If you follow economic commentary and official statistics, you’d be forgiven for doing a little head-scratching of late.
From Covid to the cost-of-living crisis and ever-increasing interest rates, there’s no shortage of doom and gloom.
Many shopkeepers and larger retail chains are saying the market feels like we’re already in the throes of a recession, despite Australia’s official retail sales numbers for May showing a respectable 0.7 per cent increase on the month prior and a more than respectable 4.2 per cent increase on May last year.
This comes after the official unemployment numbers which also showed a small increase in people working over the month prior.
So what is going on? Are we just talking things down because the relentless 24/7 news cycle has beaten us into submission? Remember bad news sells right? Or are there still enough savings in the Australian economy to keep cool heads about the recession for a while yet?
The technical definition of a recession is a period of economic decline identified by a drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in two successive quarters.
So, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we’re technically not there yet. The economy grew 0.2 per cent in the first three months of 2023 with GDP up for the sixth quarter in a row. But that growth is slowing which has many economists predicting there’s a drop on its way.
Across the ditch in New Zealand, it’s official. The country is now in recession following the release of GDP figures. In the final quarter of 2022, New Zealand’s GDP was down 0.7 per cent. In quarter one this year, it fell 0.1 per cent.
Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod Kerr reckons the recession is a result of the country’s Reserve Bank going too far on jacking up the interest rates. For Kiwi consumers, it looks as if the cash rate will stay put for now.
While Australia has plenty in common with our mates over the ocean, economists are saying there could be more rate rises to come. That’s not the only difference between the two markets. House prices here are back on the rise while in NZ, the property market is contracting. And, as previously noted, Australia is yet to get into negative GDP numbers. Still inflation is trending downwards for both markets, although there’s still some way to get it where we want it.
The latest Roy Morgan Wealth Report tells us that net wealth is highest among people paying off their homes followed by people who own their home outright. Meanwhile, renters saw a drop of 16.5 per cent in net wealth.
The data suggests the engine room of spenders are those without a mortgage that built up a solid nest egg during Covid. Demographically speaking, that’s older segments. Roy Morgan’s Michelle Levine says: “Are older Australians squirrelling away the wealth of the nation? Well, it looks like they are. Average net wealth increases with age up to age 64.”
The Deloitte Consumer Tracker supports this with 73 per cent of high-income earners over 55 saying they have money left over at the end of the month compared to just 23 per cent of 35 to 44-year-olds. And 73 per cent of those over 55s say they can afford to spend on things that bring them joy compared to only 30 per cent of the younger cohort.
While many shoppers are making more deliberate purchasing decisions, the question is how long over 55s can continue to prop up segments that are no doubt hurting.
As younger Aussies with a mortgage and renters continue to feel the pinch, employment figures and the cash rate are going to have a massive impact in the coming months. Speaking at the launch of the Roy Morgan Wealth Report, finance journalist Alan Kohler said he reckons we will dodge a recession. Provided the Reserve Bank keeps the cash rate where it is.
“If cash rate ends up at 4.6 per cent, then maybe we get a recession,” he said. “My preferred scenario is that we end up with a 4.1 per cent cash rate for another two years because the economy is stable, and the Reserve Bank doesn’t have to do any more hikes or cuts.”
Looks like there’s more head-scratching to do in the coming weeks.