As Australia’s economic fortunes continue to surpass the likes of the US, UK and Europe, it is hard to escape a lingering nervousness about what could happen if the mining boom were to collapse. What if the Chinese juggernaut were to falter? Would we be doomed?
Having a conversation exactly like this earlier in the week, I was reminded of a post I wrote more than a year ago which showed surprisingly (to me at least) that exports to China were contributing only 3% to Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP). In yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, economist Ross Gittins tried to bring some perspective to the nervous by pointing out that 80% of Australia’s economic activity is domestic and concluded that:
Take away mining and we wouldn’t be quite as rich as we are, but most of the economy would look much the same as it does. Most of us would still have good, secure, well-paid jobs.
Of course, not everyone is taking such an encouraging line. Over on the Mule Stable, one econo-pessimist drew my attention to this interview with hedge fund manager John Chanos, who has been predicting a bursting of the Chinese economic bubble for some time now. As well as showing a very detailed knowledge of China’s construction industry, Chanos notes that were China’s economy to stall, the US would be much better positioned to cope with it than countries like, say, Australia. That was supposed to be good news for American viewers…not so cheering for those of us on this side of the globe!
All of this suggested that an update of the trade statistics was overdue. The results are as one might expect: the contribution that exports to China make to Australia’s GDP has risen from the 3% I noted in August 2009 to almost 4% as at September 2010.
GDP from Exports to China (Dec-1988 to Sep-2010)
So, while 4% may still be small compared to the 80% of activity that is generated internally in Australia, the real story here is growth, as the steepness of the chart dramatically illustrates. That increase in exports has contributed almost 1% to Australia’s GDP growth for the year! Here is the rolling annual change in the contribution that exports to China make to Australia’s GDP.
Annual Change in GDP from Exports to China (Dec-1988 to Sep-2010)
Not wishing to forget Gittins’ point that we should consider total contributions to the economy, not just exports, it is hard to resist wondering how many of our exports now go to China. The answer is: a lot and growing.
China’s Share of Exports (Dec-1988 to Sep-2010)
So, where does that leave us? Gittins is not wrong, and a collapse in the Chinese economy would not suddenly put everyone in Australia out of work. Nevertheless, it would certainly take a lot of the wind out of our economic sails. Furthermore, given the amount of attention China and the mining industry have in our national consciousness at the moment, it is worth recalling the words of that sage John Maynard Keynes:
Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.
There is little doubt that if Chanos is right about China, our animal spirits would not take it too well.
Data source: based on Australian Bureau of Statistics (copyright Creative Commons Attribution). Note that all export figures here represent exports of merchandise, so exclude services.