ANZ chief: Farmers in line for China boon

LISA MURRAY
Last updated 05:00 16/06/2013
China
Qilai Shen/AFR

ANZ chief Mike Smith in Chengdu, southwest China, for the Fortune Global Forum.

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ANZ Banking Group chief executive Mike Smith says China is about to do for Australian farmers what it did for the country's miners a decade ago.

But he also added his voice to a building chorus of calls for Australia to follow New Zealand's lead and sign a free trade agreement with China to make the most of the growing demand for agricultural goods.

While everyone is talking about the end of the minerals boom - something he disagrees with - Smith said insufficient attention had been paid to the potential surge in Chinese demand for soft commodities, such as grain and meat.

"People just don't get the soft resources story at all," Smith said this month on the sidelines of the Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, a city in China's southwest where ANZ set up an operations centre and plans to open its next retail branch.

"Demand for protein is just growing exponentially in this part of the world and, as this middle class develops, the amount of income which is available for choice in terms of what people wear, where they live and what they eat is going to have a significant impact on that demand."

Smith said countries like Australia and New Zealand are at an "extraordinary advantage" because the logistics costs of supplying to China are so much less than anywhere else.

New Zealand's free trade agreement is "quite narrow" but "has been very effective in creating the impetus for trade and investment", he said.

The comments followed the release of the Food and Agriculture Organisation's closely watched outlook report, which predicted production constraints and rising demand would result in big jumps in China's imports of beef, dairy and coarse grains, used for animal feed.

The report, produced with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, said that, by 2022, China would become the world's biggest per capita consumer of pig meat, imports of coarse grains would double and dairy imports would rise 20 per cent. At the same time, China is expected to remain self-sufficient in its main food crops of rice and wheat.

Demand from China's growing middle class would support prices and ensure that more deals were done in the agribusiness sector, which is one of the target areas for ANZ, Smith said.

"A lot of people talk about the move out of poverty as leading to the big shift in food demand but that's not right. Going from a bowl of rice to two bowls of rice a day isn't going to make a difference. The difference is the growth of the middle class. That's the big change."

Smith, who is on his fourth trip to China this year, met Prime Minister Li Keqiang earlier in the week as part of a delegation of leading executives from the Fortune Global Forum, including former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. He said Mr Li was very comfortable with an economic growth rate of 7 per cent "in the medium term", below the government's official forecast for this year of 7.5 per cent.

"The Chinese government has made it very clear the economy would change over the next 30 years from an export-driven economy to a consumer-based economy," Smith said.

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That means there is unlikely to be any more big spending stimulus packages.

However, Smith, who has spent many years in the region heading HSBC's Asian business before joining ANZ, said as more and more Chinese people moved to the cities, spending on infrastructure and housing would continue to underpin demand for Australian resources, like iron ore.

Echoing comments from Australia's former Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, during a speech in Shanghai this month, Smith said the government needed to introduce economic reforms while the going was good.

"There's 20 to 30 years to run in this and that's the opportunity Australia has because, in this time, it has to transform the economy," he said.

"It's already had 10 years without realising it and it's really got to grasp the mettle and say ‘We're going to make the best use of this time'."

Smith said the latest investment phase of the resources boom had ended, but the extra production was coming on line, which would fuel economic activity.

- AFR

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