Future challenges for the Australian economy: Westpac's Bill Evans

Future challenges for the Australian economy: Westpac's Bill Evans
Future challenges for the Australian economy: Westpac's Bill Evans


I have written extensively about the need for the new Governor of the Reserve Bank to adjust his inflation target from 2–3 percent to 1–3 percent to reflect the reality of lower global inflation relative to the mid 1990’s, when the target was originally successfully adopted.

However, as noted at the time, I held out little hope that the new Governor would take my advice.

Accordingly, I was not surprised to see this week’s announcement that the target had been “confirmed” as 2–3 percent. However, there has been a subtle change from “on average over the cycle “ to “over time”. The Governor also emphasised in his Statement to the House of Representatives on Thursday that “the main drafting change is to make the link between monetary policy and financial stability a little more direct”.

If we weigh those two changes together, they go some way to achieving the objective that I was most concerned about. My concern was that the new Governor might, when confronted with an impossible task of lifting inflation to above 2.5 percent to “average” 2.5 percent over the cycle, might unnecessarily impact asset markets. By using the vague term “over time” and linking policy directly to financial stability (read asset markets), he has allayed much of my concern on that issue. Markets are likely to eventually scale back prospects for further rate cuts given these developments.

With that policy issue now resolved, I am allocating the rest of this note to some of the opportunities and risks now facing the evolving Australian economy.

While overall growth in the Australian economy has been remarkably stable since the Global Financial Crisis – holding in the 2.5 percent – 3.0 percent range – the source of this growth has changed markedly. We have seen the huge terms of trade and mining investment cycles almost run their course. The early stages of these cycles were marked by strong income boosts, particularly in the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland, due to surging commodity prices and a spectacular mining investment cycle. Of course, these two cycles were linked, with the surge in commodity prices signalling a commercial opportunity to raise capacity, particularly in the LNG and coal seam gas sectors.

A necessary adjunct to these cycles was a strong AUD and elevated interest rates. The impact on the mining states of these uncompetitive market settings was minimal, with the strong volume and price boosts underpinning their prosperity. On the other hand, the south eastern states – New South Wales and Victoria – struggled under the weight of the high currency and rising interest rates.

With the mining investment boom now unravelling; Australia’s terms of trade having peaked in September 2011 and both the Australian dollar and interest rates down substantially, Australia is now looking to other sources of demand to sustain its admirable growth record. Those sources are services exports; residential construction; public transport infrastructure and population growth.

These growth sources are dominated by the south eastern states. New South Wales and Victoria have been the major beneficiaries of the services boom. Education exports; business services and tourism are the key drivers of this success. Between 2007 and 2013, net services exports subtracted around 0.3 – 0.8ppts from GDP growth on average over most years. Since 2013, these sectors are responsible for adding 0.3 – 0.7ppts to growth.

Residential construction, particularly driven by the boom in high rise apartments, has shown a considerable lift in its contribution to growth. The construction “boom” has equally been centred around the south eastern states.

Partly funded by the revenue windfalls from housing activity in their states, New South Wales and Victoria are also experiencing a welcome boost to public sector infrastructure investment. In the last six months, “projects committed or under construction” have lifted from $32bn at the beginning of this year to $51bn in New South Wales, and from $7bn to $21bn in Victoria. That compares with a net lift of only $7bn in all the other states combined.

Finally we are now seeing population growth in both New South Wales and Victoria exceed the national pace for the first time in 20 years.

But, just as the mining and commodity cycles were heavily dependent on China, so are these latest sources of growth. Growth in tourism and education is dominated by China. This partly reflects the sharp increase in China’s overall services trade deficit. This deficit has more than doubled as a proportion of GDP over the last five years, and in the first half of 2016 was more than 50 percent of the goods trade surplus.

At some point, the Chinese authorities, who appear to have stabilised last year’s spectacular near USD 1 trillion loss in foreign reserves, may decide to slow this leakage. Certainly we have seen marked evidence of a tightening of capital controls, particularly for the non-corporate sector.

That tightening of capital controls might also impact the construction boom. The number of high rise apartments currently under construction in March this year (ABS latest) has surged to 110,000 – including 44,000 in New South Wales; 34,000 in Victoria; and 23,000 in Queensland.

As discussed, the south east is dominating the high rise boom. However, a significant proportion of the buyers are offshore based (so called FIRB buyers). Local banks have stopped funding FIRB buyers, presenting risks to local developers who may have sold more than 50% of their stock to these buyers.

It is generally accepted that apartment buyers in the Melbourne CBD have incurred some capital losses, while Sydney purchasers are seeing their profits squeezed. These liquidity and capital loss prospects may discourage foreign buyers, with the result of sharply slowing the apartment construction cycle.

On the other hand, foreign banks are seeking to partly fill the funding gap, while large foreign developers may also be able to relieve liquidity stresses for these buyers.

Overall, huge uncertainty prevails in this market, with possible outcomes ranging from ongoing spectacular momentum to a sudden liquidity driven slowdown. In those circumstances, one part of the recent boost to Australia’s growth story might fade quickly.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of WestpacJustin Smirk is ‎senior economist, Westpac Group and can be contacted here.



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