Dark side to economic glow in Oz

By Greg Ansley

Finance Minister Bill English was a little bemused as he emerged from last week's Australia-New Zealand leadership forum in Sydney: for once, the Aussies were feeling somewhat less happy about their lot.

"There's probably a bit more optimism in New Zealand about our economic outlook and opportunities," English said. "There seems to be a debate, unusually for Australia, about what's happening with their economy."

He wasn't wrong. Business and consumer confidence across the Tasman is bouncing around about knee height, Treasurer Wayne Swan is dressed in a hairshirt and hewing into his coming budget with a cleaver, and the Opposition is crying poverty, mismanagement and dark closing on the country.

"If Australia's current policy mix was a cake mix, nobody would be eating the final product," Housing Industry Association chief economist Dr Harley Dale said.

Come again? This week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) held Australia aloft as a beacon in the storm, expected to outperform every major advanced economy over the next two years with forecast growth of 3 per cent this year and 3.5 per cent in 2013.

Unemployment remains at a relatively low 5.2 per cent.

"With solid growth, low unemployment, contained inflation, strong public finances and a record pipeline of business investment, the Australian economy is the standout performer of the developed world," Swan said.

The country has an embarrassment of riches. Spending on mineral exploration in 2010-11 reached A$6.2 billion ($7.87 billion), up 9 per cent on the previous years and in real terms the second-highest on record.

In the pipeline are more than 100 projects at an advanced stage of development, with a record capital expenditure of A$231.8 billion - an increase of 34 per cent from the previous April 2011 and 74 per cent from October 2010.

The Government's key commodity adviser, the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), says that continued strong commodity demand, especially for mineral resources, will probably underwrite global prices and Australia's export earnings and terms of trade for the foreseeable future.

And while still fragile, the world economic outlook released by the IMF this week saw prospects improving and "encouraging signs of stabilisation", especially in Asia and Australia's key market of China.

Even with growth in the March quarter slowing to a three-year low of 8.1 per cent, Chinese demand is expected to continue filling Australian coffers.

But Oz is finding potholes in the yellow brick road. The latest Westpac-Melbourne Institute leading index of economic activity pointed to a worrying weakness in the economy.

For the sixth consecutive month the index, indicating growth three to nine months ahead, gave a below-trend reading that Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said "Does not encourage too much optimism that growth is likely to exceed trend any time soon".

The minutes of this month's Reserve Bank board meeting, which held the cash rate steady at 4.25 per cent, showed similar concern. The board accepted the economy was growing more slowly than previously expected.

The mood has spread. This week Roy Morgan Research reported that despite nudging upwards over the past fortnight, consumer confidence remains more than 8 points lower than a year ago.

The National Australia Bank (NAB) said Australians had been scarred by the global financial crisis: household spending growth remained soft, marked by caution and limited discretionary spending.

Business also remains glum. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's March quarter survey of investor confidence said the indexes of business conditions, sales and profitability remained close to historic lows.

Businesses were expecting a continued slowdown in the economy which would further dampen investment plans.

"There is no doubt the cumulative impact of poor demand conditions and rising costs is taking a heavy toll on business confidence," said Greg Evans, the chamber's director of economics and industry policy.

Sombre headlines and political brawls have added to perceptions of gloom.

The nation is embroiled in a roaring debate about the surplus Mr Swan has promised for his May 8 budget, come what may. With the Government struggling to maintain its credibility and the Opposition hammering its economic management, a deficit is politically unthinkable.

"The Government will not be in any way deterred from doing the right thing by the Australian people and getting the economic settings right for the future," Swan said. "Coming back to surplus is an economic imperative."

But achieving a surplus expected to be about A$1.5 billion will come at the high cost of cutting services and programmes and, according to a wide and influential range of critics, wrongly skewing priorities.

The Greens and business groups have flayed Mr Swan. Former Commonwealth Bank chief Sir Ralph Norris said the political drive for a surplus was "mindless" and the biggest threat facing the economy.

Confidence has been shaken further by other rows - especially the carbon tax due to be introduced in July - and by high-profile job losses that have marked sectors bypassed by the mining boom.

The most recent was this week's sacking of 350 Toyota workers, adding to thousands of earlier losses in manufacturing, finance, food, apparel, aviation, defence, and retail.

There are deep problems facing the nation. The mining boom continues to pump steroids into the dollar hammering non-mining sectors, and interest rates remain relatively high compared to major OECD economies.

Housing is suffering. New building, alterations and land sales remain in the doldrums with conditions expected to deteriorate further.

Retail is hurting, tourism is struggling, and ABARES expects that lower world prices for wheat, soybeans, cotton, dairy products, sugar, wool and rice will push down the index of unit returns for Australian farm exports by 4.1 per cent in 2012-13.

Across the states, the economy shows disturbing, threadbare patches.

Last month's NAB state economic update said that while overall final demand rose by 4.5 per cent in the year to last December, fortunes varied widely and were largely tied to resources.

Western Australia is booming, Queensland is bouncing back from its disasters - although housing and tourism are ailing - and New South Wales is showing signs of recovery.

But Victoria is in decline - the NAB state update said it was "difficult to find a driver for Victorian growth" - and while new mining projects would lift its prospects, growth in South Australia had stalled.

Tasmania remained the country's weakest economy.

National employment figures are relatively strong but hide problems in struggling sectors, on city fringes and in rural towns, where unemployment can reach double the national level.

Increasingly militant unions dispute official figures, and have launched a campaign to slow the casualisation of the workforce with lower conditions and job security.

Morgan also disputes the Bureau of Statistics survey, which classifies an unemployed person as part of the labour force only if they have been actively looking for work in the four weeks up to the end of the reference week and if they were available for work in the reference week.

Using less restrictive job search criteria and including part-time and contract employees looking for more work, Morgan's weekly telephone polling presents a more disturbing picture: in March, 9.2 per cent unemployed and 17.2 per cent - or 2 million workers - underemployed.

Despite its strength, for many Australians the country's economic schooner is half-empty.

- NZ Herald

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