Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why economists are obsessed by the resources boom

The world is throwing two big things at our economy. One is new, exciting, even frightening, and is getting all the headlines. The other is old news and getting boring. But get this: the boring one is by far the more important.

The new and exciting story is the increasingly worrying developments in the euro area. The old story is the resources boom. Both come to us from the rest of the world. In terms of their effect on our economic growth, the resources boom is a huge stimulus, whereas Europe's problems are a drag on our growth. That drag is small so far but, if the worst comes to the worst, could be a big negative.

Another reason the commodity boom is less exciting is that we've had plenty of them before over our history. But one reason we shouldn't underestimate the boom is that, paradoxically, previous booms have really stuffed up our economy. And these booms can be great for some parts of the economy while making life really tough for other parts.

This week Treasury's Dr David Gruen gave a speech to the Australian Business Economists in which he compared this commodity boom with the one we had in the early 1970s. It helps you see why the econocrats who manage our economy are positively obsessed by the need to make sure we don't stuff this one up.

In contrast to this one, the commodities boom of the early '70s involved big rises in the prices we were getting for our agricultural exports. It got going under the McMahon Coalition government and continued under the Whitlam Labor government.

Comparing the two booms, after the first three years our terms of trade - the prices we receive for our exports compared with the prices we pay for our imports - had improved by about the same extent. In the '70s, they then fell back. This time, however, they continued improving to now be almost 50 per cent better than their best then.

So this boom is a mighty lot bigger - Gruen calls it a ''once-in-a-lifetime boom'' - and a lot longer. This one's been building for eight years (with a brief interruption by the global financial crisis), whereas the earlier one lasted only about three years. The reason this boom is much bigger and longer is that it arises from a historic shift in the structure of the world economy - the industrialisation of Asia - whereas the '70s boom arose merely from an upswing in the rich countries' business cycle.

The greater size and length of this commodity boom has two important implications. First, it's given our miners both the incentive and the time to invest in hugely increasing their capacity to export coal, iron ore and now natural gas. That didn't happen with farmers in the '70s. This present investment boom has added an extra dimension to this boom, thus causing its effect on the economy to be bigger.

Second, the '70s boom was too small and short to have much effect on the industry structure of our economy. But this boom will leave us with a much bigger mining and mining-related sector, thus reducing the relative size of other sectors and putting a lot of pressure to adjust on some industries, particularly manufacturing, tourism and education. It's actually changing our economy's ''comparative advantage'' (what we're good at relative to other countries).

Naturally enough, both commodity booms caused the economy to grow faster. But in the '70s growth was a lot more variable. Real gross domestic product grew almost 9 per cent over the year to March 1973, but by 1975 the economy was contracting. It recovered, then contracted again in 1977. Unemployment, which had been very low for many years, shot up and stayed up. This time, growth has been strong but steady and unemployment has fallen and then stayed pretty low.

In the '70s, the inflation rate took off, reaching a peak of 17 per cent in the mid-1970s and staying pretty high until the mid-1990s. Obviously, the '70s commodities boom can't take all the blame for this long period of economic malfunctioning. But it should get a fair bit, and it certainly got the rot off to a good start.

There's one other big difference between the two booms that does a lot to explain why this boom hasn't caused nearly as much volatility, inflation and unemployment as the first one did: the exchange rate.

The present boom quickly brought about a rise in the value of our dollar. Since June 2002 it has risen by about 45 per cent against the trade-weighted index. In the '70s, the rise didn't happen nearly as quickly or smoothly.

Why not? Because then we had a fixed exchange rate. It could be changed only by a government decision. For political reasons, the two governments waited too long and didn't do enough to get the dollar up.

The point is that our floating currency acts as a shock-absorber when the economy is hit by some shock - favourable or unfavourable - from abroad. In this boom, the higher dollar has caused the Australian-dollar income of the miners to rise by less than it would have, and has effectively handed that reduction in their income to all the other industries and individuals who buy imports. How's it done that? By making imports cheaper.

By transferring income from the miners to the non-miners, the high dollar has helped ensure the rest of Australia gets its cut from the boom, but it's also reduced the size of the commodity boom's effect on the growth in gross domestic product by directing a fair bit of the increased demand into imports. This has caused the boom to generate less inflation pressure, as well as directly reducing the prices of imported goods and services.

So it's clear the present boom has had far more benign effects on the economy than the '70s one did. Our economic managers get a lot of the credit for that, but much credit is due simply to our floating exchange rate.

Gruen concludes, ''if a sizeable boom is being generated in one part of the economy, significant restraint needs to be imposed on other parts to ensure that the economy overall does not overheat''. See what he's saying? Yes, you're right, there is a multi-speed economy and manufacturers and service exporters are doing it tough. But that's not happening by unhappy accident, it's happening by design. Live with it.