No signs yet of a rebound in consumer or business sentiment: Westpac

No signs yet of a rebound in consumer or business sentiment: Westpac
Staff reporterDecember 7, 2020


In Australia we saw the release of consumer and business surveys for August/September. Offshore, the ECB’s well telegraphed announcement of new stimulus largely met expectations.

As we saw in last week’s June quarter GDP report, the Australian economy is navigating a period of cyclical weakness. The question going forward is to what extent recent RBA rate cuts and tax offset receipts support the economy in the second half of 2019 and into 2020. Disappointingly, the private sector surveys released this week are yet to show any response.

Starting with the NAB Business Survey, not only was there an absence of a bounce, both conditions and confidence slipped further in August and remain at below average levels. Conditions declined 2pts to +1 – the softest result since 2014 – and confidence was down 3pts to +1. While employment conditions rose 2pts to +2 in the month, the trend is clearly moving lower. That stands in contrast to ABS employment growth figures which have held robust to July – the August update to be released next week.

Dour business sentiment was also echoed in the Q3 release of our Australian Chamber-Westpac survey of industrial trends. The Westpac–AusChamber Actual Composite index fell sharply to 52.9 in September from 61.5 in June, continuing the weakening trend seen since mid-2018.

Similarly for the household sector, our Westpac-MI Consumer Sentiment survey lapsed back into slight negative territory again, down to 98.2 in September from 100 in August. The survey contained additional questions on the new tax offset payments received from July 1 for the 2018/19 financial year. Just over 16% of consumers reported receiving a payment. Amongst that cohort, 29% planned to spend it all, and a further 16% planned to spend over half. The remainder (53%) planned to spend less than half including around 25% who planned to save the full payment. Yet, perhaps the most telling indicator of the impact of the new stimulus (or lack thereof) is our regular ‘finances vs a year ago’ sub-index which declined 2.5% to a well below average 84.3.

The sombre consumer mood stands in contrast to further affirmation that the residential property market is stabilising. This week’s release of July housing finance approvals showed the total value of finance up 5.1%. That is broadly consistent with the improvement in auction activity and prices seen through June to August.

It therefore appears that concerns about the state of the domestic economy, broader international conditions and employment are having a more dominant effect on the consumer mindset. New stimulus measures may need more time to have an effect, but at this stage, overall data are still painting a soft economic backdrop.

As such, we continue to believe the RBA is set to deliver 25bp cuts in October and February. Our RBA forecast is explained in our September Market Outlook released this week which covers our broader view on Australian and global economies, FX, rates and commodities.

Of note in this month’s edition is an update to our US forecast. As announced last Friday, we now expect in addition to our previous forecast of FOMC cuts in September, October and December, a further two cuts in March and June, taking the federal funds rate to 0.875%.

In that respect, Thursday’s ECB meeting offered an interesting prelude to next week’s FOMC meeting.

The ECB cut the deposit rate 10bps to -0.5%, moved to a tiered reserve system (for each bank, a multiple of six times minimum reserves will be exempt from the deposit rate charge and instead receive a juicy 0.0%), restarted asset purchases (€20bn per month pace and will persist for as long as necessary), repriced TLTRO's (cheap bank loans incentive rate 10bps cheaper at -0.5%), and strengthened forward guidance.

All up, the stimulus package broadly came in line with our own expectation. We did not anticipate the repricing of TLTRO-III but had expected a larger €40bn per month asset purchase program. We continue to believe the program will be lifted to that pace in 2020 and the deposit rate will be reduced to a low of -0.7%.

As we had seen going into the meeting, not all ECB members agree with the new stimulus, with some of the opinion that economic conditions were not weak enough to warrant restarting asset purchases. Draghi’s time as ECB president has faced significant criticism from within the ECB, and more recently, ire from US President Trump (who once again reiterated his belief that the ECB are targeting the exchange rate). But at his last meeting, Draghi did get a unanimous agreement that fiscal policy should be the main instrument going forward.

Finally, to finish on a more upbeat note, we did at least see some tentative positive developments this week in regards to the US-China trade war and, to some extent, Brexit.

The trade situation calmed down a notch after China released a list of goods that will be exempted from the retaliatory tariff on US imports. In return, the US offered a good will gesture by delaying the scheduled 25% to 30% tariff increase on $250bn of imports by two weeks to October 15.

With Brexit, we saw the Benn bill become law. This will effectively force PM Johnson to request a three month extension to the exit deadline unless a deal is found before October 19. Following that, the Government made a second attempt to call a general election, but once again, failed. Parliament is now suspended to October 14.

ELLIOT CLARKE is a senior economist at Westpac.

SIMON MURRAY is an economist at Westpac

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