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“Since 2002, Quinn showed, the most productive Australian firms (the top 5 per cent) had not kept pace with the most productive firms globally. In fact, Australia’s ‘productivity frontier’ has slipped back by about one-third. The best of ‘Made in Australia’ hasn’t kept pace with the best of ‘Made in Germany’, ‘Made in the Netherlands’ or even ‘Made in America’.”

And then there’s the other 95 per cent. In the past two decades, their output per hour worked has barely risen. So 19 out of 20 Australian firms don’t produce much more per hour than they did when Sydney hosted the Olympics.

Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh has highlighted the nation’s productivity issues. Credit:AAP

What’s going wrong? “Part of the problem is that many firms aren’t investing in new technologies,” Leigh says. “Less than half have invested in data analytics or intelligent software systems. Only three in five have invested in cyber security, making them vulnerable to hacking and ransomware attacks.

“It’s not just that companies aren’t investing simply in technology – they’re not investing in anything at all.” In the Productivity Commission’s regular report, it measures how the amount of capital equipment per worker has increased, a process known as “capital deepening”.

The commission has had to invent a new term to describe what happened last financial year – “capital shallowing”. For the first time ever, the amount of capital per worker went backwards. “Given that capital deepening has accounted for about three-quarters of labour productivity growth, this is frightening,” Leigh says. (To which Scott Morrison might well respond: do I look frightened?)

Across the economy, businesses are cutting back on research and development and investing less in good management. Just 8 per cent of our firms say they produce innovations that are new to the world, down from 11 per cent in 2013.

A Productivity Commission study has found that half the slowdown in productivity improvement in the market economy in recent years is accounted for by manufacturing. A separate survey of management practices in manufacturing firms found that Australia’s managers rank below those in Canada, Sweden, Japan, Germany and the US.

Leigh argues that newborn firms are as critical to an economy as newborn babies are to a society’s demography, bringing fresh approaches, shaking up existing industries, and offering new opportunities to workers.

Yet our new-business creation rate isn’t accelerating, it seems to be stopping. Defining new businesses as those that employ at least one worker, Treasury estimates that the new-business formation rate in the early 2000s was 14 per cent a year. Now it’s down to 11 per cent a year.

“Another sign that the economy may be stagnating comes from figures on job-switching,” Leigh says. “Workers who switch jobs typically experience a significant pay increase. In the early 2000s the rate of job switching was 11 per cent of employees a year. Now it’s down to 8 per cent. And “Treasury’s analysis finds that a drop of one percentage point in the job-switching rate is associated with a 0.5 percentage point drop in wage growth across the economy”.

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The drop we’ve experienced is “not the fault of employees: there are simply fewer good opportunities available. According to Treasury’s analysis, much of the drop in job-switching is because workers are less likely to transition from mature firms to young firms. With fewer start-up firms, it stands to reason that there are fewer start-up jobs.”

It’s all pretty dismal – and, of course, all the fault of the government. But I know just the reform we need to fix the problem. Morrison should offer chief executives of ASX200 companies a cut in their tax rate, provided they can show they were too busy during the financial year sticking to their knitting to attend any meetings of the Australian Business Council called to discuss lobbying the government for favours.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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