Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Outlook for economy not bright

As far as the economy's concerned, 2013 will be the year when many people's dreams come true. For at least the past two years, many of us - business people and consumers alike - have been convinced the economy is slowing and generally in bad shape.

Trouble is, until recently the hard statistics on the state of the economy have persistently refused to confirm this pessimism.

But now there's good news for the fearful. The nation's economists are as agreed as they ever get that this year the economy will slow, with the rate of unemployment likely to rise towards 6 per cent. Gloomy news will abound. Yippee.

The problem is that the great surge of investment in the construction of new mines and natural gas facilities seems close to its peak. It is unlikely to fall away dramatically, but it should at least reach a plateau and may fall back a little.

All these years of expanding our production capacity is now producing growth in the quantity of our exports of mineral and energy but, at present, this won't be sufficient to replace the impetus we have been getting from the growth in spending on new mines.

And the rest of the economy is not likely to be growing fast enough to fill the vacuum. Business confidence has been poor for some time and, apart from mining, business investment in expansion has been weak and is expected to stay weak.

Normally, a fair bit of the economy's growth comes from the building of new homes, in line with the growth in the population. But in recent years the housing sector has been surprisingly weak. We haven't had as much building of new homes as usual, nor renovation of existing homes, nor buying and selling of existing homes.

Just why housing has been weak for so long is hard to know. It hasn't been a lack of population growth. But the absence of steadily rising house prices is both a consequence and a cause of the weakness.

Housing activity is at last starting to pick up, but it is unlikely to be particularly strong this year.

Next in this tour of the dark side is what many business people regard as the clincher: lack of consumer confidence. Consumers are going through a period of great caution, we have been told repeatedly, and so aren't spending much.

One small problem: so far this hasn't been true. It is true consumer confidence has been surprisingly weak, but it is not true this has led to weak growth in consumer spending. It is also true households are saving a much higher proportion of their incomes than they did for many years.

But the rate of household saving has been steady for several years, meaning consumer spending has been growing at the same rate as household disposable incomes. And since household income has grown reasonably strongly, so has consumer spending.

So how do we account for the tales of woe from retailers? It is simple. Contrary to popular impression, only about a third of all the money consumers spend is spent in the shops of retailers. The retailers have been doing it tough because the share of the consumer dollar going to them has been declining.

With the dollar so high, imports have been cheaper and we have been spending a lot more on overseas holidays and imported cars. To a small but growing extent, our retailers have suffered as we are using the internet to access the cheaper prices charged abroad. And with fewer new homes being built and fewer people moving homes, fewer of us have been buying new furniture and furnishings.

What interests me, however, is why the gloom of so many business people and consumers has so far greatly exceeded the reality. Why people's perceptions of the state of the economy have been so much worse than what the hard facts tell us.

It may be that people have attached too much local significance to all the gloomy news we have been hearing from abroad about troubles with the euro and the Americans' fiscal cliff, but I believe a big part of the explanation is political.

Many business people seem to be sitting on their hands until the political atmospherics improve. They say the period of minority government has damaged confidence, but this is code for their impatience to see the back of Julia Gillard.

At least with business people their measured lack of confidence accords with their reluctance to invest in expanding their businesses. With consumers, the standard measure of their confidence compiled by Westpac and the Melbourne Institute has proved an unreliable guide to their actual behaviour.

If you delve into that index you discover that people intending to vote Liberal are far more pessimistic about the economy than those intending to vote Labor. I suspect it will prove a better indicator of who will win this year's election than of the prospects for consumer spending.

Another part of the explanation for the discrepancy between perception and reality is surely that the tribulations of certain industries - notably manufacturing and retail - have mistakenly been taken as symptomatic of the whole economy.

But not to worry. The economists assure us 2013 will be the year when reality finally aligns with our negative perceptions. Not being a pessimist myself, however, I see two grounds for hope.

One is that if all the economists are sure the economy will slow, there must be a good chance they are wrong yet again.

And remember the light at the end of the tunnel: come the election, God will be back in his Liberal heaven and all will be right with the world.