It's not a typical recession: CommSec's Craig James

It's not a typical recession: CommSec's Craig James
It's not a typical recession: CommSec's Craig James


The 7 per cent fall in the economy in the June quarter is the biggest decline since quarterly records began in 1959. In annual terms, the economy fell 6.3 per cent in the June quarter. The annual decline is similar to the 5.8 per cent fall in the economy in 1945 (5.8 per cent fall) but smaller than the 14.3 per cent decline recorded in 1931.

This is not your typical recession. It hasn’t occurred because there has been some policy mistake – like the Reserve Bank leaving interest rates too high. Inflation remains under control – prices are neither surging nor plunging. There has been no balance of payments crisis – record trade surpluses are being reported. And the federal budget was broadly balanced at the start of 2020. Rather the recession is the result of a community lockdown to battle a one-in-a-hundred-year pandemic. And the whole world has been similarly affected. 

Policymakers certainly aren’t sitting on their hands. An unprecedented amount of stimulus has been applied to the economy by governments and the Reserve Bank. Barring more second waves from the virus, the worst appears to be over for the economy. The hope over the coming months is that Victoria – and to a lesser extent, NSW, - can join the rest of the country in being relative ‘virus free’. 

It’s not your typical recession because home prices are still at or near record highs. Annual growth of retail spending is at 19-year highs. The Aussie dollar is just off two-month highs. And share prices are 36 per cent up from lows. 

The economic recovery has begun. But the path is uncertain and likely to be bumpy. The battle for normalcy has only just begun. 

We expect the jobless rate will rise from 7.5 per cent currently to around 9 per cent in the next few months. The aim will be to quickly get people back to work as the longer they are away from workplaces, the less employable they are likely to be. 

Somewhat perversely, there were two positive aspects in the data. Aussies saved more – the household saving ratio rose by 19.8 per cent in the quarter. Clearly it was hard to spend in lockdown but the government topped up people’s bank accounts. And productivity increased. GDP per hours worked rose 3.1 per cent. These are two elements that had been causing angst for policymakers in recent times.

What do the figures show? 

Economic Growth: The Aussie economy contracted 7.0 per cent in the June quarter after easing 0.3 per cent in the March quarter. It was the biggest contraction in gross domestic product (GDP) in the 60-year history of the series. 

The economy contracted by 6.3 per cent in the year to June. Growth has previously averaged 2.6 per cent over the decade and averaged 2.7 per cent over the last 15 years.

The non-farm economy fell by 7.1 per cent in the June quarter after a 0.2 per cent fall in the March quarter. Nonfarm GDP is down 6.3 per cent over the year. 

Farm GDP fell by 2.3 per cent in the June quarter to be down 6.0 per cent over the year.  At current prices, GDP fell by 7.6 per cent in the June quarter after rising by 0.9 per cent in the quarter. Nominal GDP fell 5.9 per cent on the year (decade average +4.5 per cent).

As at June 2020 the Australian economy was valued at $1,981.6 billion.

GDP per capita fell 7.2 per cent in the June quarter to be down 7.4 per cent. 

Contribution to the overall result: The biggest contributions to growth came from net exports (+1.0 percentage points); public investment (+0.1pp) and government consumption (+0.6pp). But detracting from growth was household spending (-6.7pp); inventories (-0.6pp); dwellings (-0.4pp); business equipment (-0.5pp) and other private investment (-0.4pp). 

Inflation & wages: In terms of domestic price pressures, the household consumption implicit price deflator fell by 0.8 per cent in the June quarter. Annual growth eased from 1.9 per cent to 0.5 per cent. Real non-farm unit labour costs fell by 9.8 per cent in the June quarter and was down 9.3 per cent over the year.

The terms of trade rose 0.2 per cent in the June quarter to be down 1.8 per cent on the year. 

Productivity: GDP per hour worked rose by 3.1 per cent in the June quarter to be up by 4.1 per cent on the year. GDP per hours worked in the market sector soared 5.9 per cent in the quarter to be up 7.3 per cent on the year.

States & Territories: The only data available is state final demand (more accurate data would include net exports but it is not available for all states and territories). State final demand in the June quarter: NSW (down 8.6 per cent); Victoria (down 8.5 per cent); Queensland (down 5.9 per cent); South Australia (down 5.8 per cent); Western Australia (down 6.0 per cent); Tasmania (down 7.4 per cent); Northern Territory (down 4.9 per cent); and ACT (down 2.2 per cent).

Consumer spending: Household spending fell by a record 12.1 per cent in the March quarter to be down 12.7 per cent for the year. Hotels, cafes and restaurants fell 56.1 per cent and Transport services fell by 85.9 per cent. Spending on furnishings and household equipment rose 9.5 per cent with Alcoholic beverages up 13.0 per cent.

The ABS notes: “Spending on services fell 17.6 per cent reflecting temporary shutdown of businesses and movement restrictions. Spending on goods fell 2.8 per cent driven by record falls in operation of vehicles and clothing and footwear, while spending on food recorded the biggest decline since June 1983.”

Industry sectors: Fifteen of the 19 industry sectors contracted in the June quarter. The biggest contribution to the overall decline in output came from Transport postal and warehousing (-0.9 percentage points) from Accommodation and food services (- 0.8pp) and Administration and support services (- 0.7pp). Output rose in Mining, Education and training; Public administration and safety; and Financial and Insurance Services. 

Other points: Profit share at record high. In seasonally adjusted terms, the ratio of profits to total factor income rose from 29.0 per cent in the March quarter to 31.1 per cent in the June quarter. The wages share fell from a 2-year high of 52.5 per cent to 49.4 per cent. 

Household savings ratio. The household saving ratio rose from 6.0 per cent in the March quarter to 19.8 per cent in the June quarter in seasonally adjusted terms. 

Imports rose as a share of spending. The imports to sales ratio fell from an 11-year high of 0.378 to 0.397 in the June quarter – not far from 11-year highs. 

The private non-farm inventories to total sales ratio rose from 0.581 to 0.604 in the June quarter.

What are the implications for interest rates and investors? 

In the current September quarter the economy may end up contracting around 1 per cent, due largely to the lockdown in Victoria. Over the 2020 year the economy may contract by around 4 per cent – the biggest annual decline in 75 years. 

But it could’ve been worse. The Reserve Bank initially estimated that the pandemic contraction would be near 10 per cent in the June quarter. And GDP has contracted by an average of 11 per cent in the quarter for the 20 or so advanced economies to report so far. 

There is no shortage of stimulus to get the economy back on its feet. But money is not the problem – this is a health crisis, causing an economic downturn. There are encouraging signs of virus suppression in Victoria and NSW. But the path is uncertain. 

The fiscal roadmap in next month’s federal budget will be critical to economic recovery – as will developments on virus treatments and vaccines. 

Quite amazingly, data today showed a record 7 per cent economic contraction and the sharemarket was untroubled – currently up by around 1.8 per cent. The Aussie dollar eased from highs near US73.80 cents to US73.35 cents after the data release.

CRAIG JAMES is the Chief Economist at CommSec

Craig James

Craig James

Craig James is the Chief Economist at CommSec, interpreting ‘big picture’ economic and financial trends.

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