No case for a near-term RBA rate hike as December quarter GDP soft and below-trend: Shane Oliver

No case for a near-term RBA rate hike as December quarter GDP soft and below-trend: Shane Oliver
No case for a near-term RBA rate hike as December quarter GDP soft and below-trend: Shane Oliver

The Australian economy as measured by GDP grew 0.4% in the December quarter of 2017, which was just under consensus estimates for a 0.5% lift and is a weak finish to 2017.

Annual growth declined to 2.4% (from 2.9% - see chart below) which remains below Australia’s potential (at around 2¾%). Per capita GDP growth was just 0.8% year on year. Annual GDP growth in 2017 averaged out at 2.3%, the lowest annual rate since 2013 and less than would be expected given a strong labour market (employment was up by 3.3% over the year to December 2017).

This can be explained by a decline in productivity which was down by 0.8% over the year.

Click here to enlarge.

No case for a near-term RBA rate hike as December quarter GDP soft and below-trend: Shane Oliver 

The main points from the December quarter GDP data are:

  • Stronger than expected consumer spending. Consumer spending rose by 1.0% in the quarter (contributing 0.6 percentage points to growth and retail accounting for a third of the contribution). This was a strong quarter for consumers but is unlikely to be repeated in early 2018, with the latest retail data showing poor growth in spending over January. The household savings rate is low (at 2.7% in the December quarter) and has probably bottomed for now (stabilising from a downwardly revised 2.5% in mid-2017) but still is well below levels of 8% around three years ago. It is difficult to see households gaining confidence to run down their savings rate further in the current environment of low wages growth, slowing wealth accumulation (as home price growth weakens) and high debt levels.
  • Residential construction detracted 0.1 percentage points from growth, as expected. Housing construction has passed its peak and will continue to make a small negative contribution to growth in 2018. But, building approvals remain at high levels which will keep residential construction elevated. 
  • Underlying business investment (which takes into account asset transfers between the private and public sector) detracted 0.1 percentage points from growth, with non-residential building up, engineering construction down and a solid lift in plant and equipment spending. Business investment growth is recovering as the mining investment decline has nearly finished and non-mining investment is improving. The recently published capital expenditure survey indicated that the environment for business investment is becoming more favourable in Australia, but the pick-up in non-mining investment growth is still probably a little softer compared to what is required to push GDP growth to 3% (the RBA’s forecast for 2018 GDP growth). 
  • Underlying government spending (which takes into account asset transfers between the private and public sector) remains strong and contributed 0.3 percentage points to growth. Public infrastructure spending remains high, particularly across transport projects (particularly across the east coast of Australia) and this will continue in 2018.
  • Inventories made no contribution to growth in the December quarter, but inventory levels are relatively low posing no real threat to growth going forward.
  • Net exports detracted 0.5 percentage points from growth as export growth declined while imports rose. The outlook for export growth is still positive, as various resources projects continue to complete, there is plenty of global demand for Australian resources and as service exports like tourism and education continue to grow.
  • Inflation pressures and wages are still weak but have bottomed for now. The household consumption deflator (an alternative measure of inflation) is just up 1.3% year on year which is well below the rate of inflation as measured by the CPI. And while total compensation of employees was up by 4.8% over the year this just reflects strong employment growth – average compensation per employee was up by just 1.6% over the year. This is below the 2.1% wages growth recorded in the Wage Price Index because jobs growth has been faster for low paid jobs than for high paid jobs. 

Implications

GDP growth ended 2017 close to the RBA’s forecasts (of 2.5%) but the central bank still expects growth to average at around 3% in 2018 which may be challenging because of the poor outlook for consumer spending and a slowing in housing construction. And while non-mining business investment is rising, public infrastructure spending is surging and the labour market is strong, there are few signs of significant cost pressures as the economy is running below its capacity. Our view is that the Australian economy will strengthen somewhat in 2018 as business conditions are still very positive which will work through the spare capacity in the economy and eventually lift inflation. But that process will take some time. We see the RBA starting to lift the cash rate at the end of this year, but the risk is that the first rate hike for this cycle won’t happen until sometime in 2019.

SHANE OLIVER is head of investment strategy and economics and chief economist at AMP Capital and is responsible for AMP Capital's diversified investment funds.

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Rba Rate Decision Shane Oliver

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