GDP growth has lifted in 2017 and the labour market has tightened.
Our base case has these trends continuing over the next two years, but there are a number of downside risks.
The ability of monetary policy to support the economy in the event of a negative shock is more limited than in the past thereby exacerbating the potential impact that any negative shock may bring.
On some important metrics it’s been a reasonably good for year the Australian economy. The labour market has tightened courtesy of very strong employment growth and real GDP growth has lifted. At the same time, nominal GDP growth has been buoyant due to firmer commodity prices when compared to a year earlier. Wages growth, however, remains soft and real wages are barely in positive territory.
The house view is that the improvement in the labour market continues over the next two years and the unemployment rate should continue to grind lower. But there are plenty of risks that would change the outlook if they were to materialise.
This note discusses some of the key global and domestic risks to the Australian economy. It begins with an outline of CBA’s base case for the economy over the next two years before delving into some of the potential risks. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather it covers a few areas that the author considers to be the most acute risks to our central scenario. They are: (i) the capacity to respond to a negative shock with monetary policy (and to a lessor extent fiscal policy), (ii) a solid fall in commodity prices; (iii) a sharp correction in dwelling prices; (iv) a policy “mistake”; and (v) a fall in net migration via a policy change.
CBA’s central scenario
CBA’s base case for the economy over the next two years is a benign one. It is broadly similar to the RBA’s forecast profile for the economy which is also not dissimilar to the consensus view.
On the key components, we see output growth continuing to lift to a pace of around 3%pa in 2018 (chart 1). We put potential growth at 2¾% (population plus productivity growth) which means our forecast profile has a gradual decline in the unemployment rate as spare capacity recedes (chart 2). In 2018, most of the key components of the economy are expected to contribute to growth, with dwelling investment the exception.
The capacity of wages growth to slow further from here is also limited in the event of a commodity price shock. That is because wages growth is already at record lows and wages growth is sticky downwards. A fall in wages growth was able to cushion the most recent terms-of-trade shock (late-2011 to early 2016) because growth in wages slowed in line with the weakness in commodity prices. This helped to support the labour market and keep the unemployment rate from rising as much as it otherwise might have. But this time, a fall in wages growth will not be able to absorb the shock to the same extent given wages growth is already so low.
A sharp correction in dwelling prices
The single biggest risk to the domestic outlook looks to be a sharp correction in dwelling prices. In our view, this carries a greater risk to the real economy than it does to financial stability given the banking system is well capitalised.
There is a commonly held belief in Australia that the main trigger for a fall in dwelling prices is a rise in unemployment. This seems logical because rising unemployment would generally be associated with a lift in mortgage delinquencies which would put downward pressure on prices. But the data suggests that employment is more likely to lag changes in dwelling prices rather than lead (chart 12). The obvious question to then ask is why? We attribute the answer, in part, to the wealth effect and the recent track record of monetary policy in smoothing out the business cycle.
In periods when employment growth is slowing, the RBA is generally easing policy. When this is occurring, as long as the RBA can fend off a recession, falling interest rates tend to push up dwelling prices via cheaper credit which in turn encourages spending and supports employment growth. Of course, it’s a different story if employment growth falls too fast and unemployment rises sharply. But so far, at the national level, this hasn’t happened since the recession of the early 90s.
The risk of a material correction in dwelling prices looks higher now than it has been for a long time given: (i) the incredible lift in dwelling prices over the past five years; (ii) mortgage rates are probably unlikely to go lower and indeed can’t go much lower; (iii) household debt to income is at a record high; and (iv) dwelling supply is in the process of lifting quite significantly in some jurisdictions.
A soft correction in dwelling prices would probably have no material negative impact on the labour market. But there is a risk that a hard correction in prices (a fall of 20% or more) would lead the economy into a downturn via the wealth effect (i.e. the notion that changes in demand are influenced by changes in the value of assets). Since income to one person comes via the spending of another, there is a risk that falling home prices leads households to put the brakes on spending which ultimately drags consumption and employment growth lower.
A policy “mistake”
We consider a policy mistake by the central bank to be a risk to the economy given how much debt the household sector is carrying. Specifically, if the RBA hikes too early it could derail the improvement in the labour market that has been underway over the past two years. The record level of debt being carried by the household sector means that interest payments as a share of income will rise quickly if/when rates move higher (chart 13).
The construction sector in Australia, for example, is proportionately bigger than the construction sector in most other advanced economies because strong growth in people means that more needs to be built – dwellings, roads, schools, hospitals, ports etc. Finally, at the margin, a strong population growth rate at a time when there is labour market slack is likely to be putting downward pressure on wages as workers from offshore add competition to domestic labour.
At present, both major sides of politics (i.e. the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor party) support maintaining a high permanent migrant intake every year. But there is a risk that one of the major parties opts for a different policy stance. The example here is to be found in New Zealand where there has been a change in immigration policy following the recent election outcome that means migration should drop substantially over the next few years. As a result, a change in immigration policy cannot and should not be ruled out in Australia.
A material reduction in net migration to Australia would increase the risk of a fall in dwelling prices as well as weigh on total output growth (not GDP per capita) and negatively impact the construction sector. But it would also likely put upward pressure on wages growth by reducing the pool of workers in many occupations. In that context, it’s not so much a downside risk, but rather one that would see a shift in the economic outlook that would have both winners and losers. From a policy perspective it’s about assessing whether there is a net societal benefit. But that’s a question for another day.