As delegates at the Africa Down Under Conference in Perth discuss how to successfully invest in Africa, many themes resonate more broadly. Africa’s emergence as tomorrow’s giant rather than yesterday’s supplicant also underlines why Australia must get its own house in order if it is to be a beneficiary.
Like most things in life, success is in large measure about relationships. Australian companies investing in Africa need stabilised investment frameworks, but without strong supporting relationships no project will be fully secure, realise its true potential, or perform in the most cost effective manner.
Building those strong relationships is partly a function of attitude. Having a healthy respect for African governments as sovereigns, and for communities as vital, is a good starting point. Africa as a continent is not poor – it has abundant resources. Its people are poor. But that does not make them any different to or less than anyone else. They want the things we have, and as they gain them so Africa’s power will grow.
Good relationships also rely on good communication, and in our social media age you need to publicly prosecute your case and get your story out. Otherwise others may well fill the void with mistruths that destroy the trust at the core of good relationships.
Australian and Western Australian Governments are implementing many initiatives to improve the competitiveness, administration and governance of mining in Africa – by working directly with African Governments and through the Australian Government’s policy of “economic diplomacy”.
These initiatives are not only laudable, but economically rational - both for Africa and for Australia. The pie will grow for both of them.
But there is a catch. As Africa develops, its sovereign and operating risk will diminish, and its infrastructure will improve. Australia has to this point enjoyed a distinct advantage in these areas. But the playing field will be much more level going forward.
Africa has been strongly impacted by the end of the commodities “super-cycle”. KPMG estimates that whilst FDI inflows to the continent increased 22% between 2010 and 2014 they plunged 31% in 2015. But the longer term trend is for Africa to mature as a destination for investment.
As it does, it will be more of a huge future market than a competitor for Australia. Resource sector growth will help propel development of that market. But already two thirds of Africa’s growth comes from increased domestic demand, and the World Bank estimates that addressing Africa’s infrastructure deficit will require investment of more than US$90 billion per annum.
By facilitating African resource growth Australia facilitates the success of Australian companies investing in it and facilitates growth of a massive broader market for Australian goods and services.But to be part of this win-win, Australia needs to remain competitive.
As stability and certainty increase in Africa, so risk premiums will reduce. Africa has abundant resources. The Africa Development Bank suggests that Africa has about 30% of the world’s known reserves of minerals, with upside because of comparably low levels of exploration.
Australia received a disproportionate share of investment during the last boom. The Grattan Institute estimates that in the 8 years to 2013 A$480 billion was invested in Australian mining projects – more than any other country in the world. But Africa is going to increasingly attract its share of international investment – according to the Export-Import Bank of China cumulative Chinese investment alone in Africa will amount to at least US$1 trillion over the next decade.
While other jurisdictions remained unstable and carried greater sovereign risk, Australia enjoyed a competitive buffer. It has been a very stable commodity producer, benefiting from strong rule of law, and has been able to price those benefits through a relatively high fiscal take. That shield will however dissipate as Africa’s stability and governance improve.
Current indications are that Australia’s competitiveness will go backwards. There is great opposition to allowing corporate tax rates to move down and so be less out of step with international comparators, and there is a suggested increase (for two companies) in per tonne rent for iron ore from 25 cents to $5 – a measure that is the very definition of sovereign risk.
Yes currently there are significant funds in the world system looking for a home with any sort of reasonable return, which with the stickiness of incumbent investment, and the sheer cost of bringing on supply in emerging markets when commodity prices are low, mean that changes may not have an immediate effect on investment in Australia.
But longer term, moves that damage Australia’s sovereign risk profile – one of its great competitive advantages – and put it out of step with the tax settings of other countries, will degrade Australia’s performance and reduce its living standards. The irony of this is that it need not be so. Australia can both improve its competitiveness and benefit from the strengthening economies of the commodity producers of Africa.