Australia is enjoying spectacular prosperity courtesy of the global commodities boom, and the 2006 Australian Super Investment Conference in Cairns this week heard some bullish presentations suggesting it will keep going.

Goldman Sachs flew in Stefan Weiser, a commodity heavyweight from Singapore,  who made a powerful argument that we’ll see “high returns for the next ten years”.

Weiser claimed that enormous under-investment in energy during the 1990s, when too much cash went into technology, had led to surging costs and “the revenge of the old economy” as China booms.

“It takes seven years to build a new oil refinery and up to ten years to open a copper mine,” Weiser said.

Despite Exxon-Mobil now making $1 billion a week, Weiser claimed oil industry returns have only risen from 17% in 2000 to 19% now “because the marginal cost of oil has gone up from $US20 to $US55 a barrel.”

Citigroup’s base metals expert Alan Heap was a little more sanguine about the outlook. Whilst acknowledging the extraordinary fundamentals out of China, he pointed out that “investment flows into commodities have increased massively and we have to worry about the sustainability of it”.

Indeed, the money invested in commodity indices has catapulted from $US10 billion to $US130 billion in just three years and this has driven up prices.

Sure, China’s share of world copper consumption has leapt from 13% to 23% and it is now consuming a stunning 36% of global aluminium, but what will happen when China slows down?

The two previous super-cycles in commodities were also driven by periods of sudden urbanisation and industrialisation – the US from 1885 to 1915 and Europe and Japan’s post war boom from 1945-1975.

China’s 27-year growth story since Deng started economic reforms in 1979 is expected to see it overtake the US by 2050, unless it gets hit by some disaster such as war, a pandemic or an environmental crunch. This would cause some serious global contagion, especially when you consider that 40% of China’s economy is exports and 40% of these exports go to the US. They certainly don’t want a US president to tell Wal-Mart to stop sourcing goods from China.

Peter Fray

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