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Monthly Economic Indicators


The global economy continues to gain momentum and domestic indicators continue to show signs of recovery: headline business confidence remains high; activity surveys for manufacturing and services gained ground; tourists from Australia flocked to the ski fields; net immigration strengthened; retail sales rose and the housing market continued to pick up. Overall, the economy has continued to build on the tentative end to the recession suggested by the 0.1% rise in June quarter GDP. The exchange rate, which continued its rise and offset much of the gain from higher commodity prices, remains a major impediment to a greater contribution from exports to the recovery.

Global growth outlook continues to improve

Data over the past month continued to indicate a gradual recovery in conditions in the global economy. Global forecasts have been revised up, with the IMF forecasts showing a modest upward revision for 2009 and a significant upward revision for 2010. World growth in 2010 is now forecast at 3.1%, up from 1.9% in April. Although growth in the major developed economies is forecast to be relatively weak, the rest of the world is forecast to grow at over 4%, with growth significantly higher than this in some countries in Asia, most notably China, where growth of 9% is expected. Overall, growth in New Zealand's major trading partners in 2010 is forecast by the IMF at almost 3%.

The gradual improvement in financial market conditions has led some central banks, including the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ), to announce termination dates for arrangements introduced to support markets at the height of the financial crisis a year ago. The RBNZ also released the final version of its prudential liquidity policy for banks, which requires them to meet minimum liquidity standards by April 2010. This policy is not intended to affect current credit conditions as banks were already taking a tighter approach to capital, but it will likely constrain the extent of future credit growth.

The Reserve Bank of Australia became the first G20 economy to begin to withdraw monetary stimulus, raising the monetary policy rate by 25 basis points to 3.25%. The resumption of growth in the global economy, the improvement in financial market conditions and stronger than expected economic performance were seen to have reduced the risk of serious economic contraction. With Australian growth expected to be close to trend over the year ahead, the basis for keeping rates low has now passed and the RBA considered it "prudent to begin gradually lessening the stimulus provided by monetary policy".

Further coverage of recent world developments is provided in our Special Topic below.

Business confidence recovers to decade high

In New Zealand measures of business confidence continued their recovery. General business confidence rose 40 percentage points (ppts) to a net 27% of respondents expecting business conditions to improve in September's Quarterly Survey of Business Opinion (QSBO). Firms' own trading activity expectations also rose sharply to a net 17% expecting increased activity in the December quarter. Intentions for investment, employment and profits all continued their rise towards positive territory.

In contrast to these forward looking indicators, firms' experience of activity, employment and investment in the September quarter all remained deeply negative. This has created a divergence between the survey's measures of activity experienced and expectations that are the widest on record for a number of measures. The implication is that September quarter GDP is likely to be a little stronger than in June, with the December quarter stronger again, but not as strong as implied by expectations of the next three months in the QSBO (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Real GDP and Own Activity Outlook
Figure 1 – Real GDP and Own Activity Outlook.
Source: NZIER, Statistics NZ

The National Bank Business Outlook improved significantly in September so it was no surprise to see a slight pull-back in October. The measure of firms' own activity outlook, which provides the best indicator of GDP, slipped just 1 point to a net 31% expecting higher activity over the year ahead, and consistent with annual growth strengthening into next year.

In other survey data, the BNZ Capital-Business NZ Performance of Manufacturing Index (PMI) rose to 51.7 (seasonally adjusted), which indicates expansion of the sector. Of the five sub-indices only finished stocks was showing decline. The Performance of Services Index (PSI) increased 1.9 points from August to 53.2, the highest level since February 2008, but the recovery is patchy with only two of the five sub-indices that make up the PSI displaying expansion – activity/sales and new orders/business. Overall, both manufacturing and services look to be performing better than in the June quarter.

Inflation higher than expected

The Consumers Price Index (CPI) rose 1.3% in the September quarter to be 1.7% higher than a year ago, compared with market expectations of an annual rate of 1.2%. Most of the surprise occurred in the tradables sector (ie goods and services subject to international competition) where prices did not decline to the extent expected. International airfares (up 11%), vegetables (up 14%) and petrol prices (up 2%) were the main contributors to a flat tradables inflation outturn. In comparison, non-tradables inflation rose 1% in the quarter on seasonal increases in local government rates, vehicle relicensing fees and alcohol excises. Measures of underlying or core inflation, which focus on the relatively stable components of the CPI, such as the CPI excluding food, household energy and vehicle fuels, remained well contained (Figure 2).

Figure 2 – CPI Inflation
Figure 2 – CPI Inflation.
Source: Statistics NZ

We expect annual inflation to pick up in coming quarters as the weak quarter last December drops out of the calculation, although quarterly rate rises should slow to around 0.3%.

Monetary policy stimulus remains in place

With inflation expected to track comfortably within the Reserve Bank's target range over the medium-term, the Reserve Bank stated that it saw no urgency to begin withdrawing monetary policy stimulus and left the Official Cash Rate (OCR) unchanged at 2.5%. The Reserve Bank's October review confirmed that the OCR was likely to remain at the current level until the second half of 2010. Financial market traders, who had been anticipating more support for a rate rise as early as January 2010, responded through lower yields on short-term interest rates. The currency, which had been rising for most of the month, began falling in the final week and fell further following the OCR announcement (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Exchange Rates
Figure 3 – Exchange Rates.
Source: RBNZ

Spending growth picks up…

Increases in food and fuel prices were reflected in a 1.1% jump in August retail sales, which followed a 0.5% decline in July. Fuel sales rose by 1.9% in August, but were offset by a 1.4% decline in vehicle retailing. This latter component has been very weak since the start of the year, but with vehicle registrations having picked up over the September quarter, it should make an increased contribution to retail sales and private consumption over the September and December quarters. Excluding the vehicle related categories, core retail sales increased 1.2% in the month led by a 6.4% rise in sales of clothing and softgoods (Figure 4). Consistent with the effects of a rising housing market, there were solid increases in sales of household durables such as hardware (up 7.2%), furniture and floor coverings (up 3.1%) and department stores (up 2.4%).

Electronic card transactions in September rose in both total (0.4%) and core retail stores (0.4%) while total domestic credit card billings also rose. These modest rises indicate that retail sales over the quarter may have been flat once we remove price increase. Retail sales data for the September month and quarter will be released in mid-October.

Figure 4 – Retail Sales
Figure 4 – Retail Sales.
Source: Statistics NZ

Other indicators also suggest that consumer spending is likely to remain flat. October's ANZ-Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence survey lifted to a 22-month high, but the details revealed a wide divergence between expectations of the future and current experience. The current conditions index rose but remained below 100, indicating pessimists outweighed optimists. In contrast, the future conditions index rose to almost 150, its highest level since the survey began in 2004. Overall, private consumption in the third quarter looks likely to expand, but at a slower rate than in the June quarter when it rose by 0.4%, supported by tax cuts.

… leading to stronger domestic demand

Other economic factors are also supporting a rise in domestic demand. These other factors include higher net permanent and long-term migration inflows and low interest rates, both of which are supporting a pick-up in the housing market. Permanent and long-term net migration to New Zealand stood at 1800 in September, which increased the twelve month total to 17,000 - the highest annual total since 2004. The average monthly inflow has been around 2000 since February this year, indicating that annual inflows will rise to around 25,000 in coming months. The strength of migrant inflows is increasing demand for housing while the fall in departures may be constraining the supply of houses for sale.

According to the REINZ stratified house price index house prices rose 1.7% (seasonally adjusted) in September to be up 4.3% in the September quarter and 5.3% higher than the same time last year. The supply of listings increased in the month but remained below its average. House prices in Auckland appear to be leading the upswing with a 5.2% increase in the September quarter coming on the back of a 17% increase in sales. The REINZ median house price rose 0.7% to $351,000, just $2000 below its peak in September 2007 (Figure 5). Until listings increase further, demand is expected to drive prices higher, reversing all of the losses of the past two years by year end.

Figure 5 – Housing market
Figure 5 – Housing market.
Source: REINZ

The number of residential building consents issued continued to recover, with a 3.3% rise in September. Excluding the volatile apartment series, the seasonally adjusted number of consents rose 2.8% in the September month and 17% in the September quarter. However, the overall level of consents remains low - the 13,616 consents issued in the year to September 2009 was 35% down on the previous year. The value of non-residential consents for the year ended September was unchanged from the September 2008 year, although values in the September 2009 month sank to their lowest levels since September 2007.

… contributing to the recovery

The growth in housing market activity is affecting economic growth in part by raising private consumption. As house prices rise, we expect to see higher growth in spending as households feel wealthier and choose to purchase discretionary items. In addition, a direct effect of a rising housing market is increased sales of household durables such as home furnishings.

Rising commodity prices and tourism are also helping…

The ANZ Commodity Price Index rose 6.8% in September, the largest monthly gain in 22 years, led by a 17% rise in dairy prices. The gains were spread over eight of the 13 commodities in the index, with skins, sawn timber and wool also experiencing large gains. In New Zealand dollars, the Index rose a more modest 2.4% as the rise in the exchange rate offset much of the impact of rising world prices. Fonterra's whole milk powder auction saw prices up 5.7% from the previous auction and 65% from three months ago.

Good skiing conditions along with a resilient Australian economy and a large marketing campaign saw short-term visitor arrivals from Australia rise by 16% in the September quarter compared to a year ago. New Zealand's attractiveness as a holiday destination was aided by cheaper airfares on direct flights into Queenstown. Other visitor numbers have however been weak, but overall visitor numbers were still 9% higher in the September month compared with September 2008, and 3% higher compared with the same quarter a year ago.

…but trade flows are weakening

In the first half of the year export volumes grew due to some one-off impacts from a rundown in dairy stocks and a rise in meat exports. In the absence of these one-offs, export volumes in the second half of the year are expected to fall.

Merchandise trade data for September showed that export and import values were down sharply from a year ago both for the September month and quarter. Export values of $2.8 billion in the September month were 11% lower than a year ago, led by a fall in diary prices. Compared to a year ago, exports to the US and Japan were particularly weak, while exports to China were up 16%, led by increases in logs and dairy. Export values for the September quarter fell 7% to $9.4 billion, the third consecutive quarterly fall.

Import values of $3.3 billion in the September month were 27% lower than a year earlier, with falls across most categories. Quarterly values were down 8.1% from the June quarter, partly a reflection of the impact of imports of aircraft in the June quarter.

With imports falling faster than exports, the trade deficit in the twelve months to September narrowed to $1.5 billion from almost $6 billion at the end of 2008 (Figure 6). With export values expected to pick up and imports likely to remain weak, a trade surplus may emerge in early 2010.

Figure 6 – Merchandise Trade
Figure 6 – Merchandise Trade.
Source: Statistics NZ

Coming in November

Releases in November include labour market data and September retail sales.

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