Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan
Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

GUEST OBSERVER

The ABS quarterly survey “Building Activity” provides detail on the non-residential building sector. Here we reassess conditions and prospects for the sector.

Hereafter ‘building’ refers to ‘non-residential building’.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

In summary, private building activity weakened over the first half of 2016, puncturing a five year upswing. Our assessment remains that the near-term decline in private activity will be relatively modest, a view supported by the recent improvement in approvals and commencements.

By contrast, total building activity (which includes public works) is likely to be resilient. Notably, the public sector has loosened the purse strings, committing to much needed social infrastructure. Public building approvals and commencements have lifted sharply from their lows.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

State by state, conditions are varied and more nuanced than a mining / non-mining divide, as discussed below.

Activity: Real private building activity has weakened in 2016, falling by 4.2% in Q1, followed by a flat Q2. That follows a 31% expansion in the five years to end 2015, including a 7.8% increase in 2015. The level of activity in the Q4 2015 was 4.6% above the previous peak of end 2008, ahead of the GFC impacts.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

Public works in 2016 are in the beginnings of an upswing. Activity rebounded by 6.1% in Q1 and rose a further 11.9% in Q2. Prior to this, activity declined through 2011 to 2015, unwinding the 2009 fiscal stimulus package.

Total real building work was flat over the first half of 2016, with a 2.2% fall in March reversed by a 2.4% June, to be broadly unchanged from a year ago (+0.6%).

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

Total commencements strengthened in 2015/16, increasing by 14% to $33.6bn, a rise of $4.1bn, largely reversing the 16% decline in 2014/15. In the June quarter, commencements were $8.5bn, in line with the annual pace.

The public sector led the way in 2015/16, with commencements up 41% to $8.8bn, (+$2.6bn), with rebounds in health, education and strength in social buildings more generally. This has public commencements at their highest level since 2011/12.

Private commencements also rose in 2015/16, +7%, following a 16% fall the year prior, centred on: retail; entertainment &recreation; and accommodation.

The pipeline of work outstanding peaked at a relatively high level in mid-2014, at $27bn in total ($21bn for the private sector). The pipeline was progressively reduced, moderating to $19bn by the end of 2015 ($14bn private). Over the past half year, the overall pipeline of work stabilised, edging up to $20bn, while that for private projects edged lower, down to $13bn. 

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

Commencements and approvals

Private sector commencements were valued at $24.9bn in 2015/16, an increase of 7% on the year prior, +$1.6bn, partially reversing the 16% decline in 2014/15. The rebound was centred on: retail, +$0.9bn; entertainment & recreation, +$0.7bn; and accommodation, $0.6bn.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

 

Private commercial building commencements (centred on retail and offices) have improved following a sharp fall in 2014/15.
In 2015/16, commencements for the segment were valued at $11.0bn, +10% on the year before. That is below the 2013/14 outcome of $13.0bn and the earlier peak of $15.7bn in 2007/08.

For retail, while consumer spending has been lacklustre at the national level, commencements are elevated supported by increased competition. In the office segment, commencements have stabilised at a low level, +6% in 2015/16, after falling sharply in 2014/15, down 39%. The outlook for offices is heavily influenced by the mining / non-mining growth divide.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

 

An area of strength is ‘social infrastructure’. Within this segment upswings are evident in accommodation (including hotels and student apartments) and aged care facilities, as well as strength in entertainment & recreation, and a rebound in education. In 2015/16, commencements for social infrastructure rebounded by 9%, to $9.8bn, only 5% below the historic high of 2013/14 and up from $5.8bn in 2007/08. The segment now accounts for 40% of total private commencements.

The more timely building approvals data, which is available to August, confirm that we are likely past the low point in this cycle.

Private building approvals for the 12 months to August are 3% above those for the year before, reflecting gains in social infrastructure, +8%, and industrial, +17%. However, private building approvals remain 10% below the recent peak, which was for the year to February 2014.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

 

State-by-state

Building conditions across the states are quite varied and the outlook is more divergent than is implied by a simple mining / non-mining growth divide.

As at the national level, the importance of social infrastructure projects, a lift in public investment, and resilience in the retail sector add nuances to the state-by-state picture.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

 

The value of building work nationally grew by 2.3% over the year to the June quarter 2016, +$0.2bn (although in real terms, work was broadly flat, up 0.6%). By state, the value of building work made solid gains in NSW and Qld, as well as Tasmania, with largely offsetting falls in Victoria, WA and South Australia.

Commencements strengthened in 2015/16, up $4.2bn nationally, a move that was centred on gains in Qld , as well as a strengthening of public works in the smaller states.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

 

In Qld, commencements rebounded partially in 2015/16, up $1.9bn, following a sharp fall in 2014/15. It was private social infrastructure, as well as public works, that led Qld commencements higher in 2015/16, including: accommodation, aged care facilities, education, and entertainment & recreation.

Public building commencements in the smaller states and in the territories jumped to $2.7bn in 2015/16, up $1.6bn on 2014/15. A partial rebound in NSW public commencements, +$0.7bn, was another mover in 2015/16. 

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

On a state by state basis, current conditions and the near-term building outlook are, in summary:

In NSW: real building work grew by 7% over the past year. This lift in activity was supported by reducing what was a sizeable pipeline of work outstanding. Near-term, the value of activity is vulnerable to a pull-back from current elevated levels, which are around 20% above commencements. Beyond that, the outlook is positive, reflecting the sound fundamentals for the state and expansionary state fiscal policy.

In Victoria: real building work declined by 6% over the past year, partially reversing the upswing of the previous couple of years. An emerging stabilisation in activity is likely in coming quarters, ahead of an improvement, supported by the recent strengthening of commencements and approvals, and underpinned by positive fundamentals.

In Qld: real building work rebounded over the past year, up 12%, following the softer tone evident since 2011 which was associated with the winding down of the mining investment boom. As noted above, commencements bounced back in 2015/16, up on private social infrastructure and public works. The modest lift in the work pipeline will be supportive of activity near-term. Further out, key will be whether some sizeable tourism projects receive the go ahead in response to rising demand, including from international visitors.

In WA: real building work trended lower over the past year, down 7%, extending the downturn which emerged from the start of 2012 associated with the turning of the mining investment cycle. Conditions are likely to remain subdued as the state continues to feel the impacts from the mining investment downturn, notwithstanding stronger commencements in the June quarter, centred on retail.

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Private building activity weakened over first half of 2016: Westpac's Andrew Hanlan

 

In South Australia: building work weakened over the past two years, including a 9% fall in the year to June 2016, as work on the Royal Adelaide Hospital was progressively completed. Conditions are set to turnaround in coming quarters, led by the public sector, with work progressing on the $0.23bn University of South Australia’s Health Innovation centre and the $0.2bn Adelaide University Medical and Nursing school.

In Tasmania: building work has begun to recover, led by the public sector. This follows four years of subdued conditions which emerged after the impacts of the Federal government’s fiscal stimulus package of 2009/10. The value of building work for the 2015/16 financial year as a whole was 14% above the level of the year prior. There is further upside, supported by the now relatively sizeable work pipeline, which stands at $0.68bn currently, up from around $0.25bn a year earlier. The $0.7bn Royal Hobart hospital redevelopment is the largest project under construction and work on this has a good deal to run. 

Andrew Hanlan is senior economist for Westpac and can be contacted here

 

Andrew Hanlan

Andrew Hanlan

Andrew has been with Westpac since 2002. After starting his career in the public sector, Andrew worked at the Commonwealth Treasury in Canberra, before enjoying a stint at Parliament House, where he worked as an adviser to the Finance Minister. His main focus is analysing the Australian macro economy.

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