Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Do we need industry when we have a mining boom?

THE drastic cuts at BlueScope Steel raise two key questions. Does it matter to Australia if we have a steel industry or not? And if it does, is it worth trying to keep it?

We could ask the same questions about whether Australia should keep making cars. We could ask the same questions about whether we should keep manufacturing anything.

The record dollar is slowly driving Australian manufacturers out of business. With each cent the dollar rises, their import competitors become cheaper and their exports more expensive.

From 1985 to 2005, the Australian dollar averaged US75¢. It has now risen 40 per cent above that to around $US1.05.

That shift has made imported goods 30 per cent cheaper - and our exports 40 per cent more expensive. Australian manufacturing is slowly being crushed. Why has the Australian dollar risen so much? Firstly, because our mineral export prices have risen to record levels and the Australian dollar tends to rise and fall with them.

Secondly, our interest rates are now far higher than in other AAA-rated countries, offering investors juicy returns. Also, the Reserve Bank keeps hinting that it will raise rates higher still.

Thirdly, while most Asian countries (such as China) keep their currencies low to boost local output, ours floats freely. The Reserve at times has intervened to stop the dollar falling, but never to stop it rising.

Nor would it. The Reserve is obsessed with the mining boom and thinks the big threat to Australia is inflation. To contain prices, it is reining back the other 90 per cent of the economy. Its hints of more interest rate rises keep pushing the dollar higher.
Does it matter if Australia becomes, in Kevin Rudd's words, ''a country where we don't make things any more''?

Treasury and the Reserve say it doesn't. They think mineral prices will stay high for decades, keeping the dollar too high for manufacturing to survive. They say we will ship out so many minerals, we won't need it.

Others see that as reckless. Mineral prices could fall sharply. But when factories close, they don't reopen.

To avert that would require big policy shifts, not Band-Aids. The risk is that we will lose manufacturing permanently for a mining boom that turns out to be only temporary.