Peter Halliday looks at ceramic tile imports data for the 2018 calendar year. Most imported tiles still originate from China, and there has been a large percentage increase of tiles from India.

Data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that Australia imported 45,577,062 square metres of ceramic tiles in 2018. The total value for Australian customs purposes was declared as AUD479,611,522.

This represents a decline of just -0.53 per cent on the 2017 calendar year import volume but an increase of 3.2 per cent in value. The 2018 volume is 2.6 per cent below the market peak total recorded in March 2017. Fig.1 illustrates the previous 5 years of import volumes by quarter.

Whilst the latest decline in the annual figures seems insignificant when compared with 2017, December quarter imports were 23 per cent or 1,145,141 square metres below the September quarter figure. The September quarter has traditionally seen much higher import volumes than the June and December quarters, but the December quarter 2018 fall was larger than normal.

The breakdown of imports by country and state is shown in Fig.3. China was still the largest source for ceramic tiles sold in Australia, making up 69.8 per cent of the total import volume. Imports from China rose by 2 per cent in 2018.

While the volume was high, the value of Chinese imports also rose by 5 per cent but represented only 56 per cent of the total Australian customs value. The average import value was AUD8.38 per square metre in 2018, a modest increase from AUD7.85 five years ago when the Australian dollar was much stronger against the US dollar.

Fig.2 shows the Reserve Bank of Australia monthly exchange rate average over the previous five years for the two major currencies used to purchase tiles, the US Dollar and the Euro. Fig.4 and Fig.5 show the top 10 source countries by volume and value respectively.

Italy supplied 9.3 per cent of all ceramic tiles imported in 2018 which was down on the 10.3 per cent total in 2017. The value however was higher overall than 2017 at 21.4 per cent of the total Australian customs import value, reflecting Italy’s continued concentration on producing higher end ceramic tiles including large format porcelain panels or gauged porcelain slabs. The average value of Italian imports was AUD21.15 per square metre or 2.9 times greater than the average value of Chinese tile imports.

Imports from Malaysia dropped -3.8 per cent in 2018 but Malaysia was still the third largest exporter of tiles to Australia, supplying 8.7 per cent of total. The Australian customs value fell by -6.6 per cent, the value representing only 5.9 per cent of the total, with an average price of AUD7.18 per square metre, AUD1.20 lower than China.

Spain was the fourth largest exporter to Australia in 2018 in volume terms and the third largest in terms of value. Imports from Spain in 2018 increased both the quantity and value, reaching 4 per cent of the total annual volume and 7.8 per cent of the total annual customs value, the highest levels ever. Spanish imports were 16.7 per cent higher than the volume of imports in 2017 and 16.7 per cent higher in value in 2018.

India overtook Thailand to become the fifth largest supplier to Australia, albeit with much smaller volumes than Italy, Malaysia or Spain. Indian tile exports to Australia rose 86 per cent in 2018 reaching 541,637 square metres, or 1.2 per cent of the import total. Imports from Thailand fell by a further 30 per cent in 2018 to 516,338 square metres. Ceramic tiles imported from Thailand once made up almost 10 per cent of Australia’s total imports but large declines between September 2013 and June 2016 and a further steady decline since September 2017 has resulted in imports from Thailand now making up only 1.1 per cent of the total volume.

While some imported tiles will be sold and transferred to other states, the ABS records only the destination state declared on import documentation. Fig.6 illustrates import volume over the last five years by state. New South Wales was the largest declared destination state for ceramic tile imports to Australia again, increasing by 3 per cent and accounting for 41.8 per cent of all tile imports. This was up from 40.3 per cent in 2017. When looking at where New South Wales sourced tiles, Malaysia was under-represented at only 4.2 per cent of the state total (Malaysia made up 8.7 per cent of the national total). New South Wales imported 56 per cent of all tiles from Spain and 56 per cent of all tiles from Thailand, both above the national average.

While New South Wales represented the biggest importing state, when compared to the previous quarter, New South Wales imports showed a 26 per cent downturn in the December quarter, the biggest of any state. This may be the reflection of a slowing of building and construction activity before other states following a drop in building approvals and a tightening in lending restrictions with housing finance to owner occupiers falling to five year low in September 2018.

2018 also saw a marked decline of 67 per cent in foreign investment in Australian residential real estate as restrictions in Australia and in China took effect.  The volume of imports and quarterly volatility by state can be seen in Fig.7.

Victoria was the next biggest destination state in 2018 with a 24.8 per cent share of imports. Victorian imports rose 2.8 per cent in 2018. Queensland was the next biggest state, importing 19.3 per cent of the total however Queensland import volumes declined by 11 per cent in 2018. Western Australia was responsible for 8.3 per cent of Australian tile imports, a decline of 2.95 per cent, while South Australia increased by 7.8 per cent, Tasmania increased by 20.5 per cent and Northern Territory declined by 23.8 per cent.

The summary table in Fig.8 details the breakdown of all imports by Harmonised Tariff Code. It shows porcelain tiles made up 57.2 per cent of all imports. Tiles with a moisture absorption above 10 per cent, typically wall tiles, made up 17.8 per cent of the import total, although many of the other categories would also be used on the wall.