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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Happy days are here again - for some of us

Suddenly we're optimists again. Or at least half of us are.

The combination of tax cuts, interest rate cuts and lower petrol prices appears to have brought on a surge in consumer confidence in the past month - amidst a certain type of consumer.

Men are feeling very good – perhaps because they've got more of the tax cuts than have their partners.

For the first time in a year more of them feel good about the economy than feel bad, albeit by a small margin. Optimistic men outnumber pessimists by 0.08%.

By contrast the latest Westpac Melbourne Institute survey suggests that women feel overwhelmingly negative...

...with pessimistic women outweighing optimists 15.7 per cent.

Both genders report feeling better after the interest rate cut - but men by 9.7% and women by 4.6%.

There's a similar divide when it comes to home ownership. Australians who have already paid off their houses weren't much moved by this month's interest rate cut, feeling just 2.4% more confident. But Australians still tied to a mortgage jumped in confidence 10.8%

Westpac's chief economist Bill Evans described the result as "remarkable". Consumer confidence soared 7.0% in September after jumping 9.1% in August – a compound jump of 16.7% - one of the biggest this decade.

The London-based strategist at TD Securities, Stephen Koukoulas says the resilience fits in with other data that suggested that the Australian economy will now not be heading into a recession he feared.

But it suggests that the Reserve Bank's program of interest rate cuts will be more muted, "certainly less than the market currently has priced in".

"With consumer sentiment on the rise and with it, consumer spending likely to increase, demand may well underpin price pressures.

Inflation may well stay sticky. As a result, interest rate cuts will be small and infrequent," he says.

The Treasurer Wayne Swan said while he welcomed the boos in confidence Australians should not get "too excited".

"It is only one figure, but it does highlight the benefit to family budgets of the tax cuts we delivered and of course this month's interest rate cut."

Middle income earners appear to have been the most cheered by the tax and interest rate cuts, boosting their confidence by 22.5% in September. By contrast Australians earning above $60,000 were only 4% more confident and Australians earning less than $40,000 were 7% more confident.

Most of the change in sentiment relates to feelings about the future. When asked whether not was the right time to buy a major household appliance only 33% of those surveyed said yes. 45% said no.

Other figures released yesterday show that new borrowing fell 1.3 per cent in July, it's sixth consecutive monthly fall.

But the confidence survey provides grounds for optimism about future borrowing.

41% of Australians surveyed in felt that now was the right time to buy a house, up from 32% in June.