Economic Overview (NER 58)

National Economic Review  National Institute of Economic and Industry Research   No. 58        September 2005

The National Economic Review is published four times each year under the auspices of the Institute’s  Academic Board.  The Review contains articles on economic and social issues relevant to Australia. While the Institute endeavours to provide reliable forecasts and believes material published in the Review is accurate it will not be liable for any claim by any party acting on such information.

Editor: Dr A. Scott Lowson National Institute of Economic and Industry  Research 

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Economic overview  Peter Brain, Executive Director, NIEIR 

Abstract : Peter Brain assesses the Australian economy and describes alternative scenarios.

Although the GDP growth for 2003-04 was 3.6 per cent, this represented a relatively poor performance.  The GDP growth rate of 3.6 per cent for 2003-04 was the same as earlier projections. However, it represented a relatively poor performance. The reason for this assessment is due to the fact that over 2003-04 the Australian farm sector recovered from the drought. Farm product in 2003-04 grew by 27 per cent, adding 0.7 per cent to GDP growth. However, non-farm GDP grew by 3 per cent for 2003-04 despite a 5.6 per cent private consumption growth which represents the highest rate of growth for a number of years. Moreover, the growth rate of all the private investment components was 6 per cent or greater.  The reason for the relatively poor GDP growth outcome is, firstly, the poor performance of exports and, secondly, the growth in imports. There is a lag between farm production recovery and exports so the growth in exports resulting from the farm recovery will occur in 2004-05.  In 2003-04 imports grew by 13.1 per cent, only slightly below the growth in 2002-03. This represents a growth in import penetration across a wide range of sectors, including clothing, textiles, motor vehicles, chemicals and machinery. Imports represent one quarter of GDP. Hence, a 13.1 per cent import growth rate means that the growth in imports over 2003-04 reduce GDP by 2.5 per cent from what would otherwise have been the case if imports had growth in line with GDP.  Over the last two years in particular, the growth in imports has been a major negative factor in determining  Australia’s growth performance.

Australia’s exports performance has also been poor but will recover over the next three years.

In the few years since 1999-00, the value of Australia’s non-resource based exports has been flat. That is, no change has occurred. This is despite the value of trade in the Asia-Pacific region for non-resource based products growing between 30 and 40 per cent over the past four years.  In 2004-05 exports of goods and services are expected to grow by 5.1 per cent, in part due to the recovery of the farm sector. Exports will also recover over the next two to three years because of the coming on-line of major resource projects that were commenced in 2002 or 2003. The most important of these will be the fourth liquefied natural gas (LNG) train on the North West Shelf. In 2006 the Darwin LNG train will come on-line.

Both the United States and Australian dollars will devalue over the next five years relative to our trading partners. 

Exports may well recover, but without a substantial devaluation of the Australian dollar, import growth will continue to outstrip the growth of exports. With the upswing in the world interest rate cycle now occurring, the continuation of the current growth in imports would lead to an Australian current account deficit of around 7 per cent of GDP. To hold the current account deficit at the 5 per cent level, which is the projection to 2008-09, it is necessary for the Australian dollar to devalue,  in weighted average terms of around 15 per cent over the 2006 to 2009 period. This is built into the projection.  It can be seen from Table 1 that the United States/Australian exchange rate stays relatively unchanged over the projection period. The projection also allows for the outcome that the United States dollar devalues 20 per cent against the Euro, yen and yuan over the projection period. Because Australia maintains parity with the United States dollar, it follows that there is an equivalent devaluation of the Australian dollar against these currencies. The appreciation of the yuan against the United States dollar is also assumed to trigger the appreciation of other Asian currencies against the United States dollar.  It is the devaluation of the Australian dollar that leads to a more subdued growth rate for imports over 2008 and 2009.

The recent evidence is that the downside phase of the dwelling cycle has commenced.

It has long been NIEIR’s contention that the down-phase of the current dwelling cycle would only commence when significant growth in established house prices ceased. By the June quarter 2004, established house prices had stabilised with a fall in established house prices in Sydney offset by more moderate price growth elsewhere. Moreover, the trend in approvals and the financing of dwellings for new construction all point to falls in dwelling construction over the next two years. Over the next two years the cumulative decline in housing construction is projected to be 18 per cent.

The borrow and spend behaviour of households is now reaching its peak. Household balance sheet constraints will be a negative factor for growth for the foreseeable future. 

The ending of the established house price boom will also lead to a curtailment of a key driver of recent Australian economic growth, namely household borrowing to support consumption expenditure.

The growth in established house prices since 1996 resulted in the ratio of household net worth (the value of the housing stock plus financial assets less financial liabilities) increasing from 6 to 7.8 by June 2005 (Figure 2). From Figure 4, this allowed households to borrow to fund a borrowing gap which has reached 15 per cent of disposable income by June quarter 2004. The borrowing gap represents the difference between consumption expenditure and discretionary income. Discretionary income is significantly smaller than household income in the national accounts because it includes superannuation contributions and superannuation interest, which represents income that is not available for current consumption.  From Figure 3, by the June quarter 2004 the build up in debt to fund the borrowing gap (as well as the high level of housing investment) drove the household debt to net disposable income ratio to 163 per cent. In the June quarter 2002 the rate stood at 137 per cent.  From Figure 1, the household debt service ratio now stands at 25 per cent of disposable income, the highest on the historical record.  The combined impact of stable (or falling) house prices, high debt service and debt-income ratios will, at the most optimistic, force households to hold the borrowing gap at around 15 per cent of income. This will force consumption expenditure to grow in line with household disposable income, which in turn will reduce the rate of growth of private consumption expenditure to between 2 and 3 per cent over the medium term.

Even with modest consumption growth, the debt-income/debt-service ratio will continue to rise. A recession is likely at some point before 2010.

If the borrowing gap is held at 15 per cent, the debt-income ratio will still increase by around 7 percentage points per year. By 2009, given the projection in Table 1, the debt to income ratio will reach 200 per cent. If households decide to stabilise their debt-income ratio then the household savings ratio will have to rise to 6 to 8 per cent. Household consumption would most likely fall and the economy would experience a recession, probably a severe recession. However, given the forecast methodology outlined above, this aspect has been translated into a lower trend rate of growth rather than a recession and this aspect makes the low case projection of more interest than the high case projection.

Fiscal stimulus will support the household sector in the short term.  

The position in the short term is not as bleak as the borrowing gap would suggest because of the strong fiscal stimulus being given to the economy. The May 2004 Federal Budget and the election promises of October 2004 will give a stimulus of around 1 per cent per annum to household income over the next two to three years. This will probably be enough to partially offset the constraints of the household debt-service ratio. Beyond 2007, if a severe recession is to be avoided, further significant fiscal stimulus will be required. That is, as the growth in household debt slows, public sector new borrowings will have to increase significantly.

The alternative scenarios

The problem for Australia is that Australia is not the only economy with households with large amounts of illusionary wealth created by housing price bubbles. The same is true in North America, the United Kingdom and some Western European economies. An economy that is an indicator, in terms of a low scenario over the medium term, is the Netherlands. The Netherlands was a fast growing economy over the second half of the 1990s, in part driven by rapid increases in borrowings funding a house prices-wealth creation consumption boom. In 2001, house prices stabilised due to tightening monetary policy. In 2003 the economy was in recession with private consumption falling by 1.5 per cent, the largest fall since World War II.  For the Netherlands the catalyst was tightening European monetary policy over 2000. For Australia the likely trigger for a low scenario is also most likely to be an external shock such as illustrated in Table 2. There are a number of potential shocks with good probabilities of occurring over the next two to five years. They are listed in the Table.

The reason why a transition path from the base to low scenario is likely to be associated with an external catalyst is that there are two factors that would allow policy authorities to keep the economy on the base scenario trajectory despite increasing constraints in growth. These are:

  1. strong public sector balance sheets which would allow fiscal policy to be expansionary for a decade or more;
  2. the potential for Australian nominal interest rates to be lowered by between 1 and 2 percentage points.

This cushion would allow the base scenario to be achieved if the world economy remained supportive.  Unfortunately, because of vulnerable households in a number of major economies, any negative shock to the world economy is likely to trigger the ushering in of a long period of low growth for Australia, in particular, and many parts of the developed world in general. In short, the low scenario, at least to 2012 or thereabouts, does not have a low probability of outcome.  The high scenario assumes the most optimistic outcomes for the world political economy.

Australian energy trade, 2004-10 

ABARE and NIEIR analysis and estimates of Australian energy trade trends are presented below. Over the period there continues to be an energy trade surplus with projected increases in net oil imports being more than offset by coal, natural gas and uranium export increases.  In 2004-05 the trade surplus, at a projected $7.4 billion (NIEIR/ABARE), will be about $2 billion higher than in 2003-04 due to higher thermal coal exports (tonnes, prices) and higher LNG exports.

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