Wednesday, November 3, 2010

There are lies, damned lies and vested interests' reports

What's the world coming to? The latest is that Australia has become a net importer of food. Last financial year our imports of food and groceries exceeded exports by $1.8 billion, a dramatic turnaround from our $4.5 billion surplus five years earlier. This alarming news comes from a report by the accounting firm KPMG for the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

The council's chief executive, Kate Carnell, said the industry "is still a major exporter but imports are rising fast, eroding the trade surplus historically enjoyed by the industry".

"I don't think Australians really understand what we're facing at the moment," she said. "We really are facing a scenario where Australia really won't manufacture much at all in this space. The majority of products will come from overseas.

"The ... costs of power, costs of staff, costs of transport, costs of government regulation, costs of the drought in the food space [have] really put pressure on costs for Australian manufacturers.

"To protect Australia's food supply and overcome this challenge, there must be a 'whole-of-government' national strategy to ensure food and grocery manufacturing's long-term growth, increase export earnings and boost competitiveness. Proposed water allocation cuts for food production in the Murray-Darling Basin will also threaten the future viability of numerous food manufacturers in the basin ... and making it harder for locally produced goods to compete with imports."

There's just one problem. This is all nonsense. Australia? A net importer of food? Yeah, sure. If you fell for it, your bulldust detector has seriously failed you in the media space.

And in these days of he-said-she-said journalism, you need your detector working as never before. Increasingly, the media are used by interest groups - whether governments, oppositions, businesses or lobby groups - to push their own barrows. And increasingly the media suspend disbelief and happily pass on the most dubious claims, provided they're sufficiently novel, alarming or combative.

Often the vested interests are waving some "modelling" or "independent report" they've bought from some seemingly reputable source. Only if you find the report and read its fine print do you discover the reputable source covering its backside with disclaimers.

Consider this from KPMG's report for the food and grocery council: "no opinions or conclusions intended to convey assurance have been expressed. The report has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice.

"You should not act upon the information contained in this report without obtaining specific professional advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is given as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this report ..."

Translation: if your bulldust detector isn't working that's your look-out.

According to figures compiled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in calendar 2009 we had total food exports of $25.4 billion and imports of $11 billion, leaving us with a surplus of $14.4 billion. Even if we ignore unprocessed and look only at processed food, we still had a trade surplus of $5.8 billion.

So how did the food and grocery council get exports of $21.5 billion and imports of $23.3 billion for 2009-10, giving that deficit of $1.8 billion? By using its own definition of "food and groceries". We're not talking about farmers here but the people who take what the farmers produce and process it for presentation in supermarkets.

So the council's figures exclude unprocessed food exports, including wheat (worth $4.8 billion in 2009), other grains and live animals. They include "grocery manufacturing products", such as medicines and pharmaceuticals, plastic bags and film, paper products and soap and other detergents.

That's food? It turns out our exports of "groceries" totalled $4.9 billion in 2009-10, whereas our imports totalled $12.9 billion, leaving us a "grocery" trade deficit of $8 billion. This is hardly surprising. Since when was Australia big in the manufacture of medicines? (And since when were they a major part of the Murray-Darling Basin economy?)

If you leave out groceries, the report's figures show we had exports of processed food and beverages worth $15.9 billion compared with imports of $9.9 billion, plus exports of fresh produce worth $700 million against imports of less than $500 million. That leaves us with a trade surplus of $6.2 billion for fresh and processed food and beverages. Don't be conned.

It is true, of course, that agriculture has been hard hit by the drought and by our very high exchange rate. And the international price competitiveness of manufacturing - whether of food, "groceries" or anything else - has been, and will continue to be, harmed by the high dollar.

The food and grocery council claims to represent about a quarter of Australian manufacturing industry. Rest assured, for as long as the resources boom keeps our exchange rate uncomfortably high - which might be for a decade or more - we'll be hearing complaints from manufacturers and demands that the government do something. The rest of them won't be hiding behind farmers, however.

Just to prepare you for the onslaught: Australia has long had, and always will have, a positively huge deficit on trade in manufactures and it's almost certain to get worse. None of this is a worry because you can't be good at everything.

Australia has long been a major world exporter of agricultural, mineral and energy commodities. Being a net importer of manufactures goes with that territory. Live with it.

Now we're being paid a fortune for our coal and iron ore and we're engaged in a decade-long period of investment for a huge increase in export capacity. The dark side of this is a high exchange rate and pressure on our farmers, manufacturers, tourism operators and education providers. You can't have everything.