In a speech today, Christopher Kent, Assistant Governor (Economic) outlined the current state of global and local economies, and commented on the outlook. Significantly he stressed that the RBA was looking for household expenditure to trickle through to stimulate business investment and thus lead to a lift in the labour market. However, noting the fall in average real income, and waning consumer confidence, we think this will take a long time, even at current very low interest rates. In addition, we have very high loan to income ratios, and this is absorbing household wealth significantly. Raises an interesting point, are the underlying economic assumptions valid this time around?
Our expectation is that growth will continue to be a bit below trend for a time, picking up gradually to be a bit above trend pace by 2016. And the unemployment rate is likely to remain elevated for some time.
The near-term weakness reflects a combination of three forces: a sharper decline in mining investment over the coming quarters than seen to date; the effects of the still high level of the exchange rate; and ongoing fiscal consolidation at state and federal levels. In contrast, resource exports are likely to make a further strong contribution to growth, with LNG exports expected to begin ramping up over coming quarters. At the same time, very low interest rates are working to support growth of household expenditure. In time, growth of household demand and the impetus to domestic demand provided by the exchange rate depreciation we have seen since early 2013 are expected to spur non-mining business investment.
Given this outlook, I want to touch on two relevant aspects of the business cycle that are important sources of uncertainty for our forecasts. One is related to household consumption, the other to business investment.
At this phase in the business cycle, it’s natural to worry about the possibility that consumption will be weighed down by slow growth in household incomes, driven in turn by the subdued state of the labour market. It is true that stronger growth of employment and wages would provide more support for consumption. However, that dynamic usually kicks in later in the cycle. In the meantime, it’s reasonable to expect that very low rates of interest will enable and encourage households to shift some expenditure from the future to now, including via higher asset prices. This would see a decline in the share of disposable income that households save (i.e. a lower saving ratio). There are limits to this, and it would be unwise to build a recovery on a foundation of a sharp decline in the saving ratio.
Our latest forecasts, however, suggest that there will be a gradual decline in the saving ratio over the next couple of years, of the same order of magnitude as we’ve already seen over the past couple of years.
A decline in the household saving ratio would be consistent with the tendency for labour market developments to lag developments in economic activity, including consumption, by a few quarters. Consumption and GDP growth tend to pick up ahead of an improvement in employment growth, which would in turn be expected to occur before we see wage growth start to return to more normal levels. This was the case during the recessionary episodes of the early 1990s and following the global financial crisis.
Non-mining business investment
I’ve spoken at length recently about the factors that might have led to subdued non-mining business investment over recent years.
In short, I concluded that this outcome had been consistent with a period of greater uncertainty and below-average confidence. Both of these have changed for the better more recently, yet firms still seem reluctant to take on risks associated with substantial new investment projects. If the appetite of businesses (and shareholders) for risk were to improve, investment could pick up. It’s hard to know when such a turning point in spirits might take place. But it is more likely when the fundamental determinants of investment are in place as they seem to be now. The ready availability of internal and external finance, at very low cost, is one such element of that. Also, there is the stronger growth of demand across the non-mining parts of the economy over the past year or so and measures of capacity utilisation have increased to around long-run average levels. So there is a reasonable prospect of business investment picking up, in time.
Even so, let me note some reasons why the anticipated recovery in non-mining business investment might not be quite as strong as in earlier episodes. But I will stress at the outset that if that comes to pass, it does not mean that growth of activity or of our prosperity need suffer.
One reason why investment in the non-mining sector might be lower than in the past is that service industries account for an increasing share of our economy – rising by about 12 percentage points in terms of the employment share over the past three decades. This is relevant to investment because service industries, on average, have much lower levels of capital relative to labour. So, in an economy in which services account for a higher share of economic activity, other things equal, the optimal (non-mining) capital stock should be lower than it otherwise would be (as a share of that economy). However, that doesn’t imply that GDP growth will be lower, nor does it suggest that the economy will be a less prosperous one. What matters for these things is whether we are taking advantage of profitable opportunities and using labour and capital in the most productive ways that we can. Also, it is worth emphasising that many services require high levels of human capital – in the form of education and training – which does not get picked up in investment as measured by the national accounts.
Investment today might also be lower (as a share of nominal GDP) than in the past for another reason. Over time there has been a sizeable decline in the price of many types of machinery and equipment (particularly those related to information and communications). So, businesses are able to spend less to obtain a given level of capital services. For example, they can purchase a lot more computing power for a given level of nominal spending. Once again, if this leads to lower investment (as a share of nominal GDP) than in the past it does not imply less output growth or lower prosperity. Indeed, given that Australia imports much of our machinery and equipment, a lower price of that capital is to our benefit.
The major advanced economies are in different stages of the business cycle. The recovery from recession is well established in the United States, but has a long way to go in the euro area. Japan has made some progress in reducing the extent of spare productive capacity, but inflation is still some way from the Bank of Japan’s target. Nevertheless, growth of Australia’s major trading partners has actually been around average for some time now and, as best we can tell, it is likely to remain at that rate in the year ahead.
Australian GDP growth has been a bit below trend pace over the past couple of years, consistent with a gradual rise in the unemployment rate. Much of the growth this past year owed to rising resource exports, although growth outside the mining sector also picked up. However, with mining investment set to fall more sharply over coming quarters, GDP growth is expected to be below trend for a time before gradually picking up to an above-trend pace by 2016.
The very low level of interest rates is supporting, and will continue to support, growth of household expenditure. In time, this is expected to support a recovery in non-mining business investment, and the economy more broadly, including an improvement in conditions in the labour market. If history is any guide, the recovery is likely to proceed in that order, from household expenditure to business investment to labour market conditions. History also suggests that a pick-up in business investment (outside of the resources sector) will come, in time. The fundamental forces are in place to support that recovery. And while I have suggested some reasons why business investment might not be quite as strong as past episodes of recovery might suggest, these don’t imply that the economy overall will be less strong than otherwise, but rather just one element of expenditure that we measure via the national accounts.