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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the – December-quarter 2016 National Accounts data – which showed that real GDP had rose by a strong 1.1 per cent after recording a negative 0.5 per cent outcome in the September-quarter 2016. Annual growth (last four quarters) was 2.4 per cent. The December-quarter result was 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). A bright spot was the positive private investment growth. However, I consider the overall outcome to be an unstable situation. Households cannot continue to dominate the growth outcome when wages are flat or falling and the household debt ratio is already at record levels. The decline in the household saving ratio cannot be sustained. Further, public investment is spiky (large public infrastructure projects) and could just as easily turn negative next period. The overall trend in government intent is to cut back its contribution to growth in the coming year. Which means that growth becomes dependent on the swings in the terms of trade, which fluctuate substantially.
In the September-quarter 2016, Australia recorded negative GDP growth (-0.5 per cent). Over the last two years, employment growth has been flat and over the last 12 months, full-time employment has dived. Underemployment has risen sharply while unemployment remains at elevated levels and participation at depressed levels (meaning hidden unemployment has risen). And over the last four quarters, wages growth in Australia has been at record lows. Sounds bad. Well for some – make that most of us. But yesterday, the ABS shone a light on one cohort of income recipients – capital – profits rose in the December-quarter by 20.1 per cent. What? And wages fell by 0.5 per cent. Phew, I thought there might be some sharing of the spoils going on – you know, the top-end-of-town letting the workers in on the action a bit. This data comes as Australian workers are being shafted by rises in energy prices as a consequence of large companies, many foreign-owned, being given carte blanche to our national energy resources. A major union’s response today has been to call for a gas reservation policy to guarantee domestic supply (which is waning as we export our heads off). Unfortunately, while the call appears to be based on reason – lower prices, guarantees to local industry etc – any move to a domestic reservation policy would slow down the shift to renewables and just shift profits from export to import operations. It is not the sort of regulation that a progressive should support.
Yesterday (February 22, 2017), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the December-quarter 2016. For the fourth consecutive quarter, annual growth in wages has recorded its lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. Real wages are barely growing and trailing productivity growth by a long way. The flat wages trend is intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth in consumption spending. The Australian government, which should be showing leadership, is obsessing about who it can rope into a free trade deal now the US have scuttled the TPP. The lessons have clearly not been learned.
In the June-quarter, it was only the contribution of public spending that allowed the Australian economy to avoid negative growth. That contribution disappeared in the September-quarter and given the fiscal settings and the negative investment contributions it was obvious that Australia would slide closer to recession – recording negative growth for the first time since the September-quarter 2011. The fact is that the non-mining part of the economy is already in recession and has been for some time. Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the – September-quarter 2016 National Accounts data – which showed that real GDP had indeed slumped to record a negative 0.5 per cent outcome. Annual growth (last four quarters) has fallen to 1.8 per cent, but the September-quarter outcome is closer to where we are now rather than what happened towards the end of last year and earlier this year. The Australian economy has been marching inexorably towards recession for the best part of this year and government refuses to budge from its attempts to impose fiscal austerity. Madness is a euphemism for their policy conduct. Incompetent also comes to mind. the September-quarter result has been driven by a negative contribution from private capital formation, net exports and now public spending. The only on-going positive contribution to growth came from household spending. My experimental research (which I will blog about when I am more certain of the methodology) show that when we take out the mining sector, Australia has been in recession or near it for some quarters and only the government contribution has made the difference between the two states. The on-going negative growth in private investment means that potential output in Australia and future growth rates will be lower than otherwise. Not a positive sign. The data continues to confirm that Australia faces a very uncertain outlook and with the Federal government intent on imposing austerity, then the nation is probably already recession overall (given the National Accounts data is already three months old). That should be a huge wake up call for the Federal government which is currently trying to bully the Senate into accepting massive cuts in public expenditure.