Australian national accounts – a fragile state

Yesterday’s Australian Bureau of Statistics – Australian National Accounts – for the March-quarter 2014, shows that real GDP growth was 1.1 per cent, up from 0.8 per cent in the December-quarter 2013. The annualised growth rate of 3.2 per cent is an improvement on the 2.8 per cent from last quarter and is close to the trend rate between 2000 and 2008 of 3.3 per cent. Growth is being driven almost exclusively by Net exports with some help from household consumption and private investment, although the last two components are fairly subdued. The question is whether the boom in net exports in the Mining secotr in the March-quarter 2014 can be maintained. The signs are that it will taper somewhat in the second-quarter results given that the terms of trade are falling significantly and the export volumes that have been driven by strong growth in China are likely to decline as the Chinese economy slows. Overall, the data paints a fairly fragile picture for the Australian economy with not much sign of activity in the non-Mining sectors.

The main features of the National Accounts release for the March-quarter 2014 were (seasonally adjusted):

  • Real GDP increased by 1.1 per cent after recording a 0.8 per cent increase in the December-quarter.
  • The main positive contributors to expenditure were Net Exports (1.4 percentage points), Final consumption expenditure (0.3 percentage points) and Private gross fixed capital formation (0.2 percentage points).
  • The main negative factors were the decline in Inventories (-0.6 percentage points) and Public gross fixed capital formation (-0.2 percentage points).
  • Our Terms of Trade (seasonally adjusted) fell by 1.2 per cent in the quarter and over the last 12 months they have fallen by a substantial 3.8 per cent.
  • Real net national disposable income, which is a broader measure of change in national economic well-being rose by 1.2 per cent for the quarter and 2.2 per cent for the 12 months to the March-quarter 2014, which means that Australians are better off (on average than in 2013).

Overall growth picture – strong growth but fragile

The following graph shows the quarterly percentage growth in real GDP over the last five years to the March-quarter 2014 (blue columns) and the ABS trend series (red line) superimposed. After the decline in trend growth was arrested by the fiscal stimulus in 2008-09 the decline in government support saw the dip in trend growth in 2010.

Initially, the growth in private investment associated with the record terms of trade and the resulting mining boom helped drive the new rise in trend growth and that appears to have ended towards the end of 2013, notwithstanding the strong net exports in the March-quarter 2014. If the net exports continue to be strong then the trend will likely rise again but that is a big if at this stage.

Further, while the fiscal austerity built into the May 2014 Budget Statement is not going to impact heavily this financial year, there is still some drag there. Also, consumer confidence is falling as a result of the announcements by the government of cutbacks and that will contain any growth in household consumption.

The fragility of the growth path arises because there is no real signs of growth in any sector other than mining, and there are signs (see below) that net exports cannot continue as robustly as was evident in the March-quarter 2014.

Contributions to growth

What components of expenditure added to and subtracted from real GDP growth in the March-quarter 2014?

The ABS tell us that:

On the expenditure side, the increase this quarter (in seasonally adjusted volume terms) was driven by Net Exports (1.4 percentage points), Final consumption expenditure (0.3 percentage points) and Total Private Gross Fixed Capital Formation (0.2 percentage points). These increases were partially offset by decreases in Changes in Inventories (-0.6 percentage points) and Public gross fixed capital formation (-0.2 percentage points).

The following bar graph shows the contributions to real GDP growth (in percentage points) for the main expenditure categories. It compares the March-quarter 2014 contributions (grey bars) with the December-quarter 2013 (blue bars).

The staggering result is that the net exports contribution to growth was 1.4 percentage points, larger than the overall growth rate and therefore offsetting some negative expenditure contributors. The net exports result was partly helped by a decline in imports, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

The overall contribution of private investment was a modest 0.2 percentage points and confirms that the investment cycle associated with the mining boom is over. The exports strength is associated with the second phase of the boom that flows once the increased infrastructure is in place.

There was a sharp contraction for public investment and it is now dragging growth down (-0.2 percentage points).

Note that the strong contribution from net exports in the March-quarter 2014 (0.6 percentage points). This is driven by a small contribution from exports (0.5 points) and a drop in imports (0.1 points), the latter the result of below-trend growth.

The contribution of Private consumption is moderate and slightly down on the last quarter (0.3 percentage points).

The overall public sector contribution (-0.1 percentage points) is down from the 0.3 percentge points in the December-quarter. The fiscal contraction is now gathering pace and dragging growth.

The overall assessment is that if net exports were to wane then growth would plunge to very low levels. This is especially so given the contributions from private domestic expenditure are very modest indeed as households maintain their cautious approach and the relatively high saving ratio and investment flattens out and the increasing fiscal drag coming from the public sector.

Given that, the future is actually not as bright and stable as the media is making out today. Base metal commodity prices are falling quite sharply and the ABS reported in this data release that the Terms of trade decreased 1.2% in seasonally adjusted terms in the March quarter and “From the March quarter 2013 to the March quarter 2014 the Terms of trade has fallen 3.8%.”

In part, this is due to the Chinese economy starting to slow down, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming quarters. Those two trends will reduce the prices and volumes of our exports. Given those two trends are current then I predict that the contributions from net exports will be much lower in the June-quarter data.

The next graph shows the contributions to real GDP growth of the major expenditure aggregates since March-quarter 2013 (in percentage points). The total real GDP growth (in per cent) is also included as a reference.

The stand-out result is the dominance of net exports and the subdued behaviour of the other expenditure components. As noted above, real GDP growth in Australia is now delicately poised.

Wage share falls

The wage share in national income fell in the March-quarter to 53 per cent. It has fallen by 0.9 percentage points in the last year.

The following graph shows the movement in GDP per hour worked and the Average Real Wage per worker in index number form from March-quarter 1980 to the current quarter.

The widening gap indicates that capital (profits) have been gaining an increasing share of real GDP (national income) at the expense of the workers. imilar trends have been reported in other advanced OECD nations.

While neo-liberal commentators claim this is due to globalisation, the reality is that it has been driven by attacks on trade unions, increased casualisation and persistently high unemployment and underemployment. These factors have combined to make it difficult for workers to gain real wages growth. Globalisation is only one part of the story.

The next graph shows the outcomes in terms of movements in the wage share in national income (%) and the profit share (%) from the September-quarter 1959 to the current quarter.

As I have noted in the past, the deregulation in the labour markets not only increased job instability and created persistently high unemployment, but also led to large shifts in national income from wages to profits. Similar trends have been reported in other advanced OECD nations.

First, in most nations, the wage share in national income has fallen significantly over the past 35 years. Second, in the Anglo nations, ‘a sharp polarisation of personal income distribution has occurred’, with the top percentile and decile of the personal income distribution substantially increasing their total shares. The excessive executive pay deals that emerged in this period were one manifestation of the munificence gained at the expense of lower income workers.

Until the early 1980s, real wages and labour productivity typically moved together. However, as the attacks on the capacity of workers to secure wage increases intensified, a gap between wages and productivity opened and widened. This widening gap manifested as a rising profit share: in 1975, the Australian wage share was around 62.5 per cent of national income to be distributed to the factors of production. In the current-quarter it was around 54 per cent.

Australian governments aided this redistribution in a number of ways, through privatisation, outsourcing, harsh industrial relations legislation aimed at reducing union power, National Competition Policy and so on.

These movements in national income shares are also tied into the financial crisis. Imbued with the now-discredited ‘efficient markets’ hypothesis promoted by the University of Chicago economists, policy makers bowed to pressures from the financial sector.

They introduced widespread financial deregulation and reduced their oversight of the banking sector. This led to a massive expansion of the financial sector, and also set the stage for the transformation of banks from safe deposit havens to global speculators carrying increasing (and ultimately unknown) risks. The massive redistribution of the balance between national income and profits provided the banks and hedge funds with the gambling chips to fuel the rapid expansion of the ‘global financial casino’.

The capitalist dilemma was that real wages typically had to grow in line with productivity, to ensure that the goods produced were sold. So how does economic growth sustain itself when labour productivity growth outstrips the growth in the real wage? This was particularly significant in the context of the increasing fiscal drag coming from public surpluses, which squeezed private purchasing power in many nations during the 1990s and beyond.

The neoliberal period found a new way to solve the dilemma. The ‘solution’ was so-called ‘financial engineering’, which pushed ever-increasing debt onto households and firms. The credit expansion sustained the workers’ purchasing power, but also delivered an interest bonus to capital, while real wages growth continued to be suppressed. Households, in particular, were enticed by lower interest rates and the vehement marketing strategies of the financial engineers. It seemed too good to be true and it was.

The result was that Australian households now hold record levels of debt. The debt to disposable income ratio stood at 69.1 per cent in March 1996; by December 2013, it had risen to a staggering 148.8 per cent.

Governments, their central banks and so-called financial industry experts played down any sense of alarm during the pre-crisis period, claiming that wealth was growing along with the debt. When the debt bubble burst, significant proportions of the ‘wealth’ vanished, leaving many borrowers with massive debts but few assets.

To restore a sustainable growth footing, there has to be a dramatic shift in the distribution of national income – towards workers. Real wages have to grow more or less in line with productivity, which will require legislative changes and higher government spending to reduce unemployment so there is more pressure on firms to pass on the productivity gains.

Household saving ratio steady at 9.7 per cent

The following graph shows the household saving ratio (% of disposable income) from 2000 to the current period. The household sector is now behaving very differently since the GFC rendered its balance sheet very precarious. Prior to the crisis, households maintained very robust spending (including housing) by accumulating record levels of debt. As the crisis hit, it was only because the central bank reduced interest rates quickly, that there were not mass bankruptcies.

The household saving ratio was 9.7 per cent of disposable household income in the March-quarter 2014 and relatively stable. There is no apparent move for households to reduce this level of saving and consumption growth remains modest even though Real net national disposable income rose by 1.3 per cent in the March-quarter 2014.

For the economy to continue to grow strongly while households are maintaining this higher level of saving (from disposable income), public spending, private investment and/or net exports have to increase.

As noted above, net exports is driving growth at present but how long that lasts is another question.

The household sector is now carrying record levels of debt as a result of the credit binge leading up to the crisis and we are unlikely to see a return to the low saving ratios that were evident in the period 2000 to 2005.

That means that government surpluses which were associated with the credit binge, and only were made possible by the unsustainable credit binge are untenable in this new (old) climate. The Government needs to learn about these macroeconomic connections. It will learn the hard way once net exports weakens.

Real GDP growth and hours worked

One of the puzzles over the last several years or so has been the sharp dislocation between what is happening in the labour market and what the National Accounts data has been telling us.

Employment growth and hours worked has been virtually flat over the period while annual real GDP growth has been around 2.4 to 2.6 per cent. Today’s data shows that real GDP growth has risen on the back of sustained higher productivity growth and increased hours of work.

The rising productivity growth and the mostly below-trend real GDP growth has helped to explain why employment growth has been unusually flat over the last 24 months. But the rising hours worked this quarter is being driven by the stronger growth, which is now around trend.

The following graph presents quarterly growth rates in trend GDP and hours worked using the National Accounts data for the last five years to the March-quarter 2014.

You can see the major dislocation between the two measures that appeared in the middle of 2011 persisted throughout 2013. While hours worked increased in the middle two quarters of 2013 and were more in line with what we would expect, the divergence between real output growth and hours worked has once again widened.

Just in case you think the labour force data is suspect, the hours worked computed from that data is very similar to that computed from the National Accounts.

To see the above graph from a different perspective, the next graph shows the annual growth in GDP per hour worked (so a measure of labour productivity) from the March 2007 quarter to the March-quarter 2014. The horizontal blue line is the average annual growth since March 2007.

The relatively strong growth in labour productivity in 2012 and the mostly above average growth in 2013 helps explain why employment growth has been lagging given the real GDP growth. Growth in labour productivity means that for each output level less labour is required.

In the recent four quarters, labour productivity growth has slowed but remains relatively strong. However, with the investment boom now seemingly over, we should start to see real GDP growth and employment growth start to converge back to more typical proportions.

Conclusion

Yesterday’s National Accounts data indicates that economic growth has accelerated and is now back around its trend pattern prior to the crisis. It is being driven by extraordinary growth in net exports, which will not last.

With negative real wages growth and rising productivity, the wage share continues to fall and the record levels of household debt will continue to constrain household consumption.

With demand fairly flat in all but the mining sector there is little incentive for private firms to increase the investment ratio.

Remember that the National Accounts tells us what was happening in 3-6 months ago. The most recent evidence is mixed but we know that export prices continue to fall and China continues to slow. Both of those facts would suggest that this boom in net exports will be a ‘one-off’ event and will not endure.

That is why I deem the situation fairly fragile at present.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2014 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    5 Responses to Australian national accounts – a fragile state

    1. Esp Ghia says:

      Hi Bill. Net exports surprised the market. With LNG exports set to grow strongly from about late 2015, is it possible that the external sector will continue to drag the rest of the economy along for the second half of this decade?

      Cheers.

    2. Alan Dunn says:

      Hard to imagine net exports dragging the rest of the economy along given the magnitude of the net income component.

    3. Lefty says:

      The net export component based on expanding mining capacity was very strong but it has been growing solidly for quite a while – where is the flow on to the rest of the economy? Turbocharged dirt exports shouldn’t be going hand-in-hand with lacklustre growth across the broader economy, especially with the lowest interest rates in half a century.

      I think it is only a matter of time before it becomes obvious that mining’s big contribution to the economy is in the INVESTMENT phase, which employs large numbers of highly-paid workers and requires a lot of local goods and services input. Once this is complete – and I’ve seen this before, having spent my whole life in a town at the end of the mining production chain – the actual production phase requires only a fraction of the number of jobs and other domestically-sourced inputs. Mining returns might then boom on greatly expanded output (price falls notwithstanding) but with over 80% of the Australian mining sector owned by foreigners, much of the revenue is drained out of the economy – after being counted toward GDP nonetheless!! The QLD, NT and WA state governments might get a royalty boost – but this is of little benefit to the economy when those governments are of an austerity mindset and lock up the proceeds.

      There has never been a mining boom remotely like this one before, in terms of both the size and the duration (a decade). But I think we’ve just about seen the best of it.

    4. Esp Ghia says:

      Hi Lefty. Great explanation. In a nutshell what you are saying is that the production phase of the mining boom is among us, that this is much more capital-intensive and that foreigners own much of the capital.

      In this instance, perhaps GNI (gross national income) would be a better indicator of how the economy is expanding. The ABS reports this as real gross national income, which adjusts for changes in the terms of trade and primary income flows.

      According to the ABS data, seasonally adjusted real gross national income rose by 1.2% q/q and 2.5% y/y compared with 3.5% for GDP. (See column AQ in the key aggregates spreadsheet.)

      I thinks it’s interesting that the q/q figure was higher despite the fall in the terms of trade – especially given that (heavily foreign-owned) mining contributed 80% of q/q GDP. My gut feel was that this ought to have been significantly lower than the 1.1% q/q GDP figure. Can anyone make sense of this?

      Cheers.

    5. Lefty says:

      Hi Esp.

      The mining cheer squad have long argued that the benefits from the production phase would be so large as to swamp any negative effects as the construction phase winds down. They may indeed be large (but maybe not, prices will depend heavily on what happens in China) but they fail to mention who ends up with this large loot. Probably only around half of it stays in Australia and when much of that is in the form of royalties, that revenue becomes useless if it isn’t spent – it might as well not exist. Austerity is such a monumentally stupid idea.

      Australia is often called “the lucky country” – I think “dumb luck” probably sums it up. Luck can sometimes last a long time but sooner or later it always runs out.

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