Last week was bank profit bonanza season, during which very senior bankers took their moment in the sun to declare that Australia needed to press forward with a reform agenda aimed at boosting national productivity. Ian Narev of the Commonwealth Bank, Mike Smith of ANZ and Brian Hartzer of Westpac all, in their own way, declared that as a nation we should get out of the way of markets and let creative destruction shift capital to its most productive uses.
It is an admirable sentiment that makes perfect sense in theory. Productivity growth is the key to national prosperity, never more so than in Australia right now as we struggle with failing competitiveness after the mining boom.
But Australia’s senior bankers should perhaps pause for a moment to reflect upon how productivity works. Capital efficiency is a key input into the equation and has been dragging the chain far more than labour for the past decade. Some of that is the result of a capital-intensive mining boom, yet to see its big returns, but another unexamined factor is also strongly at work. The price of land is a key input cost for most businesses. So when costs are inflated, it reduces the competitiveness of industry, making it harder for Australia to compete abroad. The associated higher housing cost also places upward pressure on wages.
For decades, the resource allocation governed by the banks has been channeled away from the tradable sector and infrastructure investment towards the financial sector, as home buyers have taken on ever-bigger mortgages and chased house prices higher. It should be no surprise that the finance and insurance industries -- which are dominated by mortgage lending -- have grown at more than twice the pace of the rest of the economy since financial markets were deregulated in the mid-1980s, due in part to the housing quango
operated by the various levels of government (see below charts) ...