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15 Mar 2024 - Tim Hext: What we learned from the latest GDP data

By: Pendal

Tim Hext: What we learned from the latest GDP data


March 2024

The December-quarter GDP numbers just stopped short of the "no-growth" scenario we were slowly sliding towards last year. Pendal's head of government bond strategies  explains Tim Hext what it means for markets

  • Weakness largely derived from consumer spending

  • On a nominal basis, the picture looks better

  • Why bonds, why now? 

THE December-quarter GDP numbers just stopped short of the "no-growth" scenario we were slowly sliding towards last year.

Q4 GDP came in on forecast at just 0.2%, as you can see in the ABS graph below.

After 2.3% growth in 2022, 2023 finishes with GDP at 1.6%.

Source: ABS, 2024

In per capita terms, we went backwards for the third quarter in a row (-0.3% for the quarter) and are down 2.4% over 2023.

The weakness is largely from consumer spending, which is going almost nowhere - this was up 0.1% for the quarter and 0.1% for the year.

Remember, this was a year where almost 600,000 people entered the country so, on average, we are all spending less than in 2022.

Interestingly, we are earning more, but it is all being swallowed up by inflation, interest rates and tax creep.

In fact, compensation of employees was up 8.1% in 2023, but taxes paid 11.5%. The Stage 3 tax cuts (beginning July) will only partly remedy this.

If you feel like money is going out just as fast as it comes in, you have good reason.

The GDP you hear reported is a volume measure (called chain volume) of output for the economy.

Most of us think in nominal terms.

On a nominal basis things look better - with GDP at 1.4% for Q4 and 4.4% for 2023.

Higher prices and improving terms of trade has helped cushion the blow in the real economy.

Government and business investment propping up the economy

So, if consumer spending - which makes up 50% of the economy - is flatlining, then where is the modest growth coming from?

Government spending and investment continues to be strong.

Government spending was up 0.6% for the quarter and 2.7% for the year, while government investment was slightly down for the quarter but up a massive 13.6% in 2023.

Private investment was up as well, but modest overall.

Data centres and warehouses are driving solid growth.

Concerningly though, dwelling investment was down 3.8% for the quarter and down 3.1% on the year.

Hopes of a building boom to help the housing shortage fly in the face of higher interest rates.

Rents go up, so inflation goes up, so interest rates go up, so housing investment falls - if you follow the logic of rate hikes to tackle rental inflation, you are smarter than me.

Hours worked still falling

The GDP numbers also include data on hours worked.

This fell for the second quarter in a row and is now down 1% from mid-year.

The RBA will take some comfort that firms are responding to slower conditions by reducing hours of existing employees and not hiring new ones, rather through layoffs - at least for now.

So, what does this mean for markets?

First of all, the rate hikes have worked.

While the fixed rate cliff has been more of a speed bump, the RBA will be pleased that higher rates are reducing demand in the economy.

Lower immigration in the year ahead will also help.

At the same time, the supply side of the economy is another year away from the pandemic and has now largely normalised.

This will give the RBA further comfort that its path back to inflation below 3% is realistic and achievable.

This, in turn, opens the door to rate cuts later in the year.

We still think three cuts - in September, November and December - are realistic.

By then, the US Federal Reserve should be well into rate cuts, and inflation - while sticky around 3% - would be considered under control.

In turn, GDP would be allowed to push back up towards 2% or above without threatening the inflation outlook - and this would be a good outcome for all and meet the objectives of the RBA.

Author: Tim Hext

Funds operated by this manager:

Pendal Focus Australian Share FundPendal Global Select Fund - Class RPendal Horizon Sustainable Australian Share FundPendal MicroCap Opportunities FundPendal Sustainable Australian Fixed Interest Fund - Class RRegnan Global Equity Impact Solutions Fund - Class RRegnan Credit Impact Trust Fund

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