Monday, March 30, 2015

Let's be more hard-nosed towards foreign miners

Joe Hockey and Competition and Consumer Commission boss Rod Sims must surely deserve a medal for their selfless devotion to the interests of foreigners, after their shocked reaction to Twiggy Forrest's suggestion that the world's big producers stop the plunge in iron ore prices by limiting their output.

And here was me thinking economics was about rational self-interest.

Hockey sniffed that the idea smacked of forming a cartel. Which was good of him when you remember the way the plunging price of iron ore is robbing his budget of company tax revenue and causing his deficits to be bigger than those Labor left.

We can't afford to give much money to the foreign poor, but if foreign-owned mining companies want to keep forcing down ore prices by expanding production at a time when world demand is weak, that's fine by Joe.

Sims proclaims that cartels are illegal and is investigating whether Twiggy should be prosecuted. It surely can't have escaped his notice that very little of Australia's iron ore production is used locally, meaning no Australian consumers or businesses would suffer from such an arrangement.

But that, apparently, is not the point. Cartels are morally wrong, even if they advance Australia's national interest. If big foreign-owned producers such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton want to use their lower costs per unit to keep expanding production, forcing down the world price and attempting to wipe out higher-cost Australian-owned producers such as Forrest's Fortescue Metals, good luck to them.

Fine by us. That's the way the global resources game has always been played – wild swings from excess demand and inadequate supply causing booms, to weak demand and excess supply causing busts – and so that's the way it must continue to be played.

No effort can or should be made to moderate this crazy game. That there is a lot of fallout on bystanding industries, workers and consumers in the countries where big mining chooses to play this contact sport, is just an unfortunate fact of economic life which it is our government's sacred duty to make us grin and bear.

But while we're being so noble and self-sacrificing, it's worth remembering it wasn't always thus. Consider the many decades in which our governments sought to stabilise the world price of wool, which ended badly only after misguided economic rationalists handed control of the scheme to the woolgrowers themselves.

And don't forget the old Australian Wheat Board's "single desk". We weren't big enough to control world wheat prices, but we did make sure our growers weren't bidding against each other.

While the punters talk xenophobic nonsense about Chinese state-owned corporations taking over NSW's electricity poles and wires, Australia's economists have a deeply ingrained ethic that it's a form of racism ever to acknowledge that a company is foreign-owned.

Now we're in the final throes of the decade-long mining resources boom, it's a good time to reflect on how much we got out of it (not all that much, remembering it's all our minerals) and how well we handled it.

We played it by letting the foreign mining companies do pretty much whatever they wanted, which was to build as many new mines and gas facilities as possible in minimum time. This insane rush came at the expense of all our other industries, but no one questioned its wisdom.

It was left to the Reserve Bank to ensure the miners' greedy stampede didn't cause a wages breakout and inflation surge, which it did by repressing the rest of the economy. To "make room" for the money-crazed miners, it held interest rates higher than they otherwise would have been, which may have caused the exchange rate to be even higher than otherwise.

Was any effort made to assess whether attempting to build 180 resource projects in three years was in the national interest? Yes, but the economists left it to the lawyers. Each of those projects would have been accompanied by an environmental assessment assuring some court that the project would create thousands of jobs and do wonders for the economy.

Evaluating each project separately, the lawyers bought it. You needed to be a macro-economist to see that, added together, those claims made no sense. There wasn't that much skilled labour available and, with the economy near full employment, it just isn't possible to create many extra jobs. All you'd do is move jobs around, bidding up wages and creating shortages in the process.

But the macro-economists were away at the time, probably busy explaining to politicians why it was our economic duty to allow foreign mining companies to use our economy as a doormat.