The collapse of our mining and resource investment boom is accelerating, raising the chances of the economy sliding into recession in the next 18 months. The March quarter is shaping up as a chance for a negative GDP reading on growth after sharp falls reported yesterday and today in the value of construction work and investment.

The March-quarter private-investment report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics today reveals a fall in actual investment of 4.4% seasonally adjusted in the March quarter, double the size of the forecast from the market, driven by a sharp 6.5% fall in spending on buildings and structures.

More importantly, the second estimate for expected investment in the coming 2015-16 financial year of $104 billion was 24.8% down on the second estimate of 2014-15. It was 1.4% higher than the first estimate issued in February — but seeing that first estimate was originally $109.8 billion, there has been a substantial revision (to just over $102 billion).

The dollar fell under 77 US cents and was trading around 1% lower at 76.87 at midday as the market factored in another rate cut or two from the Reserve Bank. That’s how much of a shock these figures were.

The big driver, not unexpectedly, was a 34.9% slide in investment plans in the mining sector, but other (non-mining) industries are currently planning to invest 10% less in the next financial year. A small optimistic note says that the second estimate for non-mining investment was up 6.6% on the first estimate, but nowhere near enough to offset the huge fall in mining investment.

On top of that, the sixth estimate for this financial year, which still has a month to run, was $149.9 billion, down 8.1% on the sixth estimate a year ago, and slightly lower than the fifth estimate for this year from February.

The slide in investment is supported by the results of the half-year survey of resource project investment from the Commonwealth Department of Industry yesterday, which was very gloomy, especially about 2017. “The value of committed projects is about to start declining, substantially, and it is clear that this will not be offset by new investments coming through the pipeline which are being increasingly delayed due to adverse market conditions,” the report said. “As a result of these market conditions, the number of resources projects being developed in Australia is now reverting back to pre-investment boom levels. As such, we expect investment in mineral and energy commodities to be subdued relative to the high levels seen in recent years.”

And while providing some offset for the fall in mining investment, construction work is no longer surging as it had been in recent quarters: yesterday, construction work data from the ABS revealed a sharp slowdown in the value of construction work done in the March quarter — in fact, the largest fall in almost 14 years in the March quarter. In the first three months of 2015, completed construction work fell 2.4% — a result twice as bad as the market was expecting. For the year to March, the amount of work done dropped a massive 8.8%, dragged down by the largest quarterly fall in engineering work since the Australian Bureau of Statistics began keeping records in 1986.

That offsetting is what the Reserve Bank has wanted to see as the economy transitions away from the resources boom, but it is nowhere near enough currently to make up for the accelerating slide in mining investment, and the gathering fall in non-mining investment. It augurs badly for the March-quarter GDP growth figures out next Wednesday: there’s now a real chance they will show not just the tepid, 2%-level growth of the last three quarters, but negative growth, which will have major ramifications for consumer and business confidence. Joe’s budget sugar-hit can’t arrive soon enough.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey