Spending stalls, RBA tips lower jobless rate: Savanth Sebastian

Spending stalls, RBA tips lower jobless rate: Savanth Sebastian
Spending stalls, RBA tips lower jobless rate: Savanth Sebastian


Retail sales were largely flat in December after rising for the prior four months. Aussie retailers have certainly faced their share of headwinds over the past year. And while it’s pretty clear that December was a soft month in terms of retail activity, the December quarter was essentially in line with longer-term averages.

What the result highlights is a momentum shift. Activity levels were strong at the start of the quarter but seem to have pulled back over the Christmas spending period. Interestingly the soft result was also mirrored in the Commonwealth Bank Business Sales Index (which measures all the debit and credit transactions that are processed across CBA eftpos terminals).

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Spending stalls, RBA tips lower jobless rate: Savanth Sebastian

The Reserve Bank has slightly downgraded growth forecasts in 2017 and 2018. However it is important to note that the forecast changes are downward tweaks rather substantial cuts.

And rather than any serious signs of panic or concern, the downward revisions effectively opened the door to another rate cut if it becomes necessary.

Interestingly, the accompanying commentary certainly suggests that Board Members remain uncertain about the near term outlook for the domestic economy but the longer term prospects remain relatively sound.

Importantly the weaker near term growth story is really driven by the uncertainty in non-mining business investment. However given the rather more positive view on the longer term prospects – particularly the expectations for an ongoing slide in unemployment it is by no means assured that another interest rate cut is on the cards.

Two key concerns dominate central bank thinking. The first include how the rebalancing of the domestic economy (away from mining investment) is keeping pace. And the second is the uncertain impact of the recent financial turbulence – it has the potential to see businesses and households pullback in terms of activity. Interestingly the weakness in non-mining business investment is the one area that continues to occupy policymakers thoughts. A lift in business investment is the key to supporting growth and in providing an overall lift in jobs.

The policy stance is clearly slanted towards the potential for further rate cuts rather than rate hikes. Subdued global growth, a lower terms of trade, coupled with a lack of non-mining investment are some of the risks to domestic growth.

The Reserve Bank intimated on Tuesday that the economic outlook was improving while at the same time noting inflation was lower than expected. Clearly that gives the Reserve Bank scope to cut rates, if it was needed. But the Reserve Bank is not giving any indication that it intends to act on that ‘easing bias ’ any time soon. In fact we expect the Reserve Bank to keep rates on hold over the rest of 2016.

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Spending stalls, RBA tips lower jobless rate: Savanth Sebastian

What do the figures show?

Retail trade – December month

Retail trade was flat in December after rising for the prior four months.  In trend terms, retail trade grew by 0.3 per cent in December.

Non-food retailing fell by 0.5 per cent in December after rising by 0.5 per cent in November. Non-food retail spending is up 4.6 per cent on a year ago.

Sales by chain-store retailers and other large retailers rose by 0.4 per cent in December to be up 6.4 per cent over the year.

Sales rose in five of the eight states and territories, led by the ACT (up 2.5 per cent), Northern Territory (up 0.3 per cent), Queensland and South Australia (both up 0.2 per cent), and NSW (up 0.1 per cent). Sales fell the most in Western Australia and Tasmania (both down 0.6 per cent), and Victoria (down 0.1 per cent).

Strongest growth in the month was by “Liquor retailing” (up 1.3 per cent) followed by “Footwear and other personal accessory retailing” (up 1.2 per cent) and clothing (up 1 per cent).

The biggest drop in sales in the month was recorded by “Electrical, Electronic & Gas Goods Retailing” (down 1.7  per cent) followed by “Other recreational good retailing” (down 1.5 per cent) and “Hardware, building and garden supplies retailing” (down 1 per cent).

“Newspaper and book retailing”  (down 2.6 per cent) and “Department stores”  (down 0.9 per cent).

Retail trade – December quarter

In real (inflation-adjusted) terms, retail trade rose by 0.6 percent in the December quarter – marginally below the decade average of 0.7 per cent. In real terms sales were up 2.5 percent on a year ago – below the decade average of 2.9 percent.

Strongest growth in the quarter was by “Electrical, Electronic & Gas Goods Retailing” (up 5.4 per cent – the best result in a year), followed by “Other recreational good retailing” (up 4.2 percent – the best result in two years.) and “Department stores” (up 1.8 per cent).

The biggest drop in sales in the quarter was recorded by “Other retailing – stationery goods, flowers, antiques” (down 4.4 per cent), followed by “Footwear and other personal accessory retailing” (down 2.8 per cent – the weakest quarterly result in three years), and “Other specialised retailing” (down 2.6 per cent).

Retail inflation lifted by 0.7 per cent in the December quarter – the biggest quarterly rise in two years. Retail prices are up 1.6 per cent over the year. Prices of goods at “Footwear and other personal accessory retailing” rose by 3.1 per cent, with “Other retailing – stationery goods, flowers, antiques” up 2.2 per cent, and “Supermarkets & grocery stores” up 1.2 per cent.

Key take-aways from the Reserve Bank report

Below are our key “take-aways” from the Reserve Bank’s latest quarterly reviews. The full Statement on Monetary Policy can be found here

Forecasts: The RBA expects annual economic growth 2-3 cent and underlying inflation around 2.00 percent over the next few months.

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Spending stalls, RBA tips lower jobless rate: Savanth Sebastian

Economic outlook: “Forecasts for GDP growth are little changed from those presented in the November statement. Year ended GDP growth is forecast to be 2ó–3ó per cent over the year to December 2016, and to increase to 3–4 per cent over the year to June 2018.”

Inflation forecasts: “The December quarter inflation outcome was broadly in line with expectations in the previous Statement. The forecast for underlying inflation is little changed. Underlying inflation is expected to remain low over the forecast period...”

Non-mining business investment: “The outlook is for non-mining business investment to remain subdued in the near term. The ABS capital expenditure survey of firms’ investment intentions and the low level of non-residential building approvals suggest that the profile of nonmining investment will be a bit weaker than earlier”.

Labour market: “Labour market conditions have improved by more than expected at the time of the November Statement. Employment growth was above average over 2015 and the unemployment rate was around ó percentage point lower in the December quarter than earlier anticipated.”

“While employment growth is expected to slow somewhat from the rapid pace seen in the December quarter, it is forecast to remain strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate further. The participation rate is likely to rise further over coming years as individuals are encouraged to enter the labour market as employment opportunities improve.”

Foreign buyers: “ Information from the Bank’s liaison suggests that foreign buyers tend to have longterm motivations for investment and may be relatively unconcerned about temporary fluctuations in housing price growth.”

What is the importance of the economic data?

The Bureau of Statistics’  Retail trade publication contains the most current readings on the performance of consumer spending. The ABS surveys 500 ‘larger businesses’ and 2,750 ‘smaller businesses’. Retail trade covers spending at a broad range of retail outlets but excludes both petrol and motor vehicle sales. A weak retail trade result may point to a slowing economy as well weighing on the share prices of listed retail stocks. But retail trade estimates can’t be assessed in isolation – it is important to look at the influences determining future trends in consumer spending, such as income, employment and confidence levels.

The Reserve Bank releases its Statement on Monetary Policy each quarter. The Statement is the Reserve Bank’s assessment of economic and financial conditions and also contains the latest inflation views. The Statement is crucial is assessing the short-term outlook for interest rates.

What are the implications for interest rates and investors?

The outlook for retailers remains positive. Lower petrol prices, firm confidence levels, strong home construction and rising employment all serve to boost spending levels. The only area that could instil some hesitancy in the average consumer is the weaker performance of the sharemarket.

The Reserve Bank will closely monitor developments in China and financial markets more generally. Encouragingly the Reserve Bank has plenty of firepower to provide stimulus to the economy. CommSec expects no change in the cash rate over the next year.


Savanth Sebastian is an economist for CommSec

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