Australia isn’t the only country exposed to a novel coronavirus recession in China. The COVID-19 epidemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, but it also has raised fears about the performance of the Chinese economy and everyone who supplies it. China is Australia’s No 1 export market. If iron ore is what you have to sell, China is buying. That makes Australia’s economy almost as vulnerable as its public health.
But not only Australia’s. Scan the list of other countries that rely on China as their No 1 export market, and there are several that are even more exposed. International pariah North Korea sits at the top with 91 per cent of its exports going to China, with landlocked Mongolia (76 per cent) in second place. Landlocked Laos (58 per cent) runs a distant third. You have to feel sorry for these poor, underdeveloped countries living in the shadow of a totalitarian police state such as China. Maybe not too sorry for North Korea.
Rounding out the list of China-dependent countries is Australia, with 35 per cent of its exports going to China. More than two-thirds of Australia’s mineral exports go to China, along with more than a quarter of its agricultural products and a third of its wine. New Zealand has 24 per cent China exposure, powered by milk, butter and cheese.
The COVID-19 epidemic has the potential to hit China-bound exports hard. Commodity exports are likely to track the Chinese economy down by up to 2 per cent in volume — and price drops may be even larger. Australia’s commodities exports are likely to take a 5 per cent to 9 per cent hit in the first half of the year, racking up revenue losses from $3bn to $5bn.
But commodities aren’t the big story. Australia’s mining giants can lose that much in a day’s trading on the metals exchanges and just as quickly win it back. After the crisis has passed, it will be difficult even to identify the impact of the epidemic on commodities exports. The industry is so volatile that the COVID-19 crisis is all in a day’s risk management.
The real risk story is education, specifically universities. English language schools also depend on China, but to a smaller extent than universities, and their rapid enrolment cycles will dampen their COVID-19 losses. Miss the start date for your English language class and there’s always another one starting next week. Miss the beginning of your university term and you’re out for the semester — or the year.