The Australian economy – five reasons growth will continue but unlikely to be enough to justify rate hikes until 2019
Growth just muddling along
For the last few years the Australian economy has been meandering between 2-3% growth. This remained the case through last year with December quarter GDP up just 0.4%, and annual growth of 2.4% as a bounce a year ago dropped out. In the quarter growth was helped by consumer spending and public investment but soft housing and business investment and a large detraction from net exports weighed on growth.
Australia continues to defy recession calls. Against this, economic growth is well below potential, with per capita growth running at just 0.8% year on year, which is below that in most major countries.
- Second, non-mining investment is now rising. Comparing corporate investment plans for this financial year with those made a year ago points to a decline in business investment this year of around 3% (see next chart) and a similar sized rise in 2018-19. But this is the best it’s been since 2013 & once mining investment is excluded this turns into an 8% gain for non-mining investment in both years.
- Third, public investment is rising strongly, reflecting state infrastructure spending.
- Fourth, net exports are likely to add to growth as the completion of resources projects and strong global demand boosts resources export volumes and services sectors like tourism and higher education remain strong.
- Finally, profits for listed companies are rising. This is a positive for investment.
While profit growth has slowed from 16% in 2016-17 to around 7% now as the 2016-17 surge in commodity prices dropped out, more companies (74%) are seeing profit gains than at any time since before the GFC. 92% of Australian companies either raised or maintained their dividends in the most recent reporting season indicating a high degree of confidence in the earnings and growth outlook.
So while housing is slowing and consumer spending is constrained (with January retail sales data suggesting consumer spending this year is off to a weak start), a lessening drag from mining investment and stronger non-mining investment (both public and private) along with solid export growth are likely to keep the economy growing and see a pick-up in growth to between 2.5% and 3%. However, growth is likely to remain below Reserve Bank of Australia expectations for a pick up to 3.25% this year and next. As a result, and with wages growth and inflation likely to remain low for a while yet we have pushed out the expected timing for the first RBA rate hike from late this year into February next year.
Implications for investors
There are several implications for Australian investors.
First, continuing growth should provide a reasonable backdrop for Australian growth assets. Australian shares are vulnerable to the concerns impacting global markets – particularly US inflation and Fed fears and worries about a trade war – but we remain of the view that the ASX 200 will be higher by year end.
Second, bank deposits are likely to provide poor returns for investors for a while yet. The issue for investors in bank deposits is to think about what they are really after. If it’s peace of mind regarding the capital value of their investment, then maybe stay put. But if it’s a decent income yield then there are plenty of alternatives providing superior yield. The yield gap between Australian shares and bank deposits remains wide.
Third, while Australian shares are great for income, global shares are likely to remain outperformers for capital growth. Global shares have been outperforming Australian shares since October 2009 and over the last five years have outperformed in local currency terms by nearly 4% pa and by 9% pa in Australian dollar terms. This reflects relatively tighter monetary policy in Australia, the commodity slump, the lagged impact of the rise in the $A above parity in 2010, and a mean reversion of the 2000 to 2009 outperformance by Australian shares. While earnings growth in Australia is around 7%, it’s double this globally, suggesting the relative underperformance of Australian shares in terms of capital growth may go for a while yet. Which all argues for a continuing decent exposure to global shares.
Finally, the risks remain on the downside for the $A. With the RBA comfortably on hold and the Fed set to raise rates later this month with four hikes this year in total, the interest rate gap between Australia and the US will go negative and keep falling this year. Historically this has been associated with falls in the value of the Australian dollar. Fears of a global trade war may add to this risk given Australia’s relatively high trade exposure. All of which is another reason to maintain a continuing decent exposure to global shares but on an unhedged basis.
Dr Shane Oliver
Head of Investment Strategy and Chief Economist