Australia Inc is walking into a trap

Wayne Swan is glossing over the economic threats closing in behind us as trade-exposed businesses continue to scale back investment. And market events could well block the road forward to long-term wealth.

I can't shake the feeling that Australia Inc is walking into a trap – like soldiers advancing into a village pinch-point, perfect for an ambush that will leave no way forward, no way back.

Strap hanging, cheroot dangling from his lips, Captain Wayne Swan is leading us into this quiet space. The anti-GFC campaign is nearly over. The men are tired. There are just a few of these villages to secure and we can all go home.

Ahead, the road leads out of town and due north to prosperity. Behind, is the safety of open country where we might make no progress, but we won't be trapped and picked apart by snipers. And it's quiet ... too quiet.

Okay, enough dramatics. The road ahead, that we'd all love to be on, is the halcyon era of steady, high commodity prices, a dollar that tapers back to around 90 cents as neatly as one of those Treasury charts in the federal budget, corporate profits rebound, and consumer and business confidence returns to health.

That spooky village is behind us. There was nothing there after all, ha hah.

Behind us, the safer country was a diversified economy in which business people actually contemplated starting up new services or manufacturing businesses, confident that Australian ingenuity, access to reliably cheap capital, and tense but stable industrial relations were enough to make us competitive abroad. Yes, the costs of doing business here were high, but that doesn't seem to stop Germany making and selling stuff.

And we are now clearly between these two places. The government – as any government would – ensures all its rhetoric highlights the promised land ahead. Thus, yesterday, Treasurer Swan read the ABS inflation data and decided it was all about carbon pricing rather than faltering domestic consumption, or the continuing importation of dis-inflation.

Don't mention those, just reassure us that there was no carbon-tax blow-out in the cost of living as that naughty Mr Abbott told us there would be.

Look ahead boys – we can see continuing low unemployment. Continuing low inflation. Continuing fiscal restraint and a Reserve Bank freed to run record low interest rates. Continuing high prices for coal, iron ore, wheat. And we're almost there ...

Or are we. That paranoid fear in my stomach tells me that the country to the south was safer.

That was the time when the dollar traded at close to 80 cents for the three years before the run-up to the 2008/09 Lehman Brothers crash. That was before nervous pension funds and central banks started buying Australian government bonds hand over fist, and China's massive fixed-investment stimulus splurge sent iron ore and coal prices soaring.

In those years – roughly 2004 to 2007 – iron ore prices were rising, and the housing market was on fire, but otherwise the economy was reassuringly boring. Bonds still manufactured its iconic clothing range at home.

There's nothing boring about our current position. Yes, there's beautiful country ahead, but we're not out of this ambush point yet.

The dollar correction, when it comes, is likely to be sharp. Everything stamped 'Made in China' could within a few weeks be costing us 20 per cent more.

Unemployment is low, but it is rising and underemployment is high. Any disruption of our 'strong economy' will send consumer confidence plummeting – and it's already low (Consumer spending down in December: CBA study, January 24).

And the high commodity prices driven by China are not guaranteed – especially as new supply gets into full swing (Indonesian coal, Brazilian iron ore and so on).

Add to that our great resources saviour, LNG, being threatened by shale-gas supplies being developed in the US and China, and new oil discoveries in Iraq (as Robert Gottliebsen explained yesterday – see Iraq pours oil on an LNG fire), and the promised land starts to look more dangerous.

Demand for Australian government bonds is still strong but the dollar correction, combined with interest rates plumbing new lows, could see that demand suddenly changing as those central banks and pension funds look elsewhere for safe-haven assets in the recovering economic titans – the EU, US and China.

So we really are standing on precarious ground. Market events could well block the road ahead to a long-term, resources funded period of wealth. And the road back is already blocked by the number of trade-exposed businesses that have scaled back investments – auto, steel and other manufacturing businesses, troubled education exports and tourism – which can't be rebuilt overnight.

I don't blame the Treasurer for glossing over these topics with 'strong economy' news. It's an election year after all. But the long-term structural shift towards a resources-heavy economy, at the expense of just about everything else, is a very risky bet.

Overall, I agree with Alan Kohler's bullish view of the global economy (Five reasons I'm bullish for 2013, January 23) but for domestic politicians, this is not about global markets so much as our unique position within them.

We're exposed, and whoever is Treasurer after the next election will need to stop celebrating the fact that we're currently on top, and begin managing a soft landing for the dollar and the resources boom – one that takes us back to a reassuringly boring, but stable, economy.

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