Thursday, April 02, 2009

Almost alone, Australians are still spending

The shopping spree sparked by the government's $8.7 billion December "cash splash" extended into February with an extra $370 million spent that month over and above what would have been spent in the absence of the handout.

Retail figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that while seasonally-adjusted spending slipped 2 per cent in February, it remained close its record high. Over January and February Australians spent more than in any two-month period in Australian history.

An Age comparison of recorded spending with what would have been spent had the pre-December trend continued suggests that Australians spent an extra $370 million more in February, an extra $780 million in January and an extra $710 million in December.

The combined $1.8 billion in extra spending accounts for a sizable proportion of the $8.7 billion handout, some more of which would have spent in ways not measured by the retail statistics and still more of which is likely to be spent in coming months...

An OECD analyis prepared for the London G-20 leaders meeting finds that that for countries such as Australia 40 per cent of stimulus payments are likely to be spent in the first year, boosting spending by an extra 40 per cent in the following year.

"This not only highlights that fiscal policy is working, but that more is needed," said ANZ economist Alex Joiner.

"December's stimulus package appears to have been critical to supporting spending. Without the package Australian economic growth may have looked more like that in the United States or the United Kingdom."

"Department stores are the only category where the level of sales has fallen below the level prior to the stimulus payments," said Commonwealth Bank economist Michael Blythe. "Even sales at household goods retailers have remained above pre-stimulus levels."

"Australia's retail sales have actually been markedly stronger in the six months since the fall of Lehman - the darkest period in the global economy - than they were in the six months before it," said HSBC economist John Edwards. "And the Reserve Bank is likely fairly confident that the most recent round of government cash payments will cause another bounce in March."

The $4 billion of bonus payments delivered in March will be followed by a further $7 billion of tax bonus payments in April, should those payments survive a challenge currently before the High Court.

Building approval figures also released yesterday showed housing approvals flat in February alongside a big jump in multi-unit approvals, which nevertheless remain around 50 per cent down from their peak.

In trend terms building activity is growing the fastest in Victoria and Tasmania while falling the most sharply in NSW and Queensland.

The Master Builders Association said that while the $7,000 to $14,000 First Home Owners Boost and lower interest rates helped, it expected building to "ratchet down" once the boost expired in July.