Saturday, September 10, 2016

Economy steams on for another quarter

Just about everyone who doesn't look at the numbers - which is most people - is convinced the economy is "slowing", suggesting disaster may be just around the corner.

How do they know it's slowing? Because almost all the economic news is bad. They don't notice that most of the bad news comes from somewhere else - Britain, Europe, Japan, China, even the US.

And people who warn that the economy is slowing always sound wiser and more knowing than people who say it seems to be going OK and will probably stay OK.

Of course, if you do look at the figures you find little sign the economy is slowing. Indeed, the national accounts we got from the Bureau of Statistics this week show that real gross domestic product grew by 3.3 per cent over the year to June.

Three months earlier, the figures tell us, real GDP grew by 3 per cent over the year to March. Before that we had growth of 2.8 per cent over the year to December and 2.6 per cent over the year to September 2015.

During all that time we've had people confidently telling us the economy is "slowing". What's more, within a week they'll have forgotten this week's good news from the national accounts - as they did all the other times - and be back telling us the economy is "slowing".

The good thing about the national accounts is you can always find something that's not looking too hot - provided you ignore all the things that are going OK.

This time you can say that, since the economy grew by 1 per cent in the March quarter, but by only 0.5 per cent in the June quarter, it must be "slowing".

But you have to be an amateur to believe the accounts can be taken so literally.

They're too subject to lumpiness (big transactions, such as the purchase of jumbo jets, which happen irregularly rather than smoothly from quarter to quarter), to error (such as a big transaction getting into the wrong quarter) and to frequent revision (there's a lot more statistical guesswork in the first estimate of growth during a quarter than people imagine, mainly because a lot of the figures needed are collected only yearly) for them to be treated as God's truth.

You could also say that growth in consumer spending of just 0.4 per cent in the quarter was surprisingly weak but, again, we shouldn't be too literal. Growth of 2.9 per cent over the year is pretty healthy.

Actually, if you're looking for something that really is "slowing" you'll find it not in the national accounts, but in the monthly job figures. They show that employment hasn't grown as strongly this year as it did in the last half of last year, meaning the rate of unemployment seems to have stopped falling and plateaued at 5.7 per cent.

This tells us there's been some instability in the normally fairly stable relationship between growth in the economy and growth in employment.

It would be more worrying if growth in the driver of that relationship - the economy - weren't holding up so well, and possibly increasing. This being so, employment should start behaving more normally in time.

The real growth in GDP over the year to June of 3.3 per cent was generated by, in descending order of contribution, growth in: the volume of exports of 9.6 per cent (with extra help from a 0.5 per cent fall in the volume of imports), consumer spending of 2.9 per cent, public consumption spending of 4.4 per cent, public infrastructure spending of 13.9 per cent, and home building of 8.3 per cent.

All of which was reduced by a negative contribution to growth of 2.2 percentage points from the 13.8 per cent fall in business investment spending, as the continuing fall in mining construction activity swamped still fairly flat growth in non-mining business investment.

If those figures make you think the public sector - federal, state and local - has been spending like crazy, don't be misled. Public sector spending is lumpy, and June quarter spending was overstated (and business investment spending correspondingly understated) by state governments buying prisons and other facilities previously built by the private sector.

Here's some indisputably good news: the productivity of labour in the market sector improved by 1.5 per cent during the quarter and by 2.9 per cent over the year.

There's an old rule that one quarter's figure doesn't equal the start of a new trend. Remembering this, there are some encouraging figures in the accounts we can hope will turn out to be improving trends.

The most significant is that, after deteriorating for nine quarters in a row, our terms of trade - export prices relative to import prices - improved by 2.3 per cent in the quarter.

This means stronger growth in real gross domestic income (real GDP adjusted for the terms of trade) of 1.9 per cent over the year. That is, the international purchasing power of the goods and services we produce wasn't cut back this quarter the way it has been.

When export prices fall far enough, nominal GDP grows more slowly than real GDP. This is a problem for the Treasurer because the taxes we pay are levied on our nominal income and spending.

But the improvement in the terms of trade helped nominal GDP to rise by 1.3 per cent in the quarter and 3.4 per cent over the year. This is the strongest result in more than two years.

The final good news is proof the economy is now well advanced in making the much ballyhooed transition from mining- to non-mining-led growth.

Over the year to June, the mining sector contributed about a quarter of the overall growth of 3.3 per cent, whereas the (much larger) non-mining sector contributed about three-quarters.