Riding on the Eastern march to middle class

THERE was bromance in the air when global mining advocate and billionaire Robert Friedland shared his vision of the near future with Melbourne's mining community this week.

THERE was bromance in the air when global mining advocate and billionaire Robert Friedland shared his vision of the near future with Melbourne's mining community this week.

His thesis was simple: Europe has been built, is in decay, will not change and is near irrelevant. China, India, Mongolia, Indonesia and some day soon, he hopes, Africa are under construction on long marches to middle-classdom.

Australia, happily, is abundant in the minerals that will get them there. In Friedland's view, the only thing stopping us from reaping the bounty is ourselves, and our politicians (such as "The Redhead", as he bills our Prime Minister).

Friedland has done what most of his audience was still dreaming about and working towards found the mineral deposits, secured the financing to dig them out and nailed the buyers to justify his multibillion-dollar developments.

More than that, in a country that worships its sporting heroes, Friedland (pictured) presents as a man's man who casually elbows aside naysayers, politicians and even global financial crises in his run to the goal.

Some might call him a zealot but like it, or him, or not, Friedland has been very right on more than a couple of occasions. His biggest and best call was recognising the Chinese economic snowball's gathering speed years before the rest of the world reoriented itself.

In his mind, Australia exists only as "the lucky country", blessed by geographical proximity to Asia and mineral wealth. His message: forget Europe, the US will sort that out. Instead, dig up dirt and send it north to Asian markets, and everything will work out all right (so long as the government does not overtax those doing the digging).

It is odd to listen to a North American who seemingly has more faith in our future than most of the residents or at least, the non-shopping residents.

But the less black-and-white vision most of us have might make the second leg of Friedland-onomics less certain that China and surrounding nations will remain gaping maws for our production because so many millions of their people are climbing to middle-class levels. For instance, his dismissal of southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece as comprising people who have never paid tax, and never will, is probably way too harsh. Even he concedes that "because Greece can't sell their fetta", the weaker euro has meant that Germany is making money hand over fist selling its first-class mining machinery at competitive prices to the likes of his Ivanhoe Mines, thereby fulfilling Asian demand for minerals and metals.

Yet Friedland's proposition is worth examination. Because of our settlement and immigration history, at least until the past 30 years, we naturally identify with Europe as the ancestral home. Economically, though, its direct importance has fallen away, leaving Australia (and New Zealand) as cultural anomalies in the region.

What would happen to us in Australia if several of the European nations, or the euro, or some of their banks fell in screaming heaps?

The short answer is, quite probably, not a lot in real terms (except perhaps a change in the mix of seaborne refugees). That does not mean zero pain our superannuation funds have investments there and the banks that lend us money, according to HSBC Australia economist Paul Bloxham, borrow about 10 per cent of it in Europe.

Bloxham thinks our biggest risk is that our Asian minerals customers generate significant income from exports to those Western markets.

Friedland sees that problem as a short-term hiccup when set against the rampant population growth in the East that will be demanding TVs, four-wheel-drives and fancy furniture.

He is right about their aspirations. Even those who have only ventured as far into China as Hong Kong will identify with the observation of the Brookings Institution's director of China research, Cheng Li, that the second-largest growth area in consumption last year was pet care products a sure sign of disposable income.

Li, like many a China watcher, has been warning that the rapid urbanisation and rising incomes of Chinese, not to forget the accompanying inflated prices for food and accommodation, are going to severely test the skills of that nation's government and its political colour.

"Real estate [in China] is more expensive than in San Francisco or Hawaii, but Chinese income is low. People in China joke that they had to start saving to buy a home in the Tang dynasty," said Li in a recent interview published on management consultancy Booz & Co's website.

This week, China preceded the co-ordinated action of the US Federal Reserve with other central banks, in handing out more money to make it easier for banks to borrow, by relaxing controls in its own system.

That shows that China, too, is worried about the effect of declining Western consumption on its exports. The release yesterday of figures that measure new orders and stocks provided some context for that change. The build-up of unsold goods is growing more rapidly than new orders are shrinking. Again, that is short-term stuff in Friedland-onomics.

There may be no question that China has the will and capability to service international markets.

The critical issue for the "lucky country" though, is whether the Beijing government has the firefighting capacity to deal with all the spot fires that its people's needs and aspirations will create.


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