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Monthly Economic Indicators

Analysis

The New Zealand economy is looking more positive following a soft patch through the middle of 2012. December quarter GDP rose strongly and indicators point to ongoing momentum in early 2013. The housing market continues to strengthen, which will provide impetus to consumption spending in the near term. The Canterbury rebuild will also be a significant driver of growth, with reports from the region pointing to a significant ramping up in activity scheduled to take place in 2013. However, the drought will provide some offset to the stronger growth from the rebuild, impacting on agricultural output as well as flowing on to other sectors. The international scene remains fragile, with Cyprus the latest country in Europe to receive a bailout. However, data in the US continue to show strength despite the fiscal tightening, while emerging Asia and Australia continue to grow.

GDP grows strongly in the December quarter...

Real production GDP surged a much stronger-than-expected 1.5% in the December quarter following soft June and September quarters, taking annual growth to 2.5% for the 2012 year (Figure 1). Despite this strength, nominal GDP fell 0.4% in the quarter, rising a subdued 2.3% for the year, as the terms of trade continued its fall. Taking into account the fall in the terms of trade, real gross national disposable income (RGNDI) rose 1.0% in the quarter; while GDP is a measure of goods and services produced, RGNDI is a broader measure of income. While the 1.0% rise in the quarter was encouraging, it was also only 1.0% higher for the year.

Figure 1 – Real (production), nominal GDP & RGNDI
Figure 1 - Real(production), nominal GDP & RGNDI

Source:  Statistics NZ

...with broad-based contributions across industries...

The increase in quarterly GDP was broad based, as output rose in 15 of the 16 industries on the production side. The forestry and logging industry in particular was strong, with a 9.0% quarterly rise in production and it is now at its highest level since the series began in 1987, likely supported by good harvesting conditions in the quarter. Agriculture was up 1.5% in the quarter on the back of increased deer, poultry and other livestock farming. Mining activity rose 5.9% in the quarter as exploration increased.  As expected, construction also rose strongly, as additional activity got underway in the Canterbury region. Manufacturing was the only industry to record a fall in the quarter as petroleum, chemical, plastic and rubber products manufacturing fell 8.7%, following a 5.8% rise in the September quarter. Excluding this component, manufacturing production rose 1.5%.

On the expenditure side, household final consumption rose 1.6% as consumers continued to make the most of falling and discounted prices on durable goods, including audio-visual equipment, furniture and appliances. Services spending rose 1.6%, its largest quarterly rise in nearly four years. Investment provided a positive contribution (Figure 2), with both market and residential investment higher in the quarter. Government consumption was softer, in line with ongoing fiscal consolidation, down 0.7% in the quarter. Net exports had a positive contribution to growth in the quarter as imports fell and goods export volumes rose 2.1% on stronger forestry and manufacturing exports, which more than offset a 12% decline in dairy products. Dairy exports came off a strong September quarter that was boosted by a rundown in stocks.

Figure 2 – Expenditure components’ contribution to growth
Figure 2 - Expenditure components contribution to growth
Source:  Statistics NZ, Treasury

...leading to a solid year overall

Despite two soft quarters in the middle of the year, annual average (production) GDP finished with a solid growth rate of 2.5% in 2012, the highest growth rate in New Zealand since 2008 (Figure 1). On the expenditure measure, growth was even stronger, up 3.0% in the year (Figure 2). Investment was a strong contributor to growth in the year, with both residential and business investment higher. Private consumption contributed 1.3% to the annual 3.0% growth and net exports added only 0.1%, with the strong exchange rate over the year making imports more attractive.

While GDP growth has begun to show some strength, especially compared to many of New Zealand’s developed economy peers, the labour market has continued to lag. As discussed in February’s MEI, the labour market remains subdued, with particular weakness in part-time employment among young workers, as well as the self-employed. Employment was flat in the 2012 year at the same time as real output increased 2.5%. This implies very strong productivity growth (3.3% on an hours worked basis). Firms have been able to shed the less productive workers and still increase output. As the economy continues to exhibit growth, firms will gain more confidence and rehire workers, but this can take some time; the Canterbury rebuild will also add impetus to hiring. There is already evidence of this in the HLFS data (Canterbury employment was up 5.2% for the year) and additional strengthening is expected; Treasury’s business talks (discussed further in this month’s first Special Topic) confirmed that firms were expecting a further pick-up in employment in Canterbury.

Annual current account deficit widens...

The other main release during the month was the Balance of Payments for the December quarter. The annual current account deficit widened to 5.0% of GDP ($10.5 billion) in the year to December 2012, from 4.7% of GDP in the year to September. The deficit has widened over the last three-and-a-half years since the current account peaked at just under a 2% deficit in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis (Figure 3).

...driven by lower export receipts

The widening in the headline annual deficit from the previous quarter was driven in large part by a deterioration in the goods and services trade balances (Figure 3). The goods surplus narrowed for the fourth consecutive quarter, driven by lower exports, particularly dairy and crude oil. Lower prices played a large part, with the goods terms of trade declining 1.4% in the quarter to be 9.0% lower for the year. However, this is expected to be the trough for the terms of trade, as we have already seen significant rises in dairy prices in 2013; prices for dairy products at GlobalDairyTrade auctions have risen by more than 50% since the start of the year and Fonterra have revised up their current season forecast payout. The ANZ commodity price index rose 7.4% in March – its third strongest monthly rise on record – driven by increases in dairy and pelt prices.

Figure 3 – Current account and components
Figure 3 – Current account and components
Source:  Statistics NZ, Treasury

The wider annual services deficit was also driven predominantly by lower exports in the December year, with service exports $405 million lower than the corresponding September year. This reflects the Rugby World Cup effect dropping out of the annual figures as well as general weakness associated with the strong exchange rate. The fall is also the result of fewer Australians holidaying in New Zealand as they make the most of the strong AUD against the USD, and holidaying in the USA and elsewhere instead.
The effects of the goods and services balances on the headline result were partially offset by a narrowing in the annual income deficit. This was mainly driven by a fall in the income outflow component, reflecting lower profits earned by foreign firms in New Zealand over the course of the year.

Indicators pointing to continued growth momentum into 2013...

Forward indicators for activity point to ongoing momentum in 2013, although we are unlikely to see such a strong quarterly growth rate as we saw in the December quarter. The BNZ-BusinessNZ Performance of Manufacturing Index (PMI) and Performance of Services Index (PSI) both rose strongly in February, pointing to expanding output in their respective sectors. The PMI rose 1.1 points in January to 56.3 (values above 50 indicate expansion), its highest monthly result since February 2012. The detail from the release was also strong, with the production sub-index at 61.4, its highest reading since 2004, and new orders also high at 58.1. This is an encouraging result for the manufacturing sector, which has faced headwinds from a strong NZD, and points to a continuation of solid growth in the March quarter of 2013 (Figure 4).
The PSI also had an encouraging result, rising 2.7 points to 55.5 in February. The details were positive, with all five sub-indices above 50; new orders and activity were both robust at 59.6 and 55.4 respectively.

Figure 4 – PMI, PSI and GDP growth

Figure 4 – PMI, PSI and GDP growth
Sources:  Statistics NZ, BNZ-BusinessNZ

Another pointer to ongoing strong performance is continued strength in tax revenue, as evidenced in the Financial Statements of the Government for the eight months to February 2013. Core Crown tax revenue was $719m (2.0%) above the HYEFU forecast, with the variance driven by source deductions owing to the strength in the top end of the labour market. Other individuals’ tax was also above forecast, helped by strong equity markets.

...including improving business and consumer confidence...

Both business and consumer confidence measures continue to sit above their long-run averages, pointing to ongoing strength ahead.

The ANZ Business Outlook (ANZBO) seasonally adjusted business confidence measure rose slightly in March, indicating firms are becoming more optimistic about the economy. As expected, the agricultural sector saw its confidence weaken, given the intensification of drought conditions over the month. Other aspects of the survey, such as the firms’ own activity outlook, profits, employment outlook and investment, all remain above long-run averages, indicating a solid start to the year.

We have also seen consumer confidence hold at above-average levels, signalling increasing appetite for consumer spending, similar to that seen in the December quarter. This is likely to have been influenced by ongoing increases in house prices, which continued to rise in February, particularly in Auckland and Christchurch, making homeowners feel more wealthy. This is also flowing on to new construction activity, with a continuation in the strong trend for new building consents, which were up 24.0% in February from a year ago. Again, the activity was focussed in the Auckland and Christchurch regions.

Westpac McDermott Miller consumer confidence rose from 111.5 to 116.5 on a seasonally adjusted basis in the March quarter, which followed an 11.7 point increase in the previous quarter. Over history, this level of consumer confidence is consistent with around 3% annual consumption growth (Figure 5). As consumption is a large proportion of GDP (62%), this should translate into a continuation of solid growth in the first half of 2013 (albeit likely more modest that the surge in the December quarter).

Figure 5 – Westpac consumer confidence and household consumption

Figure 5 – Westpac consumer confidence and household consumption
Sources:  Statistics NZ, Westpac McDermott Miller

...but drought will provide some offset

While other indicators are pointing to solid growth in the first part of 2013, this will be tempered by the impacts of the drought. Our initial assessment is that the drought could subtract around 0.7% points from annual growth in real GDP in the 2013 calendar year, although the exact impact remains very uncertain. While the real side of the economy will take a hit from lower agricultural production and manufacturing, dairy prices have risen substantially of late as mentioned above. This will help to support farmer incomes, offsetting the fall in volumes, but the impact will be different for different producers.  This month’s second Special Topic takes a closer look at the economic impacts of the drought.

Global outlook brightens barring the euro area

Global developments were generally positive in March. Australian data improved, while Japanese optimism grew. Some uncertainty surrounding the impact of the US sequester persists, but US data remained relatively strong. However, the euro-area weakness was exacerbated by recent events, which does not help its neighbour, the UK.

RBA stimulus begins to affect activity...

Australia’s December quarter GDP growth (0.6%) and stronger-than-expected investment intentions pointed to a pickup in activity. Capex plans indicated that mining investment, which is due to peak mid-2013, will decline more slowly from its peak than previously expected. Other investment is expected to pick up, partly driven by low RBA policy rates.

The labour market tightened while housing activity strengthened, supported by low interest rates. The February unemployment rate held steady at 5.4% against an expected rise, on the back of a job surge. January housing finance grew 2.8%, as homebuyer sentiment rose to a 3-year high.
January saw a rise in imports, which is likely to be indicative of rising domestic demand. A fall in January mining exports, caused by Queensland flooding, led to a large temporary trade deficit. Mining exports have rebounded in February and the trade deficit was correspondingly smaller.

...as Chinese data recover from distortion...

Chinese data earlier in the month were distorted by the New Year timing. Both the manufacturing and services PMIs fell significantly in February, while CPI inflation was higher owing to food price hikes. However, the latest PMIs exhibited a rebound and food prices have already reversed, suggesting that distortion in the data has ended.

 ...and Japanese prospects brighten

The final reading of Japan’s December quarter GDP was revised into positive territory (0.04%). This was driven largely by an upward revision to private consumption, reflecting the improving sentiment shown by the consumer confidence index and the eco-watcher’s consumer survey.
Monetary stimulus and yen depreciation brightened the business outlook. This is expected to continue given that the new Bank of Japan governor advocates further easing.

The Nikkei has regained all of its post-GFC loss.
The annual average growth rates of NZ’s major trading partners were mostly positive in the December quarter, except for the euro area (Figure 6).

Figure 6 – GDP Growth

Figure 6 – GDP Growth
Source:  Haver

Solid US data conceal post-sequester risks

The US labour and housing markets continued to recover. On the labour side, employment rose above expectation in February, and the unemployment rate fell 0.2% points to 7.7%. The Case-Shiller house-price index climbed steadily in December and January, and new housing permits are at a post-GFC high.

Risk remains over the full impact of the March government spending cut and the earlier tax hike. The ISM manufacturing index and the various regional PMIs declined markedly in March, suggesting possible sequester effects. The March final reading of the University of Michigan consumer confidence index was revised back up almost to its February level, and hence fiscal consolidation has not evidently impacted on household sentiment.

Euro area volatility re-emerges...

Political and financial volatility re-emerged in the euro area, arguably undoing much of the previous month’s improvement. The rejection by Italian minor parties of a coalition agreement implies continued political risks, compounded by Fitch’s credit downgrade. The market is increasingly convinced that the Cyprus bank bail-in, involving a levy on large uninsured depositors, could be applied to future bank rescues, despite ECB assurances to the contrary.

Economic data deteriorated. The euro area unemployment rate remained unchanged at 12.0% in February. Industrial production contracted 0.4% in January and the manufacturing/services composite PMI fell 1.4 points to 46.5 in March.

German data were relatively strong. The German unemployment rate remained low (5.3%), while the German composite PMI indicated output expansion. German trade and retail data furthermore signalled rising demand. However, the German strength implied that the rest of the euro area is even weaker than its aggregate data suggest.

...which is bad news for the UK

The UK’s December quarter GDP contracted 0.3%, fuelling fears of a triple-dip recession. February’s manufacturing PMI entered contractionary territory. January’s credit growth, such as loans and the money supply, slowed, reflecting the slowdown in activity. The rise in retail sales in February, while positive, was largely owing to a temporary bounce back from January’s contraction. March quarter GDP is expected to be weak, and the government lowered its economic growth forecasts for the current year in its annual budget.

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