Saturday, March 9, 2013

Underneath, the economy is slowing

THE world is a complicated place - and the Bureau of Statistics' national accounts are more so. Sometimes they're better than they look, but the figures we got this week aren't as good as they look. On their face, they say real gross domestic product grew by 3.1 per cent over the year to December.

Since the economy's trend (medium-term average) rate of growth is about 3.25 per cent a year, that doesn't look too bad. The worry is, a lot more than half that growth occurred in the first half of the year, with growth in the last quarter of just 0.6 per cent - suggesting the economy is slowing.

The figures are unlikely to prompt the Reserve Bank to make much change to its forecasts last month of growth of just 2.5 per cent over the year to June, and probably not much better by the end of this year.

Looking into the detail, although consumer spending has generally held up better in recent years than many people suppose, it grew by a weak 0.2 per cent in the December quarter, and no better the quarter before.

Just why consumption has been so weak of late is a puzzle. The problem hasn't been weak growth in household incomes, nor a rise in the rate of household saving, which has been roughly steady at 10 per cent of household disposable income. It's the "disposable" bit that has been the problem: an unexplained increase in tax payments.

There was strong growth in the quarter in purchases of food and motor vehicles (for the year, up a remarkable 23 per cent), but a fall in spending at hotels, cafes and restaurants.

Probably the best news is that home building activity increased 2.1 per cent in the quarter, its best growth since early 2011, following a pick-up in the September quarter.

This suggests housing is finally starting to grow again, stimulated by lower interest rates and slowly rising house prices. But no one's expecting the recovery to be strong.

On the face of it, business investment spending contracted in the quarter, whereas public sector spending grew surprisingly strongly. But both results were distorted by the sale of an existing asset from the private sector to a state public corporation. Kieran Davies, of Barclays Bank, believes this is the Victorian government's purchase of a desalination plant for up to $4 billion.

As best he can untangle the figures, business investment rose 1 per cent during the quarter, while public sector spending was pretty flat. The latter's not surprising since governments at all levels are struggling to get their budgets back to surplus.

Within the overall growth in business investment, spending by the mining industries continued very strong, whereas spending by all other industries was weak.

According to the latest estimate by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, the pipeline of committed resource projects is a record $268 billion. This suggests the peak in mining investment remains some quarters off and that, even when it arrives, it may be more of a plateau than the start of a dive.

While we're on the resources boom, the next notable feature of the accounts was that the volume (quantity) of exports grew 3.3 per cent during the quarter, whereas import volumes grew just 0.7 per cent. This means "net exports" (exports minus imports) made a contribution to overall GDP growth of 0.6 percentage points. By far the strongest growth came from coal and iron ore exports.

But a slowing in the rate of inventory accumulation made a negative contribution of 0.4 percentage points and, as Dr Chris Caton of BT Financial Group has calculated, almost all of this came from a sharp decline in mining inventories. It thus makes sense to say mining exports made a net contribution to growth of 0.2 or 0.3 percentage points.

So it's a mistake to say, as some have, that mining accounted for all the growth in the quarter. Small contributions came from consumer spending and housing. And it's good to see signs of the third phase of the resources boom getting started: there's a lot more growth in the volume of our mineral exports to come.

This is the time to be clear on the distinction between export volumes and export prices. Even as export volumes are growing, export prices are falling. Indeed, prices are falling mainly because volumes are growing. That is, prices are falling as supply catches up with demand.

The fall in export prices relative to import prices caused our "terms of trade" to deteriorate by 2.7 per cent during the quarter (and by 12.9 per cent during the year). This explains why, though real gross domestic production grew 3.1 per cent over the year, real gross domestic income rose by just 0.2 per cent.

This weaker growth in national income feeds through to business profits and household incomes, thus acting as a dampener on spending. And this, plus the coming peak in mining investment (and despite the income we'll get from growing mining export volumes) explains why what we need to see now is a transition from mining-led growth to growth in the rest of the economy: consumption, housing and non-mining business investment spending.

That's what's disappointing about this week's seemingly OK national accounts: as yet, not much evidence the transition is occurring. It's being spurred on by the fall in interest rates over the past year or more, but held back by the continuing high dollar.

Even so, Wayne Swan is right to remind us that, whatever our troubles, they pale into insignificance compared with the troubles of most of the rest of the developed economies.

Our growth of 3.1 per cent is faster than almost all the other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and more than four times the average. Of the 27 advanced economies, 15 actually contracted in the December quarter.

Our real GDP has grown by 13 per cent in the five years since December 2007. Among the seven biggest advanced economies, only Germany, the US and Canada can claim to have grown in that time. And the best of them - Canada - has grown much less than half as much as we have.