Australian consumers have emerged from their annual Christmas-New Year hiatus in fine fettle, with confidence hitting new highs, according to the two major surveys.

The Westpac/Melbourne Institute survey showed a sharp 5.6-point rise to 120.1 on its monthly survey today, more than 33% higher than a year ago when confidence had been battered by the financial turmoil and recession in the wake of the Lehman Brothers failure and other financial woes.

And the weekly Roy Morgan survey showed a sharp rise in confidence in its latest survey to the highest level since February 2005. The Morgan poll showed confidence at 128.9 points, up 1.1 points in the latest week and 21.7 points above the level of the same time in January 2009.

Both surveys show that consumers have shrugged off the trio of rate rises from the Reserve Bank in October, November and December.

Ironically, this level of rising confidence, taken with solid retail sales for November, good car sales, still strong demand for housing finance and surging overseas travel (shown by the profit upgrades from Webjet and Flight Centre in the past 10 days), have increased the odds of the RBA lifting rates a fourth time in a row at the February 2 meeting of its board.

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said in a statement this morning that its survey had produced “a very strong result”.

“The index is seasonally adjusted and therefore takes account of traditional January optimism.

“Nevertheless it is still above its level of last September prior to the Reserve Bank’s record three consecutive rate increases over the three months from October to December.

”The share market also supported confidence with a rise of 4.2% although petrol prices did increase by a solid 4.4%,” he said.

With another strong rise in December job ads (shown by the ANZ job ads series) and by the surprise 35,000 extra jobs last month in the ABS Labour Force figures last Thursday, the Australian economy looks like it’s now in a new growth phase where it is responding to fresh demand, rather than just the impact of government stimulation, as was the case for much of 2009, especially the final six months.

December imports rose 7%, according to ABS figures, but much of that was due to higher prices for oil and petroleum-based products. Consumption goods fell and capital goods imports rose, while imports of non-monetary gold also jumped.

Also helping consumers feel better was the very positive impact of the stockmarket rebound on their superannuation where the colour of figures in the various reports to be issued in the next couple of months will be black, instead of red, with plus signs instead of minuses in front of the totals.

Figures from the SuperRatings group this morning showed many funds have had their best half-year results in the December six months.

The group said the median balanced option fund gained 12% in the second half of 2009, including 2.2% in December alone. The half-year return was the best since compulsory super was introduced in 1992.

The median balance funds (a sort of average fund for comparative purposes) lost 19.7% in calendar 2008, and added 12.9% in 2009.

So there’s still about 7%-8% in losses there (and more in many cases), but the rebound will have eased the fears of many investors and consumers that the their savings were draining away.

Peter Fray

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