Saturday, December 8, 2012

Economy slowing, not dying

To hear many people talk, the economy is in really terrible shape. Trouble is, we've been waiting ages for this to show up in the official figures, but it hasn't. This week's national accounts for the September quarter are no exception.

You could be forgiven for not realising this, however, because some parts of the media weren't able resist the temptation to represent the figures as much gloomier than they were.

One prominent economist was quoted (misquoted, I trust) as inventing his own bizarre definition of recession so as to conclude the economy was in recession for the first nine months of this year.

Really? Even though figures we got the next day showed employment grew by 1.1 per cent over the year to November, leaving the unemployment rate unchanged at 5.2 per cent? Some recession.

What the national accounts did show - particularly when you put them together with other indicators - is that the economy is in the process of slowing, from about its medium-term trend growth rate of 3.25 per cent a year to something a bit below trend.

That's not particularly good news - it suggests unemployment is likely to rise somewhat - but it hardly counts as an economy in really terrible shape.

The accounts show real gross domestic product growing by 0.5 per cent in the September quarter and by 3.1 per cent over the year to September - which latter is "about trend".

This quarterly growth of 0.5 per cent follows growth of 0.6 per cent in the previous quarter and 1.3 per cent the quarter before that. So that looks like the economy's slowing - although the figures bounce around so much from quarter to quarter it's not wise to take them too literally.

But the accounts contain a warning things may slow further. We always focus on the growth in real gross domestic product, which is the quantity of goods and services produced during the period (and is the biggest influence over employment and unemployment).

But if you adjust GDP to take account of the change in Australia's terms of trade with the rest of the world, to give a better measure of our real income, you find "real gross domestic income" fell by 0.4 per cent in the quarter to show virtually no growth over the year.

Leaving other factors aside, this suggests our spending won't be growing as fast next year, leading to slower growth in the production of goods and services (real GDP) and thus slowly rising unemployment.

Our terms of trade are falling back from their record favourable level because of the fall in coal and iron ore export prices as the first stage of the three-stage resources boom ends. (The second stage is the mining investment boom and the third is the rapid growth in the quantity of our mineral exports.)

For some time the econocrats and other worthies have been reminding us that, when ever-rising export prices are no longer boosting our incomes, we'll be back to relying on improved productivity - output per unit in input - to lift our real incomes each year.

This makes it surprising we've heard so little about the figures showing that GDP per hour worked rose by 0.7 per cent in the quarter and by a remarkable 3.3 per cent over the year. Again, it's dangerous to take short-term productivity figures too literally, but at least they're pointing in the right direction.

They also put a big question mark over all the agonising we've heard about our terrible productivity performance.

This week's figures confirm what we know: some parts of the economy are doing much worse than others. Business investment in plant and construction rose by 2.6 per cent in the quarter and 11.4 per cent over the year - though most of this came from mining, with investment by the rest of business pretty weak.

One area that isn't as weak as advertised is consumer spending, up by 0.3 per cent in the quarter and 3.3 per cent over the year - about its trend rate. The household saving rate seems to have reached a plateau at about 10 per cent of disposable income, meaning spending is growing in line with income.

Investment in home building grew 3.7 per cent in the quarter, suggesting its chronic weakness may be ending, thanks to the big fall in interest rates. Adding in home alterations, total dwelling investment was up 0.7 per cent in the quarter, though still down 6.3 per cent over the year.

The volume (quantity) of exports rose 0.8 per cent in the quarter and 4.7 per cent over the year, whereas the volume of imports rose 0.1 per cent and 3.5 per cent, meaning "net exports" (exports minus imports) are at last making a positive contribution to growth. This suggests we're starting to gain from the third stage of the resources boom, growth in the volume of mineral exports. The greatest area of weakness was spending by governments. Government consumption spending was down 0.4 per cent in the quarter (but still up 3.5 per cent over the year). Government investment spending fell 8.2 per cent in the quarter and 7 per cent over the year even though, within this, investment spending by government-owned businesses was strong.

All told, the public sector made a negative contribution to GDP growth of 0.5 percentage points in the quarter, and a positive contribution of just 0.3 per cent over the year - obviously the consequence of budgetary tightening at both federal and state levels.

This degree of contraction isn't likely to continue. But a strong reason for accepting the economy is slowing somewhat is the news from the labour market.

Don't be fooled by the monthly farce in which unemployment is said to jump one month and fall the next. If you're sensible and use the smoothed "trend estimates" you see unemployment steady at 5.3 per cent since August.

Even so, the economy hasn't been growing fast enough to employ all the extra people wanting work, causing the working-age population's rate of participation in the labour force to fall by 0.4 percentage points to 65.1 per cent.

And we know from the labour market's forward-looking or "leading" indicators - surveys of job vacancies - that employment growth is likely to be weaker in coming months.

That's hardly good, but it ain't the disaster some people are painting.