations relating to terms of employment including minimum hours and the maintenance of meaningful penalty payments for those working outside the standard work week.

A policy proposal to address the concerns for many employees was a simple reinforcement of the progressive income tax scales. This could be in the form of a material increase in the tax free threshold from the current $18,200 a year meaning a growing proportion of workers did not enter the income tax net. Such a change could be implemented in a revenue neutral way, with the cost covered by changes to tax brackets for high income earners.

The conversation branched out to cover several other aspect of the need to ensure a successful and robust workforce – access to skills, training and education to ensure all citizens can be skilled and trained so that they can fully participate in the ever changing economy. Support for those not in the paid workforce was also a vital element when bringing fairness to all aspects of the labour market.

It will be important for policy makers to fully understand the extent of the dislocation unfolding in the labour market before they embrace these and no doubt other policy solutions to ensure fairness, equity and decency within the workforce.

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As house prices fall across Australia, should we be worried for our economy?

Tue, 13 Mar 2018

This article first appeared on the Yahoo7 Finance website at this link: 


As house prices fall across Australia, should we be worried for our economy?

Are you a home owner?

If you are in Sydney, Perth and Darwin, you are losing money at a rapid rate.

In Melbourne and Canberra, prices are topping out and there is a growing risk that prices will fall through the course of this year. If your dwelling is in Brisbane or Adelaide, you are experiencing only gentle price increases, whilst the only city of strength is Hobart, where house prices are up over 13 per cent in the past year.

The house price data, which are compiled by Corelogic, are flashing something of a warning light on the health of the housing market and therefore the overall economy. For the moment, the drop in house prices has not been sufficient to unsettle the economy, even though consumer spending has been moderate over the past year.

The importance of house prices on the health of the economy is shown in the broad trend where the cities that have the weakest housing markets tend to have the slowest growth in consumer spending and are the worst performance for employment and the unemployment rate. The cities with the strongest house prices have strong labour markets and more robust consumer spending.

Trump could cause the next global recession: here's how

Wed, 07 Mar 2018

This article first appeared on the Yahoo7 Finance website at this link: 


Trump could cause the next global recession: here's how

The Trump trade wars threaten the global economy. This is not an exaggeration or headline grabbing claim, but an economic slump based on a US inspired global trade war is a distinct and growing possibility as it would dislocate global trade flows, production chains and bottom line economic growth.

Up until a few weeks ago, there was a strong enthusiasm for the economic policies of US President Donald Trump. Tax cuts and planned infrastructure spending were seen to be good for the US and world economies. US stocks and many around the rest of the world rose strongly, to a series of record highs. At the same time, bond yields (market interest rates) surged as the market priced in interest rate hikes and inflation risks from the ‘pro-growth’ policies. It was seen to be good news.

Very few, it seems, were worried about the consequences for US government debt and the budget deficit from this cash splash, especially when the US Federal Reserve was already on a well publicised path to hiking interest rates.

About a month or two ago, a few of the more enlightened and inquisitive analysts started to focus on the fact that the annual budget deficit under Trump was poised to explode above US$1 trillion with US government set to exceed 100 per cent of annual GDP.

A debt binge fuelled by tax cuts was a threat to the economy after the temporary sugar hit.