While the nation continues to debate whether we should let this business go or bail out that business, the real issue continues to be ignored. Indeed it is so far off the radar that cheap shot commentators like Michael Pascoe can make wise cracks about it while the economy burns.
But it’s not funny. It’s not even a little bit amusing. Australians are being slaughtered by emerging markets; gutted by the Japanese; truncated by the Americans and butchered by the Europeans.
I am talking about the global currency war that we are comprehensively losing while having our backs turned.
Qantas, Graincorp, Holden, Electrolux. These are all iconic Australian businesses that have absolutely no reason to fail. Two are virtual monopolies that should be making money on a conveyor belt. The third and fourth are high tech industries that should be tailor made for a smart, developed economy.
But instead all four are failing because they can’t compete with leaner and meaner foreign operations.
Qantas can’t get cheap enough finance and has no access to cheap fuel the way Middle Eastern airlines do. Graincorp is saddled with out-dated infrastructure and can’t seem to raise the capital to renovate itself despite a supposed “dining boom”. Detroit has confessed that Holden is being pulled out owing to a structurally higher dollar and labour costs. Electrolux is the same.
Metals refining, surely an area in which we should have a distinct advantage, is also failing, with last week’s Gove refinery the latest casualty. Processed food exports haven’t grown since 2005 while raw agricultural foodstuffs have jumped. We’ve already lost half of our petrol refining capacity. The Productivity Commission nails all three for dragging down productivity growth owing to high wages, low investment and idle capacity (read the dollar):
As these various businesses pack up their kits, our manufacturing sector is headed for an unbelievable 5% of GDP, by far the lowest in the OECD (making Luxembourg look like an industrial powerhouse) and approaching or past a point at which the inability to produce material for ourselves is also a strategic risk.
Most disconcerting of all is that this is transpiring as we head into a great reckoning in the wider economy. The mining boom is ending, its fabulous capital wave is subsiding, its huge ramp up in employment is ebbing, and over the next three years it will recede as fast as any business investment correction in the last one hundred years. We’ve plenty more gas but are too expensive to extract it. Perth’s Magnolia LNG is headed to Louisiana to produce gas there instead.
The plan to build more unproductive houses to fill the void is a classic kick of the can, adding to capex briefly but adding nothing to productive capacity. In the mean time it keeps our wages and interest rate structure temporarily high and makes the underlying problem worse.
The prospects for productive Australian industry are waning daily. Yet the dollar is still sitting at 90 cents, boosted by the same countries’ central banks that are feasting on our production, and pouring Dutch disease into our ears while we sit back and debate which business is worth saving.
The issue is not who do we bail out. It is how do we reverse the trend of uncompetitiveness that is sweeping everything offshore that is not buried in, or cemented into, the ground. The currency must be actively lowered or it will only drop when the economy does, leaving us bereft of a rebound.
Australian disease is entering its terminal phase, and boy, is it going to be one for the text books.