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NAB Survey Shows Business Still Buoyant

While consumers and households struggle with low income growth and high debts - along with retailing (see separate story) the latest survey of business conditions and confidence from the National Australia Bank shows another sharp improvement.

In fact the NAB survey shows that business conditions started the year close to a record high and this saw confidence recover sharply in January led by the construction and mining industries.

The Bank’s monthly business survey was conducted before last week’s market turmoil, but it shows that business was streaming along nicely in Australia, with retailing being left behind.

The bank’s business conditions index jumped 6 points to 19 points in January, which is well above the long-run average of 5 points, while confidence firmed 2 points to 12 points, the highest level since April of last year.

“The rise in confidence may reflect the improved global economic backdrop, but it is important to note that the survey was conducted before the current turbulence in international financial markets,” NAB chief economist Alan Oster said in yesterday’s release.

“The large rise in the NAB Monthly Business Survey business conditions index provides further confirmation of robust business activity in Australia. While the index can bounce around from month-to-month due to changes in seasonal patterns, conditions remain elevated on a trend basis,” he added.”

Conditions were solid around the country, led by Tasmania, Queensland, and Victoria. Similarly, the business confidence index for WA is above its reported level of business.

Mr Oster said leading indicators in the survey are generally positive. “While forward orders have eased a little they remain above average and capacity utilisation has been trending up which is a good sign for both future investment and employment.”

By component, both trading conditions (sales) and profitability posted strong gains while employment conditions were unchanged. “The employment index remains consistent with a solid rate of job creation of approximately 20,000 per month, which is less rapid than the current trend rate of 25,000 per month, but should be enough to put further downward pressure on the unemployment rate over the first half of the year”, said Mr Oster.

Business conditions are solid to strong across all major industry groups with the exception of retail (again!).

"The construction industry in particular is performing well. “The improvement in construction conditions over the last twelve months is due to improved trading conditions, profitability and employment, and probably reflects the still elevated residential construction pipeline, infrastructure construction and the gains in non-residential building approvals last year.

"The lift in employment is particularly significant given the rising share of employment found within the construction industry,” Mr Oster said.

On a less positive note, the slippage in conditions in recreation & personal services to the lowest level in three years bears close watching and, together with the ongoing weakness in retail conditions, points to continued softness in consumer activity according to Mr Oster.

“The Survey results for January are broadly in line with our view of the Australian economy. We are hopeful that Australia will see stronger economic growth in coming quarters, due to the strength in the labour market, business activity and infrastructure spending, despite the challenge of only modest consumption growth and the peaking in LNG exports and housing construction.

"This would probably prompt the RBA to consider a gradual removal of emergency policy stimulus, as long as there are signs of wages strengthening. We still expect the first RBA hike to come in the second half of this year if unemployment falls further and wages show improvement, although the risk is that the RBA will move later as it has indicated that it is in no rush to lift rates” said Mr Oster.

View More Articles By Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer has been a finance journalist and TV producer for more than 40 years. He has worked at Maxwell Newton Publications, Queensland Newspapers, AAP, The Australian Financial Review, The Nine Network and Crikey.

At the AFR he was a finance writer, Finance Editor, News Editor and Chief of Staff. At the Nine Network he was supervising producer of Business Sunday for more than 16 years. He has also written for other online and analogue print publications here and overseas.



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