Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nice set of figures should shut up the gloomsters

Something strange is happening to the Australian psyche at present. A lot of people are feeling down about the economy. They're convinced it's pretty weak, and any bit of bad news gets a lot of attention.

But most of the objective evidence we get about the state of the economy says it is, under the circumstances, surprisingly strong. Consider the national accounts we got this week.

They show the economy - real gross domestic product - grew by 1 per cent in the September quarter, more than most economists were expecting. And not only that, the Bureau of Statistics went back over recent history, revising up the figures.

Originally we were told the economy grew by a rapid 1.2 per cent in the June quarter, but now we're told it grew by an even faster 1.4 per cent. Originally we were told the economy contracted by 1.2 per cent in the March quarter because of the Queensland floods and cyclone, but now we're told the contraction was only 0.7 per cent.

Those figures hardly fit with all the gloominess. So how fast is the economy travelling, on the latest numbers? We're told it grew by 2.5 per cent over the year to September, but that figure includes the once-off contraction in the March quarter, which is now ancient history.

We could do it the American way and say we grew at an ''annualised rate'' of 4 per cent in the September quarter (roughly, 1 per cent x 4), but that's too high because this quarter (and the previous one) includes a bit of ''payback'' (or, if you like, catch-up) as the Queensland economy got back to normal after its extreme weather.

(There's likely to be more catch-up in the present quarter as the Queensland coalmines finally pump out all the water and resume their normal level of exports, suggesting the Reserve Bank is reasonably safe to achieve its forecast of 2.75 per cent growth over the year to December.)

So the best assessment is that at present the economy is growing at about its ''trend'' (long-term average) rate of 3.25 per cent a year. If so, everything's about normal.

Ah yes, say the gloomsters, but all the growth's coming from the mining boom. Before we check that claim, let's just think about it. If we were viewing our economy in comparison with virtually every other developed economy, we'd be thanking our lucky stars for the mining boom.

But not us; not in our present mood. We're feeling sorry for ourselves because, for most of us, the benefits of the boom come to us only indirectly. (The other thing we ought to be thankful for apart from our luck is 20 years of clearly superior management of our economy. In stark contrast to Europe and the US, we have well-regulated banks and stuff-all public debt.)

It's true the greatest single contributor to growth in the September quarter was the boom in investment in new mines. New engineering construction surged 31 per cent in the quarter and total business investment spending rose by almost 13 per cent.

But though most of that remarkable boost is explained by mining, there was also a healthy increase in manufacturing investment.

And here's a point some people have missed: the second biggest contribution to growth in the September quarter (a contribution of 0.7 percentage points) came from the allegedly cautious consumer.

Consumer spending grew by 1.2 per cent in the quarter and by 3.8 per cent over the year to September. That's actually above its long-term trend. And consumer spending was strong in all the states, ranging from rises of 0.8 per cent in Victoria, 0.9 per cent in Western Australia (note) and 1.1 per cent in NSW, to 1.9 per cent in Queensland (more catch-up).

Although households are now saving about 10 per cent of their disposable incomes, this saving rate has been reasonably steady for the past nine months. So consumer spending is growing quite strongly because household income is growing quite strongly.

It's noteworthy that, according to Treasury, non-mining profits rose by 4.7 per cent in the quarter. And according to Kieran Davies, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, non-mining GDP grew by a solid 0.7 per cent in the quarter, just a fraction below trend.

So the notion that mining (and WA and Queensland) might be doing fine but everything else is as flat as a tack is mistaken. It's true, however, that some industries are doing it tough. Consumers are spending at a normal rate, but their spending has shifted from clothing and footwear and department stores to restaurants, overseas travel and other services.

Home-building activity declined during the quarter - a bad sign. The continuing withdrawal of the earlier budgetary stimulus meant that government spending fell by 2.5 per cent during the quarter. Public spending was a drag on growth in all states bar WA and Queensland (more catch-up).

Our terms of trade - export prices relative to import prices - improved by 2.7 per cent in the quarter (and by 13 per cent over the year to September) to be their best on record. But that's likely to be the peak, with key export prices falling somewhat in the present quarter.

The volume of exports rose by 2 per cent in the quarter, but the volume of imports rose by 4.3 per cent, mainly because of imports of capital equipment. So ''net exports'' (exports minus imports) subtracted 0.6 percentage points from overall growth in real GDP during the quarter.

Ah yes, say the gloomsters, but all this is old news - the September quarter ended more than two months ago. The economy must have slowed since then. After all, look at this week's news of a rise in the unemployment rate to 5.3 per cent in November.

It does seem true the labour market isn't as strong as the strength of economic activity would lead us to expect. This could indicate a degree of caution on the part of employers. But the rise in unemployment is slow and small, and if it's only up to 5.3 per cent we're still doing very well by the standard of the past 20 years.

As for the tempting line that everything's gone bad since the strong growth in the September quarter, just remember: that's what the gloomsters said when they saw the good growth figures for the previous quarter. Turned out to be dead wrong.