Wednesday, 21 December 2016

How strong is strong?

The economy's ticking along nicely. Tomorrow's GDP numbers for the September quarter are expected to show an 0.8% increase for the quarter, which would make it 3.6% for the year. And virtually all the recent data have been solid to robust. On the solid side, for example, there's the December quarter Westpac McDermott Miller consumer confidence index ("New Zealand households are in the mood to celebrate. However, it looks like the party will be more of a relaxing family barbeque, rather than a fullblown rager") while down the robust end we've had the latest (November) BusinessNZ/BNZ Performance of Services Index ("a picture of strength"). In per capita terms, it's not the boomer it might look like at first sight, and I'll come to that, but it's still a pretty picture.

Unsurprisingly, forecasters have been upping their estimates of what's down the track. The latest (December) quarterly consensus forecasts collated by the NZ Institute of Economic Research showed that likely GDP growth in the year to next March is now reckoned to be 3.5% (the September quarter consensus had picked 3.2%) and there has been a marked revision upwards for likely employment growth, which is now expected to be a stonking 4.8% compared with the 3.2% that seemed the best guess back in September. Forecasts for growth and employment over the three years to March '20 have been nudged a bit higher, and there isn't a single forecaster (out of the 9 polled) prepared to call a recession over that period.

But you knew that. What's my point? It's this: I reckon the short-term outlook may be even stronger than people currently expect.

Recently I've been playing around with my little Excel forecasting model, and I can't easily get the GDP growth numbers for the next year much below 4%. I've assumed there will be some kind of wealth effect on consumer spending, and I've assumed that there is enough capacity in the building trades to allow for another reasonably substantial rise in housebuilding. If that's your view of the world, numbers north of 4% start shimmering into view. Interestingly, according to the ANZ confidence surveys (for example, here), "Our confidence composite gauge (which combines business and consumer sentiment) is pointing to GDP growth accelerating to north of 4%. Capacity constraints (getting skilled labour) will put a dampener on that but we like the spirit".

I could easily be wrong. Perhaps New Zealand households have suddenly had an outbreak of financial prudence, or as RBNZ governor Graeme Wheeler put it in a recent speech, "Growth in real consumption per capita has averaged 1.6 percent pa in the current economic cycle – about ½ percentage point below the post-1993 average growth rate of 2.1 percent, despite the rapid increase in housing wealth...This more cautious consumer behaviour may reflect a reassessment of the ‘permanency’ of capital gains from household assets, and greater caution about the level and durability of future income growth".

Maybe. But I'd still be rather surprised if families, sitting on the biggest financial bonus of their lifetimes (especially in Auckland), continued to spend more slowly than usual. They may well (sensibly) discount the scale and the ultimate bankability of their winnings. But I don't see some wealth-related spendup being delayed for ever. Sure, some of it won't flow through to the GDP numbers: the new car and the trip to Melbourne go into the 'imports' box. But some of it will.

And on the capacity side, things are certainly tighter than they were: you could certainly read Stats' numbers on the recent slowdown in the growth of housebuilding (and of construction on general) as evidence that it's getting harder to assemble the crew for the next project. But on the other hand residential construction as a percentage of GDP isn't even up to past levels yet, as the chart below shows, and given the intense profit incentives to get houses onto the market, you'd expect us to go past previous peaks. My guess is that there's a dance in the old dame yet. And I also suspect (based on the technical economic methodology of Walking With Your Eyes Open Around The North Shore) that houses are going up quicker, which will help.

An economy that could well grow by 4.0% to 4.5% rather than the 3.5% that most analysts see in the cards would also part-explain a bit of an oddity - our low per capita GDP growth. In the June quarter our GDP (expenditure basis) was 3.8% up on a year earlier - but up by only 1.7% on a per capita basis. That was because the population grew by 2.1% (a natural increase of 28,200 plus net immigration of 69,100).

You look at that 1.7% per capita growth, and you could think two things. One is that it carries on our run of relatively slow productivity growth, and that's got to be right to some extent. But you could also think: hang on a sec. This isn't an economy with the look and feel of distinctly modest per capita growth. I appreciate that's an impressionistic judgement call, but I suspect the other leg to the apparently low per capita growth numbers is that they're a bit behind the actual pace of where the economy is (and is heading next).

It doesn't mean we've suddenly solved our slow-growth productivity problems. If anything, our reliance on construction in this cycle points them up: what we gonna do when the houses are up and the earthquake damage is fixed? And it doesn't mean that tomorrow's GDP number is going to be a little purler (any single quarter tends to have lumps in it). And 2016 was the year that gave us Brexit and Trump, so who knows what the next madness will be or what it might do to us.  But net net net, it wouldn't be too surprising if the next six to twelve months turned out rather better than currently expected.

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