Still growing strong, without the feelgood factor
By and large, it's so far, so good. The national accounts depict an economy where wages are soaring, households are spending up, mining companies are ramping up investment at unprecedented rates – and even governments are pouring in more money.
That is why the accounts show GDP growing at the surprisingly high rate of 3.7 per cent in the 12 months to June – despite relatively weak employment growth, and all the other things we know have gone wrong.
The detailed figures show weaknesses all through the economy - manufacturing is in a deepening recession, as is housing investment, areas of discretionary spending such as eating out, the media, and entertainment, and, not least, Tasmania, now clearly in recession.
But those weaknesses are outweighed by the economy's strengths: above all, mining investment. In the past year, more than half of Australia's growth in spending has gone into developing new mines. Mining investment grew 72 per cent. The rest of the economy grew by a bit over 2 per cent. That's why the growth figure looks so out of whack with what we're experiencing.
Mostly, these figures tell us what we already knew. The big surprise here is the strength of wages, which more than offset the fall in profits. The Bureau of Statistics believes the average employee's wage jumped 5.6 per cent in the year to June. If correct, that is way too high, increasing the risk of job cuts ahead.
What the figures can't tell us is what lies ahead. Some of the forces that created all that growth in 2011-12 will be weaker, or in reverse, in 2012-13. Most observers expect Europe's problems to rise to a crisis in the next few months.
The mining boom is not over, but it is slowing, with BHP and Fortescue both shelving big projects in recent days. And the federal government will go from stimulating the economy to contracting it.
In the rear-view mirror, however, the view's not bad. In the June quarter, total spending was up 5.3 per cent on the year before – but that was an average of growth of 10.3 per cent in the mining states (a third of the economy), and 2.7 per cent in the south-east (two-thirds of the economy).
But the two-speed economy is now five-speed. We had to fit a new top gear for the Northern Territory, where spending grew 28.3 per cent, with private investment almost trebling. Western Australia increased its spending by 13.4 per cent, while Queensland (7.1) was joined by the ACT (6.4) where the federal government's spending kept on booming in the first half of 2012.
The slow lane still contains NSW (3), South Australia (2.7) and Victoria (2.3), while Tasmania is now travelling in reverse, with its total spending down 3 per cent from a year ago.
Those figures are for spending, not output, which will be significantly lower, especially in the mining states. The bureau won't release those estimates until November.
The boom in mining investment was backed up in the first half of 2012 by barely credible growth in consumer spending – which, despite retailers' woes, the bureau estimates grew at an annualised rate of 4.7 per cent. Even more surprisingly, government spending grew at an annualised rate of 6 per cent – before heading into reverse for 2012-13.
The Reserve Bank has, albeit obscurely, signalled that it is worried about what lies ahead. No one knows how severe Europe's coming crisis will be for us at the other end of the world. But at least we'll be confronting it from a strong starting point.