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So what really did save Australia's economy?

By Alan Austin - posted Thursday, 22 August 2013


Economists accept Australia now has the world's best-managed economy. Debate continues, however, on related questions: Is Australia's economy the best the world has ever seen? Which countries today rank second, third and fourth? How did Australia gain such ascendancy through the worst global downturn since the Great Depression?

To the last question, various answers are asserted. Some insist Australia's strong cash position at the onset of the global financial crisis (GFC) did the trick. The evidence, as shown here at OLO, suggests not.

Others claim budget surpluses. Again, the evidence is against. Denmark, Spain, Finland, Iceland and Chile all had strong surpluses in 2008 yet suffered severe reversals. In contrast, India, Israel, Poland and the Slovak Republic all had deficits, yet emerged pretty well.

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So neither deficit nor debt were significant.

Was it Australia's good fortune to have iron ore to export? No, the facts show otherwise. Brazil has strong iron ore exports but went into recession along with other ore exporters and has barely recovered since.

Same with other minerals. Russia, the USA and South Africa are big gold exporters, as is Australia. Of these, only one escaped recession.

Strong commodity prices? Always good to have. But few prices actually remained high. Iron ore prices surged in 2008, but other prices collapsed. Aluminium – in Australia's top four mineral exports – boomed in 2005 then plummeted in 2008. The price of crude petroleum – Australia's second top energy export – rose steadily from 2004 then collapsed in 2008.

Besides, other exporters all enjoyed the same profit windfalls, but went backwards through the GFC.

Trade with China? No. Other countries have substantial exports to China. These include the Euro Area, New Zealand, Russia and Japan. None of these was spared the ravages of the GFC.

Was it the specific magic potion of exporting iron ore to China at a time of rising prices? Afraid not. Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine and Canada did so also. Worked for none of them.

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Was it Australia's strong banks prior to the GFC? Certainly helped. Tim Harcourt noted that "Australia is benefiting from past economic reforms – especially the floating of the exchange rate, the tariff reductions and financial reforms of the 1980s."

But other nations with equally strong banks suffered severe recession, including Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Norway. All experienced four, five or six quarters of negative GDP growth.

So although having money in the bank, surplus budgets, solid banks, mineral reserves, a cashed-up customer nearby and strong prices are all handy, they don't explain Australia's sudden ascendancy.

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About the Author

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Nīmes in the South of France. His special interests are overseas development, Indigenous affairs and the interface between the religious communities and secular government. As a freelance writer, Alan has worked for many media outlets over the years and been published in most Australian newspapers. He worked for eight years with ABC Radio and Television’s religious broadcasts unit and seven years with World Vision. His most recent part-time appointment was with the Uniting Church magazine Crosslight.

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