Friday, July 1, 2011

Mining boom failing to spark national economy

THE Australian economy has ended the financial year with the brakes biting hard. New data released yesterday reports lending and activity slowing, house prices falling, and job opportunities shrinking.

Separate snapshots released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the Reserve Bank and private research bodies throw doubt on official forecasts that the new financial year beginning today will see a boom in economic activity.

The Reserve has forecast growth of 4.5 per cent over the coming year, and recent speeches by governor Glenn Stevens and assistant governor Phillip Lowe flagged more interest rate rises ahead. Treasury is forecasting growth of 4 per cent, and more than 200,000 new jobs.

But yesterday's figures reported that:

. Net lending by the banks rose just 0.3 per cent in May, after recording no growth in April, as Reserve Bank figures show business and households remain averse to taking on new debt.

. Job vacancies in the private sector, as measured by the ABS, fell by 12,000 or 7 per cent in the six months to May, with Victoria and South Australia recording the biggest falls.

. House and unit prices nationally have fallen in every month this year, according to the RP Data-Rismark index, dropping by 0.3 per cent in May and by 2.7 per cent since December. In Melbourne, the median price fell by 1.8 per cent over the May quarter to $500,000.

. Hotels, motels and serviced apartments recorded a 0.8 per cent fall in takings in the March quarter, ABS figures show, as Australians profited from the strong dollar to holiday overseas while overseas tourist arrivals remained flat.

While the Reserve Bank would not be concerned to see little growth in debt, or house prices edging down, yesterday's figures come after broader-based measures show employment growth has slowed to a virtual standstill in recent months.

They come amid rising fears for the future of the global economy. The US government is now only a month away from running out of money, with Republicans and Democrats locked in a bitter stalemate on how to reduce the deficit.

Global ratings agency Standard & Poor's warned on Wednesday that US bonds would be downgraded to a D, or junk bond status, if it defaults on debt payments. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warns this is inevitable unless Congress raises the country's debt limit by August 2.

In Greece, Parliament on Wednesday approved an austerity package to cut its deficit but the fear is this will do little more than postpone an inevitable default, with the Greek government's debt now 150 per cent of GDP.

The domestic economy seems to have entered 2011-12 with mining construction booming but the rest of the economy sluggish. That might not stop the Reserve Bank raising interest rates again in coming months, since it believes the weakness is temporary, and next year it will need to rein in growth to stop the mining boom setting off inflation.