Lower interest rates, a slight growth pick-up, risks to the downside: where economists see Australia in 2020 – ABC News

Updated December 23, 2019 09:54:54

This year was one many would like to forget when it comes to Australia’s economy.

Economic growth slowed as households used extra income from tax and interest rate cuts to bolster savings and pay down debt, rather than spend.

The unemployment rate was stubbornly above the Reserve Bank’s updated target of 4.5 per cent for ‘full employment’ needed to spur wage growth, which remained subdued and heading in the wrong direction.

Despite calls from economists and the RBA for greater fiscal stimulus in the form of increased infrastructure spending or even more tax cuts, the Federal Government dug in and said it will deliver the first of several surpluses at the end of the financial year, albeit smaller than first forecast.

Where does all this leave the Australian economy heading into 2020? 11 economists gave their views.

The short answers:

  • Outlook for 2020 in one sentence? Not that great
  • Expectations for economic growth? Better than 2019 but below potential
  • Will current tax cuts and rate cuts be enough to boost household consumption? Probably not
  • Where will the cash rate finish 2020? 0.25 per cent
  • Chances of a recession in Australia next year? Slim
  • What will happen to the Aussie dollar? Not much
  • Biggest potential surprise? If things improve faster than expected

Outlook for 2020 in one sentence

Short answer: not that great

Looking ahead to next next, the economists surveyed were not optimistic.

“Australia’s economy will struggle to gain momentum,” said Marcel Thieliant from Capital Economics.

“A slightly better 2020 than 2019 but nothing to shoot the lights out,” said Commonwealth Bank senior economist Gareth Aird.

Asked to give a brief summary of the outlook, the answers were mostly variations on the same theme.

“The Aussie economy heads into 2020 with a bad case of the flu and in need of some TLC from both the RBA and the fiscal policies,” said Nicki Hutley from Deloitte Access Economics.

Most believed that the TLC should take the form of increased fiscal stimulus, with monetary policy already doing a lot of the lifting and at least one more interest rate cut by the Reserve Bank priced in by mid-2020.

Others were slightly more upbeat, as the housing market turns around, including REA Group’s chief economist Nerida Conisbee.

“Australia’s economy is slowly recovering but there are still issues … It will be in much better shape in 2020 compared to this year,” she said.

Expectations for economic growth

Short answer: better than 2019 but below its potential

The forecasts for Australia’s economic growth in 2020 ranged from 2 per cent at the bottom end of the scale to 2.75 per cent at the top end.

“I’d expect to see growth around 2.25 per cent to 2.5 per cent, particularly in the absence of any further material stimulus from the Government,” said Alex Joiner, chief economist at IFM Investors.

JP Morgan’s senior economist Ben Jarman has forecast a better recovery to around 2.75 per cent GDP growth, but said that will not be enough to offset the spare capacity in the economy after this year’s slowdown.

The Federal Government has likewise forecast growth of 2.75 per cent in the next financial year through to mid-2021.

The Reserve Bank’s forecasts are even more optimistic, with 2.75 per cent growth forecast over 2020, lifting to 3 per cent in 2021.

“We are sceptical of the RBA’s optimistic growth and inflation forecasts and see Australian GDP growth remaining constrained around 2 per cent over 2020/21,” said AMP Capital senior economist Diana Mousina.

“Spare capacity will still remain a problem, which will keep inflation and wages growth low.”

In the minutes of its December board meeting, the RBA opened the door to a downgrade to its current outlook.

“Members agreed that it would be important to reassess the economic outlook in February 2020, when the bank would prepare updated forecasts,” the minutes read.

Will the current tax cuts and rate cuts be enough to boost households?

Short answer: probably not

“This is the key question for 2020,” said BIS Oxford Economics chief economist Sarah Hunter.

In unwelcome news for the RBA and the Government, retail spending and household consumption figures have shown people are choosing to pay down debt or increase their savings with the extra cash from interest rate cuts and tax refunds.

“For the tax cuts in particular, it might be a timing issue — for example, if the tax rebate was received towards the end of the third quarter, households might not have had a chance to spend it or may be saving it for Christmas,” said Dr Hunter.

“Equally it could be that households have become more cautious, and they are actively choosing to save more of their income and improve their financial position.”

“That boost to incomes [from tax cuts and rate cuts] suggests that consumer spending could lift down the track, but we only expect a muted impact, particularly over the near-term,” said St George senior economist Janu Chan.

Westpac’s monthly consumer sentiment survey supports that view, with respondents feeling increasingly pessimistic about the economic outlook and their own finances.

A green shoot is the recovering housing market, with national house prices posting the first annual growth in 19 months in November.

“Very strong price growth isn’t always great for consumer confidence,” said Nerida Conisbee from REA Group.

“Compare how a multi-property owning baby boomer is feeling right now, to a 30-something Sydney renter trying to get into the market.

“I don’t think rising house prices on their own will be enough to get consumers spending again… We really need to see wages start to rise, unemployment to fall or more tax cuts.”

Callam Pickering, economist at jobs site Indeed, agreed that wage growth is the crucial element.

“As long as wage growth remains low, we should expect household consumption to grow at a modest pace,” he said.

Where will interest rates end 2020?

Short answer: 0.25 per cent

Of the 11 economists surveyed, nine expect two more interest rate cuts to take to cash rate to 0.25 per cent by the end of 2020.

That follows three rate cuts in 2019 to a historic low of 0.75 per cent. Some of this was passed on to home loan borrowers, but not all.

“The RBA is likely to cut rates twice more, in February and May, in response to the lift in the unemployment rate, but by [the second half of the year] we expect that leading indicators will be turning higher and the [RBA] will be able to sit pat, barring a shock,” said ANZ senior economist Felicity Emmett.

The remaining two economists, REA Group’s Nerida Consibee and BIS Oxford’s Sarah Hunter, have tipped one more cut to 0.5 per cent but Dr Hunter sees downside risks to her forecast, so thinks 0.25 per cent is a possibility.

This year, the Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe said the central bank would be prepared to do “unconventional things” if warranted.

However, economists were divided on whether 2020 will be the year the RBA resorts to quantitative easing.

Capital Economics’ Marcel Thieliant expects a QE program to be launched in the second half of the year.

“We suspect the RBA will buy government bonds rather than other assets,” he said.

Callam Pickering from Indeed agreed QE is “more likely than not” by year-end without further government stimulus.

But not everyone thinks QE is likely.

“While there is a significant risk that the RBA eventually needs to introduce QE, our forecasts suggest that there won’t be the trigger in 2020,” said ANZ’s Ms Emmett.

“I don’t believe it will want to go down that path lightly,” agreed IFM Investors’ Alex Joiner.

How would you rate the chances of Australia entering a recession next year?

Short answer: slim

Australia has had a 28-year run without a recession and that is not expected to change next year.

For those economists willing to put a numerical value on the risk of Australia going into recession in 2020, the predictions ranged from a 5 per cent to a 30 per cent chance.

A technical recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of economic contraction and most agreed a significant shock would be needed for that to eventuate.

“Due to high population growth, a technical recession remains unlikely in Australia … That said, for many Australians the economy may feel like a recession, with jobs insecure and wage growth disappointing,” said Callam Pickering.

CBA’s Gareth Aird agreed that population growth will support overall demand, however he noted that a “per capita recession and rising unemployment rate” are genuine risks.

If those risks were to grow, “there is still monetary and fiscal firepower to spend”, noted Nicki Hutley.

What will happen to the Aussie dollar?

Short answer: not much

The economists’ forecasts for the Aussie dollar ranged from 64 to 71 US cents.

The lower end of those forecasts would be a depreciation from the range of 67-69 US cents it has traded in since August.

The Reserve Bank wants a weaker currency to help boost Australia’s international competitiveness but, with other central banks also cutting interest rates, it may be difficult to achieve.

“The global race to the bottom on monetary policy will limit any material further decline of the Australian dollar and all central banks would like their currencies lower also,” said IFM’s Dr Joiner.

“In the absence of a commodity price shock, the most likely range for the Australian dollar is in the 67c to 71c range against the US dollar,” said Indeed’s Callam Pickering, noting that a a decline in commodity prices could see the Aussie dollar in the low 60s.

Biggest potential surprise for the Australian economy

Short answer: If things improve faster than expected

Most of the economists who spoke to the ABC said the biggest surprise would be if things got better, faster and to a bigger degree than expected.

For some, the surprise would be if the very thing they believe is needed is delivered — “major fiscal policy stimulus to provide a strong boost to growth,” said St George’s Janu Chan.

BIS Oxford’s Sarah Hunter thinks that surprise stimulus could be in the form of bringing forward income tax cuts currently legislated for the 2023 financial year and beyond.

“If we see signs that the Government is preparing to cut income taxes in next year’s budget this would further support spending,” she said.

Housing is another issue at the front of mind heading into 2020, after a positive turnaround at the end of the year that is yet to feed through to a pick-up elsewhere in the economy.

AMP Capital’s Diana Mousina is forecasting a 10 per cent lift in house prices, so a 15 to 20 per cent rise would be a surprise that “may see APRA use macroprudential tools again”.

“If house prices keep rising at their current pace, housing will quickly become extremely unaffordable — that could result in a renewed downturn in house prices,” said Marcel Thieliant.

Others are looking offshore for unexpected developments.

“A lift in the global economy that raises sentiment here, nudges up commodity prices and drives confidence to turn the economy around,” would be the biggest surprise for Deloitte Access Economics’ Nicki Hutley.

Overall, a group of economy-watchers hoping for, but not expecting, a positive surprise for Australia in 2020.

Topics: economic-trends, business-economics-and-finance, currency, australia

First posted December 23, 2019 05:21:19

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