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Australian national accounts – growth continues but deep uncertainty looms

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest June-quarter 2018 National Accounts data today (September 5, 2018). While the economy recorded a relatively robust 0.9 per cent growth for the quarter and 3.4 per cent over the 12 months to March 2018, the economy remains reliant on household consumption expenditure, which, in turn, is being driven by credit and declining savings as household income growth moderates. There is very little growth contribution coming from the external sector and the contribution from private investment was zero. That is an unsustainable mix. All this means that the current overall growth trajectory is fairly fragile. There is a high probability that household consumption expenditure will slow right down as debt levels become unmanageable. Whether that happens will depend on the wages growth trajectory in future quarters and the outlook on that front is mixed. Overall, this is not a balanced growth outcome.

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Public infrastructure investment must privilege public well-being over profit

One of the principle ways in which so-called progressive political parties (particularly those in the social democratic tradition) seek to differentiate themselves from conservatives is to advocate large-scale public infrastructure investment as a way of advancing public good. You can see evidence of that in most nations. Nation-building initiatives tend to be popular and also are less sensitive to the usual attacks that are made on public spending when income support and other welfare-type programs are debated. Capital worked out long ago that public spending on infrastructure provided untold benefits by way of profits and influence. In the neoliberal era, the bias towards ‘competitive tendering’ and public-private partnerships has meant that private profit tends to dictate where and what public infrastructure is built. The problem is that large-scale projects tend to become objects of capture for the top-end-of-town. Research shows that these ‘megaprojects’ typically deliver massive cost overruns and significantly lower benefits than are first estimated when decisions are being made about what large projects to fund. Further, evidence suggests that this is due to corrupt and incompetent behaviour by private project managers (representing their companies) and empire-building public officials. They lie about the costs and benefits so as to distort the decision-making processes in their favour. Any progressive government thus must be mindful of these tendencies and behaviours. A progressive policy agenda needs to be more than just outlining a whole lot of nice sounding public infrastructure projects that the government will pursue. The whole machinery of public procurement that has emerged in this neoliberal era needs to be abandoned and replaced with decision-making processes and rules that privilege the advancement of public well-being over profit.

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Australian households running down savings and in a race to go broke

A short blog post today as it is Wednesday. I have also been travelling a lot and have been reading a lot. And have been otherwise distracted. But I thought this information was worth writing a few paragraphs about for the record. Last week, I wrote a blog post – The fundamental realignment of British society via fiscal austerity (July 30, 2018) – about some of the more unsavoury impacts of the British government’s austerity push. I highlighted how the current growth strategy was precarious because it was reliant on the private domestic sector accumulating increasing debt to maintain consumption growth at a time when the external sector was draining growth, private investment was weak and the government was hell bent on cutting services and infrastructure investment. The ONS data shows that “UK households have seen their outgoings surpass their income for the first time in nearly 30 years” and they “are borrowing more and saving less”. A recipe for disaster. A report published in Australia late last week – 14th Household Financial Comfort Report (August 2018) – provides “in-depth and critical insights into the financial situation of Australians based on a survey of 1,500 households”. It is not a pretty story and demonstrates the global uniformity of the neoliberal approach, which is characterised on ever increasing private debt and falling commitments to sustain public services. The GFC only temporarily interrupted this agenda that aims to reverse decades of gains for workers and their families under social democratic governments.

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US growth surprise will not last

Last Friday July 27, 2018), the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published their latest national accounts data – Gross Domestic Product: Second Quarter 2018 (Advance Estimate), which tells us that the annualised real GDP growth rate for the US was a very strong 4.1 per cent in the was 3 per cent in the June-quarter 2018. Note this is not the annual growth over the last four-quarters, which is a more modest 2.8 per cent (up from 2.6 per cent in the previous quarter). As this is only the “Advance estimate” (based on incomplete data) there is every likelihood that the figure will be revised when the “second estimate” is published on August 29, 2018. Indeed, the BEA informed users that it has conducted a comprehensive revision of the National Accounts which includes more accurate data sources and better estimation methodologies. So I had to revise my entire dataset today to reflect the revisions. The US result was driven, in part, by “accelerations in PCE and in exports, a smaller decrease in residential fixed investment, and accelerations in federal government spending and in state and local spending.” Real disposable personal income grew at 2.6 per cent (down from 4.4 per cent in the first-quarter). The personal saving ratio fell from 7.2 per cent to 6.8 per cent. Notwithstanding the strong growth, the problems for the US growth prospects are two-fold: (a) How long can consumption expenditure keep growing with flat wages growth and elevated personal debt levels? (b) What will be the impacts of the current trade policy? rise is a relevant question. At some point, the whole show will come to a stop as it did in 2008 and that will impact negatively on private investment expenditure as well, which has just started to show signs of recovery. Government spending at all levels has also continued to make a positive growth contribution. But with rising private debt levels and flat wages growth the growth risk factors are on the negative side. When that correction comes, the US government will need to increase its discretionary fiscal deficit to stimulate confidence among business firms and get growth back on track.

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Australian National Accounts – strong growth but unbalanced and fragile

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest March-quarter 2018 National Accounts data yesterday (June 6, 2018). The results were very interesting and shows how vulnerable the Australian economy is despite the relatively strong growth that was recorded. Total growth for the quarter was a healthy 1 per cent which led to an annual growth rate of 3.1 per cent. That is close to our long-term trends. The standout contributor was exports. The National Accounts data indicates that the Australian economy continues to ride the terms of trade cycle. There was a sharp boost in our terms of trade in the March-quarter 2018, which drove export revenue up sharply. At the same time, household consumption expenditure continued to moderate as high levels of debt and flat wages growth impact. Domestic demand was weaker as a result. The boost to exports is volatile while the moderation in consumption is now structural and this means that the current overall growth trajectory is fairly fragile despite the stronger growth in the March-quarter overall. I expect household consumption expenditure to remain subdued while the path that exports will take is much more uncertain. Overall, this is not a balanced growth outcome.

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Australian national accounts – growth slowdown continues

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest December-quarter 2017 National Accounts data today (December 6, 2017). It showed several things that defy the hype in the media. First, overall real GDP growth was just 0.4 per cent for the quarter – 1.6 percent annualised – miserable. Even the actual annual rate of 2.4 per cent is well below past trends. Private capital formation was negative. Net exports were negative. Growth is being sustained by household consumption on the back of record levels of household debt and government spending (mostly local and state level investment). Without the contribution of government spending, overall growth would have been negative in the December-quarter. And this is a government that is trying to cut its deficit. This ‘rear vision’ account of where the economy was in the last three months of 2017 is thus not very good reading. Real GDP growth has fallen from 0.8 per cent in the June-quarter, to 0.6 per cent in the September-quarter to 0.4 per cent in the December-quarter. That is a trend I suspected would emerge. What is obvious to me is that private investment is flagging after showing some signs of recovery and a stronger fiscal contribution is necessary to ensure that household consumption scales more proportionately with growth in incomes rather than debt. than is evident in the current data. The external sector continues to make a negative contribution to growth with exports falling. There is no big Post Mining Boom-Export Boom happening folks. The one positive was that growth in compensation of employees was above 1 per cent for the quarter and 4.8 per cent for the year. We will see whether that materialises into a trend. As I concluded last quarter, the overall assessment is that growth is positive but slowing. And, it remains unbalanced and uncertain.

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Australia national accounts – growth slows with declining consumption growth

When the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the September-quarter National Accounts (on September 6, 2017) annual growth was running at 1.8 per cent, around half the trend rate before the GFC. But the striking result was that public spending (consumption and investment) contributed 0.8 percentage points to the growth rate – which means that without that contribution, real GDP growth would have been zero in the September-quarter. Today (December 6, 2017) we received the next ‘rear vision’ account of where the economy has been from the ABS, when it released the September-quarter 2017 National Accounts data. Real GDP rose by 0.6 per cent in the September-quarter 2017 (down from 0.8 in the June-quarter) and the annual growth (last four quarters) was just 1.8 per cent just under half the trend rate before the GFC. The striking result was that household consumption expenditure was very weak while private capital formation improved. The reduced growth in household consumption (with a slight rise in the saving ratio) may signal that the recent credit-fuelled consumption binge is coming to an end and households are starting to restructure their precarious balance sheets. Let us hope so. But this will require a stronger fiscal contribution than is evident in the current data. The external sector made a zero contribution to growth while public spending (consumption and investment) reduced growth by 0.4 percentage points (a sharp reversal on the June-quarter result). Overall, the growth is unbalanced and uncertain.

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Australian national accounts – government spending drives growth

The ABS released the – June-quarter 2017 National Accounts data – today (September 6, 2017), which showed that real GDP had risen by 0.8 per cent in the June-quarter 2017. Annual growth (last four quarters) was just 1.8 per cent around half the trend rate before the GFC. The striking result was that public spending (consumption and investment) contributed 0.8 percentage points to the growth rate – which means that without that contribution, real GDP growth would have been zero in the June-quarter 2017. Private consumption expenditure contributed 0.4 points, although the household saving ratio fell again indicating the tenuous nature of relying on this growth with flat wages. Private investment spending was negative. Net exports were stronger with export volumes strong in the face of the falling terms of trade. Overall, the growth is unbalanced – relying on lumpy public investment spending and credit-driven private consumption growth. The outlook is thus uncertain.

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Income shifts towards profits – a repeating destructive phenomenon

This is an extension of yesterday’s blog on the Australian national accounts release (Australian economy was slowing fast in March-quarter 2017 and outlook negative and delves further into the income side of the results, which are, frankly, stunning. They also accord with general global trends which I have written about in the past, which are creating further income inequality and damaging stable damaging growth prospects. Yesterday’s data confirmed that over the last two quarters (at least) almost all of the income growth has been captured by profits, with real wages and salaries actually falling in the March-quarter 2017. No wonder the growth in consumption spending fell away in the first part of 2017. Does that matter? Well, a rise in the profit share undermines consumption spending. If consumption spending is weak, the opportunities for profitable investment in new productive capital decline. Economies that are growing strongly provide a fertile environment for private investment. Austerity-ridden economies undermine private investment. Economies where consumption is falling due to real wage suppression also do not provide a buoyant investment climate. Flat wages growth in Australia has seen the saving ratio fall back towards zero and households take on ever more debt burdens. The Household debt to disposable income ratio is now at record levels. The declining wage share and the resulting credit binge in many nations were clearly causal in creating the global financial crisis. The mainstream economists believed that the markets were efficient and that there would be no problems with placing an increasing proportion of real income into the hands of the Casino economy. They were wrong. And with the same trends now repeating – they will be wrong again.

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Australian economy was slowing fast in March-quarter 2017 and outlook negative

Last week, we learned that private new capital expenditure had risen by 0.3 per cent in the March quarter but was still 9.3 per cent down on the March-quarter 2016 outcome. The forward-looking estimates for 2017-18 have also improved somewhat but still lies well below the expected outcome at the end of June 2017. So, perhaps the massive decline in private investment spending is abating somewhat. In the December-quarter 2016 National Accounts release, the ABS estimated that Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics real GDP had risen by a strong 1.1 per cent which followed a negative 0.5 per cent outcome in the September-quarter 2016. The results were driven by strong household consumption growth (even as wages growth was negative), public investment and net exports (on the back of a massive shift upwards in the terms of trade). I said at the time that it was doubtful this was setting a new trend away from the sluggish growth that Australia had fallen into in recent years as a result of declining private investment and a government intent on austerity. And that assessment proved to be accurate when the ABS released the – March-quarter 2017 National Accounts data – today, which showed that real GDP had risen by just 0.3 per cent in the March-quarter 2017. Annual growth (last four quarters) was just 1.7 per cent around half the trend rate before the GFC. Net exports undermined growth by 0.7 percentage points, despite the improved terms of trade. Inventory accumulation added 0.4 percentage points, which indicates how unstable the growth profile was earlier in the year. Private and public consumption expenditure contributed 0.5 points, although the household saving ratio fell again indicating the tenuous nature of private consumption expenditure. Remember that the National Accounts are a rear-view mirror of where the economy was 3 months ago. But the overall trend is not terribly optimistic, especially with the government intent on cutting back its contribution to growth in the coming year.

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