March quarter GDP solid but consumers still weak, few signs of inflation & wages pressure

March quarter GDP solid but consumers still weak, few signs of inflation & wages pressure
March quarter GDP solid but consumers still weak, few signs of inflation & wages pressure

EXPERT OBSERVATION

The Australian economy as measured by GDP grew by 1.0% in the March quarter of 2018, which was above consensus estimates for a 0.9% lift and indicates that the economy started the year off strongly. Annual growth rose to 3.1% (from 2.4% - see chart below) which is running above estimates for Australia’s growth potential (which is around 2¾%). But, the strength in GDP growth over first quarter is unlikely to be repeated again in the June quarter. Australian GDP has had a tendency to run hot and cold lately. Looking back at history, the last three strong GDP prints (around 0.9% or 1.0%) have been followed by a weaker outcome in the following quarter which is often caused by “one-off” impacts like strong net exports or an inventory build that are then unwound in the following period.

But, the Australian economy is still expected to hold up over the near-term and there is little risk of a recession. The GDP data also shows a slow trend up in productivity growth, which is positive for living standards. Compared to our global peers, Australia’s headline growth profile also looks favourable (US at around 2.5% currently, Eurozone around 2% and Japan near 2%) although much of this growth “outperformance” can be explained by higher population growth in Australia.

Click here to enlarge. 

March quarter GDP solid but consumers still weak, few signs of inflation & wages pressure 

The main points from the March quarter GDP data are: 

  • Continued weakness in consumer spending. Consumer spending rose by 0.3% in the quarter (contributing 0.2 percentage points to growth with retail volumes flat over the quarter).The weakness in consumers is well known – real wages growth is running flat, the savings ratio is now very low at just 2.1% and debt levels are very high. 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. Proposed income tax cuts from the government are not large enough to change this outlook. Its worth noting that while the National Accounts reports “compensation of employees” as being up a strong 5.1% over the last year, this mainly reflects the strong employment growth of the last year as “average compensation per employee” is up just 1.6% over the last year consistent with other measures of low wages growth. 
  • Residential construction contributed 0.1 percentage points to growth. Housing construction has passed its peak but building approvals continue to run at elevated levels compared to recent years so housing investment is still making small contributions to growth. Housing investment will slow over the next year or two though, but large detractions from growth are unlikely.
  • Underlying business investment (which takes into account asset transfers between the private and public sector) made no contribution to growth, with non-residential building down, engineering construction up marginally and machinery & equipment spending up. Business investment is slowly lifting in Australia, as the mining investment decline has nearly finished and non-mining investment is improving. There is still more downside for mining investment, but a lift in non-mining expenditure is providing an offset. However, the lift in non-mining investment has been slow and very gradual and capital spending intensions data released last week suggests that this is likely to remain the case. Non-mining investment is still well below its historical average as a share of the economy, so there is still plenty of capacity to lift non-mining investment growth. 
  • Underlying government spending (which takes into account asset transfers between the private and public sector) was up strongly again and contributed 0.3 percentage points to growth. Public infrastructure spending remains very high, with both the Federal & State governments allocating more funds towards infrastructure over recent periods which will continue contributing to GDP growth.
  • Inventories contributed 0.2 percentage points in the March quarter and this is unlikely to be sustained in the June quarter. 
  • Net exports contributed 0.3 percentage points to growth with strong export growth. The outlook for export growth is still positive, thanks to resource exports and global demand for Australian resources and as service exports like tourism and education continue to grow. But the contribution to growth is likely to slow going forward and it can be volatile from quarter to quarter.
  • Inflation pressures and wages remain subdued with the household consumption deflator (an alternative measure of inflation) up by 1.6% year on year which is below the rate of inflation as measured by the CPI and average compensation per employee is up by just 1.6% over the past year – below the 2.0% wages growth recorded in the wage price index (this is due to jobs growth being faster for low paid jobs than for high paid jobs).

Implications

While the March quarter GDP data shows that the Australian economy started the year strongly, we still expect Australian growth in 2018 to be a little below the RBA’s forecast of “a bit above 3%” because of a constrained consumer and a slowing housing market. And while non-mining business investment is rising, public infrastructure spending is surging and the labour market is strong, there are few signs of noticeable cost pressures as the economy is still running below its capacity as indicated by high levels of labour market underutilisation.

Growth needs to be stronger on a sustained basis to work through this spare capacity and lift wages and inflation. We remain of the view that the constrained inflation backdrop will keep the Reserve Bank on hold until early 2020 at least, when we see the central bank starting to lift interest rates. But, given the weakness in home prices and the negative wealth effect that will flow from that its premature to rule out the next move in official rates being a cut.

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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Shane Oliver Gdp Growth

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