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Australia Boom Means Men Without Degree Top Bernanke’s Pay

Australian Wage Pressure Mounts
Miners arrive back to the surface after finishing their shift at Centennial Coal's Myuna mine. Photographer: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg

Travis Marks, a 24-year-old with no college degree, is hitting pay dirt as Australia’s mining bonanza fuels demand for workers. Already making triple the nation’s average salary, he expects to get even richer.

“With what’s going on in the industry, there’s lots of big jobs coming up,” said Marks, who earns A$220,000 ($227,150) a year -- more than Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s $199,700. His job as a rigger for a company providing construction and maintenance services to the resources industry is “a really good way to get ahead as a young bloke,” he said.

Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens faces a developed-world rarity: wage pressure in an economy near full employment. While he paused in raising interest rates this year to gauge the impact of the nation’s most expensive natural disaster, HSBC Holdings Plc projects an increase in the third quarter.

“The concern for central bankers is what happens for inflation expectations,” said Paul Bloxham, chief economist at HSBC in Sydney and a former Reserve Bank official. “The big concern is that you start to see signs of some sort of wage-price spiral.”

Rate Outlook

With incomes rising for Australians like Marks, National Australia Bank Ltd. says markets underestimate the likelihood of higher rates to contain inflation. Traders are betting Stevens won’t boost borrowing costs at the next policy meeting April 5 or for the rest of the year and see only about a 50 percent chance of an increase in February 2012, according to bank bill futures.

In a research report this week, National Australia Bank said investors should bet on three-year swap rates rising to

5.75 percent from about 5.3 percent. It sees the nation’s currency appreciating to a record $1.05 in June from $1.0342 at 6:30 p.m. in Sydney today.

Australia’s economic growth is extending into sparsely populated areas as Chinese and Indian demand drives export revenue from raw materials to a record. Perth-based Mineral Resources Ltd. said in March it exported the largest manganese shipment from an Australian port when a 74,000 metric-ton Panamax carrier departed Port Hedland, in the northwest of Western Australia.

737 Service

Qantas Airways Ltd., based in Sydney, started a passenger service March 14 using Boeing Co. 737s to help workers reach job sites in Western Australia’s Shire of East Pilbara. The region, where 10,500 people live in an area the size of Germany and summer temperatures reach 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit), is also the home of Mt. Whaleback, the world’s biggest open-cut iron-ore mine, owned by Melbourne-based BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s largest mining company.

HSBC estimates the total value of Australian mining and resource projects proposed or under construction at $777 billion, or about 60 percent of gross domestic product.

Wages grew 3.9 percent in the three months through December from a year earlier, the fastest pace since the first quarter of 2009, according to government figures. When the central bank decided March 1 to keep its official cash rate at 4.75 percent, it said wage growth had returned to levels reached before a 2009 decline.

“Guys that were asking for A$150,000 in November are asking for A$180,000 and getting it,” said Damien Lee, general manager of Professional Recruitment Australia, which supplies workers to companies including Woodside Petroleum Ltd., Leighton Contractors and Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

RBA’s Threshold

The Reserve Bank has had a threshold of about 4.5 percent for wage growth -- a combination of 2 percent productivity and the 2.5 percent mid-point of the central bank’s inflation target range, according to Stephen Roberts, a senior economist at Nomura Australia Ltd. in Sydney. That limit now is likely 4 percent or lower, as productivity slows to less than 1 percent, he said.

The gap between yields on Australian government bonds and inflation-indexed notes today shows investors expect consumer prices will rise an annual 2.97 percent for the next five years, the fastest among eight developed nations tracked by Bloomberg.

“For industries like construction, incentives to move to mining sites will increase and put pressure on wages in capital cities,” Roberts said. Wage growth already is near the central bank’s “line in the sand,” where increases become inflationary and unions may exert more pressure, he said, predicting the central bank will raise rates later this quarter.

Unions Respond

Unions see an opportunity to lock in higher compensation as unemployment hovers around 5 percent, about half the rate in the euro zone.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Australia’s biggest in the building industry, sought pay increases in February of as much as 24 percent over four years. The Communications, Electrical and Plumbers Union is seeking annual pay rises of 5 percent over the next three years, almost double the inflation rate.

“Industry has the capacity to pay,” Dave Noonan, national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division, said in an interview.

Unions contend that cost-of-living pressures for workers are higher than reflected in the nation’s consumer price index, which rose 2.7 percent in the fourth quarter from 12 months earlier, the smallest gain in a year.

Inflation-Wage Gap

The gap between the central bank’s weighted median measure of inflation and the annual wage-price index, based on Feb. 23 statistics bureau figures, is the widest in six years.

Torrential rains in Queensland during December and January have compounded concerns about labor shortages. The storms flooded about 30,000 properties, shut coal mines, cut rail lines and damaged crops. An area the size of Egypt was declared a disaster zone, including parts of the state capital, Brisbane.

Reconstruction is expected to cost A$20 billion, according to Melbourne-based Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., and it will take two years and 34,000 tradesmen to rebuild Brisbane homes, said Graham Cuthbert, executive director of Brisbane-based industry group Master Builders Queensland.

Queensland already was experiencing high demand for civil engineers after the state was hit by floods a year earlier and that will only intensify after the latest deluge, said Simon Bristow, regional director at Hays, a recruitment firm.

“The market is tightening,” Bristow said.

Help Wanted

Two coal-seam gas projects, expected to cost more than A$30 billion, are proceeding near Gladstone, a port in Queensland. Santos Ltd., Australia’s third-largest oil producer, and BG Group Plc, the U.K.’s third-biggest gas producer, will start hiring the first of more than 10,000 construction workers needed for the projects later this year.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in February the resource industry could be short 36,000 workers in the next four years and the government will have to introduce measures to encourage older Australians and parents to rejoin the workforce. She also plans to relax restrictions on skilled migration.

Labor availability and rising wages are the biggest concern of 55 percent of Western Australian businesses this year, up from 42 percent a year ago, according to a survey released yesterday by Commonwealth Bank of Australia and the state’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

So far, the Reserve Bank has relied on consumer spending restraint and higher household savings to cool inflation in recent quarters and allow it to delay rate increases.

GDP Expansion

With incomes rising in an economy forecast by the bank to grow 4.25 percent in 2011, when measured from the fourth quarter of 2010 to the final three months of this year, surging wages could force Stevens to boost a benchmark rate that’s already the highest in the developed world.

“At some stage, households will be comfortable with the war chest of savings built and throw caution to the wind,” said Jarrod Kerr, director of Australia rates strategy at Credit Suisse in Singapore. “The RBA is lying in wait for this moment and will restrain households if spending accelerates too much.”

Marks, the rigger who works for Monadelphous Group Ltd., expects to move closer to home in northern Queensland as mining and energy projects swing into gear, he said in a telephone interview from Perth, the capital of Western Australia. Friends often ask him how they can get into the resources businesses, too.

“It’s hard work, but for the money it’s worth it,” he said.

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