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It's official, the boom is not over

<i>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</i>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

Have you noticed how joyfully the media trumpet the bad news they seek out so assiduously? The latest is that the resources boom is finally busting. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

It's true the prices we're getting for our exports of coal and iron ore, having lifted the terms on which we trade with the rest of the world to their most advantageous level in 200 years in the September quarter of last year, have been falling ever since and have further to go.

It's true China's economy has slowed markedly in recent times and this, combined with the fall in export prices, has prompted some of our smaller mining companies to shelve their plans for new mines.

And last week the Reserve Bank warned the peak in mining investment spending was likely to occur next year and reach a lower level than earlier expected. Fearing a slowdown in the economy, it cut the official interest rate another notch.

So, is this the dumper many people have feared? Is the much ballyhooed resources boom about to disappear into the history books?

Don't be misled. As the secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, argued last week, it was always misleading to think the resources boom, being just another boom, would soon bust, leaving us in the lurch with nothing to show but holes in the ground.

For a start, it's a bit previous to be kissing the boom goodbye. Spending on the building of new mines and liquefied gas plants is expected to keep growing strongly for another year before it starts to fall back. Even then it will stay way above what we normally see for several more years.

Coal and iron ore prices may be falling, but don't imagine they'll return to anything like what they were. At their best, our terms of trade - the prices we get for our exports relative to the prices we pay for our imports - were almost 80 per cent better than their average throughout the 20th century.

The econocrats now expect that, by 2019, they will have collapsed to a mere 50 per cent above that 100-year average. Nothing to show for it? This means we'll remain wealthier than we were (our exports will continue buying far more on world markets than they used to).

Taken by itself, this lasting improvement in our terms of trade suggests another thing we'll have to show is a dollar that stays well above the US70¢ or so it averaged in the decades following its float. That means a dollar that remains uncomfortably high for our manufacturers and tourism operators.

All this ignores a further benefit from the resources boom which, though it's already started, is largely still to come: vastly increased quantities of coal, iron ore and natural gas for export. This, too, adds to our wealth.

Before the start of this supposed here-today-gone-tomorrow ''boom'' - which began almost a decade ago - mining accounted for less than 5 per cent of the nation's total production of goods and services. Its share is now well on the way to 10 or 12 per cent.

At the same time, manufacturing's share will continue its decline from about 15 per cent in 1990 to 12 per cent at the start of the boom and 8 per cent today to maybe 6 per cent by the end of this decade. (Much of this decline, however, is explained by the faster growth of the services sector as we, like the rest of the rich world, move to a knowledge-based economy.)

So yet another lasting effect of this fly-by-night boom is a marked and lasting change in the structure of our economy. To the consternation of some, the non-services part of our economy is becoming less secondary and more primary.

The underlying reason for this shift is the same reason it was always mistaken to imagine this is a transitory commodity price boom like all those we've seen before: the economic emergence of the developing world, led by Asia.

With the industrialisation of China and India, the globe's centre of economic gravity is shifting from the North Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific oceans. It's happening so fast it's visible to the naked eye. All the economic troubles of the Europeans and Americans are speeding it up, not slowing it down.

Remember how the world's richest 20 per cent owned 80 per cent of the wealth? Forget it. The poor countries already account for half the world's annual production of goods and services. Over the next five years, they'll account for three-quarters of the growth in world production.

So we're witnessing a tremendous change in the structure of the world economy, something so big economic historians will still be talking about it in 200 years' time. Is it surprising the effects on our economy are so big and so lasting?

We're greatly affected because of our proximity but also because our economy is so complementary to the emerging Asian ones. We have in abundance what they need in abundance: primary commodities. Their need for our raw materials will roll on for decades, including as Indonesia transforms itself from the world's fourth most populous country to its fourth richest.

This raises the final reason the mining boom shouldn't be lightly dismissed. As Parkinson reminded us, it's just the first wave of change arising from the Asian century. Next comes the rural boom as global demand for agricultural produce surges.

The third wave is the global growth in the middle class - from half a billion to more than 3 billion souls - with its growing demand for better services, goods and experiences. Just another passing boom?

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

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