Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Our future is mining, not making

The lessons from BlueScope Steel's decision to sack 1000 workers in Port Kembla and Western Port are that, in the economy, benefits always come with costs: we can't have everything and one country can't do everything well.

Leaving aside the continuing fallout from the global financial crisis, the most momentous, long-term development in the global economy is the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the developing countries, with Asia as the epicentre of this trend.

For the economic emergence of the developing countries to be occurring at a time when the major advanced economies of the North Atlantic have made such a hash of their affairs is a great blessing to all of us. Whereas we're used to America and Europe providing the motivating force to the world economy, now it's the strong growth in the developing countries that will keep the world growing.

Among the developed economies, Australia is almost uniquely placed to benefit from the emergence of the poor countries. That's because we're located so close to the epicentre, but also because the main thing we sell the world is raw materials, and raw materials are the main thing the developing countries need to import: energy, food and fibre and, above all, the chief ingredients of steel - iron ore and coking coal.

The world prices of all these things have shot up in recent years and all Australians - not just the miners and farmers - have benefited from them. Although these prices are sure to fall back soon enough, they're still likely to stay much higher than they were. That's because the process of economic development in Asia has so much further to run. As people in poor countries get richer and seek more protein, agricultural prices will probably go a lot higher.

But as well as higher prices, our resources boom has entered a second phase of massive investment in expanding our capacity to supply coal, iron ore and natural gas to the rest of the world. This hugely increased investment spending is set to run for years. It will underpin our economy, protecting us against recession.

That's the good news and, overwhelmingly, this is a good-news story - even though, remarkably, we seem to be in the process of convincing ourselves times are tough and that no one who's not a miner has benefited from the boom: we didn't really have eight income tax cuts in a row; the NSW and Victorian governments aren't really getting bigger shares of the revenue from the goods and services tax at the expense of Queensland and Western Australia; none of us has benefited from the high dollar; we're not taking more overseas trips; not buying cheaper electronic gear and not paying less than we would have for our petrol.

And now, just while we're feeling so uncertain and sorry for ourselves in our immense good fortune, we're reminded that with all the benefits of the resources boom also come costs. Who'd have thought it? Quick, double the gloom.

For decades we thought we were losers, being a country obliged by its history and natural endowment to earn most of its export income from raw materials. Now we discover we're winners. But world trade works by each country specialising in what it's good at. You can't specialise in everything and the truth is we've never been good at manufacturing.

Our domestic market has been too small to give us economies of scale and we've been too far away from

the developed countries that buy manufactures.

The flipside of our increasing specialisation in the export of raw materials is our Asian trading partners' increasing specialisation in what they're best at: using their abundant but mainly unskilled and thus cheap labour to produce manufactures, including steel.

Increasing their exports of manufactures is the way they pay for our raw material exports to them, including the chief ingredients of steel.

Our manufacturers are copping it two ways: increased competition with the growing supply of cheaper manufactures from the developing countries, and our high dollar, which makes our manufacturers' prices high relative to those of other countries' manufacturers.

There are limits to the resources of labour and capital available to us in Australia, so the expansion of mining will tend to pull resources away from other Australian industries, particularly those we're not relatively good at, such as manufacturing. Our high exchange rate - which always rises when commodity prices are high - is part of the market mechanism that helps shift workers and capital around the economy.

There are bound to be a lot more job losses in manufacturing. And a lot of those displaced workers are likely to end up in mining or mining construction. Some, of course, will take the places of other workers who've been attracted into high-paying mining and construction jobs. Others will fill vacancies that have no obvious links to the resources boom.

It will be tough for those workers obliged to make this transition and even tougher for those who don't make it. Fortunately, it's happening at a time when unemployment is low. Even so, governments

need to do all they can to help displaced manufacturing workers find jobs elsewhere.

What governments shouldn't do is increase protection and other assistance to manufacturing industry itself in an attempt to stave off change. It needs to adjust to the reality of a significantly changed world economy.

Efforts to help manufacturing resist change can come only at the expense of all other industries. There are no free lunches in industry assistance.

It would be a good way to fritter away the proceeds from what the governor of the Reserve Bank has called "potentially the biggest gift the global economy has handed Australia since the gold rush of the 1850s".