Australia’s Economic Outlook—The Nauru Option?

The Micronesian island of Nauru is prominent in Australian consciousness. As part of the Pacific Solution, Australia pays Nauru to “process” refugees pending determination of their immigration status. But Australia’s economic future may also parallel that of Nauru.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Nauru boasted the highest per capita income in the world. Its wealth was based on mining phosphate from guano (bird dropping). To secure its future once the phosphate reserves were exhausted, Nauru placed a portion of mining revenues in the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust to invest for the long term.

Today, Nauru’s phosphate reserves are exhausted and no longer economically viable. The Trust’s assets have been lost through mismanagement and fraud.

Nauru’s GDP per capital has shrunk dramatically. The unemployment rate is estimated to be 90%. Government employs 95% of those with work. The country lacks the money to perform basic functions.

Nauru briefly became a tax haven and illegal money laundering centre to generate revenue. It is dependent on aid.

Nauru’s physical environment is severely degraded from strip mining. Its population, which is among the most obese in the world, is shrinking.

While Australia is not Nauru, the fate of the island highlights the need for a clear economic strategy to secure the nation’s future.

The End of the Never-Ending Story…

Australia has enjoyed strong consistent economic growth (over 20 years of expansion), low unemployment and increasing living standards. Its old economy avoided the implosion of the new economy. Its economic performance was underpinned by strong growth in emerging nations, especially China and India, and demand for commodities. After the Global Financial Crisis (“GFC”), government spending, lower interest rates and a credit-fuelled investment boom in China helped Australia avoid the worst of the economic slowdown in developed markets.

Politicians and policy makers have taken credit for Australia’s strong economic performance, reminding citizens, like former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, that “they have never had it so good.” Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently shared the wisdom of “the Australian way” with leaders from G20 nations. Endorsing the government’s optimistic economic outlook, Shadow Treasurer Mr. Joe Hockey told The Economist in June 2012: “I have no doubt that we are on the threshold of our greatest ever era and the challenge will be managing prosperity”.

But the economic outlook is deteriorating. Growth has slowed from 4% plus to around 3% with further decreases likely. The labour market has weakened. Consumption growth is modest reflecting high levels of consumer debt. Manufacturing output has contracted.

Weakness is driven by a decline the performance of the mining sector. Terms of trade (export prices relative to import prices) have fallen from historical highs by 10-15%. Prices for key export commodities, iron ore and coal, are likely to remain weak. Mining investment, which has underpinned activity, is slowing. Non mining investment has fallen, with the highest declines in more than 20 years.

In December 2013, the government admitted that its politically motivated budget surplus target is likely to be missed. But the real issue is the factors underlying the deterioration of public finances.

Federal government revenues have deteriorated, with cash receipts running below expectations. This reflects a slowing economy, which has translated into lower than expected corporate tax revenues.

The scheduled 2013 federal elections complicate budgetary policy. A 2013 budget deficit, which could be as high as A$15-20 billion, may increase pressure for further spending cuts that will contribute to further weakness, unless global growth rebounds and exports and investment recover. Alternatively, financing of key initiatives, such as increased funding for education and the national disability insurance scheme, may place greater pressure on the budget.

State budgets are also under pressure. The Western Australian (“WA”) budget revealed weakening revenues, especially from lower mining royalties. Mining dependent states like Queensland face similar pressures. Other states face also face revenue pressures, reflecting lower property tax receipts as a result of the weakness real estate market and lower Goods and Services Tax (“GST”) revenues.

Australia’s weakening current account is also a concern. Despite the mining boom, Australia’s trade account has been negative for much of recent history. Since 2001, the trade account has averaged a deficit of around A$500 million per month fluctuating between a surplus of A$3.4 billion and deficit of A$3.2 billion. In aggregate, the trade account has been in deficit by around A$68 billion or around 6% of Australia’s current Gross Domestic Product. The performance is disappointing given the record terms of trade and strong export volumes despite the need to import capital goods associated with the mining development.

Currently, Australia’s current account deficit is around A$50 billion or 3.7% of GDP. It is likely to increase to around 5-6% based on Australia’s weakening export performance, one of the highest in the developed world. It will increase reliance of international financing.

The End of the Commodity Super Boom…

The commodity boom, prophesised to go on forever, is slowing down sharply.

The expansion in mining activity in the 2000s was driven by a confluence of demand (unanticipated rapid increase in demand from emerging countries, especially China and India) and supply factors (under investment in capacity reflecting low commodity prices in the 1990s).

Economic growth in emerging markets is slowing, especially in key markets such as China and India. Even if growth levels remain above that in developed markets, the changing composition of growth (a rebalancing from investment to consumption) means that resource intensity will decrease, reducing demand for commodities. Increased capacity, as a result of aggressive recent investment, will also come on-stream progressively, coinciding with lower demand.

These factors place pressure on commodity prices and also export volumes. It will also drive a slowdown in mining investment. The Reserve Bank of Australia (“RBA”) now thinks that the peak will occur sooner and be lower than previously forecast.

Projected investment estimates also assume that resource companies will be able to obtain financing for projects.  Many miners, especially medium and smaller firms, will have difficulty raising the equity and debt needed due to the weaker conditions.

Australia’s mining boom was also narrowly based, perhaps unavoidably. It concentrated on iron ore, coking coal, thermal coal and liquid natural gas (“LNG”) and a few large markets, primarily China. This will aggravate the problems.

The investment pipeline is dominated by large LNG projects; seven out of the 11 A$5 billion plus mega-projects. The seven large LNG projects total A$178 billion or over 65% of total planned investment. LNG demand was driven by the need for secure energy supply from Asian economies. It was boosted by Japan’s suspension of its nuclear plants after the Fukashima disaster, a decision which is under review.

LNG demand may disappoint. But the major change in the LNG market is structural. Australian LNG projects will be affected by price pressures and possible competition from other markets including the increase supply of US shale gas. Currently, US gas prices are around US$3 to US$3.50 per million BTUs (British Thermal Units), compared to US$9 in Europe and US$17 in Japan. Pricing pressures may be exacerbated by changes in the determination of LNG prices, from an oil price basis to a mix of global gas prices.

Technological changes, in the form of floating LNG plants, will affect the market. These plants are manufactured and assembled in more cost-effective locations overseas and towed into place. The technology unlocks stranded gas, avoids land access issues, reduces local infrastructure bottlenecks, decreases secondary costs like worker housing and has lower decommissioning costs. But it offers less economic benefits to the host country than conventional gas projects.

In the medium term, legacy issues, such as over investment and cost overruns which have created over priced projects, will hamper Australian resource competitiveness and financial performance.  These problems may flow through into financial institutions which have funded these projects.

Even if the weakness in commodity markets is less than feared, the shift from mining investment (plant construction) to operation (production and export) has significant implications. Construction require local labour with attendant economic benefits for Australia while operation and maintenance will have less flow through, given high levels of mechanisation and automation.

The resource sector has high levels of foreign ownership; for example, foreign ownership of LNG projects is over 80%. This means that once in operation earnings from projects may flow overseas rather than remaining in Australia, limiting the benefits. The high capital cost equates to large tax write offs, depreciation and capital allowances, which means that the tax revenue benefit to Australia may be much less than expected for some time.

Mining also exploits non-renewable resources. Australia has economic demonstrated reserves of iron ore which at the 2009 production rate would last 71 years. The comparable figures for coal and LNG are 98 years and 61 years. However, this overstates the sustainability of Australia’s mineral wealth.

Low cost reserves are exploited first. As low cost reserves, such as the Pilbara iron ore reserves and Bowen Basin coal resources, are depleted, Australia’s resource competiveness will decrease. This will be compounded by the country’s high cost structures and its poor record in terms of cost escalation, which will encourage investors to look elsewhere.

Weakness in Strength…

The appreciation of the Australian dollar (“A$) has also affected economic performance.

A$ strength reflects higher (until recently) commodity prices. It also reflects the A$ role as an investment proxy for China and safe haven status as one of the few remaining AAA countries. High A$ interest rates relative to other developed countries drive the risk-on or carry trade. Investors borrow in US$, Yen or Euro to purchase higher yielding currencies leading to strong capital inflows.

Many of these factors are structural and will continue to influence the currency for some time. The RBA have conceded that a return to significantly lower values is unlikely in the short term.

The higher A$ reduces Australia’s competitiveness in manufacturing, retail, tourism, education and health services which are all major employers. It has increased imports driven by the cheaper prices of foreign goods. It has increased outflow of capital as investors and firms invest overseas, taking advantage of the strong A$.

The stronger A$ has benefits, reducing the cost of capital goods and also keeping inflation low through lower costs of imported products.

The value of the A$ is only one factor determining export competitiveness. Australian manufacturing has been declining for decades. The lack of a large domestic market which allows required economies of scale and scope, distance from markets and lack of unique competences have all contributed to the hollowing out. The “golden age” of Australian manufacturing may have been the product of tariffs, subsidies and trade barriers.

Focus on the A$ masks Australia’s high cost structures, low productivity, poor innovation and indifferent management. It also masks the improvement in industrial capabilities and competitiveness of other countries, including many emerging nations.

Economic Makeover…

Australian policy makers are now “rebalancing”. Lower interest rates are targeted at boosting domestic housing and consumption activity and reduce the value of the A$. Australia will also rebalance toward Asia.

The RBA has lowered interest rates by 1.75% per annum, with further cuts likely in 2014. But its effectiveness is doubtful. 

Given the uncertainty of employment and low income growth, consumers have a preference for saving, reducing not increasing debt. Savings from rate cuts are being used to pay down debt, limiting the boost to consumption or housing, both of which remain weak. Given low demand growth and over capacity, lower rates may not translate into increased business investment.

Low rates also create distortions. Reduced income from investments decreases consumption by retirees. It paradoxically decreases spending as savers must save more to meet future needs. Lower investment income pushes up insurance premiums and also reduces retirement payouts. Low rates artificially lower costs of capital, favouring capital investment rather than employment. Low rates also drive asset inflation and feed bubbles in financial assets.

Low rates can only provide a temporary boost to economic activity. A sustained period of low rates will also make it difficult to increase the cost of borrowing.

Given that artificially low interest rates were one of causes of the GFC, it is ironic that policy makers have adopted the same policy – credit fuelled consumption and investment- as the solution to the current problems.

Low rates may not reduce the value of the A$. Unless the RBA is willing to cut rates to 0%, A$ assets provide higher returns than other competing markets. The ability of the RBA to devalue the A$ is limited given the policies of the US, Japan, Europe and China to weaken their currencies to improve export competitiveness. Given Australia’s reliance on trade and the open nature of its economy, capital controls or other measures to control the A$ are difficult.

With fiscal policy politically constrained, increasing pressure on the external account and decreasing effectiveness of monetary policy, Australia’s policy options are now limited.

Whose Century Is It… 

Given most Asian nations are reluctant to proclaim anything like an Asian century, Australia’s embrace of the region smacks of desperation. Australia’s white paper has little to do with Asia, being concerned with Australia and its needs.

As the commodity and mining boom slows, Australia is desperate to sell other goods and services (food, education, health care and financial services) to Asia as well as attract Asian tourists. The aim is to capitalise on forecast Asian growth and the rising number of middle-class consumers.

But growth in Asian economies is slowing, reflecting weakness in their major markets (US and Europe) and increasing domestic pressures from rapid increases in costs and the effects of rapid credit growth. Asia also faces transitional problems into middle income economies, compounded by rapidly aging populations in many countries. Lack of genuine innovation and the need to improve productivity remain challenges. Institutional weaknesses and corruption remain concerns.

While Asia has achieved significant development milestones, the size and purchasing power of its middle class is overstated. An income level equivalent to US10,000 per year is used to designate “middle class”, a level around 20-25% of average incomes in Australia.

Australia’s Asian strategy is, at best, a wish list. It assumes that Australia has or will have in the near future an innovation system ranked in the top 10 globally, excellence and dynamism in business with a creative problem-solving culture, school system ranked in the top five globally, an efficient and fair tax and transfer system, efficient regulation etc. There are few hard initiatives other than greater proficiency in Asian languages, links between Australian and Asian schools and a target that by 2025 a third of senior civil servants and company-board members to be Asia experts. There is also no specific funding for any of these initiatives.

Australia’s Asian strategy steers clear of difficult issues such as the inherent contradiction between its political and defence partnership with the US and its economic dependence on China.

It does not acknowledge increased xenophobia about foreign, including Chinese, investment in Australia and Asian immigration. The general population shows lukewarm support for greater engagement with Asia. Outside of mining and farming which have significant export markets in Asia, Australian businesses remain domestically focused.

Cultural barriers are ignored. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference Prime, Minister William Hughes voted against an amendment to the League of Nations Covenant that would assert the equality of the world’s races. Australia subsequently committed itself to a Whites Only immigration policy, which only ended in the 1960s.

A cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald cartoon captured the essence of Australia’s Asian strategy. A teacher at a white board explains the strategy to the students:  “Children, the Asian century is upon us.  We need to ENGAGE with Asia so we can PROFIT from their rising middle class.  Here are some phrases you need to learn in their languages. ‘Do you have a lot of money’; ‘Please, bring it to our casino in Barangaroo’; ‘Feel free to smoke’”.

Natural Endowment…

Australia’s economic performance derives from its bountiful natural endowments. The nation’s primary industries (mining and agriculture), debt fuelled consumption and property as well supporting services for these have driven prosperity.

In a 29 November 2010 speech entitled The Challenge of Prosperity, RBA Governor sought to illustrate the combined effects of the gains of the appreciating terms of trade position and the A$ strength in the following terms: “In 2005 a shipload of iron ore was worth the same as around 2,200 flat screen televisions In 2010, the same shipload was worth around 22,000 flat screen TVs”. In a Freudian slip, the RBA Governor identified a fundamental issue with Australia’s economic model.

Australia may have substantially wasted the proceeds of its mineral booms, with the proceeds channelled into consumption. The nations did not channel enough into strategic long term investments or develop a new industrial base. According to one study, the commodity boom increased government revenues between 2002 and 2008 by around A$180 billion of which A$36 billion was used to repay public debt, A$69 billion was placed into the Future Fund (to meet the cost of public sector superannuation liabilities) and $75 billion was transferred to households in the form of tax cuts and payments.

The mining boom helped maintain income and buying power, as Australia extracted large rewards for its mineral resources. Since 1998, the Commonwealth Bank estimates that the rise in commodity prices delivered $6300 a person in extra income.

In November 2012, Former Treasury Secretary and author of the Government’s Asian Strategy mused about the inter-generational effects of Australian economic strategy: “future generations …. will have reason to examine whether we made the most of the mining boom that we knew would not last forever”.

Policy makers talk about the need for “structural changes”. The Orwellian rhetoric hides Australia’s lack of international competitiveness in many sectors, driven by high costs, poor productivity performance, declining educational achievements and narrow industrial base.

Improvements in Australian competiveness without declining living standards present challenges. Australian minimum wages are around A$16 per hour. In comparison, the minimum wage is around A$8 per hour in the US and A$1-2 per hour in China.

In an interview on 19 December 2012 with the Australian Financial Review, the RBA Governor addressed the issue of where growth would come from to replace mining investment in the following terms: “I think we always get this question: ‘where will the growth come from?’ And most of the time it comes.” Australian policy makers appear to have embraced the Dickensian economics of hopeful expectations where Mr. Micawber asserted his faith that “something will turn up”.

While Australia is a long way from the Pacific Island, Nauru offer a salutary lesson. But like its Pacific neighbour, Australia always has the option revert to the past as a penal colony for hire.

5 Responses to "Australia’s Economic Outlook—The Nauru Option?"

  1. Michael   February 5, 2013 at 6:17 am

    You write: 'The commodity boom, prophesised to go on forever,…'
    By who? Setting up a series of simplistic straw men and then knocking them discredits your arguments and severely undercuts whatever credibility you may have had.
    No-one ever said the commodity boom, or supercycle, would go on forever. Quite the contrary; many underestimated it and even more failed to see it coming. The analogy with Nauru is particularly weak. Nauru was a one product state. Australia is a highly diversified economy which exports a range of mining, agricultural and industrial products. Then there are the typos – decisions taken in Dec. 2013 – and your penal colony jibe. You've picked up some weird and wonderful bigotries on your journeys.
    As to the Dickensian comparison. Better to rely on optimism and the adaptability of the market than on the always flawed predictions of specialistidioten.

  2. anirban   February 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Hi Prof Das

    On page 135 chapter 8, "False gods, fake prophecies of your book Extreme money, when CAPM is discussed you write: " The CAPM's insight was that the general risk of markets (systematic risk) could be reduced by diversification but the unique risk (unsyst. risk) could not.

    Isn't this exactly the opposite of what CAPM, Beta , etc says?


  3. Nelson   February 7, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    Pr. Das, here is an easy assignment for you : You can re-post your blog replacing Australia with Canada adjusting a few numbers and enjoy some vacation time !