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Ignore the gloom: the Australian economy isn't in bad shape

Gloomy news from abroad is making people worried about the economy here, but the pessimism is unfounded. Here's why.

Thanks for asking. Yes, I enjoyed my holiday – read some good books I'll tell you about later – but, unfortunately, didn't get far enough away from the media to avoid hearing all the gloomy news about the economy.

The Americans raised interest rates, the Chinese sharemarket fell, oil prices fell, share prices fell around the world, our dollar fell, the Chinese announced their economy was growing quite strongly, which everyone refused to believe.

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Anything I've missed? Rarely has a year got off to such bad start, we were told. Might be worse than the global financial crisis, according to some guru whose name I forget. Recession will be knocking on our door, we're told.

Sorry, I'm not convinced. My guess is this won't be such a bad year for us, and next year will be quite good. Why? Because we've got a lot going for us domestically and because the bad things happening overseas won't have as much effect on our fortunes as many people have come to imagine.

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman 

It's become fashionable, particularly among our big business people, to take all the foreign economic news terribly seriously, on the assumption it has big implications for us Down Under.

I'm old enough to remember a time when most people believed that what happened to our economy was always of our own making. The Whitlam government tried to blame the recession of the mid-1970s on overseas factors, but everyone knew it was lying.

Since those far off-days, the world economy has globalised, of course, with the Hawke-Keating government doing much to open our economy to the rest of the world, particularly by floating our dollar and dismantling our protection against imports.

Another thing that's globalised is the media. When something bad happens anywhere in the world, we're told about it within an hour or two. Good news takes longer to pass on, if it gets through at all.

In the just-ended summer silly season, all the bad economic news from abroad has been a godsend to the parched local media, and we've played it for all it's worth.

But I think that, in adjusting to the globalised, joined-up world economy, we've gone too far the other way, assuming everything that happens overseas will determine our fate, that our economy is just a cork tossed on a global sea.

It's true that China's economy now has more influence on our future than the American or European economies we know more about, but even this can be overdone.

As can the media's extraordinary preoccupation with the ups and down of local and foreign sharemarkets, about which they – and we – know little. Hardly a news bulletin passes without us being told of the latest movement in the Dow, Footsie​ and Hang Seng.

My guess is this won't be such a bad year for us, and next year will be quite good.

The advent of compulsory superannuation saving has made our retirements more dependent on the fortunes of the sharemarket and, more to the point, made us more conscious of that dependency.

But sharemarkets have always gone up for a period and then down for a period, gone down for a while and then gone back up. Even during the market's long periods of seemingly steady rise, it's down on at least as many days as it's up.

So people who think they can learn anything useful about their affairs by listening to the nightly news to hear what happened to the market today – and then cursing when it's down – are fools. They've allowed the media to find a new way of making them feel bad.

Almost every economic event has advantages and disadvantages, producing winners and losers. When we allow a panicked global sharemarket and disaster-loving media to interpret those events for us, they soon convince us a fall in oil prices is bad news, not good, and the lower Aussie dollar is more bad news, even though it's what our economists have been praying for.

Perhaps our excessive attention to foreign news is fed by the widespread belief that countries make their living by selling things to other countries. So if other countries' economies are weak, our economy will be too, because they won't be buying much from us.

Fortunately, it ain't true. Or, to be accurate, it's 20 per cent right and 80 per cent wrong. It's true that Australians, like everyone else, make their living by producing goods and services and selling them to other people.

What's not true is that the other people have to be foreigners. Aussies will do just as well. About 20 per cent of what we produce is sold to foreigners, leaving a mere 80 per cent sold to locals.

That's why it's easy to exaggerate the effect that weak foreign demand for our goods and services will have on our economy. And the fact is that although prospects for the biggest export-oriented part of our economy – mining – are poor, the prospects for domestically oriented industries are good.

Unofficial estimates show the mining-related part of the economy is going backwards, whereas the "non-mining economy" has been growing at the healthy annual rate of about 3 per cent.

You see this in our figures for employment. Over the year to December, employment grew by more than 300,000 workers, a strong 2.7 per cent increase. The official rate of unemployment fell from 6.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent.

I'll be surprised if this steady improvement doesn't continue this year.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

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