Tuesday, November 24, 2015

2016 is Census Year. But why do we bother?

Every five years Australia holds a census of its people and housing and next year it’s our turn again. The five yearly interval was introduced back in 1961 and it has over time become the essential reference point for demographers, economists, researchers, planners, governments and industry.  The last one in 2011 cost $440 million. It’s a small price to pay for such a high quality image of the reality of Australian society. So why are so many keen to ignore it?

Evidence geeks (myself included) love Census data because it’s almost impossible to refute. Myths and theories can whirl around in a drunken dance together with ideology and blind faith, but there’s nothing like a Census to bring them crashing to the floor with a sobering thud. It’s the indisputable authority on our people, housing and habits that make us Australian. On the evening of the 9th August 2016, wherever you are in Australia, as one of 24 million Australians and some 10 million dwellings, you will be counted and your demographic, economic, social, religious, education and transport profiles (to name just a few) will be taken.

And according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics “The 2016 Census will be Australia’s first Census where more than two thirds of Australia’s population (more than 15 million people) are expected to complete the Census online in August 2016. New delivery and collection procedures will make it easier to complete the Census online.” Which is going to be way more fun than an hour of Fruit Ninja, Subway Surfer or killing time on Snapchat.

Some more Census basics from the ABS Website: 

“In 2016, the ABS will:

  • Mail 13.5 million letters to households and establishments across Australia
  • Count all of Australia’s 10 million dwellings and 24 million people
  • Employ around 39,000 temporary field staff across a variety of roles, including up to 500 people to process the data
  • Scan paper forms as they arrive using industrial scanners operating 12 hours per day, 5 days per week, over 10 weeks, scanning close to 88 million pages
  • Produce and publish over 3 trillion cells of data as a result of the information collected in the Census.”

The level of detail provided by the census findings allows almost microscopic analysis of populated areas – down to groups of around 400 people (called a Statistical Area 1, or SA1). Combined with powerful GIS data mapping, the results can be displayed in a graphical way that is both intuitive and highly informative. 

But despite the best quality of data and the most advanced tools for interpreting and communicating that data, you can almost guarantee that sections of industry, media, think tanks and various lobby groups will either turn blind eyes to the findings, or find ways to contort the findings to suit their various agendas. 

Frustratingly, urban myths will persist despite the abundance of fresh, resolute data provided by the Census. Which makes you wonder why we bother with the expense and effort of gathering hard evidence only to find ourselves confounded by public policy which owes more to perception and prejudice. 

What are some of the myths that might prevail despite evidence to the contrary? Here are some nominations but we’ll have to wait until 2017 to see for sure:

  • The myth that all the jobs growth, and all the jobs, are in the inner city. The past several Census’ have stubbornly revealed that CBD and inner city shares of metro wide jobs are stuck at around 10% to 15% of the total, depending on the city. City centre jobs are growing, but so are suburban ones – and generally at least as fast if not faster. Some will ignore the relative balance between city centre and suburban market, and by only focussing on changes in the smaller city centre market, make distorted claims that appeal to kindred booster interests. Those claims get repeated without query, and the myths get a new lease of life.
  • The myth that millennials and Gen Y overwhelmingly favour apartment living in the inner city. There has been a very significant increase in the supply of new housing in the form of inner city apartments in the inter census period and there will be even more completed by August 9, 2016. The Census will reveal how much of that stock is occupied and by what types of households, and will prove an interesting reference point in the debate about the type of housing we are building, and for whom. 
  • The myth that families have turned away from the traditional suburban home. There have been numerous reports in recent years suggesting that young families have abandoned the ‘dream’ of a detached home with a backyard for the kids. I doubt this is true and suspect the Census might reveal how untrue this is. Sure, if you’re a young single or young couple with few ties and big city careers, the downtown loft is a lifestyle solution. But once children come along, or certainly by the stage they are ready for pre-school, my suspicion is that Census data will show young families still overwhelmingly choose the detached housing form in a suburban location. This is not to suggest there won’t be an increase in families being raised in apartment style living but I can’t see the scale of social change being predicted by some commentators being borne out by the evidence.
  • The myth that the traditional family model is dying. I know it’s de rigueur to talk about the growth of single person households, gay and lesbian couples (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) increasing divorce rates and so on, but the Census is a reality check on what can become a runaway debate.  Unless I’m terribly mistaken, the idea of mating and producing children hasn’t suddenly gone out of fashion for the overwhelming majority of Australians. Much to the frustration of some social campaigners, I suspect the Census will reveal a stubbornly conservative majority still prevails. 
  • The myth that retirees are generally all wealthy boomers with money to burn. I know it’s an appealing thought, but I suspect the income data sets for seniors and retirees will paint a sobering picture of household incomes for this cohort. Assets are another thing of course and the Census doesn’t ask about assets like the value of the family home. But still, it’s cash flow that pays the grocery and other bills and most seniors, I suspect, will be shown to be on lower incomes than we’d like to think.

Why bother with the Census? Some will ignore it and others will twist its findings into all manner of statistical contortions to prove a theory they’ve decided to believe in, no matter what. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a terrific investment in the truth of what makes us tick. Bring on August 2016!

Thursday, November 5, 2015


Some parts of the real estate market are experiencing a new feeling they haven’t known for some time: fear. Initial outbreaks, based on media reports, seem confined to overheated parts of the Sydney and Melbourne housing markets. The question is whether the fear will be contained or will it spread more widely?

It’s always hard to pick the point at which market confidence turns. Australia started the year with unrestrained exuberance. Auction clearances were at record highs and off plan sales to speculative investors seemed like an ocean of inexhaustible opportunity, particularly with rising interest from foreign (mainly Chinese) buyers. Repeated warnings about the extent of investor activity, particularly in new apartment sales, or warnings about record low affordability relative to incomes, were brushed off.  Then along came APRA’s rule changes, and banks also shifted their risk appetites down a notch or two, reducing their LVRs and raising interest rates for investment property.

Sometime in the second half of the calendar year, rising notes of caution crept into mainstream media commentary on housing. By October, the likes of Macquarie Bank, Credit Suisse and Bank of America Merrill Lynch were warning of ‘hard landings’. (See here for an example of the bearish comments). Add to this some ‘tutt tutting’ from the celebrity TV financial commentators and the mood seems to have quickly turned from unbridled optimism to caution. 

That itself is a good thing. Opportunity and risk should be weighed carefully, not approached recklessly. The question now is how much more bad news can the market expect, will the bad news be confined to certain parts of the market, and will the market have the maturity to respond rationally?

That there is still bad news to come seems inevitable. I heard last week that traditional financiers expect that 20% of investors buying off plan apartments will be unable to settle on completion, based on the revised lending criteria. If that’s true, a lot of developers will be caught and a lot of investors will be in a bind. This is likely to be confined, however, to just some parts of the capital city markets – especially the flood of new stock of one bedroom apartments, not designed for living in but for investor price points. I can’t see projects aimed at owner occupiers suffering settlement risk: intending occupiers tend to be more discerning, and have more equity. Many investors are however highly geared and have less emotional attachment to their investment as it was never intended to be their home.

Then there are markets which were supported by exceptional but temporary economic conditions. The mining town real estate booms were never sustainable and there are plenty of investors ruing that lesson already. But even large cities like Perth, where the sagging resources economy is reverberating through employment markets just as more stock arrives, are already feeling the pinch. Even the ever ebullient Real Estate Institute has adopted a more somber tone.

Parts of Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney do appear at risk of oversupply of a particular type of housing product (particularly very small one or two bedroom apartments). Commentators and analysts will learn that all housing units in commencement or approval data are not alike: some will find a market, others will not. If, as seems likely, there is a surplus of small apartments in concentrated locations, prices and rents must inevitably fall. Some people are going to lose money, and our media loves nothing more than hard luck stories. Expect a lot of these from the nightly ‘current affairs’ shows and tabloid press.

More stable parts of the housing market in these cities – in my view new housing and land, well located medium density projects, quality owner occupied apartment projects and the established housing market generally – ought to be treated separately, because they are working on entirely different dynamics. But will they be?

I know of two banks who are actively gaming this scenario already. They’re asking whether a fall in confidence, led by what’s looking like happening in the investment apartment sector, will spread to other parts of the markets, both by type and location? For example, if inner city apartments in Melbourne become the focus of negative market comment, will that rattle markets in established parts of Brisbane? And will it spread to other types of property?

The answer is that no one really knows - and won't until after it happens. Confidence is a fragile thing. It can go from reckless to reclusive in a very short space of time. Fanned by a tabloid appetite for click bait (bad news gets more clicks on line) and a widespread disregard for accurate or detailed reporting, it’s unlikely that there will be much rational analysis or reporting of real estate or housing markets in the coming year.

Having said that, we should be used to it. There hasn’t been much rational reporting for a long time. Real estate markets have been lumped together as if they’re a homogeneous product, and price movements have been reported on a weekly basis to feed a ravenous media and public appetite for poor quality information. That commentary will likely turn from positive to negative but its quality will remain the same: underwhelming.

On the positive side, most of us know that markets move in cycles and they’re rarely as bad as the media might make out, nor are they as risk free as painted to be in good times. Stability never rates much comment but the reality is that the majority of Australians who have owned or are paying off their home will continue to do through the cycles, both up and down. And if you do need to trade, you tend to buy and sell on the same market. If you are buying for the first time, things might improve.

However the potential of contagion plays out, seasoned players will endure it with cool heads and a rational strategy. Amateurs had neither going into this market and are unlikely to have either of those qualities if they need to head for the exits. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Public transport’s biggest problem… the public (that’s us).

When’s the last time you heard some futurist or management guru suggest that in the future more of us will be working at the same desk doing routine tasks on a predictable working week schedule? No? That’s just one of many problems that advocates of limitless spending on public transport need to keep in mind in dealing with the issue of urban congestion.

Increasing urban congestion is said to cost the economy dearly and if Infrastructure Australia is to be believed, it will cost even more in the future unless something is done now. They warn the current estimate of a $13.7 billion annual cost will balloon to $53 billion by 2031.

Congestion is without dispute a handbrake on economic productivity but the range of solutions for reducing congestion range from the outright zany (see Elizabeth Farrelly’s suggestions for Prime Minister Turnbull as one example) to milder versions of zany. They all tend to be very expensive and many impose unacceptable compromises on our basic freedoms (such as proposals to ban cars from cities).

Increased investment in public transport is a feature of many proposed solutions for alleviating congestion. It is true that we have under-invested in public transport systems in past decades and it’s equally true that we’ve under-invested in private transport. Basically, we’ve cheered a rising population while passing the buck for funding and delivering the infrastructure needed to support that growth to future generations. Rising congestion levels are making it feel like crunch time now.

But there are valid questions about the capacity of public transport to alleviate congestion which are rarely getting asked. Rather than a magical silver bullet, there are a few things to keep in mind before you climb aboard the merry bandwagon of limitless investment in public transport…

The nature of work is changing. Public transport systems work best on a hub and spoke model of employment and commuting, built on predictable schedules designed around predictable commuter needs. Central business districts of very high employment concentrations, where people work in the same workplace from day to day and for the same hours each day, are ideal candidates for public transport.  But increasingly this is looking like a 20th century model of work. Technology has been the primary driver of change, allowing more workplace flexibility and providing for increased location diversity. ‘Standard hours’ of work are being diluted and at the same time companies increasingly realise the high costs of ‘paper factories’ for administrative staff in costly CBD locations makes little sense. With this, the centralised nature of work is also being diluted and this is working against the centralised economic model that makes fixed public transport systems (especially rail) effective.

Society is changing. There was a time when commuting trips to work in central locations were mainly a case of getting there and getting home.  Much has changed. A rising proportion of women in the workforce and how this has changed family responsibilities means that commutes to and from work are also often tied in with other objectives: dropping off or picking up school kids or children in child care is only a part of this (but one which is said to contribute to 20% of private vehicle traffic on the roads in peak periods during school terms).  Add in to this the increasing propensity to shop less but more frequently (who owns a chest freezer anymore?) and to mix in pre and post work social or recreational appointments, and you have a very different pattern of commuting which public transport will struggle to service.

The suburban economy. A telling reality for proponents of increased public transport investment is that employment remains – and in some cases is increasingly – suburban by nature. Between 8 and 9 out of 10 of all jobs in metropolitan regions are suburban by location, and when you consider that the same proportion of residents in any metropolitan location are also suburban by residence, the problem of servicing this reality through public transport is apparent. In the last inter censal period, the proportion of metropolitan wide jobs located in the CBD actually fell in Brisbane (to 12.5%), while in Melbourne it remain unchanged (at 10%) and Sydney recorded a small rise (to 13.5%). The raw numbers of jobs in suburban locations are growing faster, as a rule, than those in CBDs.  The cost of creating a public transport system designed around suburban home to suburban workplace commutes is beyond calculation. In Australia, we will be in flying cars like the Jetsons long before this happens.

The new and emerging economy. The way cities were designed – with concentrations of white collar workers in CBDs and with discrete areas set aside for industrial, retail or other specified activities – is no longer as important for new or emerging economies. Technology in particular means that physical place is less essential for connectivity to markets. Communication is less dependent on physical proximity. This doesn't mean CBDs will lose their higher order function but it does mean that disruptive or emerging businesses, for which new technologies are more than just a novelty but a foundation, will have less need for the types of places offered by centralised business districts. They can locate in lower cost areas of the metropolitan area, and make use of the central business districts on occasion, rather than routine. Attracting and retaining these emerging types of businesses will also put the onus on suburban business centres to lift their game, but in many cases this isn’t difficult. Just think of any number of start ups or tech based companies you’ve read of recently and think about how many of these have been in non-traditional locations. Even when these businesses mature, their lack of interest in a CBD style presence doesn’t seem to change. Witness the many technologically innovative businesses in the USA or Europe, by way of example.

Where does this leave us with solutions for congestion? Ironically, increasing public transport investment designed to ferry people into and out of central business areas is unlikely to make much difference to metropolitan wide congestion. It can’t – simply because only a minority of jobs (between 10% and 15% in the case of Australia’s major cities) are in these locations. People with jobs in these locations may currently have relatively high rates of public transport usage already (often 40% plus) but imagine the cost of increasing this to 80%? The cost of getting there is incalculable for cities of our size, and in any way, it would only benefit 10% to 15% of the urban workforce. Ironically, the people most likely to benefit from this type of public transport prescription tend be much higher wage earners, living close to the inner city in highly valued real estate. (Have a look at this analysis from The Pulse a couple of years ago). Yet their higher capacity to pay is not reflected in most policy debate.

The reality is that public transport can only go so far in alleviating congestion. Social and economic change to the nature of work is changing the shape of employment decisions and has forever changed the nature of the commute. Public policy officials, urbanists and politicians who pretend that all that’s needed to ‘solve congestion’ is massively increased investment in heavy rail, light rail or dedicated busway networks are deluded: this thinking is rooted in nostalgic notions of work, unrelated to the future of work.

And as if to demonstrate the fact we should not expect better from our various governments, when a technological innovation comes along that promises to realize the long held dream of ride sharing and increased persons per vehicle - which if widely embraced would go a long way to solving congestion at no cost to taxpayers -  governments stand in the way. It’s called Uber. Go figure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Old, poor and lonely: the other side of the ageing story

Much is being made of opportunities for retirement living and aged care due to our ageing population. For those who retire with a healthy balance sheet there are increasing choices within a fast evolving ‘for profit’ industry. But the reality for a majority will be ongoing dependence on the aged pension and insufficient government or non-profit places to accommodate them.

The basics of our ageing population are easy enough to understand. First, there will be more of them – with Australians aged 65 plus the fastest growing cohort in coming years, rising from 14% of the population now to around one in five Australians by 2033. In terms of actual numbers, the current estimate of around 3.5 million Australians aged 65 plus will rise to around 6.3 million in the next 20 years – an increase of around 2.8 million people. I will be one of them.

For the aged care and retirement living industry, this is a future demand profile virtually immune from market cycles. You can’t stop people aging, and as we live longer, there will be more people ageing than ever before. Life expectancy in 1970 was 70 years of age. It’s now 82, and still climbing. If you are currently aged 65, you can (on average) expect to live another 19 years for males, and 22 years for females, because ironically the longer you live the greater your life expectancy becomes.

In response, sections of the retirement living and aged care industry are transforming rapidly. What was once a cottage industry run mostly by charitable, religious or non-profit groups, is rapidly evolving into a very professional industry run by private or publicly listed businesses, looking for greenfield expansion, acquisition or redevelopment opportunities to grow portfolios and improve operational efficiencies. Many of these businesses are well positioned for ongoing growth in scale and profits and will be cheered on as market darlings by investors and an increasing number of people reliant on their growth for work. Including me, hopefully.

At the same time it is easy to lose sight of a more sobering market reality. Expansion in the aged care and retirement living industry is being led by businesses who are catering in the main for the upscale end of the market. In other words, old people with money. A significant proportion (and perhaps a majority) of old people won’t have the funds needed to enter private retirement living or aged care, or if they do, their funds might be depleted because they live longer than they budgeted for. Don’t get squeamish on me at this point, because ageing is all about economics and budgets.

So here are some financial angles on the ageing demographic which reveal a worrying future policy landscape for those not at the premium end of the retiree market.

Today, roughly one in four people aged 65 and over are either renting their own home, or still paying off a mortgage. The proportion who own their own home outright is falling, and based on falling rates of home ownership amongst Australia’s current generation of 30 somethings, the proportion who own their own home by say 2050 will be significantly less.

Then there is superannuation. The average current super balance of someone aged 60 plus and not yet retired is just $95,000. The proportion of people aged 65 and over who have no superannuation at all is around 65%. Yes, this is changing as more superannuants retire, but superannuation balances are not what you’d think. The average superannuation balance of someone aged between 70 and 74 – the average age of entry to a retirement village – is just $102,000 but this plummets to just $38,000 for the 75 to 79 age group. Or put another way, the number of Australians aged 50 and over with a super balance of more than $500,000 is just 5%.

The biggest asset most current or future retirees will have is their own home, but remember that one in four are either renting or still paying off a mortgage. There are 13.5% of Australians aged 65 plus who are renting their own home. For those who own their own home, the average value of this (in 2012) was around $500,000.

In terms of incomes, two thirds of people currently aged 65 plus have a weekly income of less than $400. This is heavily influenced by the age pension, which one in four current retirees receive at the full rate (being $430 a week). A further quarter receive a part pension, while only a third are self-funded. Remarkably some 18% of retirement age Australians are still employed, but whether this is of necessity or by choice I don’t know.

So the economic picture here is one where a significant proportion of Australian retirees, and by definition also those who will need aged care, generally have insufficient assets, savings or financial means to fund the lengthening number of years where they won’t have an income and where their costs of care and accommodation will increase.

This is a market segment no one seems to be talking about. I presume there is an assumption that government or religious/charity/not for profit groups will continue to cater for this market. But the numbers are such that many non-profit groups won’t have the financial resources to meet this growing demand as many are struggling with financing existing operations, let alone expansion. Which leaves the government, meaning the taxpayer, and the reality here is that there will be increasingly fewer taxpayers of working age relative to the number of aged dependents, meaning higher taxes. Sorry hipster generation, it’s looking pretty ordinary for you.

So what’s going to give? Will we see a return to multi-generational housing where grandparents, parents and children live under the same roof? There will no doubt be some of this, but it’s hard to see how our social mores will change to the degree needed to relieve pressure on demand. What’s really needed is an affordable housing solution for retirees and Australians in need of aged care, for whom the commercial part of the market will remain beyond reach.

Given our wholesale failure to address housing affordability problems for working age Australians and young families, it’s difficult to be positive about any meaningful solutions being found for the other end of the age spectrum. Keep that in mind when you next look at those marketing images of healthy looking silver haired retirees with perfect skin, wearing pastel coloured cashmere jumpers and big smiles (and their own teeth), holding hands as they walk on the beach… they are far from reality for the majority.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The world in the year 2100

In another 85 years, the world will be a very different place. Some nations are already shrinking and have much further to go, while others will grow dramatically. The world powers in economic and military strength are going to change. New stars will rise. Old stars will fade. So I thought it might be interesting to see how Australia might look by the year 2100, compared with some of our major trading partners or world powers.

Think how different the world was 100 years ago. The United Kingdom was an undisputed world power with a global empire that included Australia. The United States was not yet remotely a world power. Russia was still ruled by the Tsars, China was still a largely feudal empire and Japan was ruled by Emperors. From that period to now, the world population has risen by over 400%, with the fastest period of growth in the mid-1960s to 1970s.  Population growth in most advanced economies is now slowing to below replacement rate, with aging populations and fertility levels falling to less than half their 1960 levels. The clever people at the UN Population Division crunch the numbers on a regular and very detailed basis and their predictions in the past have been pretty much spot on. According to these experts, and assuming no Third World Wars or global pandemics, here’s a glimpse into the future…

 Australia’s population will rise from around 24 million now to about 33 million by 2050 and to 42 million by 2100. That might sound like a lot but an extra 20 million of us over the next 85 years is a minor statistical error in global terms, although given recent trends we could be a world stand out with 85 Prime Ministers in as many years.

What many people don’t seem to appreciate is that China’s population is at its virtual peak, and is about to start shrinking.  China will peak at around 1.415 billion people in 2030 and by 2050 there will be nearly 70 million less Chinese than at this peak. By 2100, there will be 372 million fewer Chinese than today and over 410 million less than the peak in 2030. They are also aging faster than their workforce can keep up with, although on the plus side, there is still plenty of room for productivity growth in China. Their current GDP Per capita is USD $7,500, compared to nearly USD $62,000 in Australia. (World Bank data).

Japan is forecast to have a steadily declining population. By 2050, it will have shrunk by 19 million people (that’s getting close to the current population of Australia) and by 2100 it will have shrunk by more than 43 million people. Those inflated real estate prices might be under pressure, which could do all sorts of things to the economy’s capital backing. They’re already reasonably productive and with a rapidly aging population, it looks like the land of setting – not rising – sun for them.  

Germany’s population is also in gradual decline. There will be roughly 5 million fewer Germans by 2050 and by 2100 there will be 17.5 million fewer Germans than today. All those empty beer halls! Little wonder the Germans are happy to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees – they have a highly productive economy but will have fewer people to keep it running.

India takes over from China as the world’s most populous nation within the next five years or so. By 2050 they will have added nearly 400 million more people. Their population peaks in 2070 at 1.75 billion (give or take an Australia or two) and declines to around 1.66 billion by 2100 – which is still some 355 million more than today. India has massive potential for productivity growth with a current GDP per capita of only USD $1,630 – which is 2.5% of Australia’s. They have a western democratic system of government but seem to have adopted the least efficient aspects of western bureaucracy with few of the benefits. If they can resolve their governance failings and modernise their economy, India may well be a new world super power by 2100. If you have kids in primary school today, maybe getting them to learn the Hindi language is not a bad idea. At least they’ll be able to follow all those Bollywood movies.

Our northern neighbour Indonesia has ten times Australia’s current population and this will rise by another 64 million by 2050. Their population will plateau from around 2060 and by 2100 will have decreased marginally from their 2065 peak to 313.6 million. Indonesia also has potential for productivity growth with a per capita GDP of only USD $3,500 but it’s not clear yet what is going to lift their economy nor how they are going to go about it.

Dear Old Blighty just keeps chugging along with its population steadily rising from todays 64 million to just over 75 million by 2050 and reaching 82.37 million by 2100. By this time there might be enough of them to field a decent rugby team. They’re a strong economy with per capita GDP of USD $45,600 but this is highly concentrated on London. Any glitch in London’s world financial HQ status could spell all sorts of problems in the future.

The United States will add another 100 million people by around 2070. (See my friend Joel Kotkin’s book ‘The Next 100 Million’ for what this mean for the USA.). Representing a third of the world’s economy, it’s difficult to see how the USA will lose any of its economic muscle over time. With a GDP per capita of $54,630, they just need their economy to begin firing again and for US consumers to open their wallets to stimulate rapid economic recovery – not just in the US but countries that rely on it. Another friend Dr Doug McTaggart has always maintained that the health of the US consumer has a far reaching impact on world economies and I for one believe him.

Do svidaniya comrades. Russia will shrink by 15 million people by 2050 and by 2100 will have shrunk by 26 million – equivalent to shrinking by a whole Australia today. But our Russian friends only let go of communism in relatively recent times and have much further to go in modernising their economy. They have abundant natural resources and with a per capita GDP of around USD $13,000 it isn’t hard to imagine the Russians still remaining an economic and military power by the turn of the next century.

The country that records the most astonishing growth over the period to 2100 is Nigeria. The forecasts are that the current population of 182 million will rise to over 398 million by 2050 – that’s double – and by 2100 will reach 753 million – which is almost double again and more than four times their current size. Many of the African nations show enormous growth over this period but Nigeria is the stand out. They have low productivity (per capita GDP USD $3,100) and often unstable systems of government. It’s difficult to see this being even a moderately prosperous future, unless those Nigerian loan scams are actually making a lot more money than anyone thought. The whole African story is something worthy of a lot more detailed study because that continent is going to continue growing at rates which far exceed the rest of the world. Something for another day.

What’s it all mean?

The only thing that’s certain is that the world economic order we know today is going to be vastly different in the future. Demography is going to play a significant part in that but, in reality, it’s impossible to predict much of anything beyond the likely population numbers. Will countries like Nigeria follow the Chinese path to rising economic prosperity, or fall further into poverty? Who knows? There’s another metric in all this which is aging and those countries with a younger demographic may well fare better than nations that find their relatively small working population struggling to support a much larger, dependent aged cohort. For nations like Japan, which is both shrinking and aging and with no immediately obvious path to lift economic output, this isn’t a pretty scenario.

And Australia? I think Donald Horne summed it up nicely in 1964: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people's ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

China’s people shortage

Lately there’s been much attention on the fortunes of Australia’s major trading partner – China – and with good reason. But very little of that attention has focussed on a problem that’s potentially much bigger than a ‘crash’ in China’s economic growth to ‘just’ 4% or 5% GDP.

China, population one thousand four hundred million people, may not have enough people. What? Seriously? The world’s most populated nation, with such a rapid rate of population growth that it infamously introduced a “one child” policy under the Communist regime to keep its population in check, and it may not have enough people? 

In truth, China actually has plenty of people. But thanks in part to the impact of the one child policy on its demography, it is fast going to find itself with a shortage of working age people relative to the number of young and elderly who will rely on those of working age for their taxes and other forms of support.

Source: CEIC, Morgan Stanley Research. Source: Supplied

Introduced in the late 1970s, the one child policy was an experiment in totalitarian control. China’s birth rate fell from over 5 to just over 1.5 compared with a birth rate of 2.2 needed for any nation to sustain its population numbers.  Most of that fall in fertility however occurred before the one child policy took effect, as the country began its transition from a rural economy where large families were an economic necessity to an increasingly urban economy where large families are hard to house. Chinese families over time have also shown a preference for boys over girls: again because of perceived economic benefit. In 2014, there were 100 female babies to every 114 males, well out of kilter. Sadly, infanticide is a factor. This also works against higher rates of population growth.

China’s rate of population growth peaked at around 2.74% in 1970. It has fallen rapidly since then and today stands at around 0.61%.  The prediction is that this will fall to zero by around 2030 from which point on the total population of China will be in decline. 

The one child policy was officially relaxed in 2013 so that most couples are now allowed a second child but the impact on China’s working age population from this rapid deceleration of population growth is already being felt. Last year, China’s working age population fell by 3.7 million people: the third successive year of falls. And the falls are set to grow: according to a report by Business Spectator, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences claims that between 2020 and 2030 the Chinese labour force will fall by almost 8 million every year, and from 2030 to 2050 it will fall by 8.35 million, every year. 

Think of what all this means for a moment. We’ve been told of a miracle economy, rapidly urbanising and spewing out upwardly mobile middle class consumers at rates we can’t comprehend. But at the same time, the working population is shrinking, and that rate of shrinkage is set to increase significantly. Not only that but our perception of China is that of a fast growing population. But the facts are that China is about to stop growing and start shrinking within the next ten to fifteen years. We are currently seeing China at its historic biggest.

This can only mean that for China to continue to grow its economy at solid rates of expansion, it will need to do so on the back of rapid gains in in productivity from a shrinking labour force. Increasing urbanisation may help drive productivity and greater value adding as the economy increasingly transitions from rural production to an urban manufacturing and services economy, but it’s hard to ignore the demographic picture.

The saving grace on this is the Chinese are far more resilient and independent than we Australians. This might sound an odd way to describe a Communist nation but the sorts of welfare systems we have put in place in Australia are alien to the Chinese. They are far more likely to support extended family (parents and grandparents as a minimum) without state welfare reliance. This is a cultural value which transcends politics. Their work ethic, family ethic and savings ethic are humbling by Australian standards. Which means that while this sort of demographic trend would be poison for Australia, it is not necessarily quite so poisonous for China.

Ironically, Australia faces a similar demographic problem in the future, as ageing baby boomers and Gen Xers become increasingly reliant on a shrinking pool of working age Gen Ys and millennials to pay for very generous taxpayer funded pension and health benefits. There is a marked difference in scale between the two countries but I am betting that the cultural values of the Chinese will see their economy survive this demographic time bomb, while Australia may sink under the weight of its numerically much smaller burden. If we can’t even manage to agree to a $5 co-payment for free GP visits, how will we have the foresight to get our health and welfare systems into check before the inevitable demographic shift begins to be felt here in earnest?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How the hangover could look now that APRA has shut down the party

In the fine tradition of public policy in Australia, we leave things until it’s long overdue. By this time, instead of a manageable slow-down, it often results in a screeching halt followed by a fast u-turn. APRA’s recent moves to stem the flood of finance to speculative housing investors could be a case in point. What might this mean for investors and for the industry generally?

Some years ago, Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens expressed caution that low interest rates, which ought to lead to an increase in housing supply, might simply lead to a run up in prices. See for example this analysis of mine back in 2009. This year, in a vindication of those earlier fears, he described the market in Sydney as ‘crazy’. You don’t get stronger hints from the RBA Governor that things are a bit out of control than that. 

In December, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority started to tighten the screws on lending, and it made further moves this year targeted more particularly at investors, who for the first time account for more than half of new lending for housing. Banks are responding by quickly tightening their lending criteria and some – AMP Bank for example – have now announced they have banned loans to property investors, effective immediately. Others are offering loans to investors at higher rates of interest than to owner occupiers. How might this play out for the legions of speculators who have invested in the so-called ‘generational shift’ to apartment lifestyles?

It’s not a pretty scenario and it’s all happened before, but for the ones with short memories or without the benefit of having been through a serious downtown before, here’s how it can pan out. 

Think of the investor who’s been sold the story of a generational shift to inner city apartment living. They see demand rising for this type of product and lifestyle and figure that this is a good market to buy into. They purchase a $500,000 unit ‘off the plan’ with a $50,000 deposit, when the banks are happy to lend 90% of the value. They may be thinking that, by the time settlement is due within maybe three years, that unit could be worth maybe 10% more, so their equity will have gone from $50,000 to $100,000. Happy days. Plus they’ll be getting a rising rental return, at least in line with CPI. After all, this is how - and where - everyone wants to live, isn’t it?

Fast forward three years to settlement time. The banks are no longer prepared to lend 90% but our investor’s bank will still lend to 80% of the valuation. That valuation has come in a few months before settlement and the bank now has a piece of paper that says the home unit is worth $450,000. Values have fallen because there is a very large volume of similar stock on the market at the same time, in roughly the same location, and there are more sellers than buyers.

So as far as our investor’s bank is concerned, they will now lend 80% of $450,000, which is $360,000.  The investor now needs to fund the remaining balance of the contract price of $450,000 ($500,000 less his deposit). So our investor needs to find another $90,000 to make the settlement. They could walk away and lose their deposit, or they could try argue their way out of the contract, but both aren’t exactly appealing options.

They could sell the apartment but that would mean taking a loss in that market. They could rent it as planned but vacancies are high (there’s a lot of similar product out there) and rents have fallen (supply over demand). So their return on renting is nothing like they imagined it could have been. Plus, by now, interest rates have risen so the gap between the rental income and the repayments is much wider than they banked on. It’s called ‘negative’ gearing for a reason but there’s a limit to how much most people can lose.

If our investor decides to sell and realises $450,000, they still have their transaction costs to take into account so their net realisation may be closer to $400,000 on the ins and outs of the deal. They can pay out their $360,000 loan and have $40,000 left. This looks pretty ordinary if they had to sink $140,000 of their own savings into the deal. That $140,000 is now worth $40,000 – not including any losses on the cash flow if they’ve been renting it (or trying to) for a time.

This is a worst case scenario and I am not predicting financial Armageddon. But I do come across plenty of people in the industry who seem to be in denial that this is remotely possible. Yet it has happened before and may well happen again.

Who’s to blame if this does eventuate? Accountants and some financial advisors, who promoted investment property deals because on paper they look tax effective, will have questions asked of them. Accountants love things that look good on paper but in my experience aren’t very good at understanding property. Urban planners and policy makers that promoted high density living at the expense of other options paved the way for the supply-side response. Developers have done pretty much exactly what most metropolitan planning schemes called for – extensive high density urban infill. That’s precisely why so much of it has been approved. And they have met the market price points. The fact that market was driven by investors buying into a financial product not owner occupiers buying into a lifestyle product, isn’t the developers fault. The banks too should shoulder some blame but good luck trying to make that stick. And the investors who could lose out will be busy for looking for anyone else to blame but themselves.

And what’s the impact on the industry if this happens? That will depend on whether any problem - if it occurs - will be contained to a certain type and style of investor housing product, or if the property industry generally suffers the hangover -  even if large parts of it weren’t part of the party in the first place. This is a question that’s going to occupy a lot of minds in coming months and years.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Aged care & retirement living: are they immune to market and economic cycles?

Much has been written about the ageing of our population but less is known about the implications for housing and caring for them. In the past, this has been left to not-for-profit groups like religious organisations or charitable institutions and a handful of smaller private operators. But the numbers that are coming in terms of ageing Australians will render this cottage industry approach entirely obsolete. Demand is likely to be so strong, for so long, you have to ask if this is one part of the property industry that will be immune from cyclical gyrations because it will be one long upswing lasting more than 20 years.

If you were born in 1900, you could expect to live on average to around 50 years of age – less than today’s retirement age. If you were born in 1945 that rose to around 68 years of age. If you were born in 2009 you can expect on average to live to 79 for males and 84 for females – a good way past retirement age. The United Nations has estimated that every second child born in a developed economy from 2000 onwards could live to 100. So one in two of today’s children in Australia may somehow have to work out how to live without an income for some 35 years. Good luck with that.

They - and today’s ‘baby boomer’ generation - will also need to find somewhere to live – and this is where the property industry comes in. There are two types of product and generally two types of operator servicing the needs of the 70+ population: retirement living (also known as independent living) and aged care (once called nursing homes). Neither are for everyone and take up rates in Australia are still low by developed nation standards. However, even based on those low take up rates, demand is going to quickly outstrip supply.

Leading Aged Services Australia is the peak body representing aged care providers. They estimate that there will need to be an extra 83,000 new aged care places in Australia in the next nine years alone. Let’s adopt an average of 80 beds per facility which is typical of most existing aged care operations. That equates to 1037 new aged care facilities for the next nine years, or around 115 per annum for that period. Mostly they will be needed in the larger capitals. Some research I coordinated for Calibre Consulting shows that in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne will all need something like 20 to 25 new facilities each year to 2031 and probably beyond. Each place costs roughly around $250,000 in development costs (building plus land plus other charges) so each facility of 80 beds will on average be around $20million. The 115 new facilities needed nationally work out to an annual development budget of $2.3 billion. And this is just to keep pace with the demand we know is coming, without any increase in take up rates. And these are only the development numbers for aged care. Add in the retirement living market and you could potentially double that. Or maybe more.

The thing about this market is that demand is fairly predictable. You will not find an aged care or retirement living operator complain about a lack of demand. They will however complain about high operating costs and high site costs, if they can find the sites. After all, it’s one thing to reel off statistics about projected demand but the industry still has to find places to develop these facilities. And because most seniors (and their families) want to age in the communities they are used to living in, this does not mean they’ll be interested in shifting out to some bleak cow paddock on the urban fringe. Nor will they (or their families) be interested in trotting off to some aged care facility that has all the charm of a 1930s insane asylum, or if a retirement living facility, all the design flair of a post- war workers housing scheme, complete with vinyl floors.

Not all of them will be able to afford to be choosy of course. But there will be enough of today’s boomers with enough cash to support a large and growing industry that will appeal to their needs and advanced tastes.

(What though will happen to today’s generation of kids? They are renting longer, entering the housing market later and with much higher mortgages. They are projected to retire with a mortgage and will need to live that much longer without an income past retirement. Today’s boomers are often multiple property owners having grown up in a post-war era of extraordinary opportunity. Today’s millennials by contrast, when it comes their turn to find a retirement living or aged care product, may not have the assets to fund their lengthy senior years. For them, is it time for Logan’s Run?)

The other aspect of demand in this market is that it is typically unrelated to market or economic cycles. True, most people entering a retirement living product do so by selling their family home, and they will try maximise the price for that by waiting for the right time to sell. But ageing has its own immutable clock, which doesn’t wait for market cycles - especially if people suffer from loss of a partner, a fall, or stroke or rapid onset of dementia or other debilitating conditions that can’t be forecast. They need new living arrangements, or they need care, and they need it now. Family members are often left to find somewhere and they need to find it quickly. Market or economic cycles are immaterial to finding suitable places for loved ones to live in. And there will be an increasing wave of seniors in precisely these situations that will drive a long upswing in the aged care and retirement living market.

How will the industry respond? Here are a few thoughts.

Consolidation by merger or acquisition is inevitable. The top two or three largest operators in the aged care market, for example, control only around 5% of the market. Contrast that with retail where the two majors receive 80% of the retail dollar. There are literally thousands of facilities and operators nationwide and many of them with only one or perhaps two facilities. They will not survive, except perhaps for the elite end of the market, because they do not have the economies of scale to provide cost-efficient operations. Everything from the cost of meals to laundry to staff:patient ratios counts and larger operators will win out.

There will also be more professionalism. No disrespect to the many well-meaning and long standing charitable and religious providers but in terms of property development or redevelopment, many don’t have the skills. Their business models were based on noble but often uneconomic commitments to provide care at ‘affordable’ prices. Their cash balance sheets are often incapable of supporting new development to meet demand even though they may be paper rich in land assets. I suspect many will start joint venturing with private developer-operators to fund their future – indeed some are already doing so.

Planning schemes and community attitudes must also change. There are virtually no undeveloped sites suitable for retirement living or aged care facilities in areas of our cities where demand is most acute. Under-utilised land like shopping centre carparks or even that second school oval are going to need to be available to meet demand. Otherwise we may as well put up signs in our cities saying “hey oldies, thanks for building all this but you can piss off now you aren’t welcome anymore.” Height restrictions will also need to give way to provide for higher density facilities especially in areas where land or sites are particularly scarce. The NIMBY attitude of some community groups that I’ve seen actively oppose new aged care facilities is nothing short of disgraceful, and the politicians giving them encouragement should be given an advanced ageing pill so they know what it’s like to be the wrong side of 80 with nowhere to live and no going back.

The other thing that will change dramatically is design. The next generations will demand higher standards that more closely resemble a Balinese resort. Or their children will demand it for their parents. We are all becoming increasingly spoiled and those with the money will want to remain spoiled in their senior years. Already we are seeing cinemas, resort style pools, quality cafeterias and dining areas with high standard menus, hairdressers and beauty salons, resort style landscaped gardens and a host of other features that bear no resemblance to the ‘retirement homes’ or ‘nursing homes’ of years past.

All this presents challenges and the prospect of enormous change for the industry on a scale that is hard to imagine. But that change will come because it is being driven by a tide of demand that is irresistible and inevitable. 

Quite possibly that wave of demand is something that for this part of the market at least, economic or market cycles won’t be the main drivers: demography will.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Three reasons apartments may not deliver on density

A key thrust of higher density development plans for our various inner city areas was that this would lead to a significant increase in population densities. But what if the current wave of inner city apartment development isn’t likely to deliver as many people as the plans presumed? Does this mean we need even more apartments to meet infill population targets? Or do we need to revise the population numbers altogether? Here are three factors I doubt were taken into account when these targets were first devised

Many of our prevailing metro wide planning schemes are revisions of similar schemes devised in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A key plank of these schemes was to prevent ongoing ‘sprawl’ (being outward suburban development) and encourage higher densities in established areas, particularly inner city areas. The plans came in for their share of criticism at the time. Tony Powell – an icon of Australian planning – described them as a “sad parade of failing capital city strategic plans” that in some cases were “superficial to the point of ridiculousness.” Professor Brendan Gleeson disdainfully described the wishful thinking of much plan making at the time as “faith-based planning.” 

A key focus of the ‘faith’ and also of the criticism was the belief that population growth could be contained in higher density housing, as opposed to continued expansion of suburban markets. 

Tony Powell put it bluntly in a 2007 lecture to planning students: “The proposition in the latest crop of metropolitan strategy plans that 50 percent or more of future housing development can be accommodated in existing suburban areas of the major cities is patently ridiculous.  These are simply unexamined and unreliable hypotheses, not strategies.” 

Fast forward to today and the sheer volume of apartments now being developed in inner city markets might suggest Powell was wrong: indeed, there is widespread talk of oversupply and bubbles in particular markets. But what if, despite this unprecedented pace of apartment development in inner city markets, the population numbers still won’t materialise? Could we actually have an apartment boom without the people to match?

There are three factors at work which I suspect no one at the time predicted:

  1. There are very few owner occupiers in the current wave of apartment development. If it were true as widely claimed that we are witnessing a permanent change in Australia’s housing preference in terms of units over houses, you would expect to see more owner occupiers active as purchasers. But the numbers in some cases are very small. Michael Matusik in Brisbane has looked at a number of newer projects and in many of the larger scaled developments, the percentage of owner occupiers is only 3%. That’s not a typo. Smaller developments show a higher proportion of owner occupiers but across the board, the figure is still only 10% of sales to owner occupiers. Two thirds of investors of inner city apartments are from interstate or overseas. 
  2. The apartments are typically small and getting smaller. Again based on Matusik’s research, ten years ago the proportion of one bedroom apartments being developed was just 10%. It is now more than three times that at 35%. And while three or more bedroom stock accounted for some 30% of stock ten years ago, that figure is now just 5%. Plus they’re shrinking: one bedders have fallen from 70 square metres to 50 square metres in that space of time. 
  3. Vacancy rates are increasingly unreliable. The most widely quoted vacancy rates are provided by various real estate institutes. These are not audits of vacant stock – they only reflect a survey of member agents: not all agents are members and not all members bother completing the survey. The problem here is that with new apartment projects, the available rental stock is unlikely to be included in real estate institute numbers if being marketed through various investment or project selling channels, or strata managers or others. No one knows what proportion of properties available for rent are not being captured in ‘official’ real estate institute data because of this, but you can simply peruse available rental listings online to see how many are being offered outside of ‘traditional’ real estate agency channels to get some idea. It’s significant. Plus of course, the ‘official’ figures can’t possibly capture the number of apartments that are kept unoccupied for whatever reason. So while ‘official’ vacancy rates for inner city areas might point to a 4% vacancy, the actual vacancy (including those not recorded in ‘official’ data) could easily be double that or higher in the apartment sector. 

This poses a dilemma for planners who equated apartment development with population growth. Back when there were typically more (and larger) three bedroom apartments being developed, and more of these being sold to owner occupiers, the residency ratios were higher. I used to use an average of 1.6 persons per apartment as a rough guide. 

But today, with so many more (and smaller) one and two bedroom apartments being designed for absentee investor appetites, the residency ratios must be smaller. A one bedroom apartment of 50 square metres, for example, will on average not have more than one person living in it. And that’s only if it’s occupied. Take into account vacancy figures, factor in what’s not included in those figures and factor in the number of apartments that are simply unoccupied on a permanent basis and not available for rent, and residency ratios must fall further again.  

If you take a hypothetical 250 apartment project, it may once have housed 300 to 400 people - if those apartments were mainly two and three or more bedrooms, and a high proportion of owner occupiers. But now, with changes in the type of stock and the nature of the market, that project may only house half as many people. No one really knows, which is my point: markets and planners seem to be relying on untested assumptions about the relationship of apartment construction with population growth. 

This low residency ratio could also explain a couple of things. Many shops and businesses associated with new developments, who anticipated high expenditure from residents, have been disappointed. Perhaps the expectation of how many people are actually living in the new projects were based on wrong assumptions?

And the profile of those actually in residence is another factor. One bedroom rental units will equate to a high proportion of students or lower income rental groups. They certainly won’t be consuming like a family of four. Hence the actual discretionary income available from these residents needs to be rethought.

Most interesting though is the proportion of urban population growth that will actually find itself housed in the current wave of development. If the residency numbers are in reality that much lower than planners first presumed, this could mean we need more apartments per 1000 of population to achieve identified targets, or we need to rethink the targets.

Either way, it’s a fascinating question with significant implications.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Better suburbs = better cities. Employment and the importance of the suburban economy.

Australia’s inner city areas and CBDs are a focus of media and public policy attention, with good reason. But it’s also true that the real engines of employment are outside the inner city areas and that the dominant role of our suburban economy as an economic engine is grossly understated, even ignored. This is not good public policy. It’s not even common sense. 

I have a view that the focus on urban renewal and inner urban economic development has become a policy obsession of late. It’s the trendy thing to quote Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’ theories which become the excuse to increasingly spoil inner city workers with transport, cultural and other forms of taxpayer funded infrastructure. There was a time when inner city areas, if not recapitalised, risked pockets of blight. But those days have passed. Today, it is the suburban landscape – much derided in fashionable inner city policy circles – that risks pockets of blight if not brought back to the attention of policy makers and strategically recapitalised.

The imperative is simple: the suburban economy is so much larger than inner city areas. As a rule of thumb, between 8 and 9 out of ten jobs in our major metro regions of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are suburban. Only one in ten or at most two in ten, are found in the inner city areas. Achieving a 10% improvement in the suburban economic engine is hypothetically equivalent to achieving an 80% improvement in the economic performance of the inner cities. 

So why this preoccupation with the inner cities to the detriment of the suburbs?

First, a quick review of the evidence as provided in the Census. 

In Brisbane, the CBD itself accounts for 12.5% of the Brisbane region’s employment numbers – one in eight. The combined CBD and inner city areas – including the CBD - account for around 170,000 jobs.  That’s not a very big number.  As a proportion of state-wide jobs, it’s less than 9%. As a proportion of the 925,000 jobs across the metro region of Brisbane, it’s less than one in five – and that’s with including the near city areas like South Brisbane, Fortitude Valley and Spring Hill. 

In Sydney in 2011, the CBD accounted for only 8.3% of all jobs in New South Wales, and for only 13.4% of all jobs in wider metropolitan Sydney. Including the surrounding areas of Pyrmont, Ultimo, Potts Point, and Woolloomooloo raises this share to just 9.7% of all jobs in the state and 15.6% of jobs in metropolitan Sydney. So one in ten state-wide jobs and one in every six or seven metro wide jobs. 

In Melbourne, the CBD is home to just 7.6% of the state’s total employment, and to just 10.6% of all jobs in greater Melbourne. Including the ‘fringe’ locations of Docklands and Southbank sees this share rise to only 10.3% of the state and 14.3% of greater Melbourne, which is one in ten of all jobs in the state and one in seven metro wide jobs.

In none of these centres is the concentration of inner city jobs close to one in four metro wide jobs. Yet if you asked a room full of people – industry and planning experts included –a significant proportion will think the figures are much higher. I’ve done this several times at workshops and presentations and there are a worrying proportion of people who seem to think the figure is more than 50%. A wider survey of the general public might even put the figure higher – it would be an interesting exercise to find out.

Suburban employment centres are by nature much more widely dispersed. Teachers, doctors, dentists, tradies, factory workers, shop workers and so on do not rely on close proximity to each other to perform their work, as do CBD employment markets. In the suburban business districts of our metro regions, workforce concentrations typically fall into a band somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 jobs per square kilometre. Places with super-regional shopping centres will tend to be at the upper end of that scale while industrial areas at the lower end. CBDs, by contrast, can easily have pockets where the employment density sails past 10,000 or 20,000 jobs per square kilometre.

But however dispersed these suburban jobs may be, it doesn’t make them any less important to the economy – particularly given their dominant role as employment and economic engines.

So why then the preoccupation with the inner cities and why the dearth of policy interest in the suburbs? 

Perhaps the inner cities are seen as more glamorous? There are more higher paying jobs and more CEOs to the square mile than anywhere else. It’s where cultural facilities and seats of government are found. It’s where the most expensive real estate is. Basically, any concentration of money plus power is always going to grab attention. It’s an age when celebrity tweets capture more media and public attention than important issues of economic policy. The CBDs and inner city areas are widely seen as ‘where it’s at’ and where the cool people are. ‘Nuff said?

Sadly, even policy makers seem to have fallen for the inner city bling over suburban substance. The importance of transport workers, freight workers, teachers, doctors, tradies or suburban white collar employment to the economy receives next to no policy comment. The performance of suburban transport systems, the need to promote higher employment density in key centres, the pathways by which property owners could be encouraged to partner with public sector agencies for suburban centre improvement – none of these seem to appear as workshop or forum topics promoted by any of the leading industry groups. 

I suspect there’s also a strong element of cultural cringe as it applies to our suburban heritage. Frequently mocked as a cultural wasteland or ‘home of the bogan’, there’s an almost desperate desire to prove we’re an advanced society by focussing on the lifestyles and achievements of our inner city areas and the people who live and work there, to the exclusion of all else. ‘Urbanists’ grab headlines and appear as keynotes at any number of planning conferences. Sub urbanists (and there are plenty of them) are evidently persona non grata.

It’s as if a prosperous, successful and highly efficient suburban economy simply doesn’t cut it in the global race for attention and status amongst cities, which seems almost exclusively focussed on the how much like downtown New York or downtown Paris every other city can pretend to be. 

The reality is that the inner city economy is reliant on – not divorced from – the performance of the suburban economy. In the same way that there can be no public sector without a profitable private sector, I suggest that a strong and prosperous inner city economy relies heavily on a strong and prosperous suburban economy. And in the same way that strategic infrastructure and policy decisions are needed for the inner city to operate at optimum efficiency, the exact same applies to suburban economies.  

The question is whether this balance is being achieved.