Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Primary products are setting us up well

For many years - most of the second half of the 20th century - it looked like Australia was on the wrong tram. In a world of ever-more high-tech, sophisticated manufactured goods, we were hewers of wood and drawers of water. To put it less biblically, we paid for our imports mainly by growing things in the ground or digging stuff out of the ground.

We were stalled in primary industry while the rest of the developed world had moved up the ladder to secondary or even tertiary industry. They were doing a lot more ''value-adding'' than we were. The prices we were getting for our agricultural and mineral exports were steadily declining, whereas the prices we were paying for all the manufactures we imported were rising inexorably.

At the time of the Sydney Olympics, when the dollar was heading down towards US 50 cents, visiting business leaders berated us for being an ''old economy'' with few IT start-up companies. That was when it started turning around. The old-economy talk evaporated within a few months with the arrival of the sharemarket Tech Wreck. And not long after, the prices we were receiving for our coal and iron ore took off, lifting the value of our dollar in the process.

Over the past 11 years, the prices we're getting for our exports are up by 7 per cent, whereas the prices we're paying for our imports are down by 9 per cent. Why? The governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, explained it in a speech last week.

''Hundreds of millions of people in the emerging world have seen growth in their incomes and associated changes in their living standards, and they want to live much more like we have been living for decades. This means they are moving towards a more energy- and steel-intensive way of life and a more protein-rich diet,'' he said. ''That fact is fundamentally changing the shape of the world economy.''

We're witnessing a ''large and persistent change in global relative prices''. The world is paying a lot more for the commodities we export - energy, the main ingredients of steel, and food - relative to the prices of everything else, but is also charging a bit less for the manufactures we import.

So whereas it looked for so long that we were backing losers, now it's clear we're in the winners' circle. And we look likely to stay there for many moons. We've had plenty of commodity booms in the past, of course. Prices shoot up, then crash back to earth. And no one imagines the prices we're getting for coal and iron ore will stay at their present stratospheric levels for long.

Even so, this boom seems likely to last a lot longer - say, a decade or more - than previous booms. Indeed, it has already lasted a lot longer than we're used to. Past booms have been based on a cyclical (and thus temporary) upswing in the developed world's demand for our commodity exports, whereas this one is based on a structural (and thus longer-lasting) change in the world economy: the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the two most populous economies, China and India, with various other developing countries following in their wake.

Only the natural environment's inability to cope is likely to halt this development. So it will survive the temporary speeding-ups and slowing-downs of the Chinese and Indian economies. And though coal and iron ore prices are bound to fall, they're unlikely to fall back all the way. They should remain a lot higher than they were throughout most of the past century. If so, our dollar is likely to stay high rather than revert to its average level of about US70? since it was floated in 1983.

Another thing that makes this time different is the huge surge of investment in new mines and natural gas facilities. This is likely to run for a decade or more, and will be the main factor driving the economy's growth. It's the main reason the Reserve Bank keeps warning that interest rates will need to rise, even though consumer spending isn't all that strong.

But it's not just our miners who are doing well. The rapidly rising wealth of developing Asia is increasing its demand for more protein-rich food. That increased demand is raising the price of food. We've already heard a lot - and will hear a lot more - about rising world food prices. This is invariably presented as a terrible thing - a ''crisis'' - and to many people it is. But it's not a bad thing that the people of Asia can now afford to eat better. And it certainly ain't a bad thing for our farmers. Now you know why, for once, farmers aren't whingeing about the high dollar. Again, only environmental problems will inhibit their ability to clean up.

Consumers throughout the developed world are experiencing a rise in the prices of food, energy and raw material-intensive manufactures, which lowers their standard of living. That includes Australian consumers, though we enjoy the spill-over benefits of living in an economy that's a major global supplier of raw materials.

In economics, however, there are no benefits without costs (leading to a net gain in this case, or a net loss in others). The world having seriously changed its mind about the value of the raw materials we supply to it, we must now rejig our economy to fit.

We're getting a very much bigger mining sector and a revitalised agricultural sector, but we can't be good at everything and so the manufacturing sector's share of the economy will shrink. For us, it's back to the future.