Australia's economy languishes: Elliot Clarke & Simon Murray

Australia's economy languishes: Elliot Clarke & Simon Murray
Staff reporterDecember 7, 2020


Australian Q3 GDP was this week’s key data. It again highlighted the weak state of Australia’s economy and the need for additional policy support.

Ahead of GDP’s release, partial data for public demand pointed to a potential upside surprise to the market’s 0.5% expectation. Instead,  GDP actually surprised to the downside, rising just 0.4%, 1.7%yr. Why? Principally because household consumption grew by only 0.1%, 1.2%yr in Q3 – the weakest result since the GFC. Household consumption therefore declined in per capita terms, both in the quarter and over the year. It is important to note that this is despite the mid-year rate cuts, the Government’s tax cuts, and a 1.1% rise in nominal labour income in Q3 alone. Even with a partial offset from weak non-labour income associated with the drought and spill-overs from the dwelling construction downturn, household disposable income rose 2.5% in the quarter. Witnessed to by the savings rate jumping from 2.7% to 4.8%, households cautiously saved their rate and tax windfalls as well as a significant proportion of recent income gains. The flat October retail sales result highlights this weakness in spending continued into Q4 in the lead-up to November’s ‘Black Friday’ sales.   

The very weak gain for consumption in Q3 was unable to offset declines in business and residential investment. As a result, private demand registered a fifth consecutive quarter of flat or declining activity. Notably the decline in residential construction was not only due to falling new dwelling construction (-11%yr), but also weaker renovation activity (-7.1%yr). The latest dwelling approvals data suggests the trend decline in both components of residential construction will continue into 2020.

The above outcomes are clearly inconsistent with the RBA’s “gentle turning point’ thesis and their hope that rising property prices “should” support stronger consumption and residential construction in time – as expressed in this week’s December RBA meeting statement. Indeed, as per retail sales and GDP, the states that have seen the strongest house price gains, NSW and Vic, have seen some of the weakest consumption outcomes, particularly on a per capita basis. The RBA chose to emphasise “long and variable lags” of the effect of recent policy stimulus, but should economic softness persist as we anticipate, they will need to take further action.

Therefore, come 2020, we expect the RBA will again ease monetary policy, through cash rate cuts in February and June to 0.25%, and by subsequently commencing quantitative easing in the second half. We see this monetary easing as complimentary to the bringing forward of the 2022/23 tax cuts to 2020/21 and 2021/22. This is a policy change we have called for in recent months but which is yet to gain the support of the Government.

Across the Tasman, the RBNZ delivered an announcement on bank capital requirements. The final outcome was broadly in line with expectations. New Zealand's banks will be required to hold substantially more capital over the coming years but importantly have been given seven years to implement changes rather than the originally tabled five and are now allowed up to 2.5% of Tier 1 capital to be in the form of preference shares. Our New Zealand Economics team have provided a bulletin covering the economic impact of the new requirements.

Offshore, markets have been in flux this week. The initial shock came as President Trump showed no urgency towards a phase 1 deal with China, commenting that he would be quite happy to hold off on a deal until after the November 2020 election. However, markets were soon appeased by media coverage of unnamed sources downplaying Trump’s remarks, and instead citing that trade talks were progressing despite “harsh headline rhetoric”.

While the market has calmed down, we remain somewhat more circumspect that all will be well going forward. President Trump’s indifference to a deal together with his signing of legislation supporting protests in Hong Kong last week, the US House of Representatives passing a bill against China’s treatment of the Uyghurs this week, and President Trump’s additional threat to impose tariffs on some French goods in retaliation against the nation’s digital services tax, highlights that geopolitical tensions will remain in 2020. This is in stark contrast to the market’s current view that a phase 1 deal with China will be completed before December 15’s planned tariffs take effect, and that this will (hopefully) herald a wind-down of all trade-related tensions. 

Finally to this week’s international data. China’s official PMI’s were a clear positive. Notably in November, the headline factory survey returned to growth for the first time in seven months, and new orders rose to an expansionary reading. Momentum in the services sector also improved from an already-expansionary October reading. Overall, these results highlight China is making progress digesting the negative shock imposed on them, and that GDP growth will soon stabilise.

US data has, in contrast, been on the soft side this week. The market was most concerned by the unexpected deterioration in the manufacturing ISM. Of particular note in the detail is that new orders signalled a sharper contraction in activity ahead, and that the employment index was consistent with further job shedding. ADP payrolls subsequently came in well below expectations (67k versus a 135k expectation), though this result was offset by an improvement in the forward indicators of the non-manufacturing ISM, including a lift in its employment index.

We believe that US employment growth will slow further in 2020, impacting consumption and resulting in below-trend GDP growth. Amid persistent global uncertainty, these are circumstances that will require the FOMC to ease. We continue to anticipate three cuts, in March, June and September.

ELLIOT CLARKE is a senior economist at Westpac 

SIMON MURRAY is an economist at Westpac

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