We Can Conquer the Debt Mountain

DEBT is the only mountain that is easier to climb up than trek down. The agricultural industry has climbed the mountain at speed in the past 20 years.

Total rural debt has increased fivefold – up from $13 billion in 1993 to $64.3 billion at the end of 2013.

Much of the increased debt in the industry was taken on in a period of optimism during the mid-2000s.

Asset values soared – in the north Queensland pastoral industry prices went up from about $500 per hectare to more than $2500 per hectare.

Consequently, graziers were encouraged to, and in many cases did, take on more debt.

Since the Global Financial Crisis asset values have fallen by roughly 40 per cent

If you go to The Economist’s website you can pull up an interactive graph of house prices in US cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Detroit. You could add another line called “north Queensland grazing industry” – it would not look out of place.

Indeed, it would be highest “hill” among them all. In the US house prices “only” went up between two and three times before falling by about a third.

It should not be surprising then that many Australian farmers are struggling with debt. The American sub-prime crisis wreaked havoc through the US economy and it engendered unprecedented government policy responses.

The Obama administration set aside $75 billion to provide assistance in restructuring loan terms and refinancing at lower rates.

Even in Australia, where there was no house price crisis, the Australian government spent $15.5 billion buying residential mortgages from banks.

In rural areas the government has responded with $430 million in loans in response to the drought, and these loans have supported some. In Queensland, 97pc of the funds allocated last year have been lent to farmers.

But the issue with debt pre-dates the drought and will outlast it. I believe that if suburban land values had risen and fallen like rural land values have, we would have had a bigger response.

That is why I and others have called for a Senate inquiry into rural debt. It would be just one vehicle to help lift the profile of this issue in the minds of politicians, and explore ways to fix it.

There is no knight in shining armour to help solve all of the industry’s issues.

Governments cannot play that role because:

  • There is no spare cash in Canberra.
  • It is not fair on those that did not take out debt if Canberra simply bails everyone out.

It is irresponsible and ultimately counterproductive to raise hopes beyond what politicians can achieve.

Yet, in my firm view there is a role for government to work with the industry, to work with banks, to help work through these issues.

Just like in the US housing crisis, governments can help people and banks adjust to a changed environment through renegotiated terms and assistance packages.

They will never remove all pain for people but they can help transform businesses from a high-debt, nowhere-to-go situation, to one in which debt is manageable and they have a future to work towards.

The debt situation is a national issue too.

If we want our beef industry to respond to the burgeoning demand in Asia, we need them to be flexible enough to do so.

Being in too much debt is like having your feet stuck in wet concrete.

We need people to have the confidence and the ability to restock their properties when prices lift again.

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