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Consumers and business wearing a frown

By: Colin Brinsden
17 September, 2012

It obviously takes a bit more than a couple of positive economic statistics to put a smile on people's faces.

The confidence readings for consumers and business released in the past week hardly point to a nation full of beans.

But it does add to the case for another central bank interest rate cut before the end of the year.
 
While there has been a modest improvement in consumer sentiment, pessimists still rule the roost, casting a shadow over future retail spending.
 
But sentiment among miners plunged against the backdrop of weakening commodity prices, particularly for iron ore.
 
The consumer confidence survey was compiled by Westpac and the Melbourne Institute in the first week of September, when the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left the cash rate unchanged and the latest economic growth numbers confirmed an unprecedented 21 years of expansion.
 
At the same time, the jobless rate subsided to 5.1 per cent - close to full employment.
 
Yet consumer confidence managed to inch only 1.6 per cent higher in September, leaving the Westpac survey's index below 100 - the level that separates optimists from pessimists - for a seventh consecutive month.
 
Outside of the years of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, this is the longest period the index has remained below 100 since the early 1990s.
 
"This does not bode well for consumer spending," Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said.
 
Recent retail sales data show an earlier boost in spending, driven by interest rate cuts and $1.9 billion of federal government carbon tax compensation and handouts, has run its course.
 
Department store chain Myer this week blamed a lack of confidence for a 12.7 per cent drop in its full-year net profit.
 
The September confidence survey also contained quarterly readings of major news events recalled by consumers and whether they viewed them as favourable or unfavourable.
 
All these recollections - about the Australian dollar, interest rates, international conditions and employment - were viewed unfavourably.
 
Little wonder people have turned to saving rather than spending.
 
Evans believes a low unemployment rate and the ongoing surge in mining investment are two factors stopping the RBA from cutting interest rates right now.
 
Yet the fall in the unemployment rate is the result of the "discouraged worker" affect - which occurs when people are no longer actively seeking employment.
 
At the same time, some mining companies have revised down their investment plans, due to the drop in commodity prices.
 
Evans believes there is a "reasonable chance" the RBA may cut the cash rate when its board meets in October.
 
"However, central banks are conservative, so a November `call' for the first move looks to be more prudent," said Evans, who is forecasting two cuts by the end of the year.
 
By then, the consumer price index (CPI) and underlying measures of inflation for the September quarter due October 24 will be out.
 
According to other data compiled by the Melbourne Institute, consumers have a fairly benign outlook for inflation.
 
In its September survey of consumer inflationary expectations, the median forecast for CPI is an annual rate of 2.4 per cent over the next 12 months, unchanged from August and comfortably within the RBA's two to three per cent inflation target band.
 
Perceptions of inflation can lead to price pressures if people chase higher wages as compensation.
 
The institute's survey found consumers expected just a 1.7 per cent pay increase in the next 12 months, after a 3.1 per cent gain in the year to August.
 
"Moderate inflationary expectations along with plummeting wage expectations should be music to the ears of monetary policy makers," Melbourne Institute research fellow Viet Nguyen said.
 
On the business side, National Australia Bank's (NAB) latest survey showed overall confidence among firms fell five points to an index of minus two in August, against a backdrop of an uncertain global conditions.
 
However, the shock in the data was a steep drop in confidence in the mining sector.
 
Confidence tumbled 14 points to an index of minus 13 points, correlating with the weaker commodity price outlook.
 
So if miners are unhappy, little wonder the rest of us can't force a grin.
Source: AAP

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