Business Conditions Buoyant Ahead Of Budget

By Glenn Dyer | More Articles by Glenn Dyer

Australian business conditions returned to record levels in April and business confidence also rebounded in the lead up to tonight’s 2018-19 Federal Budget which is widely expected to set the scene for an early federal election.

The National Australia Bank’s April survey, released yesterday instead of today, showed business conditions index increased by 6pts to +21 index points, its equal highest level since the survey commenced in March 1997.

The NAB said business confidence index also increased, by 2pts to +10 index points, and is well above its historical average of 6 index points.

But despite the upbeat tone the survey has little joy for those bears looking for inflationary pressures in the buoyant economic conditions found by the NAB, especially from wage growth.

Tonight’s budget will be partly built on hopes (for yet another) or a rebound in wage growth. We will know a bit more tomorrow when the March quarter Wage Price Index is issued.

But the NAB survey shows very little upward pressure on wages.

Alan Oster, NAB’s Group Chief Economist said in yesterday’s report that “The record high in the business conditions index in the April Survey simply reinforces what has been evident since the middle of last year, that business activity in Australia is robust.”

He said conditions increased in all industries except for manufacturing and retail and, in trend terms, are strongest in mining.

“Of some concern is that retail conditions turned negative for the first time this year” Mr Oster said. That was after signs of stabilising in the past couple of surveys.

“On a more positive note, concerns that retail weakness might be spreading to retail & personal services have been alleviated by a significant improvement in conditions in that industry over the last two months, particularly in April.”

The NAB said trading conditions (sales), profitability and employment conditions all posted strong gains in April and remain well above their historical average.

“The improvement in the employment index was particularly welcome in the light of the ABS reporting a slowdown in jobs growth in recent months. Historically, the NAB Survey does a good job at looking through short-term cycles in the ABS data and so we think the labour market continues to improve,” Mr Oster said.

Changes in leading indicators were mixed this month, but remain at solid levels.

“While forward orders fell, on a trend basis they increased and point to a positive outlook for the non-mining economy, including employment and investment growth.” Mr Oster said. According to Mr Oster “The survey continues to point to subdued inflation and wages growth.”

“The Survey results for March are consistent with our outlook for the Australian economy. The strength in business conditions and leading indicators suggest economic growth will strengthen and that over-time we should see strong jobs growth and falls in the unemployment rate.

"Falling unemployment should eventually translate into upwards pressure on private sector wages, at which point the RBA will be in a position to start increasing the current emergency low policy rate.

“Our current call is for the first move by the RBA to be late this year, but as hard evidence of a firming in wages growth is yet to appear in the data, and unemployment for the moment stuck at around 5.5%, the risk is that any action by the RBA will be delayed into 2019” Mr Oster said.

Glenn Dyer

About 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.

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