Saturday, August 20, 2016
Or, more pointedly, what do we have to do to ensure we stay lucky?
A major report, released this week, Partnership for Change, seeks to answer that question. It was prepared jointly by Professor Peter Drysdale, of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research at the Australian National University, and Zhang Xiaoqiang, of the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, with strong support from both governments.
Actually, our location on the edge of Asia is only half our good luck. The other half was discovering our island is rich in high quality, easily-won minerals and energy.
As a result, our economy has proved a fabulous fit with the re-emerging China. As the report explains, "Australia and China are deeply complementary trading partners".
Our "comparative advantage" is opposite to China's. A country has a comparative advantage in producing a particular item if it can do so at lower opportunity cost than other countries face.
"Australia has a large natural resource base relative to its population [so it] therefore specialises in the production of primary goods for export, and uses the proceeds to purchase labour-intensive and other manufactured goods," the report says.
"Conversely, China has a large labour supply, but relative to its population has smaller endowments of natural resources and accumulated capital. For this reason, China's industrial development was built on labour-intensive production, which it exchanges with Australia for imports of scarce resources."
And what a successful partnership it's been. In the space of not much more than a decade, China has become our biggest trading partner. It takes about 35 per cent of our exports of goods and services, and supplies almost 20 per cent of our imports of goods and services.
China is so big - its population is 56 times ours - and has been so successful in pursuing this growth strategy it's now the second biggest economy in the world (the biggest, if you allow for differences in purchasing power), the biggest trading nation and the world's biggest producer of manufactured goods.
But nothing stays the same. The resources boom that saw our trade with China grow so dramatically has reached its final stage. Prices for coal and iron ore have now fallen back.
The period of massive investment in new mines and natural gas facilities is ending, with construction spending falling sharply. The last stage is big growth in the quantity of our mining exports, with large increases in natural gas exports (mainly to China) still to come.
The boom was ended by big increases in the supply of commodities (from our competitors as well as us), but also by a slowing in China's demand as its need for more steel peaked.
So, after a period of huge expansion in our mining sector, our economy is making the adjustment back to normal, where most growth in production and employment comes from the ever-expanding services sector.
This is happening, with a few bumps. But, as part of its progress to full economic development, China is going through a much more dramatic "transition".
The report says China is "shifting its growth drivers from investment, exports and heavy industry to consumption, innovation and services".
"Chinese production is shifting from a model based on adaptation and imitation of goods, services and technologies developed elsewhere, to a model based on domestic innovation", it continues.
Part of this involves a shift from labour-intensive, low-tech, low-value manufacturing to more advanced, high-tech, high-value manufacturing.
This has already started. Over the 20 years to 2015, low-tech manufacturing's share of China's total exports of goods has shrunk from almost half to less than 30 per cent.
So the big question is whether, now China is changing direction, it will still be the gold mine it's been for us so far.
China will still need to import a lot of our natural resources, even if its demand for those resources won't be growing as fast.
The report notes that, with prices so far down, our share of China's import market has increased markedly. Huh? It's because, compared with our competitors (including local Chinese mines), we're such an efficient, low-cost producer.
The report has modelled three scenarios for our trade with China over the next 10 years. Drysdale stresses the results aren't exact, but give us an idea.
The "baseline" scenario, where existing trends continue without much change, would see our exports to China grow by 72 per cent, while China's exports to us grew by 41 per cent. (All these figures are in real terms.)
The pessimistic scenario sees China's annual growth falling below 5 per cent during the decade. Even so, our exports to China would grow by 28 per cent, while their exports to us grew by 20 per cent.
The optimistic scenario, however, would see our exports to China grow by 120 per cent, while their exports to us grew by 44 per cent.
And the catch? Both countries would need to engage in supply-side (production) reforms to make it happen.
For China, this would involve reforming its banks and financial system, reforming its state-owned enterprises, and liberalising the capital account of its balance of payments by lifting restrictions on money flows and allowing a freer-floating exchange rate.
For us, it would involve increasing competition in sheltered industries, openness to foreign investment and skills, and facilitating investment in social and physical infrastructure.
These are what we'd have to do to make real our dream of getting our share of all the extra demand for fancy food and services coming from China's by-then massive middle class.
Here we'd be battling against a different and much bigger range of competitors than we face in the commodities market. You wonder if our spoilt business people are up to it.