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The Trade Numerologist: Is Natural Gas Australia’s Next Lucky Card?

26 February 2019 John Miller

If you were to design an economy perfectly tailored to succeed in the modern global economy, it might look like Australia's. The country of 23.5 million has vast natural resources, a healthy democracy, strong population growth, a free market system and one of the world's best trading infrastructures.

Australia hasn't had a recession in a quarter of a century, and its gross domestic product is expected to grow by over 2.5% in 2019. In recent years, it's enjoyed lower interest rates, new building in its gas industry, and continued strong commodity prices.

Private companies have been investing aggressively in Australia, which has higher population growth than most Western democracies, meaning it has a higher ceiling for job growth and returns on investment. Perhaps most importantly, at a time of rising protectionism, it has strong alliances with countries all over the world. Analysts believe that Australia could even benefit from a trade war.

However, with federal elections looming this year, housing prices taking a hit, domestic demand in China uncertain, and the global winds of protectionism chilling the global economy, Australia could be in for a difficult year. Also, with concerns rising about carbon dioxide emissions, the outlook for coal, its main export, is highly variable.

Australia's top trading partner is by far China, which depends on the country for iron ore, the key ingredient in the making of steel. For this century so far, Australia has functioned as China's corner store. When Beijing needs to buy something, it knows it can run to Australia to get it.

Australia top export destinations, 2018

  • China $87.6 billion (+15%)
  • Japan $41.3 billion (+23%)
  • South Korea $17.7 billion (+13%)
  • India $12.3 billion (+2%)
  • US $9.7 billion (+8%)
  • Hong Kong $7.8 billion (-15%)
  • Taiwan $7.8 billion (+18%)
  • Singapore $7.4 billion (+44%)
  • New Zealand $7.2 billion (+4%)
  • Malaysia $5.5 billion (+27%)

Australia's top four exports are raw materials, most of which are headed to plants and furnaces in China via ports in the northern part of the country.

In particular, Australia has been boosting exports of gas, and coal, which have increased due to increased demand for power. Despite coal's environmental issues, it remains the cheapest way of providing massive amounts of power and thus still account for around 40% of global electricity.

Australia top exports, 2018

  • Coal $49.4 billion (+13%)
  • Iron ore $47.1 billion (-2.8%)
  • Gas $33 billion (+63%)
  • Precious stones $16.1 billon (+5%)
  • Meat & offals $10.1 billion (+12%)
  • Inorganic chemicals & rare earths $8.2 billion (+33%)
  • Crude oil $6.1 billion (+50%)
  • Cereals $4.9 billion (-26%)
  • Electric parts & machinery $4.8 billion (+4%)
  • Aluminum & aluminum articles $3.8 billion (+22%)

Australia's gas industry has been growing very fast, thanks to big investments in new fields, plants and infrastructure. Gas exports increased by a massive 63% in 2018 compared to the previous year, and have steadily expanded during this decade.

Australia gas exports

  • 2013: $15.2 billion
  • 2014: $17.1 billion
  • 2015: $12.8 billion
  • 2016: $13.8 billion
  • 2017: $20.2 billion
  • 2018: $33 billion

The top agricultural export is meat. Australia's meat exports are dominated by frozen beef shipments headed to the US and Japan. China is the third biggest market for Australian meat.

Australia doesn't have a very large manufacturing sector and needs to import much of what it consumes. However, the good news is that it diversifies the sources of its imports.

Australia top import sources, 2018

  • China $55.5 billion (+13%)
  • US $23.2 billion (+2%)
  • Japan $16.8 billion (+4%)
  • Germany $11.2 billion (+7%)
  • Thailand $11.2 billion (+1%)
  • South Korea $9.9 billion (-39%)
  • Malaysia $9.8 billion (+15%)
  • Singapore $8.6 billion (+37%)
  • New Zealand $5.9 billion (-0.5%)
  • UK $5.4 billion (+3%)

Thanks to booming gas exports, Australia has been able to kick a trade deficit it incurred in 2015, and turn it into a trade surplus worth almost $30 billion last year.

Australia top imports, 2018

  • Electric parts & machinery $31.8 billion (+11%)
  • Oil & gas $30.5 billion (+34%)
  • Cars, trucks and parts $30 billion (+2%)
  • Electronics $25.6 billion (+12%)
  • Optical & medical equipment $8.3 billion (6%)
  • Pharmaceuticals $8.2 billion (+4%)
  • Precious stones $6.6 billion (-0.2%)
  • Plastics $6.4 billion (+10%)
  • Articles of iron and steel $6.4 billion (+22%)
  • Furniture, bedding, lamps $4.8 billion (+9%)

Australia's biggest risk is its vulnerability to any dip in demand from China. In February, when the port of Dalian suspended imports of coal from Australia so that Chinese customs authorities could carry out "risk monitoring & analysis of imported coal to safeguard the rights and interests of Chinese importers and protect the environment", the value of the Australian dollar immediately tumbled. Australia is still figuring out the tricky balancing act of maintaining its alliances with both China and the US while they feud over trade.

Australia also faces a number of self-incurred risks. A housing bubble recently popped, with potentially damaging and far-reaching consequences. Another risk is climate change: In 2017, storms slowed down exports from Australia's biggest ports.



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