Research Discussion Paper – RDP 2005-01 Long-term Patterns in Australia's Terms of Trade Abstract

We examine two important aspects of Australia's terms of trade using 135 years of annual data up to 2003/04. Since Australia predominantly exports commodities and imports manufactures, the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis suggests that there should be a negative trend in the terms of trade. But the trend is no more than –0.1 per cent per annum, less than the trend decline in world commodity prices relative to manufactured goods prices. The weaker trend appears to be the result of Australia exporting, and importantly diversifying toward, commodities with faster price growth. Extending the sample using projections for the terms of trade for the two years to 2005/06 based on commodity price movements to date, the apparent downward trend disappears. Indeed, based on these projections, the terms of trade will have increased by around 50 per cent over the period 1987–2006, unwinding the decline over the preceding 30 years.

We also investigate the volatility of the terms of trade and demonstrate that it was significantly higher between 1923 and 1952. This is attributable to substantially higher volatility in the export prices of a few key commodity exports. Volatility declined after 1952 due to smaller shocks to the prices of these goods. The diversification in Australia's export base since then means that the terms of trade are less susceptible to shocks to prices of individual commodity exports.

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