Last month Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest woman and matriarch of Perth’s Hancock mining dynasty delivered an unwelcome shock to her workers in Western Australia: accept a possible 10pc pay cut or face the risk of future redundancies.
Ms Rinehart, whose family have accumulated vast wealth from iron ore mining, has seen her fortune dwindle since commodity prices began their inexorable slide last year. The Australian mining mogul has seen her estimated wealth collapse to around $11bn (£7bn) from a fortune that was thought to be worth around $30bn just three years ago.
This colossal collapse in wealth is symptomatic of the wider economic problem now facing Australia, which for years has been known as the lucky country due to its preponderance in natural resources such as iron ore, coal and gold. During the boom years of the so-called commodities “super cycle” when China couldn’t buy enough of everything that Australia dug out of the ground, the country’s economy resembled oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
While the rest of the world suffered from the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Australia’s economy – closely tied to China – appeared impervious, with full employment and a healthy trade surplus.
However, a collapse in iron ore and coal prices coupled with the impact of large international mining companies slashing investment has exposed Australia’s true vulnerability. Just like Saudi Arabia, which is now burning its foreign reserves to compensate for falling oil prices, Australia faces a collapse in export revenue.
Recently revised figures for April show that the country’s trade deficit with the rest of the world ballooned to a record A$4.14bn (£2bn). That gap between the value of exports and imports is expected to increase as the value of Australia’s most important resources reaches new multi-year lows. Iron ore is now trading at around $50 per tonne, compared with a peak of around $180 per tonne achieved in 2011. Thermal coal has also suffered heavy losses, now trading at around $60 per tonne compared with around $150 per tonne four years ago.
For an economy which in 2012 depended on resources for 65pc of its total trade in goods and services these dramatic falls in prices are almost impossible to absorb without inflicting wider damage. The drop in foreign currency earnings has seen Australia forced to borrow more in order to maintain government spending.