Finance

AUSTRALIA TAX FUCK YEAH

It’s Official: The Australia Tax is Real.

If you’re a person who lives in Australia who has the Internet then chances are you know of the vast disparity in prices between goods available here in Australia and those overseas. For some things a small gap is reasonable, I mean it does cost a bit to ship things here to Australia, but when it comes to things that don’t require shipping (like software) the price gap makes a whole lot less sense. Indeed this point was highlighted when the price difference between Australia and the USA was enough to cover the cost of a flight and still come home with change to spare. For those of us who’ve been dealing with this for years now (thanks Steam!) we have a term for this sort of thing.

We call it the Australia Tax.

AUSTRALIA TAX FUCK YEAHWe’ve found our ways around it though like using DLcompare for finding cheap games and doing all my major purchases online from overseas retailers. This does mean that we sometimes have to resort to slightly devious ways in order to get things sent to us but the savings we can make because of it are usually worth the effort. I had honestly given up on this situation ever changing as the word from those distributing their products here was essentially that we  were willing to pay more and, therefore, should pay more (which, strangely enough, only happens because we used to have no other way of getting the product). It seems that a few people in power have noticed this however and last year they launched an investigation into the reasoning behind the huge price disparity specifically centered on IT goods and the results have just come in.

The Australia Tax is very real and it is quite unjustified.

Most of the recommendations from the investigation are then what you’d expect, mostly more government action and increasing public awareness of the issue. However there were 2 points that seem like absolute gold to Australians, if they ever manage to get through parliament:

  •  If companies do not agree to lift geoblocking, or to give consumers the tools they need to circumvent it, the committee recommended enacting a ban on geoblocking “as an option of last resort”. It also recommends voiding any law which seeks to enforce geoblocking.
  • The committee also wants a “right of resale” law to be created in relation to digitally distributed content. This is an interesting possibility which might allow Australians to resell their old music and ebooks for the first time, among other thing

Getting around geoblocking is a pretty trivial exercise these days, if it can’t be done via the use of a Chrome extension then you’ll need to spend a few dollars on a VPN service although that can sometimes lead to issues of its own. Enacting a law preventing companies from geoblocking in Australia might stop some of the less than savy companies from doing it but realistically I can see most of them hiding behind the cover of “currency conversion” or something similar to achieve the same effect. The last round of inquiries into price gouging were enough to get some of the big players to drop their prices in response so maybe just the threat of that will be enough to get them more in line.

The second point is something we’ve heard a little bit about before although not within Australia’s borders. There’s a few cases in the EU looking to establish this exact legal framework, opening up the opportunity to resell digital only content. Indeed that was one of the better features of Microsoft’s restrictive DRM policies for the Xbox One, something that I’m sure not too many gamers were actually aware of. As someone who’s got dozens of spare game keys due to Humble Indie Bundles and whatnot this is something that I wouldn’t mind having although it ever getting through isn’t something I’m counting on. What the outcome is in the EU will likely heavily influence such a decision.

So it’s great that the government is now aware of the problems facing Australian consumers but now they need to seriously considering the recommendations so that some pressure can be applied to these retailers. Whilst the outcome of most of the recommendations won’t affect the savy consumers much (we already know how to get our way) I know that not all consumers want to do those things and, honestly, they shouldn’t have to. Whether the more out there recommendations get implemented though will be really interesting to see although I get the feeling we’ll be seeing  Gerry Harvey in the news ranting about them sooner or later.

Negative Gearing Income 2010-11

Think Negative Gearing is to Blame For High House Prices? Think Again.

Before I dig my hooks into the reasons why negative gearing isn’t to blame for high house prices (a seemingly controversial view these days) I will tell you, in the interests of full disclosure, that I’ve been negatively gearing property for the past 5 years or so. Back when we first bought our property I lamented the dearth of good properties that were available in our price range, focusing much of my anger of the property boom that took place mere years before we went into buy. However we found something that we could just afford if we played our cards right, even though it was out in the sticks of Canberra. During that time though I never once blamed the negative gearers for this predicament but the more I talk about it the more it seems my generation blames investors for it when they should really be looking elsewhere.

Negative Gearing Income 2010-11

Depending on what figures you’ve read though I’d find it hard to blame you like the table above (from this ATO document) that has been doing the rounds lately. On the surface it seems pretty hefty with some $7.8 billion in total losses being claimed by investors with negatively geared property. Realistically though the total cost to the government is far less than that as even if everyone was on the top marginal rate (which they aren’t, most are on $80,000 per year or less) the total tax revenue loss is closer to  $3.5 billion. Out of context that sounds like a lot of dosh, especially when this year’s budget came in at a deficit of $18 billion, but it’s like 0.9% of total tax revenue which is significantly dwarfed by other incentives and exemptions. If your first argument is that it costs the government too much then you’re unfortunately in the wrong there, but that’s not the reason I’m writing this article.

The typical narrative against negative gearing usually tells a story of investors competing against homebuyers (usually first timers), driving up the price because they are more able to afford the property thanks to negative gearing and the higher amount of capital that they have. Whilst I won’t argue that this never happens it fails to take into account the primary driver for upward trending house prices: owner occupiers. Initially this idea sounds ludicrous, since homeowners aren’t taking advantage of negative gearing gains nor are they in the market for new property, but the thing is that the vast majority of capital gains in Australia are held by just such people, to the tune of 84% of the total property market.

In Australia the primary mechanism which drove house prices up, with most of the increase occurring between 1994~2004, was current home owners upgrading their houses. For a current homeowner  especially ones that own their property outright, the cost of upgrading to a larger property is a fraction of what it would cost to buy it outright. However anyone looking to upgrade will also try to extract the maximum amount of value out of their house in order to reduce the resulting loan and thus the cheaper priced houses get pushed up as well. Couple that with the fact that the majority of Australian owner/occupiers move at least once every 15 years and that selling your primary place of residence is exempt from capital gains tax and you have a recipe for house prices going up that’s not predicated on negative gearing’s influence.

Indeed the ABS Household Wealth and Wealth Distribution supports this theory as the average value of an owner occupied property is $531,000 which is drastically higher than the Australian average (which includes all investor properties) at $365,000. Considering that the bulk of the Australian property market is dominated by owner-occupiers (since investors only make up 16% of it) then its hard to see how they could be solely responsible for the dramatic increases that many seem to blame them for. Most will retort that investors are snapping up all the properties that would be first home owners would get which is something I can’t find any evidence for (believe me, I’ve been looking) and the best I could come up with was the distribution of investment property among the 5 sections shown here which would lead you to believe that the investors are normally distributed and not heavily weighted towards the lower end.

The final salvo shot across the negative gearing bow usually comes in the form of it providing no benefit to Australia and only helps to line the pockets of wealthy investors. The counter argument is that negative gearing helps keeps rent costs down as otherwise investors would be forced to pass on the majority of the cost of the mortgage onto renters, something we did see when negative gearing was temporarily removed. Indeed the government actually comes off quite well for this investment as using that revenue to instead build houses would result in a net loss of rentable dwellings which would put an upward pressure on rents.

I completely understand the frustration that aspiring home buyers go through, I went through it myself not too long ago when I was in a position that wasn’t too different from average Australian. But levelling the blame at investors and those who negatively gear their property for the current state of the Australian property market is at best misguided and at worse could lead to policy decisions that will leave Australia, as a whole, worse off. You may believe to the contrary, and if you do I encourage you to express that view in the comments, as the current Australian property market is a product of the Great Australian Dream, not negative gearing.

RBA Cash Rate 1993 to 2013

Hoping For RBA Independent Rate Cuts? Don’t Hold Your Breath.

The finance market in Australia is in a weird state at the moment. On the one hand we’re doing pretty good economically, with unemployment remaining low and our major trading partners still buying things from us despite our strong dollar. The finance market, specifically credit and lending, on the other hand looks much like it did back during the peak of the global financial crisis with lending rates at record lows. Now it’s not like this is completely unexpected considering that the Eurozone Crisis is still working itself out but favourable economic conditions and low lending rates rarely go hand in hand.

RBA Cash Rate 1993 to 2013

Indeed it’s gotten to the point where the Reserve Bank of Australia doesn’t believe they can effect much more change by lowering the official rate and will likely hold off on any changes until sometime next year. At the same time though banks funding conditions have continued to improve which has led to calls from industry bodies for them to start cutting their rates independent of the RBA. Banks have never been shy to raise rates outside of official RBA decisions but cutting them be something new for all of the major lenders, especially considering the rather turmutuous funding environment we’ve had to endure over the past 5 years.

Now no one would be expecting these cuts to happen now as there’s really no pressure on the market from either direction that would make such a move advantageous. Most industry analysts agree that within the next year however though conditions would be favourable for banks to do this. If this is the case then there’s a pretty simple method for checking to see if banks think that there’ll be a rate cut, whether by them/their competition or the RBA, within the next year. All we have to do is check the current fixed term rates and compare them with the current variable rates on offer and see what the difference is between the various fixed term lengths.

For this we’ll use fixed and variable rate home loans as they’re the best indicators of long term bank forecasting.

Right now the cheapest variable loan you can secure is about 4.99%, a bargain that we haven’t really seen since the deepest parts of the GFC. Whilst there’s quite a spread between the lowest and highest there’s a pretty good chunk of the market hovering around the 5.25% region so we’ll use that as our baseline for comparison. For a 1 and 2 year fixed loan it’s looking pretty similar with the rates basically remaining the same overall, although there seems to be more lenders willing to lock in at 4.99% for that amount time. It’s only at 3 years do we start to see much change when the average jumps up about 0.25% which is a pretty small increase and is essentially a hedged bet against any unforseen circumstances.

The take away from this is that by and large the banks don’t really expect the funding situation to change dramatically in the next couple years as their loan term loans aren’t really priced with that in mind. There are some examples of lenders offering very attractive rates around the 2 year mark (ones lower than their current variable rates) but they’re most certainly not the majority and consist primarily of smaller, non-bank lenders. Barring any drastic changes (like the Eurozone escalating again) I can’t see any indication that the banks are thinking of moving rates in any meaningful direction for the next couple years, nor do they expect the RBA to do similar.

This doesn’t really mean much unless you’re currently in the market for a new loan or refinancing but if you are then it means that the choice between variable or fixed is essentially moot at this point and you should go with whatever makes you feel the most comfortable. It’s actually a great time to get a home loan thanks to the wide spread stagnation of house prices and cheap funding which are set to continue for at least another year. Of course you probably shouldn’t dive in unless you’ve done the proper due dilligence but if you’ve been on the fence for a while I really can’t think of a better time to buy in the last 5 years.

Well apart from the darkest parts of the GFC, but that had a whole bunch of other issues associated with it.

Bank of Cyprus

The Cyprian Banking Industry is Damaged Beyond Repair.

If there’s one thing that Australia has going for it at the moment it’s the duo of a well regulated banking industry coupled with a strong economy that has seen us weather some of the worst financial crisis we’ve seen in decades. The Global Financial Crisis came and went without leaving much of a lasting impact and for the most part we’ve been immune to the Eurozone Crisis. For an industry that relies on trust you really couldn’t find a better environment than Australia at the moment as compared to nearly every other place on earth the trust in our banking system is extremely high.

Bank of Cyprus

If I was to choose a place that is the exact opposite my country of choice would of course be Cyprus. For the uninitiated Cyprus is a small island nation of about 1 million people or so and is renown for being something of a tax haven. This is due to its extremely favourable tax rates on savings accounts there and led to the banks storing more wealth than the entire nation’s GDP. When everything’s going well this isn’t much of a problem as the steady flow of capital helps keep both the nation and the banks afloat. However when things turn bad, like they have done during the Eurozone Crisis, what you have is an island nation that’s left in a rather difficult situation as it lacks the tools to deal with such colossal entities failing.

The issues stem from the Greek financial crisis as the Cyprian banks had amassed some  €22 billion worth of Greek private sector debt. As a result of the writing down of much of this debt in order to save Greece (and thus the Euro itself) the Cyprian banks were hit hard by this and in turn had their credit rating downgraded. This lead to a downward spiral of bad debt piling up, banks defaulting on loan payments and the Cyprian government, with a GDP below that of the debt their banks had amassed, being completely unable to deal with it. So like any other EU member they approached European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank for a bailout. They were able to secure one however before they could get it they needed to raise some €7 billion and the method by which they did this was, to put it bluntly, incredibly retarded.

The initial proposal to raise these funds was a one off tax on all savings deposits with accounts under €100,000 losing 6.7% and above that losing 9.9%. They began musing this particular deal over the weekend in order to be able to enact the legislation before everyone had a chance to get their money out but as soon as news began to spread the beginnings of a bank run started taking shape. ATMs were quickly emptied of their cash and long lines formed as people tried to get as much of their cash out of Cyprian banks before they were slugged with the tax. The initial proposal didn’t get through however and the Cyprian government had to order the banks not to open and they’ve been closed ever since.

News reaches us today that the Cyprian government has managed to reach a resolution with the one off tax now being restricted to accounts over €100,000. What the particular rate will be though remains a mystery but you can guarantee it will have to be higher than the initial proposal to make up for the revenue lost on accounts below that threshold. The deal will also see one of the bigger banks broken down into a toxic asset dump and a small, feasible business but there have been calls for the same thing to happen to its largest bank. No matter what they end up doing however the damage has been done to their banking industry and I’m not sure it’ll ever be able to recover.

You see banking relies on a certain amount of trust, especially when it comes to things like savings accounts. You trust your bank won’t lose your money and, in the case of the government, you trust that they won’t come after it unless you’re directly responsible for something. The Cyprian people, and their foreign depositors, are essentially being punished for the mistakes of the banks and there’s no amount of guarantees that they can make that something like this won’t happen again. Thus the only smart thing for anyone to do is to get their money out of there as soon as humanly possible lest the same thing repeat itself in the future.

It’s not like this couldn’t happen elsewhere, indeed New Zealand is considering a similar move, but the reputation Cyprus had as a great place to store capital is now in tatters. Future depositors will think twice before sending money there again because it’s clear that the tiny nation can’t deal with the mistakes of its banks due to the huge influence they have their economy. After the tax goes down I doubt any of the large creditors will be keeping their money in there for long and its likely a bank run will still occur once the banks reopen their doors. With that the finance industry in Cyprus will be dealt a crippling blow, one which it will be unlikely to recover from.

It might be for the good of the country in the long term however since no one will store capital there any more it’s unlikely they’ll get into a situation like this again. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing though as it takes an axe to what was once a very profitable industry for the Cyprian people. Realistically though the blame for all of this lies directly with their government, one that should have taken better precautions to avoid a situation like this in the first place.

BitCoin Price Chart

Why You Shouldn’t Invest In BitCoins.

Much like my stance on Instagram I’ve seemingly been at odds with the BitCoin community ever since I penned my first post on it almost 2 years ago. The angst seems to stem primarily from the fact that I lumped it in with Ponzi schemes thanks to its early adopter favouritism and reliance on outside wealth injection. After the first crash however BitCoins started to show some stability and their intended function started to be their primary use. Indeed the amount of investment in the BitCoin ecosystem has sky-rocketed in the past year or so and this had led to a period of much more mild growth that was far more sustainable than its previous spikes were.

It was for that reason that I held my tongue on the latest round of price volatility as I assumed it was just the market recovering from the shock of the Pirateat40 scheme unravelling. That particular incident had all the makings of another price crash but it was obvious that whilst there was a great deal of value lost it wasn’t enough to make a lasting impression on the economy and it soon recovered back to a healthy percentage of its previous value. The last month however has started to show some worrying trends that hark back to the speculative bubble.

BitCoin Price Chart

If you zoom in on either of those 2 ramps the gradients are frighteningly similar although the price jump is from $15 to $25 rather than $3 to $10. Whilst the value jump might not be as severe as it was before (~66% rather than 300%) it’s still cause for some concern due to the time frame that it has happened in. When the value jumps up this fast it encourages people to keep their BitCoins rather than using them and attracts those who are looking to make a return. This puts even more upward pressure on the price which eventually leads to the kind of value crash that happened back in 2011.

Others would disagree with me however, saying that its actually a great time to invest in BitCoins. The reasons Anzaldi gives for wanting you to invest in BitCoins however don’t make a whole lot of sense as he doesn’t believe this round of growth is unsustainable (and even admits that the only other thing that gives this kind of ROI are all scams) and that the reward halving coupled with the deployment of ASIC chips are what are behind this stratospheric, real growth. The fact of the matter is that neither of these really has any influence over the current market rate for BitCoins, it all comes down to what people are willing to pay for them.

Prior to the lead up of the previous crash BitCoins had already experienced some pretty crazy growth, going from prices measured in cents to dollars in the space of a couple months. This immediately led to a flood of people entering the market who were seeking fast returns and had no intention of using BitCoins for their intended purpose. This current round of growth feels eerily familiar to back then and with people seeing rapid growth its highly likely that those same speculators will come back. It’s those speculators that are driving the price of BitCoins up not the factors that Anzaldi claims. If they were the price would have begun this current upward trend back in November (it did go up, but not like this and stablized shortly after) and the introduction of ASICs is far more likely to flood the market with more coins as hardware investors look to recoup some of their investments, rather than holding onto them for the long haul.

This kind of wild volatility isn’t helping BitCoins intended use as an universal currency that was free of any central agency. If this growth spurt leads to a new stable equilibrium then no harm, no foul but it really does look like history repeating itself. I’m hopeful that the market is smart enough to realise this and not get caught up in a buy and hold spree however as they’ve managed to do that in the past. As long as we remember that it’s BitCoin’s worth is derived from its liquidity and not its  value then these kinds of knife edge situations can be avoided.

dolla dolla bill y'all

Why There’s No Silicon Valley Equivalent in Australia.

If you follow the start up scene, care of industry blogs like TechCrunch/GigaOM/VentureBeat/etc, the lack of Australian companies making waves is glaring obvious. It’s not like we haven’t had successes here, indeed you don’t have to look far to find quite a few notables, but there’s no question that we don’t have a technology Mecca where all aspiring entrepreneurs look towards when trying to realise their vision. You could argue that Sydney already fits this bill since that’s where most of the money is but it’s not the place where the innovation is most concentrated as Melbourne as arguably given risen to just as many success stories. This decentralized nature of Australia’s start-up industry presents a significant barrier to many potential businesses and whilst I don’t have a good solution to them the reasons behind it are quite simple.

Reserve bank governor Glenn Stevens gave a speech at the CEDA annual dinner a couple nights ago and hit the nail on the head as to why Australia doesn’t appear to have the same vibrant start-up ecosystem that can be found overseas:

Only 4.8 per cent of start-ups in Sydney and Melbourne successfully become “scaled” (large enough to be sustainable) which is another way of saying that 95.2 per cent fail. In Silicon Valley, the success rate is 8 per cent.

The difference is capital: start-ups in California raise 100 times as much money as Sydney ones in the scale stage, and they raise 4.8 times as much in the earlier stages of discovery, validation and efficiency.

Yet as everyone knows, Australia punches well above its weight in capital formation, thanks to compulsory superannuation and the $1.4 trillion super pool. Why doesn’t any of that money find its way to supporting

Current fiscal policies are quite conducive to long term, low risk, moderate return investments (such as property and bank stocks) and the investment practices of our superannuation funds reflects this. Indeed even at a personal level Australian investors are risk adverse with majority preferring things like property, extra super contributions or term deposits. Partly you could also put some of the blame on Australia’s culture which is more inclined towards property ownership as the ultimate achievement a regular Australian can aspire to, whereas the USA’s is far more entrenched in the entrepreneurial idea.

We then have to ask ourselves that if we’re aspiring to create a Silicon Beach here in Australia what we need to do in order to make that happen.

The report itself details a couple ideas that can be done from a policy perspective, namely making certain company structures and incentive schemes cheaper and easier, however that’s only part of the issue. Ideally you’d also want some policies that make investing in risky start-up companies more attractive than the current alternatives. I don’t think abolishing current legislation like Negative Gearing would help much in this regard but it could potentially be extended to cover off losses made on start-up investments. There are many other options of course (and I’m not saying mine is the perfect one) and I’d definitely be supportive of some investigation into policy frameworks that have been used overseas and their applicability here in Australia.

There’s also the possibility of the government intervening with additional funding in order to get start-ups past the validation phase in order to increase the hit rate for the venture capital industry. I’ve talked a bit about this previously, focusing on using the NBN as a launchpad for Australia’s Silicon Beach, and really the NBN should be the catalyst which drives Australia’s start up industry forward. There’s already specific industry funds being set up, like the one that just came through for Australian game developers, but the creation of a more general fund to help start up validate their ideas would be far more effective in boosting the high tech innovation industry. It would be much harder to design and manage for sure, but no one ever said trying to replicate Silicon Valley’s success would be easy.

For what its worth I believe the government is working hard towards realising this lofty goal (thanks to some conversations I’ve had with people in the know on these kinds of things) and as long as they draw heavily on the current start-up and innovation industry in Australia I believe we will be able to achieve it. It’s going to be very hard to break the risk adverse mindset of the Australian public but that’s something that time and gentle pushes in the right direction, something perfectly suited to legislative changes. How that should all be done is left as an exercise to the reader (who I hope is someone in parliament).

RBA Cash Rate Historic Graph

I’m Not Sure Another Rate Cut Is Warranted.

If you’re a home owner with a variable rate mortgage the past year has been pretty kind to you with the RBA slashing a good 1% off the cash rate, an extraordinary amount of breathing room for many people. It’s also provided some relief for those who dived head first into the property market at the bottom of the Global Financial Crisis, taking advantage of the cheap rates, and over-extended themselves with a loan that was too big for them to handle comfortably. This in turn should be putting an upwards pressure on inflation as people spend more thanks to their incomes being freed up from mortgage payments however it seems that the past year of cuts wasn’t enough and the Reserve Bank of Australia might be lining up to cut rates yet again.

Futures markets have been pricing in a rate cut with a likelihood of 85% which means they’re almost certain that the RBA will cut rates in November. There are several plausible reasons for this like the government returning the budget to surplus and inflation coming in below the RBA’s target however some of the other reasons cited have me a little confused. Weaker currency prices aren’t fixed by rate cuts, they will actually make the currency comparatively cheaper, and citing them as a reason to cut rates would be counter-intuitive. I might be misinterpreting what the article means however as the currency trading rates are only casually mentioned.

The reason why this rate cut and not the ones preceding it have got my attention is the fact that with 1 more 25 basis point cut to the official cash rate we will officially be equal to the rates we saw back when the GFC was in full effect. Now we’re not exactly in the best of times at the moment with the Eurozone Crisis still playing out however we’re not in the midst of a global recession either with most developed countries, including the instigator of the last crisis, having several quarters of positive growth under their belt. The unemployment rate, whilst still being far above its pre-GFC minimum, has remained fairly steady in the 5% range over the past year as well which makes it even more confusing as to why the RBA would look to cut rates at this time.

Looking at their decision for this month where they cut 25 basis points off the rate it’s clear that they’re taking a pretty long term view and I’m not sure what’s changed in the weeks since then that could lead them to believe that they needed to drop rates to a record equalling low. The softer global economic outlook, lower commodity prices and low inflation are all valid reasons to drop the rate however they really haven’t changed in the past month and if another drop is warranted so soon after the previous one it could have easily been rolled into it, giving a single cut of 50 basis points. The RBA is usually reluctant to do rate cuts of that magnitude however (last time it happened was at the start of this year and prior to that it was the massive cuts due to the GFC) but the flip side of that is that the markets usually react better to larger cuts. I’m no economist though so there might be some deeper strategy to this that I’m just not seeing.

Considering the relative economic positions between the peak of the GFC and now it just seems odd that we need to have the cash rate at the same level. The global economy not hurting anywhere near as bad as it was at the same time all those years ago and whilst there are indicators that suggest a rate cut might be warranted it seems over zealous to drive them down to the same levels as when we were on the verge of recession. I’m most certainly not going to complain however as it only means good things for my current investments but I’m more interested in the underlying factors that might drive such a cut. I guess we’ll have to wait until November 6 to find out as anything up until then is going to be firmly in the realms of speculation.

BitCoin Price Chart September 2012 to October 2012

Finding The Ideal BitCoin Exchange Rate.

BitCoins are a hybrid of two currency models, namely the current world standard of fiat currency (I.E. BitCoins only have value because other people will accept them in exchange for goods and services) and the traditional gold standard due to the availability being limited. Combined with the other properties such as transaction anonymity (within reason), no central system regulating transactions and worldwide reach BitCoins have all the features it needs to be a great vehicle for the transfer of wealth. Long time readers will know that there are some issues that plague the BitCoin ecosystem, mostly due to its relatively low transaction volume and misclassification as an investment vehicle by some, but these are things that can be solved with time and more investments.

One thing that always gets to me though is any time that BitCoins start to trend upward nearly every news outlet looking for a story will herald it as a second coming of BitCoin after the devastation wrought by the speculative bubble last year. I’ve made the case several times over that an increase in price is no indication of health within the BitCoin economy and in fact any sharp uptick in price is actually quite hurtful as it signals that BitCoins are better left unspent as it makes no sense to spend them when simply waiting will give you a discount. This hoarding mentality is what led to the speculative bubble last year as supply dried up and prices went through the roof. It didn’t last long however and the price came crashing back down to reality (and then some).

 I don’t discount that all growth within the BitCoin economy is a bad thing however, just the volatility. Indeed there was a good period of 6 months this year when BitCoin’s price was relatively stable and that’s what it needs to be in order for commerce to take the currency seriously. Taking this idea further there has to be a price equilibrium where the exchange rate is truly representative of all the wealth contained with BitCoins and this is the point where the market should aim towards. Figuring out that particular price isn’t easy though and I can only really give a semi-education guess as an answer.

The longest time that BitCoin spent in relative stability was around the $5 mark from around May this year. Since then there have been another 1.2 million BitCoins added into circulation, an approximate 13% increase. In a completely stable exchange this would have put a downward pressure on the exchange rate which would have decreased the real value by a similar percentage. To keep the value “ideal” then, I.E. the real purchasing power the same, the exchange rate should go up by that rate instead giving us a new price of $5.65.

Of course this completely ignores the amount of potential wealth that could be contained within the BitCoin economy. A country’s currency is usually a reflection of the health of its underlying economy and BitCoin is no exception to this but we don’t have other metrics like GDP in which to get a good idea for how much wealth is backing it. Transactions volumes, exchange rates and total coins in circulation are only rough metrics and we’ve seen in the past how these things aren’t great indicators for the health of BitCoin.

Realistically the best exchange rate for BitCoins will be the one that it ultimately settles on once transaction volumes ramp up again and the investor market segment starts to become more and more irrelevant. Whether this is above or below the current rate is really anyone’s guess however we should still abstain from saying that the rising price of a BitCoin is a sign of market health as it’s simply not. Whilst the price rise is no where near as rapid as it was last year it’s still light years ahead of any other currency on the planet and as history has shown that kind of growth just isn’t sustainable. The next 6 months will be very telling for the BitCoin economy as we’ll see if this growth levels out into a new stable equilibrium or if it’s just the beginning of another speculative bubble.

Maybe I’m Answering the Wrong Questions About Gen Y’s and Property.

I’ve long been of the opinion that many of my fellow Generation Ys are suffering from a crisis of desire in regards to the Australian property market. It’s an understandable phenomenon as most of us grew up in what are now quite nice suburbs, central to a lot of services and now considered to be an extremely desirable place to live. It then comes as no surprise that our generation would want to replicate this with their first home purchase and regrettably this leads many to believe that the property market is unaffordable, which at that level it most certainly is. Buying out in the mortgage belt, like most of their parents did back when the time came for them to do so, has been my solution to the issue for quite some time now but some recent reading has pointed me in another direction, one that I hadn’t considered previously.

To give you some background on where this thought came from I’ll point you in the direction of a really solid article from The Atlantic on the drastic change in spending habits between Gen Y’s and their predecessors. In it Thompson lays out the idea that perhaps Generation Y has replaced the home and car as the most desirable objects with modern technology like smart phones. This is coupled with an increasing tendency towards sharing those same goods (called collaborative consumption) that have such a high capital cost which means total ownership plummets whilst use sky rockets. It’s an interesting idea and I was wondering if the trend translated across to Australia.

Turns out part of it does.

Whilst I couldn’t find any good information around car ownership with Australia being a country that’s heavily focused on property ownership there was a lot to dig through in regards to Gen Ys attitude towards property. Shockingly, at least for me, the vast majority of Generation Ys do intend to buy, somewhere on the order of 77% which is actually above previously generations. Faced with the decision of not being able to get the home they own many will consider a cheaper investment property initially in order to be able to leverage it later into the property they actually want. That’s not the interesting part though, what I found out is that 72% of Australian Gen Ys would buy a house with a friend or family member. Whilst I’ve known people who’ve done this I had no idea that it would be so common and that’s an intriguing insight.

I’ve long held the position that the median house price on a single income is unaffordable in Australia and it appears that Gen Y is aware of that, at least on some level. Collaborative consumption of the housing resource then is our way of reacting to this, in effect shrinking the affordability gap by spreading the pain around a bit. Indeed I did something very similar to this when we bought our first house in Canberra by renting out two of the rooms to friends for the first year. The experiences from others are similar as well with the sharing arrangement usually only being temporary (on the order of years, not decades) before they’re able to part ways into a home of their own.

This means my hammering away at the point that Gen Y is suffering under a crisis of desire (they still are, at least in my opinion) probably isn’t going to help them change their minds. What I should probably be focusing on instead is the ways in which to structure these kinds of sharing arrangements in order to make the desired property more affordable or what strategies they can use in order to get themselves into a position to make it affordable. As you can probably tell I’m still wrestling with the best way to approach this and the ultimate idea will have to be a post for another day.

I Find Your Lack of Financial Knowledge…Disturbing.

I wasn’t always interested in the world of finance and making money work for you. No for a very long time I was the product of my not-so-well off parent’s financial education: save everything you can so you can buy a house one day and then use every spare dollar you have to pay it off. If I’m honest that advice is probably the best advice most people can take as it appears that anything more exotic than that gets thrown in the too hard basket along with any notion of fiscal responsibility. However it seems that there’s a distinct lack of financial knowledge prevalent in Australia (although if I’m honest it’s not unique to us) and the number of articles that keep popping up showing this have really got me worried.

Most of the ones that have been crossing my path recently (from news.com.au and yes I know, I should stop. I have a problem) are regarding Australians, both young and old, voicing their concerns over their superannuation. It appears that some Australians believe that their inheritance, you know that supposed financial payment you get when your loved ones  die, will be their saviour come retirement time. Other’s are worried that their super won’t be enough for them when they retire, which is a valid concern for many, but such worries are usually born of poor planning without a thought given to what retirement and superannuation are really for.

I’ll forgive my generation for not knowing this but there was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when superannuation wasn’t a guaranteed thing. Indeed it wasn’t until 1992 when the Keating government legislated for compulsory superannuation that it became required for employers to contribute a percentage, then 3%, of their employee’s income into superannuation funds. It was a long game manoeuvre as the next 2 decades were going to see many of the baby boomer generation move into retirement. The pension system would be unable to cope with so many retirees and thus the government hoped to head this off at the curve by making everyone save for their own retirement (and created the oft-quote “self funded retirees” sound bite).

For all of my generation they will have spent their entire working life contributing to a super fund and whilst it probably isn’t anything to write home about at the moment it will be quite something when it comes time for them to retire. I ran some quick numbers using the median Australian wage as a base ($66,820 if you’re wondering), the current 9% super contribution and a modest super return rate of 5% per year (the average is closer to 6.5%). If we say that the average Australian has a working life of 45 years, from the age of 20 to 65, then they end up with a rather healthy sum of $960,000 in super when they finally reach retirement age. At 5% return rate per year this means a retiree can draw down almost $50,000 per year without eating into their super at all. This is about 71% of their working life income which wouldn’t be too bad considering you’d expect their expenses would be a hell of a lot lower.

The situation for people not in my generation is completely different however as many of the assumptions I made can’t be said for everyone else. I haven’t even touched on things that can increase that final figure dramatically (like super co-contributions) which would make retirement even easier. Still the point stands that anyone in my generation in Australia who thinks they won’t have enough to retire on obviously has little idea about real financial planning.

As for those nearing retirement and wondering if they have enough super I can’t really say much without knowing their situation (there’s a whole mess of variables that can change things dramatically when you’re within 10 years of retiring) but the fact that there are people worrying about it should serve as a warning to the rest of us. It’s not something you should be thinking about when retirement is looming over you, although that seems to be the norm around here.

I really could go on for quite a while longer about this but I think I’ve already driven my point home. Us Gen Y’s are going to be pretty well set up for retirement when the time comes and anyone who’s relying on some kind of influx of cash in order to retire has more than one kangaroo loose in their top paddock. I’m not saying you need to fret about it every day but if you keep an eye on your super, keep those home loan repayments up and keep your bad debt low then you’ll really have nothing to worry about. Not doing this will leave you in the same situation as many baby boomers are now finding themselves in and you’ll find no sympathy from me should you ignore the lessons to be learned from their plight.