NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I come from the Land Down Under. If there's one takeaway from my time in the U.S. (other than fried equals delicious), it's that we Australians are better known for our koalas, kangaroos, kookaburras and crocodile-wrestling residents than, say, our economic prowess.
But through 2014, Australia's economy will be front and center as the nation chairs the G20, setting the agenda of its yearlong presidency and culminating in the ninth summit of the heads of government in Brisbane on Nov. 15-16.
To better equip for the year ahead, swap the Stars and Stripes for the Southern Cross, don your cork hat and wind the clocks forward 16 hours. Here's a crash course in the 15 things you may not have known about the Australian economy.
1. A SUNBURNT COUNTRY
First, let's give some perspective. Australia is the largest country without land borders, the sixth-largest country by area, and the only country coterminous with a continent. Around 23 million people are sprawled across its mainland and smattering of islands, isolated most thickly in coastal pockets along the nation's edges.
Overlaid on a map, the U.S. and Australia are fairly similar in size (bar the unfair Alaskan advantage) but the former has a population of 314 million, over 13 times more than Australia. Even Texas has a greater population and it is one-tenth the size.
2. WE'RE IN THE MONEY
Now consider, in 2012 Australia amassed a GDP totaling $1.521 trillion, while the U.S. pulled a total $15.68 trillion. That's $49,965 per capita Stateside, compared to $67,035 for Australia. Though fewer of us there may be, that's no small chunk of change.
3. OL' MATE MONEYBAGS
Australians have the highest median wealth per person globally. By Credit Suisse's count, median wealth per household clocks in at $219,505. In fact, 62.6% of Australians have net worth of over $100,000.
By 2013, 38,000 more Aussies joined the millionaire club, pushing our total number of millionaires to 6.8% of total population, compared to 0.7% globally.
4. NO, NOT MY LEGS
For all our wealth, we're not great at managing our money. While public debt is comparatively low (representing 30% of GDP, compared to 237% in Japan), private debt has been increasing in the years since the global financial crisis (GFC).
By mid-2013, consumer debt totaled a whopping AU$1.6 trillion, and business debt topped $800 billion. The average level of debt per Australian household in 2012, according to a study from the Melbourne Institute, topped $151,488. However, the average debt-to-assets ratio came in at a solid 17.6%, so at least we're spending on housing and investments than, say, beer and monocles.
5. AUSTRALIA'S WALL STREET
Compared to the NYSE and NASDAQ, the world's largest exchanges, the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) is comparatively small. Located in the heart of Sydney, it is the world's 10th largest exchange by company-listed market cap (AU$1.5 trillion or U.S. $1.37 trillion) and the 12th by trading volume.
And while the exchange isn't home to anything like Google or JPMorgan, Australian companies still pack a punch. Commonwealth Bank, one-quarter of Australia's "Big Four" banks, has a market cap of AU$123.4 billion ($112.7 billion) and sees more than 3 million shares change hands daily. Or take Woolworths, a national supermarket giant, which has a market cap of AU$42 billion ($38.36 billion) and a seemingly omnipresent footprint in the country.
Beyond the ASX, some of the world's biggest names started in Australia or currently reside there. A little Rupert Murdoch-run company News Corporation(NWSA) - Get Report was founded in Adelaide three decades ago. Mining behemoths BHP Billiton(BHP) - Get Report, Rio Tinto(RIO) - Get Report and Alumina Limited (AWC) are all headquartered in Melbourne.
6. NOT OURS, BUT THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
Some of Australia's most famous exports aren't Australian at all. Take Fosters "It's Australian For Beer" Group as an example. That most famous of Australian beers (and the least loved among Australians) started in Melbourne. However, it was victim to a takeover in 2011 by British multinational conglomerate SABMiller.
Sidenote: a sad loss it was. Twenty-two million jars of Vegemite are sold each year. Keeping in mind there are only 23 million of us, and that one jar lasts a mighty long time (in my family of 8 daily Vegemite eaters, a 300g jar would last four or five months), that should give you an indication of how much we cherish the stuff. Some still resent the change of hands, boycotting the original and opting for Australian-made alternatives such as Ozemite.
7. RECESSION SMUH-CESSION
Australia is lucky enough to be one of the few developed nations to avoid recession in the late naughts. Luck is the right word: right place, right time. Thanks to its wealth of natural resources and a geographically-close and resource-hungry China, the nation was able to insulate against the world's financial troubles.
Even now, Asia takes the majority of exports, with product shipped to China (29.5% of exports), Japan (19.3%), South Korea (8%) and India (4.9%). It helps to have high-growth, developing economies as neighbors.
On top of that, the Australian Federal Government, led by on-again, off-again Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, implemented a series of aggressive monetary policies to cushion the blow from a culturally- and politically-close United States. One of these strategies was a series of stimulus plans, otherwise known as free money to the average layperson or overexcited financial journalist (this kid right here).
In 2009, tax-paying residents were given up to AU$950 ($867.80) as an incentive to spend and get that capitalism ball rolling. A year earlier, AU$3.9 billion ($3.56 billion) was divvied among low- and middle-income families and AU$1.5 billion ($1.37 billion) was invested to assist first homebuyers.
The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) also deserves credit for "recession-proofing" the Australian economy (which, by the way, hasn't seen a recession in two decades). The central bank managed to keep a tight rein on interest rates, has kept unemployment below 6% since mid-2003 (and at its lowest of 4% in early 2008), and inflation at around 1.2% during the latter half of the GFC.
8. GOODY TWO-SHOES
Given its stellar performance throughout the GFC, Australia managed to keep its spotless A-grade report card from the top ratings agencies, including Fitch, Moody's and Standard & Poor's. It shares this honor with only 11 others, including some of the most efficient economies in the world such as Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.
9. A TALE OF TWO COASTS
Of course, the GFC and the years since haven't been all picnics and roses. Australia was, and remains a patchwork quilt of an economy. This "two-speed economy" is a tale of two coasts: the western coast and northern regions are home to booming minerals and resource industries and are flush with investments and profits and champagne and limos. The southeastern coast didn't have a resources cushion to fall back on and so many states, including Victoria and New South Wales, fell into recession.
As we've covered, during the global recession, Australia's life raft was resources, and its paddle, a mine. Even today, 19% of Australia's GDP stems from the mining sector (10% directly from mining and 9% from the mining-related economy). You name it, we got it: iron ore, coal, aluminum, nickel, gold, even uranium.
Since 2003, the mining industry has grown six times over to AU$147 billion ($134.26 billion) in 2012 from AU$24 billion a decade earlier.
Whether the good times can continue is up for debate. Economic forecaster BIS Shrapnel's recently predicted mining production will jump 41% through to 2018 and account for 20% of total GDP.
Research consultants Business Monitor, however, see mining slowing to 4.3% annual growth over the next four years, much lower than the average 23.3% over the decade. The RBA seems to agree and is already preparing for a slowdown, lowering its 2014 total economic growth estimate to between 2% to 3% as investment in the sector grows sluggish.
11. ... AND WINE
A Yank and an Aussie walk into a bar. We already know the American can drink but the Australian could give him a run for his money.
According to the World Health Organization, Australians (15 and over) consume 2.64 gallons of pure alcohol per capita, compared to the United States' 2.48 gallons. Beer was the beverage of choice at 46% of total alcohol consumed.
But wine is gaining fast. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports beer consumption dropped to a 66-year low in September of 1.09 gallons of derived alcohol, while wine rose to a record high of 1 gallon.
With more than 60 designated wine regions in Australia, it's clear we love a tipple. By the end of 2012, the wine industry was worth AU$4.3 billion ($3.9 billion), provided AU$43 billion ($38.9 billion) in economic value to the nation and raked in AU$1.9 billion ($1.7 billion) in exports, according to the Department of Tourism.
12. DREAMING OF A WHITE PICKET FENCE
For many Australians, the dream of a home with a white picket fence is out of reach as property prices rocket sky-high, far exceeding the average Australian's earning power.
In the 10 months to October, the average home prices in Sydney, the largest city by population, spiked 13% to AU$718,122 ($648,804), reports Bloomberg. By way of comparison, the median price for notoriously expensive New York City clocks in at $806,000 and a London home will set you back 331,338 pounds ($542,372).
Housing in Australia makes up around 60% of an average household's wealth, compared to 45% globally. As a result, household debt is an average 150% of yearly income, compared to a U.S. household's 135%.
13. THE HISTORY OF A DOLLAR
Now, a history lesson. Originally England's dumping ground for pig thieves and highway robbers, the Australian colonies engaged in a bartering economy ("I'll trade you this stick for some dirt" being an everyday conversation).
It wasn't until 1913, a full dozen years after the country entered nationhood, that it thought to issue its own formal and consistent set of currency. The first series of Australian currency was based on the Ye Olde British system of 12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound, and 3 headaches to a furrowed brow.
Australians must have enjoyed the math because it wasn't until 1966 that decimal currency was implemented and the Australian dollar introduced. Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies suggested calling the dollar a 'royal' to which we said, "Why don't we put a pin in that one, mate?"
In 1988, 200 years after settlement, the Royal Australian Mint pioneered a revolutionary polymer note, the first country to make bank notes out of plastic. The material made it harder to counterfeit and lasted four times longer than fibrous notes.
14. WELCOME TO AUSTRALIA
While mining might be big business, another Australian cash cow is tourism. By the end of 2012, Australian tourism contributed nearly AU$34 billion to Australia's GDP.
For the 12 months ended September, 6.4 million visitors arrived on our shores, up 5.2% from the year earlier. Around half a million of those visitors were from the States, the fourth most common visiting nationality after New Zealand, China and the U.K.
15. VICE CITY
It's no Vegas but Australia revels in its vices. Gambling, for instance, is policed state by state and restrictions are much looser than Stateside. The ever-present pokie machine is a key feature in pubs and clubs.
And it's big business. Crown Resorts saw revenues of AU$2.9 billion in the year ended June 2013, AU$2.28 billion of which stemmed from gaming. That's a lot of grannies pulling the lever. Tapcorp, a sports-betting company, saw revenue of AU$2 billion for the fiscal year ended June, half of which was redistributed to pay taxes and fees.
And while the taxman might be the winner in all this, Australian gambling has a sad side. In a 2010 report into Australia's gambling industry, the Australian Productivity Commission found only 11% of casino revenue was from high rollers. A massive 41% of revenue was generated by problem gamblers, inciting calls for government-imposed reforms to the industry.
If gambling isn't your cup of tea, what about smoking? The government pulls in the big bucks on that vice as well. A 12.5% rise in tobacco excises from Dec. 1 is expected to raise an extra AU$5.3 billion in taxes, pushing the average price of a 25-pack to AU$25 from AU$20.
Finally, prostitution, a legal practice in Australia, brings a pretty penny to government coffers. According to research firm IBISWorld, the brothel-keeping and prostitution services sector is forecast to grow 4.8% over 2013 to AU$150.2 million. Of course, this only constitutes the legal operations, not including the services which operate, ahem, under the table.
Governed state-by-state, the industry is highly regulated. A brothel in Queensland, for example, has a limit of five rooms and owners must shell out an AU$35,000 annual licensing fee.
--Written by Keris Alison Lahiff.