NZ or Australia – who is the luckier country?

For at least three decades New Zealanders have quietly lamented their lack of 'luck' when it came to natural resources and the performance of their economy relative to the 'lucky country' – Australia.

New Zealand has relied on tourism and exporting the 'soft' commodities of dairy and meat and alpine views, while Australia was able to dig up iron ore and coal, along with drilling its apparently bottomless basins of oil and gas.

"One caters to older, slowing growing economies. The other has ridden the wave of emerging Asia's stunning investment growth."
Bernard Hickey, Publisher, Hive News

Over those 30 years Australian wages raced 30 per cent ahead of those across the Tasman, at least partly because those harder commodities dug up from under the outback were more valuable to the successively fast-growing economies of Japan, Korea and China.

But Australia's economy has struggled relative to New Zealand's since 2014 and for exactly the same reason it excelled more than New Zealand before then – the changes inside China's economy.

It's now dawning on New Zealanders that New Zealand may just be the luckier country in this new era.

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Young and fast-growing economies need steel and concrete for their infrastructure and factories, which can only be made with iron ore and coal. More mature economies need pizzas, espresso coffee and services such as health and education.

New Zealand produces protein and views, while Australia produces iron ore and coal. One caters to older, slowing growing economies. The other has ridden the wave of emerging Asia's stunning investment growth.

Former NZ Finance Minister Michael Cullen captured that hard luck story best in 2009 when he said of Australia's faster growth: "It's nothing to do with their intrinsic superiority or less regulation or whatever, it's because they've got this vast mineral wealth."

“We only succeed on the basis of what we're intelligent enough to create, not like the Australians digging up their country because the world wants what they've got buried beneath it," Dr Cullen said.

The former Labour deputy Prime Minister may well have been reacting defensively at the time given the way current NZ Prime Minister John Key had used that growing wage gap and the emigration surge it created to win power in 2008.

But it still reflected the views of many New Zealanders. Australia was the luckier country and there was little could be done or would happen to change that. Until now.


Iron ore prices have halved since the beginning of 2014 and are less than a third of their February 2011 record highs reached when China juiced its infrastructure spending immediately after the Global Financial Crisis.

Coking coal prices have also more than halved as demand from Chinese steel mills for the raw materials needed for infrastructure has fallen in line with growth in infrastructure investment.

China's long-awaited and often foretold switch away from heavy investment in infrastructure and manufactured exports towards services and consumption seems finally to be happening.

Retail sales in China (think restaurants, consumer goods and movie tickets) are still bubbling along at a growth rate of over 10 per cent, while the growth of fixed asset investment (think bridges, apartments and airports) has halved to less than 10 per cent in the last two years. Industrial production (think steel and manufactured goods) is growing at just over 5 per cent, half the rate it was growing just two years ago.

This 'new normal' for China's economy was the main topic of discussion at a China Business summit in Auckland this month, particularly in the wake of China's announcement of its 13thfive-year plan for 2015-20.

Most were confident the switch to a slower-growing but more consumption-heavy economy was good news for New Zealand, which produces the ingredients for all those restaurants and holidays that the new middle classes are discovering.

Prime Minister John Key talked up the prospects for New Zealand as China's growing middle classes increased their spending in a US$10 trillion economy.

"The underlying demographics – you just can't beat those numbers," Key told the conference.

China's Ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Lutong, also emphasised the growth of China's 'new normal' economy, and in particular the potential for 500 million outbound tourists from China over the next five years.

"There is massive space for goods and services, which New Zealand excels in, such as education, tourism, food safety, health care, environmental management and expertise in financial and legal services," Ambassador Wang told the conference.

"New Zealand is blessed with great resources. You've got white gold, which is the dairy, and you've got green and blue gold, which is the landscape for tourism and green technology," he said.

ANZ's China Chief Executive Huang Xiaoguang spoke about the potential for an economy with 600 million middle class consumers growing at a rate of more than $US1 trillion each year, which is bigger than the entire Indonesian economy.

"If we can shift from an investment and export-led economy to a more consumption-led economy then the Chinese economy is going to be more healthy and that will contribute a lot to the world economy," he said.


Air New Zealand Chief Executive Christopher Luxon and Fonterra Chief Executive Theo Spierings both addressed the conference on how New Zealand's two largest export earners were benefiting from this growing demand from Chinese middle-class consumers for protein and holidays.

Luxon said Air New Zealand had just completed its most profitable year ever, in part because of growth in air travel between China and New Zealand. Visitor arrivals from China grew 35 per cent in the last year, while spending by Chinese tourists in New Zealand rose 61 per cent as travelers moved from cheap three-day organized tours to 7-10 day tours by couples and families travelling independently.

He saw visitor arrivals from China to New Zealand more than tripling to over one million per year within the short to medium term, with growth driven in part by Air New Zealand's new partnership with Air China to fly direct from Beijing to Auckland daily from December 10. This deal alone will increase air capacity between Auckland and China by 25 per cent next year.

"The biggest question for us is whether the infrastructure can handle the growth," Luxon told the conference, adding New Zealand was falling behind Australia in having shovel-ready hotel projects in the pipeline to handle the growth.

"The issue we're running into is the number of the hotels and the quality of the hotels. We think we need to follow a lot of the Australian approach. They have 100 investment-ready-now projects."

Spierings was also confident demand from Chinese consumers to eat out-of-home and for 650 million internet users to buy products online would help double Fonterra's sales in China to $NZ10 billion by 2020.

He pointed in particular to the growth of 'food service', including selling ingredients to bakeries and milk to chains such as Starbucks, which was adding 100 new cafes a month. Fonterra's food service business in China had grown from $NZ600 million five years ago to almost $NZ2 billion, according to Spierings.

"To put that in context, that's the entire wine industry of New Zealand – that's food service only in China," he said.

New Zealand's largest beef exporter, Silver Fern Farms, was also confident about the demand for New Zealand's protein, particularly now it had a joint venture with Shanghai's biggest food distributor, Bright Food. Chief Executive Dean Hamilton told the conference he was confident of continued double-digit growth of sales of lamb and beef into the out-of-home market, where New Zealand meat has proven popular among chains of 'hot pot' restaurants.

New Zealand's ability to take advantage of the consumption-heavy 'new normal' economy in China has not been lost on macro-economists either, particularly in comparison with Australia.

The IMF's Assistant Director for Asia and Pacific, Chikahisa Sumi, talked about New Zealand's ability to benefit from the switch from investment to consumption in China during a briefing on its economy this month.

"New Zealand exports agricultural food products, tourism and educational services, so these are the things which are more consumption related," Sumi said.

"So it is not like exporting iron ore. If you are exporting iron ore, investment is very important.

"Our baseline scenario is that China's slowdown and adjustment to a consumption economy will be long-term positive for New Zealand."

New Zealand's white, green and blue gold has made it the luckier country as China shifts away from turning Australia's brown and black gold into steel, roads and buildings. Instead its consumers are heading to the café for a flat white to plan their camper-van holidays around Queenstown.

Bernard Hickey is the owner and publisher of Hive News

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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