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Asian data has Labor MPs nervously watching our surplus

Labor and the Treasury will be watching last night’s manufacturing data from Asia with concern, as it has direct implications for this year’s budget surplus.

The domestic economy has entered the 2012-13 financial year with a head of steam, buoyed by carbon compensation payments and a huge investment pipeline in mining. In the budget papers in May, Treasury forecast unemployment to rise to 5.5% this year, on the back of 3.25% GDP growth, both of which currently look safe predictions; its 3.25% inflation forecast, if anything, now looks too high, but we’re yet to see the impact of the carbon price.

This morning retail sales data for June confirm the economy ticking over nicely, with 1% growth seasonally adjusted, and more to the point spread both geographically and across expenditure groups. While food, as usual, was strong, even perennial poor performers department stores and clothing both showed growth. And while boom state WA is still the strongest performer in retail in trend terms, NSW recorded strong growth, confirming that the deep malaise that beset the largest state economy has lifted under Barry O’Farrell.

In preparing its budget forecasts, Treasury also expected Europe to continue to perform poorly, with -0.75% growth this calendar year, shifting to 0.75% next year, which looks optimistic given continuing evidence manufacturing data out this week (British manufacturing plunged in June, suggesting that the expected Olympic-fuelled return to positive growth this quarter is in danger). It was more optimistic on the US — too optimistic, it seems, predicting 2% this year accelerating to 2.25% next year, which is now at odds with the Fed’s overnight statement that the US economy had “decelerated somewhat over the first half of the year”.

But the poor manufacturing data from Asia, in which only Indonesia saw improved conditions in July, wasn’t in Treasury’s crystal ball. It predicted Chinese growth to “remain solid, despite some slowing in domestic activity” and a positive outlook for other Asian countries. Treasury devoted special attention to Asian markets in the budget papers, noting “Australia’s natural resource base and location in the Asian region have allowed our exporters to take advantage of the expanding markets of emerging Asia at a time of relative weakness in the world’s advanced economies” and that “Australian businesses have been re-orientating their exports towards emerging Asia for many years and this shift has been even more marked since the global financial crisis”.

But if Asian countries stop manufacturing and exporting as much, that will have direct impacts on Australian exporters, who in “taking advantage of the expanding markets of emerging Asia” are therefore more dependent on them, particularly commodity exporters.

That means revenue from the mining tax, already revised down in the budget, may have to be revised down again. It also means flatter corporate tax revenue. Treasury cut its expectations for corporate tax by $2.7 billion dollars in 2012-13 (after cutting its 2011-12 forecast by $2.6 billion); corporate tax revenue depends disproportionately on two sectors, banking and mining, meaning softer Asian markets will flow through to lower corporate tax revenue. The exchange rate won’t be much help, either: despite falls in commodity prices, it is sticking right where Treasury forecast it to be, around 103 US cents.

Today’s trade data, which showed a small surplus on goods and services for June, suggest there’s no softening yet of exports, although year-on-year there was a large fall from over $21 billion in 2010-11 to nearly $6 billion in 2011-12.

None of this is to criticise or second-guess Treasury; the shifts in revenue are unlikely to be massive and are a natural consequence of changing external economic conditions. A couple of billion dollars either way isn’t going to have too much impact, certainly not on the economy and not on the federal budget either. But the forecast surplus of $2.5 billion is so thin, and the political significance attributed to it so great, that normally minor changes such as this are suddenly the stuff of political drama, and likely to see a further round of spending cuts in November when MYEFO is released.

From a fiscal discipline point of view that’s welcome — governments usually grow more lax as they age. But politically it doesn’t give Labor much chance to maximise its election year chances with more targeted spending.

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  • 1
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 2 August 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Very good article but I would query how much an Asian manufacturing slow down will effect Australia’s mineral exports (and the MRRT revenue). China’s big demand for Iron Ore for stell is due largley to large scale construction projects to modernise their economy and society, so while their export markets may be weakening the govt funded construction will not be effected.

  • 2
    Posted Thursday, 2 August 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Nonetheless, I would standby for cuts in November’s MYEFO just to ensure that Swanny can report an actual surplus on the 2nd Tuesday in May 2013.

  • 3
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 2 August 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Gavin Moodie - That was always going to be the case, the govt aren’t going to take any chances that this surplus won’t be delivered.

  • 4
    MarkWW
    Posted Thursday, 2 August 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    You seem to give BOF credit for lifting the deep malaise in NSW and have made similar allusions in previous articles, but have yet to identify any particular action (apart from having been elected on 2010) for which credit might be given. Can anyone else enlighten me as to how BOF has saved the beleaguered people of NSW? More rubbish bins on train platforms? (Better spin and less media gloom more is my guess)

  • 5
    Scott
    Posted Thursday, 2 August 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    If you look at the spot price of Domestic Chinese Steel over the last 3 years, you see a big drop since early 2011 (from 4900 to currently around 3700). That means either that demand is falling or there is an over supply of steel for Chinese projects. As China produces around 43% of the world’s steel, that isn’t great.
    Ultimately, China will stop producing as much steel as it does currenlty as it will become unprofitable at the lower prices. Either way, not great for Australian iron ore exports and/or surplus in the future.

  • 6
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 2 August 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Scott - “Ultimately, China will stop producing as much steel as it does currenlty as it will become unprofitable at the lower prices. Either way, not great for Australian iron ore exports and/or surplus in the future.” While this is true I am confident that the firms investing hundreds of billions of dollars in Australian mining over the coming years are aware of it and have factored in lower prices into their investment decision.

    The other thing the lower price could be indicating is that supply is simply meeting demand, ie demand hasn’t decreased but supply has but only to a level where prices have come down from abnormal highs to a more realistic price. If this is the case then the demand for Australian minerals will not fall but stay constant.

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 2 August 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m fascinated by the mad rush to invest in more ‘dig&ship’ projects, never mind yer akshal demand when/if if these projects come on line.
    We’ve had decades of evidence that economists haven’t the wit to understand the first rule of economics, supply x demand = price (not ‘value’, we be talking real world here) so when Oz is finally ready, and desperately - nay feverishly, eager to supply the entire universe with raw materials, whether or not there is contraction in the buyers market, due to the West either being broke or surfeited with gee-gaws, methinks we’ll be begging customers to take the stuff away, at bargain basement prices, assuming that any such enterprises remain in Oz ownership anyway.
    Jimmy above believes that domestic demand in China will (mostly?) take up the slack of moribund Western demand but that is only possible if there is still export income to fund such projects.
    I don’t like China’s chances of trying to sell the planet’s largest holding of US T-bonds at anything like what they paid for them in the salad days of Ponzi.

  • 8
    Andrew (the real one?)
    Posted Friday, 3 August 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    If the Chinese experience a housing bubble, which is a real possiblity, as there is an over supply of vacant buildings, they won’t be needing so much steel. Lets hope that Clive orders a whole fleet of Titanics.

  • 9
    Jimmy
    Posted Friday, 3 August 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    AR - “Jimmy above believes that domestic demand in China will (mostly?) take up the slack of moribund Western demand but that is only possible if there is still export income to fund such projects.” China has plenty of cash reserves and isn’t restricted by having a truly free market and floating currency so even if export income declines they can continue to sustain imports for some time.
    And I am not expecting China to carry the demand for eternity, at some point Europe and the US have to recover and when they do there will quite possibly be a backlog of demand.

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