China holds its head above water

A quick snapshot from the latest RBA chart pack.

Manufacturing is holding its head above water (50 on the PMI chart) and industrial production shows a small upturn but investment growth is falling, as in many global economies including the US and Australia. Retail sales growth has declined but remains healthy at 10% a year.


Electricity generation continues to climb but steel, cement and plate glass production all warn that real estate and infrastructure development are slowing.


Interest rates remain accommodative.


Real estate price growth is slowing but remains an unhealthy 10% a year. Real estate development investment rallied in response to lower interest rates but is clearly in a long-term decline.


There are no signs of an economy in immediate trouble but there are indications that the real estate and infrastructure boom may be ending. Through a combination of fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary policy the Chinese have managed to stave off a capitalism-style correction. But failure to clear some of the excesses of the past decade will mean that the inevitable correction, when it does come, is likely to display familiar Asian severity (Japan 1992, Asian Crisis 1997).

Productivity Commission report says Australian car makers can’t compete on labour costs

An increasing amount of the world’s cars are now built in countries such as Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Thailand, while countries such as Australia, the US, the UK and Belgium have shed workers since 2008.

The [Productivity Commission] report finds labour costs in Australia “relatively high”, although not substantially different to Germany or Japan. “But [they] are four times or more those of China, Thailand and other developing countries where motor vehicle production is expanding,” it found.

Read more at Productivity Commission report says Australian car makers can't compete on labour costs.

GM and Toyota may follow Ford’s lead and shut plants in Australia – Quartz

Nandagopal J. Nair writes:

The biggest drag is is a strong Australian dollar, which is making local manufacturing uncompetitive compared to imports. Over the past 12 months the currency has traded about 30% above its three-decade average. Its strength has pushed up manufacturing costs, making Australia the third most expensive country to do business in, according to the IMF.

Read more at GM and Toyota may follow Ford’s lead and shut plants in Australia – Quartz.

Australia: Ford is the tip of the crisis

By Houses and Holes — cross-posted from

It’s fascinating to watch the exit of Ford shake up commentary alliances and ideology.

The loon pond that dominates Australian business media is out in force with soothing words that Australian car manufacturing needs to be let go gently into that good night.

Bill Scales appears at the AFR to argue:

…..while it will be tempting to see this as a sign of the demise of Australian automotive manufacturing, it’s not. This decision is a direct result of the well-recognised, well-understood and deliberate decisions by Ford in Australia and the US.

However it does have important implications for public policy in Australia. This is a good example why governments should not provide company or industry- specific assistance. Governments and bureaucrats can never understand the strategic or commercial imperatives of individual businesses. So they cannot hope to successfully design company or industry-specific assistance programs that make any fundamental difference to the underlying economics of that company or industry. If the strategic direction or intent of a government policy for any company or any industry is not consistent with the strategic or operational direction of that company or industry, and it rarely is, then money provided to them by governments is likely to be wasted.

High priestess of the pond, Jennifer Hewitt, wants outright liquidation:

The national sympathy and attention given to 1200 Ford workers who will be out of a job in three years’ time shouldn’t obscure economic reality. Car manufacturing in Australia has been living on borrowed time – and permanently borrowed tax-payer money for far too long.

That can never be solved by additional government assistance or new industry plans or emotive rhetoric about how car manufacturing in Australia is so special. This only delays the inevitable.

But the response is part of the national semi-panic about the future of manufacturing in Australia. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott stress the need for Australia to be a place that continues to “make” things. Just what new things should be made remains elusive. What is clear is it is will not be cars long term. That is despite the billions of dollars in government subsidies.

…the end of Ford manufacturing shouldn’t in itself be the sort of national crisis suggested by the massive reaction to the company’s announcement.

The Ford Falcon is an iconic loss rather than an economic one, a dream of the past rather than the future.

The AFR editorial and Judith Sloan at The Australian, card carrying members of the pond, are also happy to see Ford go. However, some of the more sane commentators are as well. Alan Mitchell at the AFR, John Durie at The Australian and Bernard Keane at Business Spectator are all for it.

What is missing, as usual, is the only thing that actually matters to the reader and the nation: context.

In 2009, the US faced an analogous decision about whether to let one of its big three auto-makers go to the wall (there were many differences as well). As the GFC tore its GDP to pieces, the government stepped into the breach and saved Chrysler, bankrupted the company, broke its union contracts, reorganised its cost base, sold much of it to FIAT and the company relaunched. Why did the global home of “free market capitalism” bother?

The cheap answer is to save jobs. But there is more to it than that. It is about productivity and not in the way you might think.

We all know that productivity is the key to national standards of living. Only through productivity growth do we sustainably increase our competitive advantage, capital formation, incomes and employment. But, I hear you ask, propping up dud car companies is bad for productivity, right?

Wrong, or at least, overly simplistic.

The issue is this. Manufacturing accounts for a huge slice of productivity potential in all economies. Without it, any economy will struggle to generate long term high productivity growth. Mechanisation, improved processes, innovation and technical progress are the bread and butter of productivity growth. They simply do not exist to the same extent in services, nor, for the most part, in mining (though the runoff in the boom will be good for the next few years). The following chart from McKinsey makes the point. Manufacturing contributes disproportionately to productivity, innovation and exports:
This is the first question that Ford’s departure raises about Australia’s long term economic context. The car industry may or may not survive the shakeout but Australian manufacturing has already declined to only 7% of GDP and is clearly set to plunge further as capex expectations run at levels first seen in the 1980s.

Of the thirty developed economies in the world comprising the OECD, this level of contribution to GDP is last, tied with the tax haven of Luxembourg.

Our elite – the government, mining magnates and the media – have decided that manufacturing will be let go and we will instead rely entirely upon highly priced dirt and houses. Australia’s elite policy makers are engaged in a gigantic experiment that flies in the face of economic history.

The second question is more immediate. What our elite forget or ignore is that selling dirt is a highly cyclical business. Put simply, they never expected the current cycle to end. But it is. Right now. And is about to become a MASSIVE drag on the economy:
Mining Investment/GDP
Manufacturing is supposed to be one of those sectors picking up the slack along with other exports and more houses. Obviously the departure of Ford will damage any upside for a manufacturing bounce and it will also put a sizable dent in consumer confidence, making it harder for other sectors to rebound as well.

Short term and long, cyclically and structurally, this is a crisis, a crisis of our elite’s own making.

China: A Billion Strong but Short on Workers |

KATHY CHU at WSJ reports:

This year, service-related positions — such as those in retail, travel and leisure — for the first time will account for more of the country’s gross domestic product than industrial-sector jobs, J.P. Morgan Chase predicts.

Government figures show the service sector created 37 million new jobs in the past five years, compared with 29 million in the industrial sector, which includes manufacturing, construction and mining.

Read more at China: A Billion Strong but Short on Workers –

China Factory Activity Slows –

Data in recent weeks has painted an increasingly gloomy picture of slowing manufacturing, weak exports and tepid bank lending in China. The latest indicator to spook markets came Thursday with the flash HSBC Purchasing Managers’ Index, an initial reading on manufacturing activity in March. The PMI fell to a preliminary reading of 48.1, down from 49.6 in February.

The March PMI reading marks the fifth straight month the index has indicated contraction, signaling extended difficulties for the nation’s manufacturers. A reading below 50 indicates contraction from the previous month, while anything above that indicates growth.

via China Factory Activity Slows –

RBA gambles on China – MacroBusiness

Glenn Stevens: Those at home [Australia] see this as well. As consumers, they have responded to the higher exchange rate with record levels of international travel. As producers, however, they also see, with increasing clarity, that the rise in the relative price of natural resources amounts to a global and epochal shift, which carries important implications for economic structure in Australia, as it does everywhere else. Some sectors of the economy will grow in importance as they invest and employ to take advantage of higher prices. Other sectors will get relatively smaller, particularly in the traded sector, as they face relatively lower prices for their products and competition for inputs from the stronger sectors. The exchange rate response to this shift in fundamentals is sending very clearly the signal to shift the industry mix, though this would occur at any exchange rate. The shift in relative prices is a shift in global prices that is more or less invariant to the level of the Australian dollar…..

Delusional Economics: And there is the China gamble laid bare for all to see. It is true that in relative pricing terms Australia’s income has increased but, as the Governor alludes to, the prices we are paying for cheaper imports is a hollowing out of some industries and a corresponding restructuring of the labour force. By not intervening via monetary and/or fiscal policy in the capital flows associated with the commodities boom the government and the RBA have made it clear that a restructure of the economy will be the outcome.

However, as I have pointed out in my analysis of Europe , and Mr Stevens goes on to say later in the speech, structural change is difficult and expensive. By allowing the economy to restructure in this way we are making a one-way bet on China. That is, if we’ve got it wrong on Beijing, we are in seriously deep trouble because there is no Plan B.

via RBA gambles on China – MacroBusiness.

Economic Data Shows Signs of a Slowdown –

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Manufacturing slowed in February and consumer spending was flat for a third straight month in January, new economic data showed on Thursday, suggesting the economy lost more momentum than expected early this year.

……the spending and factory data cut into the optimism generated by a recent decline in the unemployment rate, and suggested rising energy prices were taking a toll.

via Economic Data Shows Signs of a Slowdown –

Inside China’s ugly PMI –

China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers index PMI dipped below 50 for the first time since the recovery yesterday. The headline PMI declined to 49, below consensus of 49.8. Looking into the components probably provides an even gloomier picture. New exports order declined further to 45.6 from 48.6, indicating continued deterioration of global demand.

via Inside China’s ugly PMI – |