Rest of world wishes for Australia’s economic woes

May 16, 2013

By Antony Currie

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Listening to the Australians, you could be forgiven for thinking their economy is dead in the water – or about to be. The land Down Under has its problems, including a China-driven commodities downturn and an A$18 billion deficit ($17.9 billion) in this week’s budget announcement from Treasurer Wayne Swan, months after he projected a surplus. But the economy, now in its 22nd year of unbroken economic growth, still boasts the stability other countries only dream of.

Granted, it’s worrying that the country has been in the red since 2009 despite a giant commodities-driven trade boost. But politics drove that. The current Labor government – as well as the Liberal administration before 2007 – used the boom to finance pet projects and spent money to keep the country out of recession after the financial crisis.

The cost of all of this has hardly been severe. Swan’s deficit prediction for this year equates to just 1.1 percent of GDP, compared with around 4 percent in the United States and 6 percent in the United Kingdom.

On top of that, the jobless rate is just 5.5 percent, close to what many western economies consider to be full employment. The currency is falling: the Aussie dollar fell below parity against the U.S. dollar this week for the first time in almost a year, days after the Reserve Bank of Australia cut interest rates by 0.25 percent. But many have complained for years that it is overvalued. And a weaker currency will make exports cheaper, or more profitable.

China remains the big worry. Mining investment is peaking at 8 to 9 percent of the economy, according to the RBA. Housing construction seems to be the one industry that could fill the gap. Judging by the phalanxes of cranes active in Sydney and Melbourne, the industry is trying to oblige. But already-high house prices and high loan-to-deposit ratios at banks may make it hard to transform the enthusiasm into financial reality without stoking a bubble.

In any event, the next government – likely to be the Liberal Party after September elections – has more than enough wiggle room to cut cost or even raise taxes if needed. The rest of the world should be so lucky.

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