Credit impulse in Australia turns negative in September 2016

An update on the credit impulse and debt levels in Australia has been posted on the Australian debt and the credit impulse page on this blog. You can read the latest results in more detail, as well as an explanation on measuring the credit impulse on that page.

The growth in new credit for the total private sector has been decelerating since April 2016 and the level of deceleration has been gathering pace over the last five months. In Sept 16, the growth in new credit for the total private sector became firmly negative for the first time since Sept 2013. This is a particularly negative change in the trend.

Source: RBA, The Macroeconomic Project

The level of deceleration in the credit impulse for total private debt, especially over the last three months, has been driven by the deceleration in the growth in new credit for business and, to a lesser degree, the growth in new credit for mortgages. Since Jun 2015, there was at least a slightly accelerating rate of growth in new credit for business (but still low in comparison to other expansions), which was supportive of growth in aggregate demand and broadly supportive of at least more stable employment growth.

The growth in new credit across all sectors (business, mortgages and other personal) is now negative. That means that while total private debt is still growing, growth is no longer accelerating. To generate spending growth or asset price growth, credit growth (and/or income) needs to accelerate.

The annual growth in total private credit as of Sept 2015 was $153.5b. As of Sept 2016, the annual growth in total private credit has slowed to $138.9b – which is $14b lower. The question is whether other sources of spending, such as income or a lower saving rate, are accelerating to offset the deceleration in credit growth.

Indicators of National Income are only available to Jun 2016 at this point – and it’s been mainly in the 3 months since Jun 16 that we’ve started to see growth in new credit start to decelerate at a faster pace.


Source: ABS

From Sept 2015 to Mar 2016, the quarterly growth in Real Net National Disposable Income was accelerating – this has likely been helping to off-set decelerating total private credit growth during that time. Growth in Real Net National Disposable Income has slowed in the latest quarter (Jun 2016), so it will be important to see if this trend continues or not. If National Income continues to slow while credit growth also decelerates, then it’s not likely that we will see growth in aggregate demand accelerating. Growth will be more likely to slow down in the near term and we are more likely to see weaker growth in employment aggregates.

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Growth in new credit decelerates – March 2016

The update to the Australian Debt & the Credit Impulse page has now been posted – you can read the results in more detail including background on the credit impulse measure on that page.

The latest data shows that for the total private sector, growth in new credit is decelerating.

The annual growth in new credit has slowed from $27.2b in February to $23.3b in March 2016. This has been predominantly driven by the deceleration in new mortgage plus other personal credit growth.

Source: RBA, The Macroeconomic Project

The performance of the components making up total private credit are mixed.

Business – The growth in new credit for business has accelerated slightly from $14.7b in Feb to $16.6b in Mar. Despite a few up and down periods, the overall trend since June 2015 has been accelerating credit growth. But it hasn’t been a very steep curve and this point matters. Since June 2015, the growth in new credit has accelerated from $7.4b to $16.6b over the ten (10) month period. Compare this to the first ten (10) months from the May 13 bottom where the growth in new credit for business accelerated from -$33.6b to -$1.8b in ten (10) months – a much bigger move and a clearly steeper curve. The implication is the steeper the curve, the higher the growth in new credit which means more growth in spending by business. There was a clear pickup throughout the economy during that time, especially evident in the turnaround in the labour market as business increased hiring. For the moment, the slower acceleration means more of a steady course in activity, rather than implying stronger growth in the near term.

The pick-up in credit acceleration for business in the latest month, and if it continues to improve, may be a better sign for labour market conditions in the near future.

Mortgage plus Other Personal – Unfortunately, the slightly more positive acceleration in new credit for business has been more than offset by the deceleration in the growth of new mortgage plus other personal credit. The chart above includes ‘other personal’ to provide a more consistent trend given the large adjustments made in both data sets. This measure has decelerated from +$12.3b in Feb to +$6.6b in March. Both mortgage and other personal contributed to that deceleration. Growth in new credit for mortgages decelerated from +$27.6b in Feb to $23.4b in Mar (-$3.9b). Other personal also decelerated from -$15.3b in Feb to -$17b in Mar. The deceleration in new mortgage credit continues to imply lower growth in house prices in the future. There has also been a loose relationship with retail sales and mortgage growth throughout these last few years of higher house price growth, so the deceleration is likely to affect spending in these areas as well.

You can read more details here.

Declining consumer prices – March qtr 2016

Last week, the ABS released the March 2016 quarter CPI data. This was attention grabbing stuff with headline CPI falling -0.2% in March. Suddenly, we were in the grip of deflation and many news outlets were quick to latch onto this story. I’m the last person to joke about deflation. Asset price deflation is a very serious threat to our country because we are so highly leveraged and our financial system is ‘all-in’ on housing. I’m also less positive than most about economic growth and recent developments in the labour market. But not much time was spent looking through the CPI data before jumping straight to the “deflationary” headlines last week.

The deterioration in CPI growth between the last two quarters from +0.4% in the Dec quarter to -0.2% in the Mar quarter can be attributed to categories that have more external/international exposure, rather than categories that are more of a reflection of domestic conditions.

That doesn’t mean that domestic factors haven’t played a role in the slowing of CPI growth over a longer period of time. The economy has been growing at below trend/potential as it transitions from the peaks of the mining investment boom and especially since the terms of trade (ToT) started to unwind. This has been highlighted by the RBA for several years now and policy settings have been focused on supporting demand during this transition. But is this CPI print a reflection of how demand in the economy has deteriorated in the latest quarter?

Headline versus core CPI measures

The RBA does not tend to rely on the headline CPI figure in evaluating consumer price pressures for interest rate policy. The focus is more on measures of core inflation – the weighted median and the trimmed mean. Both of these remove the volatile items to provide a measure of underlying strength in consumer prices within the economy.

Annual growth in the trimmed mean has slowed to its lowest level and quarterly growth was +0.2% in March. Annual growth in the weighted median also slowed to its lowest level of growth of +1.4% and +0.1% for the quarter. Both measures are outside of the 2-3% average inflation rate.

Source: ABS

Both of these measures have been trending lower for a while and the RBA has tended to ‘look through’ this slowing of consumer price growth. Throughout 2015, there were signs of improvements in the Australian labour market, despite lower wage growth, moderate economic growth and a weakening AUD. From the April board meeting, the RBA assessment was for “reasonable prospects for continued growth in the economy, with inflation close to target” (RBA Minutes April 2016). That was four weeks ago.

Do we still have ‘reasonable prospects for growth’?

In short, when demand conditions are weak, inflationary pressures are likely to be less. In other words, softer price growth, or price declines, are another way of assessing the strength of demand in the economy. The question is whether this CPI decline is indicating a slowing in domestic demand conditions enough to warrant further interest rate cuts.

The tradable v non-tradable CPI series provides the most important insight on price pressure in the economy

An insightful way of assessing the source of consumer price pressures is to look at the tradable versus non-tradable series of the CPI. Consider the example of falling fuel prices throughout 2015. Fuel prices have fallen globally and aren’t necessarily an indicator of a fall in our own domestic demand – we are a price taker in such commodities.

I’ve referenced this RBA paper before and its worth revisiting here – The Determinants of Non-Tradables Inflation. There are several important points:-

“Non-tradable items are exposed to a low degree of international competition. This includes many services that can (in most cases) only be provided locally, such as hairdressing, medical treatment or electricity. The prices of these items should be driven mainly by domestic developments. Therefore, inflation for non-tradable items should provide a relatively good sense of the extent to which demand exceeds (or falls short) of supply in the domestic economy.”

“Tradable items are much more exposed to international competition. This includes many imported manufactured goods such as televisions and computers, as well as some food items and services such as international travel. The prices of these items should be less influenced by conditions in the Australian economy, and more affected by prices set on world markets and fluctuations in the exchange rate.”

And a word of caution about these classifications:

“The RBA acknowledges that in practice, drawing a precise distinction between a tradable and a non-tradable item is difficult. The exposure of an item to international competition is both complicated to measure and a matter of degree. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) classifies an item as tradable where the proportion of final imports or exports of that item exceeds a given threshold of the total domestic supply. Any item not meeting this definition is classified as a non-tradable. In general, many goods are classified as tradable while nearly all services are classified as non-tradable.”

Throughout the last several decades, annual non-tradable inflation has grown at a higher rate than tradable inflation in Australia:-


Source: ABS

Since mid-2013 though, non-tradable inflation has started to abate as the ToT has unwound and as income and wage growth has slowed.

When we break down the growth in tradables versus non-tradables to a quarterly basis, it becomes clear which area contributed to the much lower CPI print in the March quarter.

In the latest quarter, tradable CPI declined by -1.37%. That is a significant fall in just one quarter. On the other hand, non-tradable inflation increased by +0.45% in the quarter – but this is also still below the average for the last several years.


Source: ABS

The trend over the last 12 quarters highlights the volatility of the tradable series (this is also evident in the annual series).

We can go a bit deeper. In the latest quarter, the index of tradable categories contributed -0.55% pts to the -0.22% decline in headline CPI. The non-tradable categories contributed +0.33% pts to the -0.22% decline.

Source: ABS

Looking at CPI from this perspective suggests that it is less likely that the shift to a negative CPI in the March quarter came as a result of deterioration in demand, or events, within the domestic economy. It appears most of the ‘deflationary’ pressure came from those categories that are more exposed to international competition.

Where did the tradable deflation come from?

Tradables reversed from contributing +0.19% pts to CPI in the Dec quarter to detracting -0.55%pts to CPI in the March quarter. Many categories classified as tradable contributed to this reversal – there were twenty six (26) categories where the change in contribution slowed between the two quarters – that’s over half of the categories classed as ‘tradable’, so the slowdown in price growth was broad. The largest contributors to this reversal came from four (4) main categories:

  1. Tobacco price index in the Dec quarter contributed +0.26%pts to CPI growth. In the Mar quarter, price growth slowed and only contributed +0.03%pts. This was the single largest contributor to the -0.78%pt decline in tradable inflation between the two quarters. The tobacco federal excise tax biannual tax indexation came into effect 1st Feb 2016.
  2. Automotive fuel price index contributed -0.18%pts in the Dec quarter. This decline accelerated to -0.31%pts in the Mar quarter. Fuel prices look to have stabilized for now.
  3. Int’l travel accommodation price index contributed +0.6%pts to CPI growth in the Dec quarter. This reversed to detracting -0.5%pts to CPI growth in the Mar quarter.
  4. Fruit price index contributed -0.03%pts to CPI growth in the Dec quarter. This accelerated to -0.13%pts in the Mar quarter.

These top four categories were -0.57%pts of the -0.78%pt deterioration in price growth between the two quarters. There were 12 categories where price growth accelerated and 9 categories where there was no change in growth between the two quarters.

Non-tradable growth has been low in historical terms throughout 2015, but did pick up in the March 16 quarter. Nearly half of all categories classed as non-tradable recorded an acceleration in price growth in the latest quarter – this acceleration was broad based. The largest contributors were medical and hospital charges, secondary education, childcare, household fuels including gas and restaurant meals. There were ten non-tradable categories where price growth slowed between the two quarters, but there was only one large one – domestic holiday and travel, which went from adding +0.16%pts to CPI in Dec quarter to detracting -0.05%pts in the Mar quarter.

The notable slow down on the domestic inflation front has been from a slowing contribution from new dwellings and rents. This has been a function of slowing income/wages growth, a tightening of lending standards for housing to curb riskier lending by banks with regard to investor/interest-only mortgages and a general slow-down in housing demand, especially in key mining areas.

What is it saying about the economy?

The split between tradable and non-tradable inflation over the March and Dec quarters suggests that the decline in CPI was not led by the domestic economy. But growth in non-tradable inflation has been lower than average for a while and it is fair to say that this is a reflection of spare capacity in the economy.

The RBA has asserted that ‘transition’ (from mining) will be assisted by wage restraint, stimulatory interest rate policy and a lower dollar (“Managing Two Transitions”, Deputy Governor Philip Lowe 18 May 2015). Based on this, there are several important considerations for the RBA in assessing interest rate settings:-

Wage growth and the labour market – over the last 12 months, spare capacity in the labour force especially, has been reduced, as evidenced by an improved LFPR, a decline in the unemployment rate during 2015 and generally stable levels of GDP growth. Some of the lower wage pressure can be traced back to a rotation out of much higher paying mining-related jobs that may no longer exist into more average-wage jobs. From the last board minutes, the RBA expected a softening of labour market conditions, given the improvement throughout 2015. My last labour market update highlighted that momentum in the labour market is waning. Without accelerating employment growth, lower wage growth will place a brake on domestic spending and demand.

Housing and credit growth is likely to be an issue. A crack-down on lending standards, a focus on increasing bank capital buffers, and in some cases higher overseas funding costs, has led many lenders to raise mortgage rates and slow their investor mortgage lending – the opposite of stimulatory monetary policy. This is going to weigh on the RBA decision making. House price appreciation has been slowing and is falling in some markets. It’s another story altogether whether banks pass through any further rate cuts.

A lower AUD has been one of the key pillars to support the shift toward non-mining industries especially services exports. The strengthening in the AUD/USD since February could be cause for concern for the RBA. This has been partly driven by the US Federal Reserve putting the brakes on further US interest rate hikes. This has weakened the US dollar against most major currencies, but has also helped to stabilize global financial markets.

The minutes from the April meeting on monetary policy certainly opened the way for monetary policy to be “very accommodative”. The ultimate question is whether another rate cut is the stimulus that the economy needs to kick start growth again. Overall lower-than-average trend growth persists, not just in Australia, but globally. The RBA Governor asks whether we are ‘reconfiguring’ to this lower trend growth (“Observations on the Current Situation”, Glenn Stevens, 19 April 2016):

“That would help to explain why ultra-low interest rates are not, apparently, as successful in boosting growth in demand as might have been expected. The future income against which people would borrow looks lower than it did, not to mention that the current income against which some already had borrowed has turned out to be lower than assumed”

“If we could engender a reasonable sense that future income prospects are brighter, that there is a good return to innovation and ‘real economy’ risk taking, and so on, then people might use low-cost funding for more productive purposes than just bidding up the prices of existing assets”

In addressing the issue of lower trend growth, the RBA is also pointing to the need for more action on other policy fronts to support monetary policy.

“It is surely time that policies beyond central bank actions did more in this regard”

There may not be enough evidence just yet for another rate cut, but it’s likely to be a matter of time.

The credit impulse for Australia remains in neutral – Feb 2016

I’ve just updated the Australian Debt & Credit Impulse page of this blog with the latest trends on the 1) credit impulse and 2) overall debt levels in Australia. You can read all of the background on the credit impulse and its importance on that page too. I thought it worthwhile posting the top line view of the annual growth in new credit for the private sector.

Private sector growth in new credit going sideways – February 2016

Overall momentum in the annual growth in new credit for total private sector credit remains fairly neutral. This highlights that the lack of acceleration in credit growth is likely to continue contributing to slower spending growth.

Annual growth in new credit for the total private sector remains at $26b, nearly 50% below the peak reached in Oct 2014. The current level of growth equates to roughly 1.6% of annual GDP (at Dec 2015). This is within -1 SD of the average growth in new credit over the last year and highlights the overall lack of credit acceleration at a total level.

Source: RBA, The Macroeconomic Project

The trend in the annual growth of new credit for the two main elements, Business and Mortgage+Personal, differ somewhat.

Annual growth in new credit for Mortgage+Personal peaked back in August 2015 at $22b. This has slowed to $12b as of Feb 2016. In historical terms, the growth in new credit for mortgages remains very high. But for this measure, it is the slope of the curve that matters – and in this case it is negative. This will likely place continued pressure on further acceleration of house prices at an aggregate level.

The annual growth in new credit for Business looks slightly more positive over the last six months, but that growth has also stopped accelerating over the last two months. From the low of $7b back in June 2015, annual growth in new credit for Business is now at $14b (slightly down from its peak in Dec 2015 of $18b). This more neutral level of annual growth in new credit for Business is not supportive of accelerating levels of growth in aggregate demand in the coming months. This is consistent with reports of lower expected investment spending by business.

As of Feb 2016, Australia has $2.53t in total private debt outstanding. This represents $161.2b annual growth in outstanding debt (just the change in the total value of the outstanding stock of debt between Feb 15 and Feb 16). In nominal terms, this is the largest annual change since Oct 2008. The majority of the current $161.2b increase in the stock of total private debt is attributed to the increase in outstanding mortgage debt of $110b. Outstanding business debt grew by $54.6b and outstanding ‘other personal’ debt declined by $3.4b. Mortgages represent 61% of outstanding private debt in Australia.

In real terms, total Private debt to GDP for Australia currently sits at 140.6% and is approx. 9% below the all-time peak reached in November 2008.

Source: RBA, ABS, The Macroeconomic Project

You can read more detail here.

Labour market performance among states is shifting – Feb 2016

The latest labour force data for February 2016 was released last week. Despite the issues around the data, it remains one of the most important pieces of information about the economy. The February release continues to show that employment growth is slowing and has virtually caught up to the slowing labour force growth at a National level. As the gap between employment and labour force growth narrows, the rate of decline in unemployment has been slowing. In this post though, I want to highlight the state based results. There are some sobering insights around the performance of various state labour markets, most notably in NSW. As in a previous post, looking at the state based results is a proxy for tracking the transitioning of the economy. As employment growth in key mining states, such as WA, has been fading, NSW and to a lesser extent, VIC, had been more than offsetting the declines. In fact NSW has accounted for the majority of the National employment growth, especially full time employment, over the last year. This looks to changing.

National overview

National employment growth has continued to slow along with the growth in the labour force. The current cycle of slowing employment growth does not seem to have bottomed yet.

Source: ABS

The narrowing gap between employment growth and labour force growth means that the decline in unemployment is also slowing.

The slowing growth in employment has been driven by slower growth in both full time (FT) and part time (PT) employed persons.

Source: ABS

The slowing of FT employment growth means that both FT and PT employ growth are now at similar levels again.

State labour market indicators

The state employment growth data annual versus latest quarter highlights the degree to which performance among the states has started to shift.

Source: ABS

Over the last year, NSW had ‘over-performed’ in terms of employment growth – the state accounted for 57% of the National growth in employment yet represented 32% of all employed persons. QLD was the only other state that had over-performed on an annual basis in terms of share of employment growth – QLD accounted for 24% of the National annual employment growth and 20% of all employed persons in Australia.

In the latest quarter though, these numbers have shifted. Share of employment growth in NSW is now on par with its share of employed persons – 33% of National employment growth in the latest qtr. QLD now accounts for 33% of National employment growth in the latest quarter, well above its 20% share of employed persons. Vic comes in third, accounting for 28% of National employment growth in the latest quarter, just above its 25% share of all employed persons.

The National employment growth engine has stalled – NSW

The NSW picture becomes more concerning when you break down that employment growth into FT and PT share. In the last year, NSW accounted for a large 86% of the National FT employment growth, well above its 32% share of all FT employed persons.

In the latest quarter, FT employment in NSW has declined.

This is a large turnaround in performance:-

Source: ABS

In the latest quarter, its only VIC and QLD that are making relatively large contributions to National FT employment growth. The other notable state is SA where FT employment has shifted from declining on an annual basis to stabilizing in the latest quarter.

In NSW, the decline in FT employment has not been offset by any increase in PT employment growth either. Furthermore, PT employment growth in NSW appears to have plateaued. The trend looks poor:-

Source: ABS

Despite the fact that FT employment has declined in the last 2 months, total employment is still growing in NSW at just above that of the labour force:-

Source: ABS

This means that unemployment is still falling in NSW. The unemployment rate in NSW has fallen by -0.15%pts in the latest quarter. If you were to just look at the unemployment rate, you’d be misled into thinking that the labour market in NSW was performing OK. But as the gap between employment and labour force growth becomes smaller, it means that the decline in unemployment is also slowing.

VIC – employment growth is still holding on

In VIC, employment data was revised upward from the previous month. The Jan 2016 release had growth of total employed persons in VIC for Jan at 2.0k persons. That Jan growth figure has now been revised up to 4.4k persons. The underlying trend is such that growth in FT employed persons appears to have peaked back in Nov 15 and PT employment growth has been declining since late 2015.

Source: ABS

The overall growth in employed persons in VIC has fallen below that of the labour force and, as a result, unemployment is now growing again in VIC.

QLD – the new growth engine?

QLD is the only other state where employment growth appears to be relatively strong. But the monthly trend shows that PT growth has taken a negative turn. As well, FT employment growth in QLD appears to have plateaued, albeit at a relatively high level:-

Source: ABS

Growth in employment overall remains higher than that of the labour force (that gap is narrowing though), hence unemployment continues to fall in QLD.

Labour market performance in other states

The other states are not showing positive signs of employment growth. Overall employment growth in SA has slowed to that of the labour force in the latest month – this has been driven by a slowdown in growth of PT employed persons (which is no longer growing in the latest month). In TAS, FT and PT employed persons has been declining for over 5 months and that decline has been higher than the labour force growth, so unemployment has started to grow again. Employment has been declining in NT for nine months, in line with the labour force, hence the unemployment change has been small. In the ACT, employment growth has peaked back in Nov 2015, but because the labour force growth has been slowing faster than employment growth, unemployment has been declining.

I’ll cover the labour market in WA shortly.

Unemployment indicators

Across the states, the decline in unemployment has started slowing and, in some states, unemployed persons has started growing again in the more recent time frames:-


Source: ABS

The most notable negative shift has been in VIC. The most notable positive shift has been in WA.

Unemployment rates can be misleading – the case of WA

Quoting an unemployment rate alone can be misleading which is why I never do it on this blog. Take for example, the labour market in WA. According to the previous chart, unemployment has been declining in WA based on the 6mth and latest quarter data. Just looking at the unemployment rate, it appears that unemployment peaked back in Oct 2015 at 6.3%. The unemployment rate in WA has fallen further to 6.1% as of Feb 2016. But this hardly looks like a robust labour market.

In WA, employment is declining, driven by declining numbers of FT employed persons. The growth in PT employed persons has not offset the decline in FT employed persons.

The reason why unemployment is falling in this scenario is that the labour force is declining faster than employment:-

Source: ABS

The declining labour force is the result of falling population and participation in WA. In other words, workers are leaving the state due to a lack of job opportunities, especially in mining. As the size of the working population shrinks, so does demand (for everything) and so does tax revenue.

Labour force – population shifts between the states

Part of what is driving some of these state trends is the shift that has taking place in labour force growth by state.

Source: ABS

The shift from NSW-led growth in the labour force to VIC and QLD-led in the more recent quarter is obvious. Its unclear what is driving slowing labour force growth in NSW. The problem facing VIC now is that employment growth isn’t keeping pace with this growth in labour market – hence the growth in unemployed persons. This will be one to watch.

In QLD, the growth in the labour force has remained above that of employment growth.

Also worth mentioning is WA (as well as TAS and NT) – where the labour force has declined in the latest quarter.

At a National level, there are two reasons why the labour force growth is slowing:-


Source: ABS, The Macroeconomic Project

The first is that underlying population growth has slowed. The chart above shows that what population adds to the labour force has slowed from over 23k persons/month to just over 15k/month. For the moment, I’m ignoring the last two months estimates of population growth in the chart above – they are always low.

The second is that changes in labour force participation are back to detracting from the labour force i.e. people are leaving the labour force. In fact, in the latest quarter, participation rates only increased in QLD and VIC and held steady in SA.

Sample rotation

This slow-down in the labour market has appeared on the radar quite quickly. It’s worth noting that it could be the result of changes to the ABS survey rotation (the incoming survey group having a lower employment to population ratio than the outgoing sample group), rather than a marked deterioration in activity during this time. I’ll remain cautious and keep checking in each month to see how the trends are shaping up.

There is clearly a shift occurring in the dynamics of the state labour markets. This is important because NSW has been such a large and positive driver of the improved National labour market over the last 18 months. It appears that NSW is no long that employment growth engine. So far, it’s not clear that employment growth in the better performing states of QLD and VIC will make up the difference.

Transitioning well? Australian GDP & National Income – Dec 2015

At first glance, the data relating to the 4th quarter GDP was fairly straightforward. The Australian economy grew by +0.6% in the final quarter of 2015, better than the +0.4% growth expected, but well down on the previous quarter. The upward revision to the previous September quarter growth from +0.94% to +1.09% growth resulted in annual GDP growth upgraded to +2.96%. This bumped up annual GDP growth to just above average trend growth for the last 10 years. This got quite a few people excited and soon many had jumped back onto the bandwagon that the economy is transitioning well out of the mining boom. It’s always worth looking deeper into the drivers of growth and this quarter is no exception. Whilst this isn’t a bad result at all, there is still enough in the data to challenge the narrative that Australia is transitioning well.

December 2015 quarterly real GDP growth +0.63%

Despite being well down on the previous quarter, GDP growth for the December quarter was very much in line with the average for the last 10 years. This is clearly not a bad result looking at the quarterly results over the last 20 years.

Source: ABS

Of all the components that make up GDP, household consumption spending made the largest contribution to GDP growth on both an annual and quarterly basis.

Source: ABS

Household spending contributed over half of the growth for the year and two thirds of the growth for the quarter. It didn’t take long before this was labelled the ‘strength in the household sector’. I’ll come back to this point later.

Government consumption expenditure and net exports both made a strong positive contribution for the year, but barely contributed to growth in the latest quarter.

Private investment continued to go backwards for the year and the quarter, but government investment spending made a surprise and welcome positive contribution to growth in the latest quarter.

Inventories made a positive contribution in both the quarter and the year. Inventories represent work in progress, materials and finished goods etc. that are owned by the business, whether they are held at the business premises or elsewhere and are recorded at book value at the end of the quarter. It’s difficult to pinpoint what this means – either inventories were ramped up on higher demand expectations or lower than expected sales resulted in increased inventories. The higher contribution is the result of the ‘change in inventories’ going from negative in the previous quarter to positive in the latest quarter.

But real National Income keeps falling

Real GDP growth is a measure of the growth in the underlying output of the economy. But National Income is a better measure of the income derived from/generated by that output. The ABS recommends Real Net National Disposable Income (RNNDI) as the best measure of changes in our “economic wellbeing”. This measure “adjusts the volume measure of GDP for the terms of trade effect, real net incomes from overseas and consumption of fixed capital” (source: ABS). Using this measure, National Income continued its recent decline, falling another -1.1% for the year and -0.1% for the quarter. A big driver of this decline was the latest 12% fall in our terms of trade (ToT).

The real NNDI measure isn’t broken down into its component parts so that we can understand where/what part of National Income is driving this decline. There are several elements that make up the National Income figure – employee compensation, the gross operating surplus (corporate profit proxy) and gross mixed income (surplus/deficit from the operations of smaller unincorporated enterprises). In order to go to this more detailed level, I need to revert to Gross National Income (GNI) in current prices (nominal). In real terms national income is falling. But in nominal terms, gross national income is growing at +2.6%.

I’ve used the chart below before because it provides perspective on how much our National Income growth has slowed over the last five (5) years.

Each bar represents the annual growth in Gross National Income and shows how each component has contributed to growth in that year. Whilst National Income growth, and the contribution from its component parts, is not on its lows, it hasn’t accelerated higher in the latest year either (and we know that in real terms, National Income is declining).


Source: ABS 5206.11

The annual rate of growth in GNI has remained fairly stable over the last two quarters. But a different picture emerges when you look at the quarter on quarter growth rates.

The latest quarter National Income growth is slowing

The December quarter growth was in fact slower than in the previous quarter. The chart below looks at the same National Income components, but using the quarter on quarter growth for the last eight (8) quarters:-

Source: ABS

There are two important points I want to make about the December quarter results.

Firstly, there was a larger contribution from ‘Gross Operating Surplus’ (GOS) in the December quarter (orange bars in the chart above).

This needs to be broken down further because it doesn’t tell us much in aggregate. The GOS is the sum of private, public and financial corporation surplus (a profit proxy), general government surplus and the surplus generated by dwellings owned by persons. Here is how each of those components has contributed to growth over the last eight (8) quarters:

Source: ABS 5206.07 – the sum of these components represent the “GOS” component of National Income.

The contribution from General Government and Dwellings is fairly consistent. Business profitability, on the other hand, tells us something important about the trading environment.

According to the National Accounts, in the chart above, private non-financial corporations have made the largest contribution to growth only in the last two quarters (light blue bars), which is a large turnaround in performance compared to the prior six (6) quarters. This is the single largest component of the GOS and is probably the most important to look at in relation to underlying business conditions. We know that Mining has a large influence on the outcome of this measure. The ‘Mining’ industry accounts for a substantial 26% of corporate profits (Source: 5675.11) – no other industry group comes close to this.

According to the data in 5675.11 Business Indicators, the performance of Mining in the Sept quarter (versus the June quarter) was actually positive and which made a large contribution to the positive shift in corporate profits. But according to the same data source, Mining profits fell again in the December quarter. That would then mean that Non-Mining business profits would have had to have accelerated in the December quarter in order for total private non-financial corporations to continue to make a positive contribution overall (again I’m referring to the December quarter light blue bar in the chart above). This would be an important insight about the performance and transitioning of the economy. So did non-mining profits accelerate?

We can only get down to industry-level data by looking at Company Gross Operating Profits released by the ABS as a part of Business Indicators (5676.11) data release. You can also use 5676.15 – the direction of the data is the same between the two data sources. According to the ABS:

“Company gross operating profits data are used to compile estimates of gross operating surplus of private non-financial corporations” (Source: ABS Business Indicators)

The two measures of company profit aren’t identical, but are very similar. Comparing the results of the two measure over time, there are consistently differences in the rate of growth between the two measures, but rarely do they point in opposite directions/conflict. Except for this quarter.

Breaking down the result by industry in 5676.11 yields a very different result to that of the National Income figures.

At a total industry level, Company Gross Operating Profits declined by -2.8% in the December quarter versus the National Income figures which shows that the Gross Operating Surplus of Private non-financial corporations grew by +0.9%.

According to the data in 5676.11, the decline in Company Gross Operating Profits was driven by both Mining and Non-Mining industries in the latest quarter:-

Source: ABS 5676.11

The only quarter where Mining profits were positive was in the Sept 15 quarter, which is consistent with the stronger results in the Sept quarter.

Non-Mining is the big news here – corporate profit growth has deteriorated in the last two quarters, so much so that Non-Mining Company Gross Operating Profits declined in the December quarter. So if both Mining & Non-Mining profits declined in the latest quarter according to the Business Indicators data (5676.11), then how can the similar measure of “Private Non-Financial Corporations GOS” from 5206.07) make a larger positive contribution to National Income growth in the latest quarter?

From the ABS website (Business Indicators 5676 page):-

COMPARISON BETWEEN COMPANY GROSS OPERATING PROFITS AND GROSS OPERATING SURPLUS

Valuation changes have had an impact on the value of inventories held by Australian businesses this quarter. An inventories valuation adjustment (IVA) is applied in the calculation of the gross operating surplus of private non-financial corporations (GOS) estimate in the Australian National Accounts. The IVA for the December quarter 2015 is -$1,369m which is $1,974m lower than the September quarter 2015 IVA of $605m.

No adjustment is made to the company gross operating profits (CGOP) estimate in this publication and, as a result, users should exercise caution when comparing CGOP and GOS (my emphasis). It should be noted that there are other differences between the two series. In particular, changes are made to GOS when annual benchmarks are applied and slightly different seasonal factors apply to the two series. Given this, while CGOP movements are an appropriate indicator for GOS, the two series will not have equivalent seasonally adjusted movements from quarter to quarter. (Source: ABS – Business Indicators Dec 2015)

So comparison between the two measures is problematic. If no adjustment has been made to the CGOP in Business Indicators, then did the application of a lower inventory valuation actually increase the GOS in the National Accounts in the latest quarter? Could differences in seasonal adjustment account for all of the difference? Which indicator is then the more accurate representation of underlying business profit performance? As mentioned, non-mining industry performance is an important indicator for how the economy is really transitioning.

At best there is a question over the real direction of profit growth at an industry level. I have put this to the ABS for clarification.

The second point relates to the slow-down in growth of Compensation of Employees.

Employee compensation is the largest proportion of National Income at 50% and provides some basic context for the scope of spending growth in the economy.

The accelerating growth in employee compensation since the December 14 quarter has been consistent with an improving labour market at the same time. Except in the latest quarter, when growth in compensation more than halved between the two quarters.

Source: ABS 5206.44

I’ve compared the growth in Sept (Sep v June) and Dec (Dec v Sep) by state (5206.44) in the chart below. Breaking the data down to state level gives some indication of performance differences between mining and non-mining states. It’s not a perfect proxy.

Only in WA and ACT did the growth in compensation of employees improve over the last two quarters. In WA, the best thing you can say is that employee compensation didn’t continue to fall.

Source: ABS 5206.44

Most of the slow down between the two quarters can be attributed to the private sector which accounted for two thirds of the slow down.

Private sector employee compensation growth slowed the most in NSW – again, the engine room of the so-called transition – from +2.5% to +1.1%. This is actually consistent with my previous labour market update highlighting that NSW labour market was no longer looking as strong as it had been.

VIC had the highest quarterly rate of employee compensation growth in December of all the states. Although growth has been slowing for two quarters now, it is still around the average:-

Source: ABS

The main problem state is QLD – the decline in private sector compensation of employees has been accelerating over the last two quarters – the first time since the GFC:-

Source: ABS 5206.44

This is unfortunately at odds with the previous labour market update, which showed employment growth in QLD still at its peak as of the end of 2015.

The situation is similar in South Australia – private sector employee compensation growth has slowed over the last three quarters and has now turned negative in the December quarter.

Growth in employee compensation in WA has been negative for the last four quarters, but in the latest quarter, it has stopped declining, which means it’s still on its lows. In TAS and NT growth in employee compensation also slowed to virtually zero in the latest qtr.

Only in ACT did the growth in compensation of employees accelerate higher in the latest quarter:-

Source: ABS

Across most of the larger states, growth in employee compensation looks like it is slowing, if not outright declining. I’m using the eastern seaboard states (especially NSW and VIC) as proxies to gauge the ‘transition’ from mining states to non-mining states. The original point was about highlighting the slowdown in employee compensation growth between the two quarters. Most of this slow down can be attributed to NSW, VIC & QLD, with NSW by far the biggest contributor to the slow down between the two quarters. It could be a one off for NSW as there is no established trend there at the moment, but this outcome is consistent with my previous labour market outlook for NSW. This puts a dent in the narrative that the economy is transitioning well.

But there is more.

This slowdown in the growth of employee compensation in the December 15 quarter came at a time when growth in hrs worked has been accelerating higher over the last 3 qtrs. The growth in hours worked in the latest quarter is the second highest since the GFC and growth accelerated from 0.4% in the September quarter to +1.17% in the December quarter.

Source: ABS

This has brought the annual rate of growth close to pre-GFC highs. Growth in hours worked has been accelerating since late 2012.

Source: ABS

Yet, output hasn’t grown along with hours worked. In fact, output per hour worked (labour productivity) has been slowing since late 2012 and has started declining.

Source: ABS

In the December quarter, labour productivity declined by -0.6% to bring the annual decline to -0.4%.

The concept of “unrequited input growth” was raised in a Productivity Commission report into falling Australian productivity (source: Productivity Commission Report, “Australia’s Productivity Growth Slump: Signs of Crisis, Adjustment or both?” April 2012):-

“And so, in proximate terms, the decline in MFP [multi factor productivity] growth was associated with ‘unrequited input growth’ — strong acceleration in input demand that was not matched (or stimulated) by an acceleration in output growth. This is the key to understanding Australia’s much poorer productivity growth. Explanations must tell us why Australian businesses used a lot more inputs, without getting more growth in output ”

This was from a paper written in April 2012, so is not referencing this current labour productivity situation. The quote goes on to say that such a situation is not sustainable:

“The notion of unrequited input acceleration does raise the question of how such a phenomenon could be sustained. Typically, output growth provides the additional income needed to fund additional growth in inputs. Consequently, unrequited input growth does not make financial sense, unless there is another source of income growth. Chapter 2 also shows that profitability not only held up, but actually increased in the 2000s. The extra input accumulation was fuelled at least in part by increased profits and profit expectations. Clearly, productivity was not the source of growth in output and income that it was in the 1990s. Rather, the broad productivity trends of the 2000s seem to have been more the outcome of strong input growth driven by marked changes in prices and profits.”

In other words, the ‘returns’ were generated by increases in, and expected increases in, prices including commodity prices, rather than higher productivity generating greater profits.

We no longer enjoy those ToT benefits. Which brings me back to the idea of sustainability of input growth (increasing hours worked) without getting more output growth as a result. The annual growth in hours worked chart suggests that in recent times, when growth in hours worked has resulted in negative labour productivity, hours worked has started to fall. We are now at that stage of the cycle where labour productivity growth has turned negative and we’ll see whether this higher growth in hours can be sustained.

So far ‘rebalancing’ or transitioning has seen higher hours worked but no discernible increase in output growth, and in fact, if you use the Business Indicators data, declining company profits across mining and non-mining in the latest quarter. In the absence of price growth, this is not likely to be sustainable.

So how can Household consumption be the main driver of economic growth?

My final point on the December GDP result and the idea of the transitioning economy, relates to our single largest driver of economic growth at the moment – households.

The big news from GDP was the strength of household expenditure and its resilience in the face of our transitioning economy.

Whilst the contribution from households is large, the direction of spending growth has remained fairly steady over the last few years – not accelerating growth. The current annual rate of growth in real household consumption expenditure is now +2.9% (+4.6% in nominal terms). On a quarterly basis, growth pulled back only slightly from +0.9% in September to +0.8% in December.

Source: ABS

Compared to recent history, growth in household spending has been growing at a fairly consistent rate of just under 3% for the last 18 months.

This rate of growth is not great when you consider that the rate of household consumption growth has been much higher in previous years. But how could household spending be any higher? The context from National Income shows that employee compensation growth (and wages) has slowed considerably over the last five years and in some states, employee compensation has recently turned negative. This has translated into slowing growth in household gross disposable income as well.

Gross disposable household income growth has been slowing since it peaked in 2007 at +12% annual growth – growth is now running at +3.1%. Adjusted for CPI, gross disposable household income is only growing at 1.4% in real terms. This rate of growth is low and is slowing:-

Source: ABS

Maybe the real question is how household consumption expenditure growth has remained at this constant level while household income growth has been slowing?

One reason is due to falling net household saving. Note that the ‘net savings’ measure is actually a calculation of the difference between income and spending of households. As spending increases faster than income, net saving falls. This is what has been happening since the peak in net household saving since mid-2012. In the last year, net household saving has fallen 15%.

Source: ABS

This fall in net saving is partly funding the growth in household consumption.

The other important source funding household spending growth is household debt. While growth in household disposable income has been slowing and is now at a relatively low point, real mortgage debt as a % of real GDP has been rising to its highest point – accelerating in fact since mid-2014. The stock of outstanding housing debt now represents 85.5% of real GDP (total real private debt represents 140% of real GDP):-

Source: ABS, RBA

Compared to household disposable income, household debt now represents in excess of 175% of disposable income.

It seems we might be pinning our hopes on a transition based on continued spending by households that have been facing lower income growth and greater levels of indebtedness. Whilst the GDP top-line results look good, the underlying factors say that the success of the ‘transition’ is on shaky ground.

Capex survey points to further falls in investment – Dec qtr 2015

The Australian capex survey results for the December quarter are disappointing on all levels. Capex remains firmly lower than last year, forecasts are for further declines in the next two quarters and the first view of 2017 looks like capex will continue to fall. There is one small bright point – actual December capex increased over September. This may be positive for the December quarter National Accounts. The reason for the increase can be traced back to activity in NSW and unfortunately, the forecasts by business suggest that it is not likely to continue.

Estimate 5 for capex in the 2015/16 financial year highlights that total capex is still expected to fall by -17% or $26.6b below last year

Expected capex for the full financial year to June 2016 is forecast to come in at $124b, which is 17% below last year. So far, the Sept plus Dec 15 capex actuals are tracking at -17.8% below the same two quarters last year in real terms and -15% in nominal terms.

The benefit of estimate 5 data is that it is made up of 50% actuals and 50% forecast. The forecast period now looks out over a shorter time frame (next 6 months) so is becoming a more accurate view of capex plans:-

Source: ABS

The decline in capex for this financial year, at estimate 5, is looking like it might reach levels not seen since the last recession in 1991/2.

It doesn’t matter whether you look at capex expectations by industry or asset type – ALL areas are contributing to the decline. But the decline is being led by Mining and Buildings and Structures:-

Source: ABS

The only positive in this is that expected capex in Manufacturing doesn’t look like it will decline as much as it did last year. Apart from that, capex in Other Selected Industries and Mining will fall faster than last year as well.

But are the actuals in the GDP results following the capex survey? The data is only up to the Sept qtr and for the moment, yes, private capital investment is following the lead of the capex survey. But we haven’t seen the larger falls in capex that the survey is forecasting. That said, capex has been slowing, then declining since 2012:-

Source: ABS

At estimate 5, we have two quarters of actuals and two quarters of forecasts for capex. The Dec quarter actuals came in higher than the Sept qtr actuals and this could be positive for GDP in the Dec qtr. I’ll come back to this in more detail shortly. But this means that the bigger falls in capex are forecast for the last two quarters of the 2015/16 financial year (which I’m calling ‘Half 2’ – H2 in the table below). From ABS 5625.01(a) and 5625.01(b):-

Actual Capex for H1 v Forecast Capex for H2 2015/16 Financial Year

Source: ABS, $ M, original, current prices

Across every industry, businesses are forecasting capex in the March and June 16 quarters to be between 15 and 20% below capex for the first half.

These forecasts for the March and June 16 quarters do not compare well with actual capex for the same quarters last year either:-

Actual Capex for Mar & Jun 2015 v Forecast Capex for Mar & Jun 2016

Source: ABS, $ M, original, current prices

I’ve outlined before that the Capex Survey (what this post is based on: ABS 5625) doesn’t cover all industries and tends to overstate the size of Mining. The industries that are excluded are: Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (Division A), Public Administration and Safety (Division O), Education and Training (Division P), Health Care and Social Assistance (Division Q), Superannuation Funds (Class 6330).

The size of the capex change tends to be overstated in the survey compared to the actuals in the National Accounts, but are directionally in line. The Capex survey data is used in the development of the quarterly National Accounts.

The first look at expected capex for 2017 looks just as poor

“Non-mining business investment is forecast to pick up in the second half of the forecast period, reflecting the improvement in domestic demand”, RBA, Statement on Monetary Policy, February 2016

Estimate 1 for the next financial year 2016/17 was also released with the December data. This is a 100% forecast and is looking further out to the full financial year 2016/17, so its accuracy is lower than later estimates.

The view at estimate 1 tends to understate final capex. So adjusting the estimate using the 2016 realisation ratio for estimate 1 (which bumps up the estimate by 20%), we get our first capex estimate for 2017 of $99b. Let’s assume that 2015/16 capex spend comes in at the estimate 5 forecast of $124b. That means that estimate 1 is pointing to a further 20% fall in capex for 2016/17.

The falls in capex at estimate 1 are across the board as well:-

  • Mining – estimate 1 adjusted upward based on a +3% realisation ratio = $35b, which represents a further 33% decline on current forecast for mining capex of $53b in this 2015/16 financial year
  • Manufacturing – estimate 1 adjusted upward based on a +27% realisation ratio = $8.3b, which represents a further 1.1% decline on the current forecast for this financial year
  • Other Selected Industries – estimate 1 adjusted upward based on a +49% realisation ratio = $62b, which still represents a further 1.5% decline on the current forecast for this financial year

(The realisation ratios that I’ve used here are the larger of the last 5 years)

But according to the RBA in the latest Statement on Monetary Policy Feb 2016:-

“The ABS capital expenditure (Capex) survey of investment intentions and the Bank’s liaison point to a sharp fall in mining investment in 2015/16. The subtraction from GDP from lower mining investment is expected to peak this financial year.” RBA, Statement on Monetary Policy February 2016

Here’s hoping that the later estimates of the 2016/17 financial year capex improve, because so far, the falls for next year are looking just as bad as this year.

But actual capex in the survey INCREASED in the Dec quarter

It looked like there was a spot of good news in the capex survey data. Actual capex in the December quarter grew by +0.8% in real terms. A turnaround possibly? It unfortunately didn’t take long to see that this is all driven by one state – NSW, which contributed +1.97% points to the +0.8% quarterly increase in actual capex. The only other states to make a positive contribution to growth in the latest quarter were VIC and SA – and contribution to growth was small at best.

Source: ABS

But its nots looking like NSW is on a new investment trajectory either – the latest quarter of higher growth seems like a function of a lower result in the Sept qtr.

Source: ABS

Capex in NSW is still 8% below its 2011 peak in real terms and 4% below the Dec 14 quarter (same time last year).

Reverting to current prices, capex in NSW for the next two quarters is also forecast to be 18% lower than in the actuals in the Sept15/Dec15 quarters. NSW capex in Mar 16 + Jun 16 is forecast to be $11,051m versus the Sept 15/Dec 15 actuals of $13,544m. In other words capex in NSW is not likely to continue increasing in this financial year.

With capex falling and business continuing to forecast lower capex for 2017, the signs for the Australian economy are not good. While mining has mostly been leading the falls, the declines in capex are now evident many across the other industries – which suggests that the ‘transition’ has so far been tepid at best. Business remains wary of investing to increase capacity in light of overall lower growth.