Household and Government Spending Mask the Weakness in Our Private Sector
Australia’s economy increased 0.8% in the June quarter, according to seasonally adjusted, chain volume measures released Wednesday. This brings annual GDP growth to 1.8% at the end of June. The results reinforce Australia as ‘the lucky country’, as we enter the 104th consecutive quarter without recession.
But aggregate growth figures mask one of the longest declines in private sector, gross capital formation in Australia’s history. Gross capital formation refers to spending on fixed assets and inventories such as land improvements, buildings, machines and equipment.
In 2012, a demand shock from China drastically reduced the value of Australian commodity exports. The decline of the mining sector bled into secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, and by 2014, annual growth in private sector capital formation was negative. It has remained negative since.
Graph 1 shows the rolling annual growth rate of different economic components. This is not the first time private sector capital formation has fallen in value against household and government expenditure – 2001 saw one of the largest private sector contractions at -11%. However, we are currently in the longest period of private capital formation decline on record, with the rolling annual growth rate declining 13 quarters in a row.
Some of the largest declines in the latest GDP figures were seen in non-residential construction. In the June quarter, privately funded investment in the construction of engineering projects, commercial buildings and other non-residential builds contracted -7.7% in the quarter, contributing -0.4% to total GDP growth.
Graph 2 shows that nationally, even as private residential building has soared, this has not offset overall losses in private sector capital formation. As the dwelling construction boom eases, recovery in private capital formation may be even slower.
The good news is that is that Graph 1 also shows that private investment appears to have reached a trough of -5% annual growth in December 2016. The upturn has been driven by competitive agricultural products, investment in intellectual property products and machinery and equipment investment.
So how has Australia remained the lucky country in a climate of low private investment? The main growth driver is household expenditure, which rose 0.7% in the quarter. The trouble with aggregate indicators in household expenditure is that it does not always reveal the squeeze on household funds. The household savings ratio has sunk to its lowest level since 2008 at 4.6%. This suggests that households are using their savings to keep up with rising costs of living, which is one of the only explanations for increased consumption in a period of low wage growth.
Government expenditure is also working to offset economic decline. In particular, the state governments of New South Wales and Victoria – enabled through high property tax revenue and asset sales - are rapidly increasing expenditure. The latest GDP figures suggest that state and local government expenditure increased 25.5% in the June quarter.
The main projects being funded are large scale transport infrastructure and school and hospital upgrades. These have the benefit of offsetting job losses in the private sector, while improving commute times and learning facilities to increase economic capacity in the long term. According to Cordell construction data, government funded projects accounted for 44% of the value of construction work commencing across Australia last year.
Much like the mining boom, the enormous east-coast housing boom and asset sales are likely once-in-a-life-time events. Another economic shock, such as accelerated house price declines, could see limited government funding for continued infrastructure investment. For Australia’s luck to continue, private sector investment needs to make a recovery before the public sector runs short on revenue.