Tuesday, 22 September 2009 06:58

ICT trade gap widening, warns ACS

Australia's ICT trade deficit grew to $A28 billion in 2008, according to a report by the Australian Computer Society (ACS). Although exports rose, imports grew more.

According to the ACS's 2009 Australian ICT Trade Update, the nation's ICT exports totalled $6.6 billion while imports also rose to $34 billion.

Australian ICT imports are overwhelmingly for equipment. Software imports were around $1 billion (back to the levels of the early part of the decade after a bulge between 2004 and 2006), while services were around $4 billion (suggesting the growth in offshore outsourcing may not have been as strong as suspected in some quarters).

Equipment imports have been rising fairly steadily since 2003, which was the low point after the 'tech wreck' at the beginning of the decade. It will come as no surprise to anyone that's been looking at the "made in" labels on hardware that China is now Australia's biggest supplier, accounting for 35% of equipment imports.

Exports have followed a slightly different pattern, as they didn't return to growth until 2006. And equipment and services exports are more evenly balanced, running at around $3.5 billion and $3 billion respectively.

The good news is that exports have almost recovered to the level seen at the peak of the boom in 2000.

Perhaps surprisingly, ICT goods and services are among Australia's top ten exports, and account for approximately 2.3% of the nation's export earnings.

Where are these exports going? Find out on page 2.

We'll start with services exports.

The US is the biggest export market for both the communications and computer & information segments, accounting for 20% and 29% respectively.

On the communications side, other major markets are Hong Kong (14%), the UK (6%) and New Zealand (6%).

It's a somewhat different story for computer & information exports, where 6% goes to the UK, 4% to New Zealand and 4% to Singapore.

When it comes to equipment exports, the pattern changes again.

New Zealand takes 23% of Australian ICT equipment exports, followed by the US on 17%, and China on 14%.

Other significant customers include Singapore (7%) and Germany (5%). But export destinations are very diverse, with the top ten only representing 78% of the market.

So if exports are going well, whose 'fault' is the trade deficit? Please read on for the answer.

When you look at the section of the ACS report that takes a state-by-state view of the matter, it becomes obvious that fingers should be pointed in the direction of NSW.

That state was responsible for a massive 64% of ICT equipment imports, compared with 43% of exports.

Victoria, by comparison, took 23% of imports but accounted for 36% of exports.

Queensland was almost even on 7% and 8%.

South Australia had a disproportionately high level of exports (7%) versus imports (2%), as did Western Australia (6% vs 4%), but their impact on the national figures was relatively small.

If it wasn't for Victoria, Australia's ICT 2008 trade surplus would have been a lot worse.
"Australia has never been a large manufacturer of traditional computer equipment and in recent years we have continued to spend on equipment and services imports, particularly from Asia.

"This is healthy to the extent that ICT is a growing area of focus and expansion for Australian business and governments. Much of this equipment is powering our national productivity and providing Australia with a competitive advantage," said Kumar Parakala, chairman and president of the ACS.

What else did Parakala say, and where can you get the report? Please read on.

"The continued growth in ICT revenues within the services sector, particularly ICT enabled services, is spotlighting an area of increasing global opportunity and a primary growth opportunity for Australia's economy.

"We need to pay more attention to this sector – and make it a national economic priority like the other top ten export areas," he added.

According to Parakala, the NBN (National Broadband Network), e-health, e-learning and environment-related matters present export opportunities for Australian companies.

Potential barriers include low levels of investment, e-security failings, and low levels of export awareness among SMEs.

"Through ICT trade Australia can become globally competitive and improve its economic prosperity.

"Trade in computer services is the only area of ICTs in which Australia has a surplus on trade and is clearly an important focus area of local strength," said Parakala.

"There are also areas of electronics production in which Australia is competitive and actively participating in global production systems. What must occur now is that we build and leverage these local strengths."

The full report can be downloaded here [PDF, 2.2MB].


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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.



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