So what is a Tariff anyway?

There is a lot of talk about the US and China and other countries raising Tariffs against each other. So what is a Tariff anyway?

A tariff is a kind of tax placed on imports, sometimes from all countries and sometimes just from one country.  Usually trade arrangements are made between two countries so the tariffs will be at a country level.

In the past most countries had a lot of tariffs, sometimes really high ones.  These taxes encouraged people to buy goods made in their home country rather than imports with expensive taxes on them.  In Australia this system propped up the Textiles, Clothing and Footware industry until reforms were made and the tariffs reduced to almost zero, and in some cases zero.

Tariffs fall under an economic strategy called trade-barriers or protectionism. Protectionism aims to protect the home countries industries, even if they are not competitive and would not survive without the taxes on their competitors.

While tariffs are perhaps good for companies that are in protected industries, and they can continue to employ people, protectionism is bad for consumers and often forces them to pay more for the things they want to buy. In the 1980’s the cost of a T-shirt was much more expensive than the cost of a T-Shirt today.  Wages of factory workers in Australia were and still are much higher than wages in China and other manufacturing competitors, and so consumers in Australia were forced to pay more for their T-Shirts.

If you only have $100 to spend and a T-Shirt is $50 it only leaves you with $50 to spend on other things.  If there are no Tariffs and the T-Shirt is now $40 you have $60 left to spend on other things you want.  Basically you can’t buy as much under protectionism.  In Australia the price of a T-Shirt got much cheaper than $40, because eventually the foreign goods were so much cheaper and more competitive than the local goods. This soon put most of the Textiles, Clothing and Footware industry out of business.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing,  it’s bad for a while for the people who loose their jobs, the factory owners and their investors. But remember, those factory workers were also having to buy a $50 T-shirt under protectionism, and now they don’t have to spend as much either.  The businesses were not competitive and were being propped up by an artificial advantage.  Generally the standard of living of people increases as protectionism is removed.

However like all things, it’s not black and white and not all people benefit equally from removal of trade barriers. Governments role in this type of situation where there is a massive restructure of the workforce due to change of government policy is to help affected workers find new jobs.  A task government doesn’t always get right.  It is also the responsibility of Industry to be open to employ people from declining industries and to the workers themselves to retrain or gain new skills.

These kinds of changes are worse when they are implemented too quickly, without time for people to adjust and find new work.  Another thing that can exacerbate the situation is when protectionism is removed when there is no other work around.  This can turn structural unemployment, as it is called, into long term unemployment.  This makes life very difficult for workers in affected industries. They may never find employment again. Due to unemployment they do not benefit as much from the rising living standards as people who remain in work gain from removing tariffs.

G20 Summit Argentina

The world is waiting for the outcome of key talks at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Primarily investors around the world are waiting for the outcome of the Trump – Xi Jinping talk in the hope that there will be some positive outcome to the trade wars that have placed markets around the world in a state of perpetual fear since they began.

There is a chance that tariffs will be reduced (small), a chance they will be increased (small) or a big chance there will be no change, there is even a small chance of a new Cold War breaking out but I don’t think that is at all likely anymore. Usually at these summits it’s more important what goes on behind the scenes with the advisors and delegates, but Trump is very independent and doesn’t always follow advice and Trump makes deals on his own terms, so this meeting could be crucial. It could also be just a rosey photo opportunity with no substance. We are all waiting.

To Create Gender Equality in STEM Workplaces Must Change.

Science Mag_fig1_jpg1_Scissors of DeathSource: ScienceMag.org. Data from the Third European Report on Science and Technology, 2003,http://www.dife.de/~mristow/2003EU_3rd_report.pdf

What can the disciplines of science, engineering and technology do to increase their female workforce and stop the well documented drop-off of women from the workforce over time?  In the fields of science and technology (STEM) the phenomenon of the so called Gender Scissors or “Jaws- of-Death” or “Scissors-of-Death” is widespread.  The Jaws-of-Death phenomenon is a measurement of male and female participation rates in the disciplines of science and engineering throughout their careers, measured by age.  Due to encouragement of young female students to study STEM subjects in high-school and increased enrollment of female students in STEM courses at university, the gender gap has closed significantly over recent years and almost closed completely in some sciences at this early career stage.  However looking into the future lives of female and male scientists and engineers, female participation rates drop off significantly in comparison to male participation rates.  The Jaws-of-Death graph blatantly shows the loss of women from the field of science and engineering as they age.  In scientific academia there is a marked difference between female and male participation rates, in the EU, only 33% of researchers are female and only 21% of top level academic roles were filled by women in 2015 (1).  In science and engineering the number of women in in top level positions is even scarcer at 13% in 2013 (1).

There are a number of reasons this may occur, but the most startlingly obvious reason is that these professions are not easy for women to stay and to excel.  There are a number of factors in these professions that affect women’s participation rates.  Much the way business is done in these professions means that the odds are stacked against women right from the start and opposing factors only increase against women as they age and try to progress in their careers.

This should not be seen as the fault of women but as a fault in the system. By loosing such large numbers of women from STEM or keeping women subjugated to lower positions due to the ingrained workings of a poor system, the system in place is in effect causing a “brain-drain”, a loss of potential, and a loss of economic benefit that would have been gained if those women were able to stay in STEM related work or to advance their careers.

So what are the major obstacles in the system that women have to overcome?  There are much documented and studied obstacles such as unconscious bias and the gender pay gap, but there are also more physical boundaries such as the availability of maternity leave and flexibility for employees in the workforce.  Business holds a lot of the cards when it comes to negotiating workers hours, and the fields of science and engineering have very low unionisation rates. Low unionisation means women will often be left to negotiate their contracts one on one with an employer, and they will be expected to offer similar hours of labour as male employees if they want to receive coveted roles or permanent positions.  Because of a desire by many women for flexibility, they are often forced by lack of choice and lack cooperation by employers into precarious part time contract and casual work.

The professions of scientist and engineer were male dominated occupations for centuries.  The fields have consequently developed into occupations where it is standard for employers to expect very long hours of work and high output.  Hours of work far past your standard 40 hour week. Many scientists and engineers work weekends as well as week days, and might work away from home for months on end.  As a consequence of this high benchmark for permanent positions, people who want flexibility have much lower bargaining power and much less chance of finding secure work.

There are a number of problems for women trying to work inside this construct. For starters, flexibility is very important for many women, and not just women who have or want to have children.  Many women require adequate recreation time to perform well, and don’t want to work more than 40 hours a week.  Women who are planning a family or have children want to be able to balance their family and work life without risking their career.  It is well known that many women feel they are forced out of STEM professions after having children.  In general, only women with a lot of additional support from their partners, family or already in well paid positions find it possible to stay in STEM after having children, and even then they often talk of it being a struggle.  When you talk to mothers who have been successful in science and technology, they have usually had very supportive husbands, partners or parents who were able to help a lot with children or have been able to afford nannies.  Women who don’t have support, which far out number those with sufficient support are the ones who drop out, and they are dropping out in huge numbers.

If the structure of work could be changed it would benefit not only women, but men who also suffer from being away from home and family for long periods.  For example, the field of academic science is highly competitive.  Scientific teams work long hours and are in metaphorical vicious and eternal competition with their scientific rivals to produce quality novel research and to produce it first.  Academic scientists compete with each other for accolades, for grants, for jobs and for recognition by their peers.  This has built an environment of extreme individual competitiveness where scientists often feel they cannot risk taking time off for fear of falling behind.  God knows, some team in the US or China might make the discovery first!  God forbid they might publish first!  Young academic scientists want to be the lead author, to gain the recognition they feel they deserve, to be Joe Blogs, et al. and not be one of the seemingly unrecognised and forgotten “et al.”, just a footnote at the end of a paper, a name no-one will ever remember.

Other reasons for leaving work in STEM are also commonly sighted, such as nepotism and “jobs for the boys” at higher management levels.  These problems could be addressed by stricter hiring criteria based on merit rather than favouritism, friendship networks or poor interview based character assessments.

I suggest that if the field of academic science could be completely restructured and more value put on people as a whole rather than on an individuals output, not only would women be able to stay in STEM, but the increased workforce and increased diversity would surely improve science.  This would mean a greater emphasis on a teams output rather than on individuals trying to outshine each other.  Increased availability of job share and flexibility so that two or three scientists could perform the work that one scientist working a 60 or 70 hour week currently performs.  A greater emphasis on sharing knowledge and working together as a group rather than on gaining individual recognition.

To achieve this a number of elements in science need to change, from the way scientists are hired to the flexibility afforded to scientists in the workforce, and the way that academic journals publish scientific papers and grants are distributed.  There needs to be is a greater focus on quality teams rather than bright stars. If everyone is chasing their Nobel Prize or equivalent, a situation of survival of the fittest arises and many bodies will be pushed aside.

How fitting that academic science has become a prime example of Darwinism.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change. I read a sign recently that said in my loose translation from Dutch “Expecting change, without doing anything yourself is like waiting for a boat at a train station”.  We can make STEM work more accessible to women (and men) but change needs to occur and people and organisations have to be willing to make change.

We can’t expect women to stay in work in a deeply flawed system. And we can’t expect the system to change on it’s own.  We have to see the problems and be willing step up and fix the system so that it better serves us and helps us to build the kind of society that we want live in.  A society where women can be successful scientists and engineers and don’t have to overcome massive hurdles.  A society where the decision whether or not to have children will not massively impact or end your future career.  Having children or simply being male has never stopped men from being scientists or engineers and parental status or gender shouldn’t stop women either — and if it does, we have to change that.

1. SHE Figures 2015, URL: http://www.genderportal.eu/sites/default/files/resource_pool/she_figures_2015-final.pdf date accessed 25/6/2018.

Housing affordability in metropolitan Australia

Why are houses today too expensive to buy for the average person and especially young people in our major cities? Are elements such as negative gearing and overseas investors that are often blamed for the rising prices in the media and by politicians the cause of the inflated prices? Or is there something else that has caused the inflation? The short answer is yes. Yes there is. And quite simply it’s supply.

Demand and supply are two elements of the market that are directly linked. If demand is high and supply is low, prices will be higher. If supply is high and demand is low, prices will be lower. The problem in cities like Sydney is that there is a short supply of housing in areas where people actually want to live. Homes that are of a good size (2-3 bedrooms a good size if you are planning a family), in nice neighborhoods, close to schools, medical centres and hospitals, close to public amenities like parks and swimming pools, close to public transport and within a short commute from places of work, which for a city like Sydney is the CBD.

Over past decades new homes have been predominantly built on the outer fringes of the city, which has stretched our cities of Sydney and Melbourne to massive sprawling suburbia. As you head out into this sprawling suburbia land sizes of individual blocks of land get larger, houses get on average larger and are more spread out. The suburbs get larger, amenities are more spread out, hospitals are further away, work is much much further away, everyone requires a car just to do things like go to the shops or take the kids to school, because everything needed for life is so spread out.

This in turn means that the next set of new houses built is pushed even further again from the city centre. The toll of this on people buying their first home, is that they are forced to have a much lower standard of living than those closer to the CBD because they have to spend a lot more time commuting to the city to work in the morning and home again each evening.

People living on the city outskirts will spend several hours a day either in their car or on the train or bus in long commutes.  People living on the fringes often rely on cars to drive everywhere and therefore spend a lot more on petrol for their cars, as well as the other costs involved in car ownership, compared with people in the inner city who often don’t need a car and thus save money on not running a car. Former Liberal Party Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey infamously said in a radio interview in 2014 “The poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases” (1). In fact it’s the opposite, most “poor people” do drive cars and the costs of running a car helps to keep them poor. “Poor people” who live on the city outskirts tend to drive much further than those who live in the centre, who tend to be wealthier (2).

Houses are generally larger and temperatures in the west of the city are hotter than by the coast because they don’t receive the cool sea breezes, so electricity costs are higher as homes require air conditioning to remain pleasant to live in.

Long commutes are a waste of peoples time, and seriously cuts into peoples recreation time. Time that could be spent with family or friends. High electricity bills and costs of running a car that is used everyday cuts into peoples ability to save money or spend on items to make their life more pleasant.

The short supply of housing in the inner city has pushed house prices up so high they have become unobtainable for people that did not already own a home in Sydney. In the suburb I live in, Marrickville in Sydney’s Inner West about 6 km from the CBD, the median price for a 2 bedroom house is now $1.23 Million (3). The median price means the price in the middle, it’s a bit like the average but a better indication of the middle price people are paying for homes.

In comparison the median price for a 2 bedroom house in Campbelltown, a suburb on the outskirts of Sydney’s western suburbs, is $476 thousand (4). People who live in Campbelltown and work in the city centre will commute for at least 2 hours a day.

So why is a 2 bedroom house where I live so much higher than that of a 2 bedroom house in Campbelltown? The simple answer is demand. There is high demand for houses in suburbs like Marrickville because they are convenient place to live, we have schools, public transport (trains, buses and close connection to light rail), medical care (like GPs, specialists rooms, dentists, radiography services), grocery shops and a shopping centre all within walking distance from homes. There are top hospitals and universities like RPA and The University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney only 4-5 km away. For people with disabilities there is more access and choice when it comes to disability services. Suburbs closer to the city tend to have more people around and so there is often a greater sense of being in a community than out in the outer suburbs where you can often feel isolated in your street or home. There are cultural and community events in the inner city like weekend markets and theatre, all of which make life more enjoyable in the inner city. Another reason for higher demand in the inner compared to the outer suburbs is that crime rates tend to be lower in the suburbs closer to the city, obviously with a few exceptions.

In my opinion, more focus needs to be on increasing the supply of homes in the CBD and inner suburbs of cities (within 10 km of the CBD), because this is where people want to live based on price data. Yes, people who are already lucky enough to live in the inner suburbs will argue “But there aren’t enough schools! There aren’t enough hospitals! Over-development! I don’t want high rise apartments over looking my house!” . Government has tried to to increase supply and there has been massive backlash in these communities about any new development. This viewpoint to me seems very selfish and short sighted.

My question to those people resisting development and resenting newcomers is, why do you think that you deserve to live in a convenient area, but other people do not? Is it fair that just because you were there first, future generations are forced to live at a poorer standard of living and have to live in an area which is not good for a productive economy because of the high costs on it’s residents, because you were here first? I don’t think that is either fair or good for the economy or society. It ultimately increases inequality in society.

Census data helps governments to determine the number of hospitals and schools built in an area. If more people move to an area, government will see in the Census that the area requires more infrastructure. If zoning laws are changed to allow more housing to be built in the inner suburbs, government can also plan to deliver more hospitals, schools and public transport, for example the new Sydney Metro line going up along the Bankstown line (one of the two main train lines through the Inner West of Sydney) coincides with the opening up of zoning for high rise residential apartments along the Bankstown line corridor.

In the past, and even in the present the most creative and productive areas of cities are not the outer fringes but the more highly developed inner city. If we want to make productive cities we need to make them more livable, which includes increasing the sustainability of our cities by reducing the number of petrol cars on the road, and increasing the happiness of residents by decreasing commuting times and the cost of living.

Reference

1. URL: http://jbh.ministers.treasury.gov.au/transcript/075-2014/ date accessed 12 June 2018.

2. URL: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-15/joe-hockey-poor-people-cars-claim-misleading/5671168 date accessed 12 June 2018.

3. URL: https://www.domain.com.au/suburb-profile/marrickville-nsw-2204 date accessed 12 June 2018.

4. URL: https://www.domain.com.au/suburb-profile/campbelltown-nsw-2560 date accessed 12 June 2018.

The Looming Sydney Housing Crisis

What is it that people say? It’s a recession until you loose your job, then it’s a depression. I feel it’s a bit like that with the Sydney housing market. It’s not a crisis, it’s a bubble, until your bubble pops and you are pushed out of the property and rental market because you’ve been out priced.

One of the problems with the Sydney housing market is that it’s been treated by many as an easy no brainer investment class. I’m talking about people who buy houses as an investment to sell at a profit rather than to live in them. It doesn’t really matter whether they are local baby boomer investors or overseas investors, the end result is that because there has been so much speculation in the market for so long, we in Sydney (and Melbourne) have seen an artificial elevation in house prices that is not linked to wage growth. This has ultimately out priced many younger people from the market, and basically anyone who wasn’t on the property ladder to begin with.

Now there is a phrase I have a real problem with “the property ladder”, which implies a buying and selling of properties to upgrade ones housing, presumably for comfort, but more recently (say the last decade at least) for sheer profit.

The thing about houses is they don’t generate any income until they are rented out or sold, and if you have a very big loan you won’t really see the revenue until you sell. People have seen housing as an easy get rich quick scheme, they don’t tend to loose value because people always need somewhere to live, and the more people started investing, the more new investors were drawn in. Until recently property investors (that sounds a bit ominous “investors”, but here I mean anyone who was not buying a property for themselves to live in long term) could buy in parts of Sydney and sell a year later making a 20% profit. It’s a bit reminiscent of other bubbles in the past, most recently the Bitcoin bubble which worked on the same easy money principle.

The problem with the housing bubble, is that it’s not just currency like in the case of Bitcoin, it’s houses, that is homes that people live in. If prices get too high many people are spending too much of their income on loan repayments or rising rent prices. This becomes a delicate balance and if something happens, like you loose your job or prices go up again or let’s say interest rates rise, some people are ultimately going to be pushed off the edge, when their bubble pops (e.g. they can’t make their mortgage repayments and default on their loan). This  can even be the first step towards homelessness. If you are a young person paying high rent with low wage growth and probably low wages due to the casualisation of the workforce that is happening in Australia, you can’t even save enough money to become an investor or home buyer to get yourself out of paying high rents.

The problem is, houses only really generate income when they are sold, and because people have seen the housing market as an easy way to make money there has been a massive wave of speculation. The housing market isn’t as complicated as the stock market, prices have tended to go up without the investor having to do much research or anything much once they have invested. Sure this has made some people rich, but the purpose of housing, something I think people in Australia and some other parts of the world have forgotten, is that houses should be viewed primarily as places for people to live in, not an income generating stream or investment class.

Investing in housing only pushes house prices up and doesn’t have any real benefit. Because really, if you own a place that is overvalued, there will eventually be a price adjustment (read price fall). You don’t really have a million dollars if you own a house valued at million dollars. You own a house and if you sell you will only receive what the market says it’s worth. You only have a million dollars if you sell that house for a million dollars and put that money in the bank.

People should be investing in local businesses and companies as those forms of investment do generate income and they can cause growth in the economy in areas that actually have some benefit to Australia like growth in jobs and wages. Australia has had so many great new technology companies leave because they couldn’t find investors here. The ones that spring first to my mind are the new energy solar power companies that went to China or the US when they couldn’t find investors here. There are your jobs of the future and they’ve all gone overseas and will never benefit Australia.

Australia having a trillion dollars in private home loan debt is not benefiting anyone except the banks that are selling the majority of the loans (1), who will see even more profits roll in when interest rates eventually rise, and they will eventually rise . It wasn’t that long ago real interest rates were around 6% and in the 1980’s they came close to 8% (2). I’m talking about real interest rates too here, not what the banks charged as the interest rate on their home loans which reached staggering levels close to 17% in the 1980’s. Anyone with a large home loan should be very concerned about what interest rate they are paying. If interest rates were raised a few percent higher without wage growth in Australia, many borrowers would default on their loans.

Being tied to high home loan repayments and rents also limits what households can spend as consumers, because all their income is going into housing. This also does nothing to stimulate wage growth and other parts of the economy.

To exacerbate the problem there has been very poor housing affordability policy by all levels government which has played a part in rising house prices and household debt.

The Housing Bubble and Homelessness

We are already seeing the effect of this bubble in the increase in homelessness in Sydney. Don’t think there is a connection between homelessness and rising house and rental prices? Think again. When the Government doesn’t provide enough crisis housing or long term housing for people on low incomes, and the unemployment policy is that if you leave an area with more jobs (like Sydney) for an area with less jobs (like a country town with a cheaper cost of living) you could be cut off unemployment benefits.

So picture the scenario,  you loose your job or you get sick and can’t work for a long period, then because of the drop in income you can’t pay your rent or mortgage and you loose that place. You can’t afford rent on a new place in your area because you haven’t found work again and there is not enough crisis accommodation for all who require it, so you have to find somewhere to go. You probably can’t leave Sydney and move somewhere cheaper because you will be cut off any unemployment benefits by the Government. If you can’t find a place you can afford in the city and unless you have someone who can support you you might eventually end up homeless. you might couch surf for a while, but one day you might run out of people to stay with or you might have some kids, and your friends don’t have room for all of you, so you are living in your car, until you can’t afford your car anymore.

This is a reality, and it is partially caused by housing speculation. There are however many other contributing factors to homelessness. Low wage growth, poor housing policy by Government, poor (or should I say stagnant and un-evolving) unemployment benefit policy and poor mental health and domestic violence policies by Government have all contributed to homelessness in Australia.