Negative outlook for GDP – Sept 2016

There are several concerning aspects to the Sept quarter decline in Australian GDP.

The main one is that this was not the result of an external shock forced upon our economy. It is a reflection of the state of our low growth economy and how vulnerable we are to quarterly gyrations in spending. On a broader level, investment spending continues to detract from overall growth. Even growth the strongest area of spending, household consumption spending, is starting to slow. Whilst there were a few bright spots, there is some evidence to suggest that this may not be the ‘one-off’ event.

Sept qtr GDP declines by -0.47% in real terms, annual growth slows to +1.76%

Over the longer term, real GDP growth has continued to trend lower and even more so since 2011:-

Source: ABS

There was little surprise in the contributors to the latest quarterly decline in GDP:-

Source: ABS

Public and private investment spending were the main contributors to the quarterly GDP decline. Private investment spending has been a drag on growth for several years now.

Net exports also made a negative contribution in the latest quarter. The net export result (exports less imports) was actually positive for the third quarter in a row, but that ‘surplus’ in real terms was smaller than in the previous quarter.

On the positive side, household consumption spending continued to contribute to overall GDP growth. Growth was not strong enough to offset the declines elsewhere and household consumption spending is continuing to slow.

Public and private investment spending is a drag on growth

The decline in private investment spending, due the end of the mining investment boom, continues. But it was also public investment, dwelling related construction investment and new non-dwelling building construction that drove the overall decline in investment spending in the latest quarter:-

Source: ABS

Most notable was the “improvement” in the latest quarter for private business investment which made a positive, albeit small, contribution to quarterly GDP growth. This was driven by three of the four areas –

  • There was a small improvement in investment spending on machinery and equipment – but total spend in real terms remains 16% below the peak
  • Cultivated biological resources (small) and intellectual property products both grew in the quarter

These areas off-set the 12% quarterly decline in the non-dwelling construction spending component of total business investment – this includes mining related engineering construction.

One thing caught my eye in the non-dwelling construction data. It was actually a speech by the Treasurer, Scott Morrison that led me to this. First the quote:-

“In this new data, though, released today, new building construction was also down 11.5 per cent for the quarter. That was impacted by some weather events during the course of the September quarter, as we know can affect these figures from quarter to quarter, when you break it down to that level. It was also the result of some larger projects coming to an end. But with such a change in both engineering and building construction, there could not have been a more important time to have passed legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission…” Australian Treasurer, Scott Morrison, 7th Dec 2016

The full transcript is available at http://sjm.ministers.treasury.gov.au/transcript/178-2016/

I was curious about the 11.5% decline in new building construction. Non-dwelling construction is one of five areas that is measured as a part of total private sector investment spending in Australia and accounted for approx. 30% of total private investment in the latest year to Sept 2016. New building construction falls under this category and while it isn’t the largest area of spending in non-dwelling construction, it might say something about sentiment. The following chart looks at the trend in private non-dwelling construction spending since Sept 1976:-

Source: ABS

What immediately stands out to me is the cyclical nature of new building investment spending over time. Note that this chart is in real dollars, so we can compare spending over time.

Splitting out new non-dwelling building construction strips away the overriding influence of engineering construction spending of the mining boom – that is when this cyclical trend becomes evident.

All of the obvious major declines in non-dwelling construction of new buildings correlate in time with our largest episodes of economic weakness: recessions of ’81 and the early 90’s, the dot-com bust in 2000 and the GFC in ’08. Which leads me to ask: is the decline in the Sept 16 quarter a warning that this is not just a ‘one-off’ in GDP decline? The decline doesn’t appear to be related to any mining slow down, as spending on non-dwelling buildings continued to grow while construction engineering (the mining element) started declining from the Dec 2013 quarter. Actual spending on new non-dwelling buildings only topped recently in the Dec 2015 quarter, but fell much harder in the Sept 2016 quarter. The deceleration in new credit for business at the same time, is also evidence that something may have shifted in the spending and investment patterns of business in Australia.

This is only one quarter of data. The forward looking nature of construction investment spending lends itself well as a proxy for business sentiment. At the very least, it is an interesting chart and it will be something that we will continue to monitor.

What is likely to change with regard to investment spending?

Public investment spending is likely to be subdued unless the government changes its focus on reducing spending to improve the budget deficit – but that focus is not likely to change:-

“Once borrowing for recurrent expenditure is under control, we will have more headroom to take on and deploy so-called good debt,” Scott Morrison, Australian Treasurer, 14 Dec 2016, in response to calls for the government to take advantage of low interest rates and boost investment spending on infrastructure.

Whilst private investment spending is still detracting from growth, the impact wasn’t as negative as in previous quarters:-

Source: ABS

But investment spending intentions are still lacklustre for the rest of the 2016/17 financial year. The latest capex survey (which doesn’t cover every industry – approx. 60% of the ‘value’ of private investment spending) highlights that non-mining investment spending will remain fairly flat, with only minor increases versus the year prior:-

Source: ABS

The overall -17% decline equates to approx. -$21B less investment spending versus the prior year.

As mentioned, the credit impulse for business shows a sharp deceleration in growth for business credit. This will need to reverse and turn positive before we anticipate improvement in business spending.

Household consumption is the key growth driver – but growth is slowing too

The strongest contributor to GDP growth remains household consumption expenditure. Household expenditure accounted for 57% of real GDP in the year to Sept 2016 – the single largest area of measured spending in the economy.

But quarterly growth in household consumption spending is continuing to slow.

In the latest quarter, household consumption spending in real terms grew by +0.44% – and has been slowing for the last 3 quarters. It is now at its slowest level of quarterly growth since 2012:-

Source: ABS

The state split of household expenditure provides some interesting insights into the growth shift among the states:-

Source: ABS, the HH Final Consumption Expenditure figures are sourced from the State Final Demand worksheets. The total of State Final Demand is more or less the equivalent of Domestic Final Demand (GDP less inventories, net exports and statistical error). The contribution figures are based on total state final demand.

On an annual basis, NSW and VIC accounted for the largest share of the total growth in household spending. But in the latest quarter, there has been a clear shift away from NSW, the single largest state driver. Growth in household spending in NSW has slowed fairly significantly over the last two quarters from +1.1% in Mar 2016 qtr to +0.08% in the Sept 16 qtr. On the positive side, household spending in QLD has accelerated higher in the latest quarter to be the strongest performing state.

The slower growth in household spending is not surprising when you consider the weaker labour market, record low wage growth and the deceleration in new private credit growth. If these three trends remain firmly in place, the expectation will be for continued lower growth in household spending.

National income growth – improving off the back of commodity prices

The growth in the Real Net National Disposable Income is the best indicator of changes in national income and annual growth is now up to +3.2%.

Source: ABS

Unfortunately, we can’t break this data series down into its income component parts, so we need to look at Gross National Income at current prices to see how this improvement has been shared throughout the economy.

In the last two quarters, it’s been the return of corporate profits (orange bars, chart below) from a negative to a positive contribution that has been a major driver of domestic income growth – this is not surprising given the improvement in the Terms of Trade (ToT).

In context of history, overall income growth is still extremely low (all four coloured stacked bars add up to the annual rate of growth in GNI in each quarter):-

Source: ABS

There has been a small improvement in the annual contribution of compensation of employees over the latest quarter (red bars). But at the same time, annual small bus profits (Gross Mixed Income) declined after a solid performance during 2015.

Hours worked grew in the Sept quarter GDP and the rate of growth is consistent with that reported by the monthly labour market reports. The latest GDP results show hours worked in the economy grew by +0.49% for the Sept qtr versus +0.41% for the Sept qtr using the latest month labour force data (Nov 16). The labour force data highlights that this is growth is driven by PT hours worked, which grew by +1.26% for the Sept qtr versus +0.24% growth in FT hours. This helps to explain why the contribution to of compensation of employees remains low.

The most concerning part of this report is the government response to it. The economy is clearly not getting better and we face more headwinds in the form of potentially higher interest rates and slowing growth in China (Chinese authorities are trying to deal with internal liquidity issues). Yet, no one seems to want to face the giant elephant in the room – our economic model, based on accelerating debt growth and house price growth is faltering. Not that it should be saved. This should be an opportunity to start the process of reform in our economy, to manage our country away from this debt-driven model – but this is not happening. We are falling behind in our standard of education and we have one of the poorest performing broadband networks in the world. We have tax incentives targeted at speculating on property rather than rewarding labour and entrepreneurship. This is hardly the stuff of the agile economy for the future.

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