Green economy – who are the winners and losers?

The Economist had a piece in their Finance and Economics section on the new energy superpowers. As the world attempts to switch to cleaner energy sources – the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that wind and solar could account for 70% of power generation by 2050. This means a huge increase in demand for copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt etc. Who are the winners and losers from the move to green energy?

Invariably with any economy being able to exploit a natural resource there is the danger that investment is channelled into a commodity to the detriment of diversifying their economy. Economists refer to this as the Dutch Disease which makes reference to Holland and the discovery of vast quantities of natural gas during the 1960s in that country’s portion of the North Sea. The subsequent years saw the Dutch manufacturing sector decline as the gas industry developed. The major problem with the reliance on oil is that if the natural resource begins to run out or if there is a downturn in prices, once competitive manufacturing industries find it extremely difficult to return to an environment of profitability. See flow chart below.

According to the UN a country is dependent on commodities if they are more than 60% of its physical exports – in Africa that makes up 83% of countries. One of the major concerns for resource rich countries is the wild fluctuations in commodity prices which can lead to over investment – Sierra Leone created two new iron-ore mines in 2012 only for them to close in 2015 as prices collapsed. However the amount of jobs created in the mineral extraction industry is limited – across Sierra-Leone of 8m people, about 8,000 work in commercial mines. A major problem in these countries is that when there is money made from resources it tends to go on government salaries rather than investing in education. infrastructure and healthcare etc. The flow chart below outlines the problems of resource dependence.

Source: The Economist – The New Superpowers – March 26th 2022

Africa’s resource curse lingers on.

Africa may have enormous natural reserves of oil, but so far most Africans haven’t felt the benefit. In Nigeria, for instance, what’s seen as a failure to spread the country’s oil wealth to the country’s poorest people has led to violent unrest. However, this economic paradox known as the resource curse has been paramount in Africa’s inability to benefit from oil. This refers to the fact that once countries start to export oil their exchange rate – sometimes know as a petrocurrency – appreciates making other exports uncompetitive and imports cheaper. At the same time there is a gravitation towards the petroleum industry which drains other sectors of the economy, including agriculture and traditional industries, as well as increasing its reliance on imports. It is estimated that for every extra dollar in foreign currency earned from exporting resources reduces non-resource exports by $0.74 – Torfinn Harding of the NHH Norwegian School of Economics and Anthony Venables of Oxford University.

Economists also refer to this as the Dutch Disease which makes reference to Holland and the discovery of vast quantities of natural gas during the 1960s in that country’s portion of the North Sea. The subsequent years saw the Dutch manufacturing sector decline as the gas industry developed. The major problem with the reliance on oil is that if the natural resource begins to run out or if there is a downturn in prices, once competitive manufacturing industries find it extremely difficult to return to an environment of profitability.

According to the UN a country is dependent on commodities if they are more than 60% of its physical exports – in Africa that makes up 83% of countries. One of the major concerns for resource rich countries is the wild fluctuations in commodity prices which can lead to over investment – Sierra Leone created two new iron-ore mines in 2012 only for them to close in 2015 as prices collapsed. However the amount of jobs created in the mineral extraction industry is limited – across Sierra-Leone of 8m people, about 8,000 work in commercial mines. A major problem in these countries is that when there is money made from resources it tends to go on government salaries rather than investing in education. infrastructure and healthcare etc.

Norway – has a different approach.
In Norway hydrocarbons account for half of its exports and 19% of GDP and with further oil fields coming on tap Norway could earn an estimated $100bn over the next 50 years. Nevertheless there is a need to wean the economy off oil and avoid not only the resource curse that has plagued some countries – Venezuela is a good example as approximately 90% of government spending was dependent on oil revenue – but also the impact on climate change. Norwegians have been smart in that the revenue made from oil has been put into a sovereign wealth fund which is now worth $1.1trn – equates to $200,000 for every citizen. This ensures that they have the means to prepare for life after oil.

Source: The Economist – ‘When you are in a hole…’ January 8th 2022

How do deal with a resource curse – Venezuela and Norway

I have been doing exchange rates with my AS class and we talked about the problems some countries have when they are blessed with natural resources – the resource curse. Africa may have enormous natural reserves of oil, but so far most Africans haven’t felt the benefit. In Nigeria, for instance, what’s seen as a failure to spread the country’s oil wealth to the country’s poorest people has led to violent unrest. However, this economic paradox known as the resource curse has been paramount in Africa’s inability to benefit from oil. This refers to the fact that once countries start to export oil their exchange rate – sometimes know as a petrocurrency – appreciates making other exports uncompetitive and imports cheaper. At the same time there is a gravitation towards the petroleum industry which drains other sectors of the economy, including agriculture and traditional industries, as well as increasing its reliance on imports. Economists also refer to this as the Dutch Disease which makes reference to Holland and the discovery of vast quantities of natural gas during the 1960s in that country’s portion of the North Sea. The subsequent years saw the Dutch manufacturing sector decline as the gas industry developed. The major problem with the reliance on oil is that if the natural resource begins to run out or if there is a downturn in prices, once competitive manufacturing industries find it extremely difficult to return to an environment of profitability.

A future resource curse in Indonesia: The political economy of natural resources, conflict and development.

Venezuela could learn off the Norwegians
Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, and its economy has been tied to the ups and downs of the international price of oil for decades — oil constitutes about 25% of the country’s GDP and 95% of its exports. But the country’s oil production reached its lowest point since 2003 this year, when production went from 1.2 million barrels per day in the beginning of 2019 to an average of 830,000 barrels per day. The energy sector is only producing a fraction of the 4 million barrels of oil a day it could be producing.

Norway, the world’s third largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia and Russia, puts away a large share of its wealth in a national pension fund, now worth more than $300 billion. The problem here is that Norway is a small, homogeneous country of about five million people that was relatively advanced when its oil started to flow. It already had the sorts of public institutions that enabled it to cautiously manage its newly found wealth.
In 1969 the discovery of oil off the coast of Norway transformed its economy with it being one of the largest exporters of oil. A lot of countries in similar positions have succumbed to the ‘resource curse’ in which countries tend to focus on a natural resource like oil. The curse comes in two forms:

  1. With high revenues from the sale of a resource, governments try and seek to control the assets and use the money to maintain a political monopoly. This is where you find that from the sale of your important natural resource there is greater demand for your currency which in turn pushes up its value. This makes other exports less competitive so that when the natural resource runs out the economy has no other good/service to fall back on.
  2. However it is the fall in commodity prices that is now hitting these countries that have, in the past, been plagued by the resource curse. As a lot of commodities tend to be inelastic in demand so a drop in price means a fall in total revenue since the the proportionate drop in price is greater than the proportionate increase in quantity demanded.

Norway – has a different approach.
In Norway hydrocarbons account for half of its exports and 19% of GDP and with further oil fields coming on tap Norway could earn an estimated $100bn over the next 50 years. Nevertheless there is a need to wean the economy off oil and avoid not only the resource curse that has plagued some countries – Venezuela is a good example as approximately 90% of government spending was dependent on oil revenue – but also the impact on climate change. Norwegians have been smart in that the revenue made from oil has been put into a sovereign wealth fund Its value on 31 December reached 10.9tn kroner, or US$1,311bn – equal to assets worth US$241,000 for each of Norway’s 5.39 million inhabitants. This ensures that they have the means to prepare for life after oil.

Resource Curse – but what about ‘Trade Partner Curse’ – New Zealand’s trade with China.

I have blogged quite a few times about the ‘Resource Curse’ but what about the ‘Trade Partner Curse’? New Zealand has been renowned for its primary exports but is it a concern that a third of every dollar earned in the primary sector comes from China. Dr Robert Hamlin (University of Otago) stated that based on experience no more than 20% of revenue should be earned from one source to ensure a buffer against changes in terms of trade and the economic conditions in the favoured country of destination.

Higher Terms of Trade – would be beneficial because the country needs fewer exports to buy a given number of imports.
Lower Terms of Trade – country must export a greater number of units to purchase the same number of imports.

New Zealand which is traditionally dependant on primary exports usually faces instability which arises from inelastic and unstable global demand especially from China. By relying on the Chinese market, New Zealand exposes itself to greater risk of recessions in that market which may reduce in the demand for New Zealand products. Having numerous export markets means that there isn’t such exposure to economic volatility. Furthermore, countries that are commodity dependent or have a narrow export basket usually faces export instability which arises from inelastic and unstable global demand. The 2018-19 Ministry for Primary Industries’ Situation and Outlook report stated that from the year to June 2019 – total primary exports = $46.3bn but when you look at the breakdown from which country you get the worrying sign that more trade is going to China and less to other countries – essentially China is crowding out other markets:

China – $14.4bn
Australia – $4.5bn
USA – $4.2bn
EU – $3.1bn
Japan – $2.6bn

Source: https://oec.world/en/profile/country/nzl/

In 2017 China accounted for 24% of all New Zealand’s trade exports (see above). China also was the top export destination for New Zealand primary sector – 24% of primary sector exports went to China – by value:
25% of dairy,
43% of forestry,
31% of seafood and
21% of red meat.

China is taking a long-term approach to secure food supplies for its growing population by also buying NZ processing companies, giving it control of the supply chain. The reliance on China comes with risks that its economy remains strong. A downturn in their economy could have implications for New Zealand’s primary sector so it is important to have a diversified portfolio.

Economic Developments for 2019

This is a good summary of economic developments to watch in 2019 – from Al Jazeera. Some of the key points are:

  1. Protectionist policies will remain and any truce between the US and China will be short-lived.
  2. The US is in an unsustainable boom – the fiscal stimulus will fade and this will be followed by two larger deficits – budget and external. The US is consuming far more that it is producing and it mirrors the 1980’s – Reaganomics.
  3. China is slowing down – as well as the protectionist issues as a result of the US trade policy there are tensions between the economic system of capitalism and the political system of communism. This combination is referred to as ‘Market Socialism’. The problems are associated with: economic growth v environmental problems, rural areas v urban areas, rich v poor. China’s movement away from oil to gas which benefits Qatar but to the detriment of the Saudi economy.
  4. The Gulf economies are taking a hit from the fall in oil prices and government budgets may have to be cut. Diversification from the dependence on oil is necessary to avoid the resource curse and with a growing youth population job creating is needed. Movement to a more knowledge-based economy and large infrastructure projects are becoming focus areas as a necessity.

Aussie kick the resource curse

I have mentioned the ‘resource curse’ in many postings since starting this blog. It affects economies like in sub-Sahara Africa and Australia which have a lot of natural resources – energy and minerals. The curse comes in two forms:

  • With high revenues from the sale of a resource, governments try and seek to control the assets and use the money to maintain a political monopoly.
  • This is where you find that from the sale of your important natural resource there is greater demand for your currency which in turn pushes up its value. This makes other exports less competitive so that when the natural resource runs out the economy has no other good/service to fall back on.

The Australian economy did well at the height of the commodity boom in 2013 with iron ore, copper etc earning companies and the economy significant amounts of money. Investment in this area amounted to 9% of GDP in the same year with new mines, gas fields and infrastructure to cope with the increasing demand. But the collapse in commodity prices didn’t have the effect that suggest the resource curse. Countries like Venezuela – oil, Chile – copper, Nigeria – oil etc. have gone through turbulent times as commodity prices fall. Australia though has come through this period quite well for the following reasons:

  • falling investment in the mining sector has allowed the central bank to lower interest rates allowing other sectors, previously shut out, cheaper access to investment funds
  • the falling exchange rate – AUS$ lost 40% in value against US$ between 2011 – 2015 – made other elastic exports more competitive and this was particularly apparent in the tourism, education and construction sectors.
  • Tourism – spending by tourists increased by 43% from 2012 and amounted to AUS$21bn in the year ending March 2018.
  • Education – overseas student numbers increased from 300,000 in 2013 to 540,000 in 2018. Each year they contribute AUS$40bn.
  • Construction – firms have completed projects worth AUS$29bn in the 4th quarter of 2017 which compares with AUS$20bn in the 1st quarter of 2012. The Foreign Investment Board approved AUS$72bn worth of residential-property purchases in 2016, up from AUS$20bn in 2011.

Australia GDP Annual Growth Rate – 2010-2018

Source: Trading Economics

So despite the end of the resources boom the Australian economy’s GDP per annum hasn’t fallen below 2.4% – see GDP graph. Furthermore, Australia ranks as the 14th largest economy on the globe but ranks 7th regarding the volume of foreign investment and this ranking has risen despite the end of the resources boom. Prudent fiscal measures and a sound monetary policy have also played their part in a resilient Aussie economy.

Africa’s Resource Curse

Below is a link to an excellent podcast from the BBC World Service. I have blogged on the resource curse before and the falls in commodity prices – oil and mining – over the last year have affected the sub-Saharan African countries that are dependent on their primary industries. There is also mention of GDP being a stupid model. Worth a listen – click on link below.

Africa: The Commodity Curse Returns

In the balance - Resource Curse

For most economies that have natural endowments like oil (Nigeria) or minerals, there is the risk of the economy experiencing the ‘resource curse’. This is when a natural resource begins to run out, or if there is a downturn in price, manufacturing industries that used to be competitive find it extremely difficult to return to an environment of profitability. According to Paul Collier, Nigeria has a resource curse of its own, the civil war trap in which 73% of the low income population have been affected by it, as well as a natural resource trap- where the so-called advantages of a commodity in monetary value did not eventuate – on average affecting only 30% of the low income population. It seems that in Nigeria there is a strong relationship between resource wealth and poor economic performance, poor governance and the prospect of civil conflicts. The comparative advantage of oil wealth in fact turns out to be a curse. governments and insurgent groups that determines the risk of conflict, not the ethnic or religious diversity. Others see oil as a “resource curse” due to the fact that it reduces the desire for democracy.

Click here for more on the Resource Curse from this blog

Venezuela – 700% inflation

A very good clip from CNBC – Venezuela’s economy has been in free fall since the 2014 collapse of oil prices, which left the socialist country unable to maintain its subsidies and price controls. Oil revenue accounts for 95% of its total exports but with a 50% drop in the price of oil there was limited money in the economy to buy those necessary imports. However as pointed out in the video the problems started in 2003 when there was an oil workers strike which meant that the country stopped producing oil. Furthermore with a collapsing oil price and exchange rate against the US dollar the then president Hugo Chavez decided to fix the exchange rate at 1 Venezuelan bolívar = US$1.60. Another example of the resource course.

Sub-Sahara economies hit by fall in commodity prices.

Commodities have been the engine of growth for many sub-Saharan countries. Oil rich nations such as Nigeria, South Africa and Angola have accounted for over 50% of the region’s GDP whilst other resource-intensive countries such as Zambia, Ghana and Tanzania to a lesser extent.

I have mentioned the ‘resource curse’ in many postings since starting this blog. It affects economies like in sub-Sahara Africa which have a lot of natural resources – energy and minerals. The curse comes in two forms:

  • With high revenues from the sale of a resource, governments try and seek to control the assets and use the money to maintain a political monopoly.
  • This is where you find that from the sale of your important natural resource there is greater demand for your currency which in turn pushes up its value. This makes other exports less competitive so that when the natural resource runs out the economy has no other good/service to fall back on.

However it is the fall in commodity prices that is now hitting these countries that have, in the past, been plagued by the resource curse. As a lot of  commodities tend to be inelastic in demand so a drop in price means a fall in total revenue since the the proportionate drop in price is greater than the proportionate increase in quantity demanded.

The regional growth rate for 2016 is approximately 1.4% but it is not looking good for commodity driven economies:

  • Nigeria – oil – 2016 GDP = -2%
  • Angola – oil – 2016 GDP = 0%
  • South Africa – gold – 2016 GDP = 0%

In 2016 resource rich countries will only grow by 0.3% and commodity exporting countries have seen their exports to China fall by around 50% in 2015. Furthermore, public debt is mounting and exchange rates are falling adding to the cost of imports. With less export revenue the level of domestic consumption has also decreased.

It is a different story for the non-resource countries of sub-Sahara. It is estimated by the IMF that they will grow at 5.6%. By contrast they have been helped by falling oil prices which has reduced their import bill and public infrastructure spending which has increased consumption.

africa-oil-effectAs is pointed out by The Economist numbers should be read wearily as GDP figures are only ever a best guess, and the large informal economy in most African states makes the calculation even harder. Africa may have enormous natural reserves of resources, but so far most Africans haven’t felt the benefit. In Nigeria, for instance, what’s seen as a failure to spread the country’s oil wealth to the country’s poorest people has led to violent unrest. However, this economic paradox known as the resource curse has been paramount in Africa’s inability to benefit from resources. There is a gravitation towards the petroleum industry which drains other sectors of the economy, including agriculture and traditional industries, as well as increasing its reliance on imports. What is needed is diversification.

After oil what’s next for Saudi Arabia?

With oil prices being at historically low levels, oil exporting countries have been struggling to generate the revenue that was once apparent not so long ago. In Venezuela, for instance, oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings and plummeting world prices have severely hit the government’s revenue stream. The Middle Eastern countries with their abundant supply of oil and the ease at which it extracts it, are starting to look at alternative revenue streams as the rent from oil is no longer sufficient to sustain public goods and services. As noted in The Economist the Arab world can be divided into three broad categories:

  1. Resource-rich, labour-poor – Gulf sheikhdoms with lots of oil and gas but few people;
  2. Resource-rich, labour-abundant – Algeria and Iraq, that have natural resources and larger populations;
  3. Resource-poor, labour-abundant – Egypt, that have little or no oil and gas but lots of mouths to feed (see chart).

Oil Rev Mid East.pngTo a degree the whole Arab world is an oil-driven economy: all three groups tend to rise and fall with the price of oil. However although some countries have significant reserves of wealth this does not offer an alternative to weaning them off their dependence on the oil industry.  Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 intends to be free of oil dependence by 2020 and among the proposals is a plan to launch a new defence company, combining Saudi industries under a single company and be floated on the Saudi Stock Exchange.

The country plans to list less than 5 per cent of Aramco (Saudi Arabian Oil Co), which is worth more than US$2 trillion. The sale of Armco would be big enough to buy Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. – the world’s four largest publicly traded companies. The plan is for the government to be a lot more prudent in its spending and making sure that the budget deficit doesn’t exceed 15% of GDP which is a very high figure. Furthermore using the private sector to provide education and health care as well as selling valuable land to developers, will reduce the burden of the State. But this will bring about significant social change that the population of Saudi Arabia may not be prepared for. As The Economist said:

A generation of men that expected to be paid for do-nothing government jobs will have to learn to work. The talents of women, who already make up the majority of new university graduates, will have to be harnessed better. But for now even the limited reforms to give women more opportunities have gone into reverse. To achieve its goals, Saudi Arabia will have to promote transparency and international norms, which will mean overcoming resistance from the powerful religious establishment and the sprawling royal family.

Source: The Economist – May 14th 2016

Resource Curse

For most economies that have natural endowments like oil (Saudi Arabia) or minerals, there is the risk of the economy experiencing the ‘resource curse’. This is when a natural resource begins to run out, or if there is a downturn in price, manufacturing industries that used to be competitive find it extremely difficult to return to an environment of profitability. According to Paul Collier, Nigeria has a resource curse of its own, the civil war trapin which 73% of the low income population have been affected by it, as well as a natural resource trap- where the so-called advantages of a commodity in monetary value did not eventuate – on average affecting only 30% of the low income population. It seems that in Nigeria there is a strong relationship between resource wealth and poor economic performance, poor governance and the prospect of civil conflicts. The comparative advantage of oil wealth in fact turns out to be a curse. governments and insurgent groups that determines the risk of conflict, not the ethnic or religious diversity. Others see oil as a “resource curse” due to the fact that it reduces the desire for democracy.

Click here for more on the Resource Curse from this blog

Pining for the Fjords or higher oil prices?

Although Norway is a capitalist country, it is state-owned enterprises that seem to be most prevalent in business circles. Oil revenues have been at the forefront of Norway’s development and it is, behind Luxembourg, the richest country in Europe. Ultimately the economic welfare of the country is heavily influenced by the price of oil and the peak of $150 a barrel in 2008 had huge benefits for the government purse. Oil and gas now account for about 25% of Norway’s GDP and almost 50% of its exports. However with the recent fall in oil prices to below $50 a barrel, oil companies have had to lay off workers – estimated to be 30%. According to The Economist the falling oil price has exposed two weaknesses in the Norwegian economy.

  1. Bureaucracy is a problem in Norway with the government owning about 40% of the stockmarket. Furthermore, as the vast majority of the country’s top executives attend the Norwegian School of Economics there is an unhealthy cultural uniformity which is not a catalyst to change.
  2. The welfare state has been too generous. The public sector employs 33% of the workforce (compared to 19% for the OECD countries) and as people enjoy a 37 hour week and sometimes a 3 day weekend there is a concern that the state is undermining the work ethic. In 2011 Norway spent 3.9% of GDP on incapacity benefits and early retirement, compared with an OECD average of 2.2%.

However, the government has been very prudent with its saving in that it now has the biggest sovereign-wealth fund in the world at $873 billion. The country also has a fish industry which is worth $10 billion a year.

Norway fjord

Where to from here?

Are we seeing a classic resource curse where an economy has become reliant on a particular resource? Does Norway have a real alternative to oil to generate revenue for its economy?

Norway needs to allow the entrepreneurial spirit more room to grow and also apply some free market reforms to the welfare state. Shrinking the role of the state will help as the private sector cold  start to be more involved in the running of schools, hospitals, and surgeries. So far the country’s reaction to the oil price drop is to be become even more left wing especially in the cities of Bergen and Oslo.

Source: The Economist – Norwegian Blues – October 10th 2015

New Zealand – Resource Curse in reverse with falling dairy prices

nz dairyI have mentioned the resource curse in previous posts especially those countries with natural resources. Below is an extract from a previous post.

Africa may have enormous natural reserves of oil, but so far most Africans haven’t felt the benefit. In Nigeria, for instance, what’s seen as a failure to spread the country’s oil wealth to the country’s poorest people has led to violent unrest. However, this economic paradox known as the resource curse has been paramount in Africa’s inability to benefit from oil. This refers to the fact that once countries start to export oil their exchange rate – sometimes know as a petrocurrency – appreciates making other exports uncompetitive and imports cheaper. At the same time there is a gravitation towards the petroleum industry which drains other sectors of the economy, including agriculture and traditional industries, as well as increasing its reliance on imports.

For New Zealand it seems to be working in reverse. New Zealand’s biggest export earner is dairy and with prices dropping by 23% since last year and the outlook of continued monetary easing from the RBNZ the dollar has dropped from US$0.77 on 27th April to US$0.67 today – a level not seen since 2010.

However, going against what the resource curse suggests, the weaker exchange rate will provide extra revenue for exports like the tourism industry which has been enjoying high numbers especially from Asia. Furthermore, there have been suggestions that it could surpass the dairy industry as the biggest earner of export receipts. There are further benefits for domestic companies competing against imports as the weaker dollar makes competing overseas goods more expensive relative to those produced in New Zealand.

New Zealand: Reliance on a single product and a single market?

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the resource curse and how it is an economic paradox. It refers to the fact that once countries start to export a natural resource like oil their exchange rate appreciates making other exports uncompetitive and imports cheaper. At the same time there is a gravitation towards the natural resource industry which drains other sectors of the economy, including agriculture and traditional industries, as well as increasing its reliance on imports.

For New Zealand there is a similar scenario with a reliance on the dairy industry and the Chinese market for trade.

The BNZ Economy Watch reported that dairy contributed the most (63 percent) to the total exports to China, valued at $774 million, in November 2013. This is the highest value of dairy exports to China for any month. Total dairy exports were valued at $1.7 billion – also the highest for any month.

China is now our top export destination on an annual basis, just under two years after it became our top annual imports partner in December 2011, industry and labour statistics manager Louise Holmes-Oliver said. In November 2013, goods exports were valued at $4.5 billion, up $647 million (17 percent) from November 2012. Exports to China hit record levels in October 2013 and November 2013. Exports to China were valued at $1.2 billion. In 2013 China accounted for 22% of NZ’s goods exports, 17% of NZ’s goods imports and 20% of total two-way goods trade.

NZ Mrechandise Trade

The last thing New Zealand wants to become is nothing more than a milk powder exporter to China. Economic diversification is as important as investment diversification from a risk profile perspective. The answer is not to kill off existing trading relationships or reduce dairy production but to look to other sectors to play a bigger part. Furthermore if the purchaser gets too dominant they can exploit monopsony power.

Share of NZ Primary Produce going to China
Share of NZ Prim X going to Chine

Commodity prices drop but Aussie dollar holds firm

Aus dollar Commod PricesSince the Aussie dollar was floated in 1983 its value closely followed that of its commodity exports – see graph from The Economist. However since 2003 commodity prices have increased 400% but the dollar rose by much less and no longer had a direct relationship to commodity prices. There are 3 possible reasons for this:

1. The deregulation of financial markets which facilitates the ease of currency trading
2. The current account deficit in Australia which got to 6.2% of GDP in 2007
3. Interest rates in Australia up to the GFC were realtively low compared to other developed countries

2011 saw commodity prices drop but the Aussie dollar has remained strong. As most economies employed a lose monetary policy and proceeded to drop interest rates aggressively after the GFC, the Aussie economy didn’t in fact go through a recession and its interest rates remained relatively strong – see below.

CB Interest Rate Nov 13

Although a weaker exchange rate could help the Aussie economy especially as it has been susceptible to the resource curse – the strength of the exchange rate and higher interest rates is already putting pressure on some industries, particularly the tourism, manufacturing, education exports and retail industries.

Chile, China and Copper

Chile copperOne cannot underestimate the importance of copper to the Chilean economy. Copper provides 20% of Chile’s GDP and makes up 60% of its exports. Chile’s economy is growing at approximately 6% per year while inflation is at 1% and unemployment 6.4%. Although Chile does have a productive agricultural sector and tourism, the price of copper does have a significant impact on the economy.

Chile has done very well out of the shift of China’s rural population to the more urban areas – new homes with copper wire and pipes are needed. Furthermore Emerging markets everywhere are using vast amounts of copper to put in bridges, cars, fridges and more or less anything that uses electricity. However China’s recent slowdown has caused copper prices to slide by 15% since the beginning of the year.

The Economist reported that in 2000-05 the government’s income from mining averaged $2.1 billion a year. As Chinese growth accelerated, that rose to $11.5 billion a year between 2005 and 2011. But the boom owed almost everything to the copper price. Chile’s output of the red metal has hardly grown in a decade.

The biggest threat to Chile’s copper boom comes from China. If the country that buys 40% of the world’s copper slows further, the price of the metal will fall again and Chile will have rely on something else. Is this another resource curse waiting to happen? Below is a short report from AlJazeerah which also looks at the positives from lower copper prices – lower currency value, the peso, and ultimately more competitive exports.

Is there a Resource Curse?

I have mentioned the ‘resource curse’ in many postings since starting this blog. It affects economies with a lot of natural resources – energy and minerals. The curse comes in two forms:

1. With high revenues from the sale of a resource, governments try and seek to control the assets and use the money to maintain a political monopoly.

2. This is where you find that from the sale of your important natural resource there is greater demand for your currency which in turn pushes up its value. This makes other exports less competitive so that when the natural resource runs out the economy has no other good/service to fall back on.

In 1995 Jeff Sachs, then a Harvard Professor, co-authored a paper with Andrew Warner in which they stated that countries with a higher proportion of resource exports had experienced a slower rate of economic growth. However, The Economist recently noted the research of two Swiss-based economists which draws different conclusions. They basically say that it is crucial to distinguish between the following:

Abundance – having lots of resources
Dependence – having a high proportion of exports in resource-related industries.

They found that greater resource abundance leads to better political institutions and more rapid growth. Those with poor political institutions – Zaire, Nigeria etc – are unlikely to develop other sectors of the economy to reduce dependency on natural resources. The chart below from The Economist shows that the recent growth of OECD countries that are energy exporters against other members that are neutral or oil importers. Although they have grown more over the years with an increasing oil price, their strengthening currency hasn’t affected their economy’s that much. The key test is when the resource runs out – have countries reinvested in areas that they can fall back on or has this investment gone into the energy industry itself. For the Aussies this is very important especially if China has a hard landing. Time will tell.

Oil dependent Saudi – an artist’s impression

Full-time doctor but part-time artist, Ahmed Matter creates some very interesting art. Using x-rays and magnetism the art he produces is a critical voice against the insanity of oil dependency and the oil production that has had a decisive impact on the region as a whole. The petrol pump below is gradually transformed into the body of a human being – in blue-tinted x-ray pictures of the head and upper body. And the pump nozzle itself becomes a pistol, which the spectral human figure holds to its head – a portent and probably also a criticism of the Saudi government, which places reckless emphasis on oil exports. Do we have another case of a classic resource curse?

First sign of the resource curse for the Aussies

Today the Melbourne manufacturing plant of Toyota laid off 350 workers – the cause is the high Aussie dollar. It recently traded at US$1.05.

“Toyota Australia is facing severe operating conditions resulting in unsustainable financial returns due to factors including the strong Australian currency, reduced cost competitiveness and volume decline, especially in export markets,” Toyota spokesman

This is the first sign of the resource curse that has plagued so many resource-rich countries. The strength of the exchange rate and higher interest rates is already putting pressure on some industries, particularly the tourism, manufacturing, education exports and retail industries.

Aussie minerals are a potential ‘curse’ as it is mainly dependent on the Chinese economy. So what can the Austalian government do to minimise the impact of the resource curse?

1. Like Norway, it could put export revenues into Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF).
2. Greater subsidies into non-commodity industries
3. With greater income from commodity industries it should develop domestic demand when international demand is subdued.
4. Investment in infrastructure and training/education is essential so that the entrepreneurial environment is vibrant. Avoid inertia and use the good times to plan ahead
5. Be prudent with borrowing and avoid exposure to debt because commodity prices might be high. Just like the sub-prime crisis – using your property as security.

They might be beating India at cricket but the economy is showing the first signs of the dreaded Dutch Disease – DDD.

China now mining in Australia

The Chinese government are no longer satisfied with buying iron ore and coal from Australian miningcompanies, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. China is now funding its own operations on Australian soil by leasing land in the Pilbara region in the north-west of Australia. China expects to mine at least 2bn tonnes of ore from this region in the next 25 years and with it comes royalities and taxes for the Australian economy. It seems that China is the only country that is able to invest such large amounts of money in the mining industry and infrastructure – they are currently funding a port with a 1.6km-long breakwater protruding into the Indian Ocean.

Resource Curse
But as I have mentioned in previous posts there is the resource curse issue and here are indicators that economically the Australians should be worried:

* the windfall from mineral exports has strengthened the Aus$ which has made manufacturing exports uncompetitive.
* In Perth restaurants and farms are struggling to find labour as unskilled workers are attracted to the high earning potential of the remote mines- average yearly wage is Aus$112,000. A truck driver can earn more than a surgeon.

Economists also refer to this as the Dutch Disease which makes reference to Holland and the discovery of vast quantities of natural gas during the 1960s in that country’s portion of the North Sea. The subsequent years saw the Dutch manufacturing sector decline as the gas industry developed. The major problem with the reliance on oil (minerals in the case of Australia) is that if the natural resource begins to run out or if there is a downturn in prices, once competitive manufacturing industries find it extremely difficult to return to an environment of profitability.

Below is a clip about China’s demand for Australian minerals taken from AlJazeera early last year.