Saturday, June 18, 2011

Resources boom has mined a rich seam for everyone

If you haven't said it yourself, I bet you've heard others saying it: ''Resources boom? What resources boom? Whoever's benefiting from it, I'm not. None of it's come my way.''

Is that what you think? Well, don't kid yourself. Whether or not you realise it, you almost certainly have benefited from the boom.

But how have people who don't work in or near the mining industry - and don't live in Western Australia or Queensland - benefited from the miners' good fortune in being paid way higher prices for their coal and iron ore?

Short answer: everyone's benefited because, as Marx observed, in the economy everything's connected to everything else. Or, to put it in economists' lingo, we're all benefiting because of ''the circular flow of income''.

When I spend my income buying something from you, my spending becomes your income. Then, when you spend your income, that becomes the income of someone else and so on, round and round.
How do you know the notes in your wallet didn't start in the hands of a mining company? You don't. Some of them probably did.

The governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, observed in a speech this week that the higher prices the miners are getting have improved our ''terms of trade'' - the prices we receive for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports - by about 85 per cent above their 20th century average.

This constitutes an increase in the nation's real income because the same quantity of exports now buys a great quantity of imports. And Mr Stevens estimates the additional income is equal to at least 15 per cent of our annual income (gross domestic product). Although a substantial fraction of that income accrues to foreign investors who own large stakes in many of our resource companies, what's left still represents a very large boost to national income.

Let's trace the extra income going to the mining companies. Some of it would be going to the people employed in the mines, who've had big pay rises in recent years. This wouldn't be a major factor, however, because mining, being so highly capital-intensive, employs less than 2 per cent of the workforce.

Even so, Stevens estimates that, to produce a dollar of income, the mining companies spend about 40¢ on acquiring ''non-labour intermediate inputs'' - goods and services bought from other businesses.

''Apart from the direct physical inputs, there are effects on utilities, transport, [and] business services such as engineering, accounting, legal, exploration and other industries. It is noteworthy that a number of these areas are growing quickly at present,'' Mr Stevens says.

Most of those businesses would be Australian but many would be from other states. Remember, there are no trade or currency barriers between our states, so a lot of trade occurs across state borders.

Once the costs of producing the mining companies' output, and their taxes , are taken into account, the remaining revenue is distributed to shareholders or retained. While a significant proportion of the earnings distributed goes offshore, local shareholders also benefit.

Who are those local shareholders? We are. Most of us are shareholders in the mining industry through our superannuation schemes. We don't get this income directly to spend now - it's in our super. ''Nonetheless, it is genuine income and a genuine increase in wealth,'' Mr Stevens says.

His rough estimate suggests that about 10 per cent of our superannuation assets - $130 billion - is invested in resource companies. And this 10 per cent has been providing a healthy return: over the past year alone, the average return on resources company shares has been about 20 per cent.

A good proportion of the earnings retained by companies is being used to fund the construction of new mines and natural gas facilities. Mr Stevens estimates that about half the demand generated by these projects - for construction and manufacturing - is filled locally.

In contrast to the operation of mines, the construction of them is labour-intensive. Workers are being attracted from all over Australia, which creates job vacancies in the parts of Australia from which they come and also puts upward pressure on the wages paid to people in the relevant occupations - whether or not they make the move. Now let's think about all the taxes the mining companies pay. The federal government's company tax takes 30 per cent off the top of the companies' profits (after granting the companies generous deductions for the depreciation of their assets).

It was booming company tax collections that prompted the Howard government to offer cuts in personal income tax for eight years in a row. So if you've enjoyed any of those tax cuts you can't claim to have had no benefit from the resources boom.

The mining companies also make big royalty payments to their state governments as a price for all the publicly owned resources they pull from the ground. But even if you don't live in WA or Queensland you've still benefited.

How so? The proceeds from the federal government's goods and services tax are divided between the states using a complicated formula that has the effect of spreading the royalty proceeds proportionately between all the states and territories.

Yet another less-than-obvious way the proceeds from the resources boom have been spread around the economy is via the exchange rate. The primary reason our dollar is so high at present is the high prices we're getting for our exports of minerals and energy. And the high dollar has reduced the price of imported goods and services.

So every business that buys imported equipment or components is benefiting from the resources boom, as is every consumer who buys imported stuff - which is all of us. If you've taken an overseas holiday, for instance, you've benefited. If you've taken a local holiday you've probably benefited, too, because foreign competition is holding down local prices.

If you've bought petrol, you've benefited (because the higher dollar has reduced the effect of the rise in the world price of oil).

Now, if you say our non-mining export and import-competing industries have been harmed by the boom-caused rise in the dollar, that's true. In economics, nothing that has benefits comes without costs.

So it's fair enough for those people in the adversely affected industries to argue that, for them, the costs of the resources boom have outweighed the benefits.

But they're a minority. For the great majority of us, the benefits have far outweighed the costs.