Terms of trade: An Australian perspective

Institutional Economics has some good points on the boost to Australia’s terms of trade – points we can keep in mind over here.

Relative to what we pay for our imports, Australia now gets higher prices for its exports than at any time since at least 1870. This was illustrated by Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens’ observation that ‘five years ago, a ship load of iron ore was worth about the same as about 2,200 flat screen television sets. Today it is worth about 22,000 flat-screen TV sets.’

This increased international purchasing power is attributable not only to rising commodity prices, but also lower prices for imports, not least manufactured goods. The flip side of Australia’s terms of trade boom is the collapse in the terms of trade for countries like Japan.

So a higher terms of trade allows us to buy more imports for the same quantity of exports – something that is important to keep in mind when we bang on about “rebalancing” the economy.  Furthermore:

Our best response to the terms of trade boom is to become even more open to inflows of foreign labour and capital and to reduce the government’s command over resources so that the mining industry can expand with less pressure on other sectors. While the non-mining sectors will contract relative to mining, they can still expand in absolute terms if we continue to remove government-imposed resource constraints to overall economic growth.

The industries that aren’t experiencing higher returns should be expected to fail – proping them up is a policy that will just lead to worst outcomes from everyone.

So much of what has happened to New Zealand has been due to massive changes in the terms of trade – both in the 1970’s and in the 2000’s.  Asking for the “balance” of the economy to return to some past point doesn’t make sense – when the “prices/values” that dictate this point have changed … a change in economic structure is what NEEDED to happen.

It is possible some things may have gone a bit far – but it is better for us to try and understand why, where, and how before introducing policy, rather than aiming to meet some magical level of tradable to non-tradable GDP (or real consumption as a share of GDP).  If you want more details on the why, where, and how – look around the blog (pro-tip search imbalance), or contact me directly.