June 4, 2018 / 2:29 AM / 3 months ago

Australian corporate profits rise but consumer headwinds persist

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian companies doled out a record amount in salaries last quarter, providing support for a struggling consumer sector while a jump in profits pointed to economic growth gathering pace after last year’s slowdown.

FILE PHOTO: A man pays his bill at a coffee shop in Sydney's central business district (CBD) Australia, February 5, 2018. Picture taken February 5, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz/File Photo

Stronger-than-expected data released on Monday suggested first-quarter economic growth might be faster than current consensus forecasts, sending the Australian dollar AUD=D4 up a third of a U.S. cent to the day's high of $0.7615.

The gross domestic product (GDP) report due on Wednesday is expected to show domestic output rose 0.8 percent in the first quarter, according to a Reuters poll of economists. That would take annual growth to 2.7 percent, still below government and central bank forecasts of a 3.0 percent increase.

Australia’s A$1.8 trillion ($1.37 trillion) economy has now entered its 27th straight year of growth but analysts see headwinds from the household and property sectors.

“We still expect Australian growth in 2018 to be a little below the Reserve Bank of Australia’s forecast because of a constrained consumer and a slowing housing market,” said Diana Mousina, senior economist at AMP Capital.

“There are few signs of noticeable cost pressures as the economy is still running below its capacity,” Mousina added.

“Growth needs to be stronger to work through this spare capacity and lift wages and inflation.”

Australia’s center-right government has recently committed to expensive education and health programs and cuts to personal income tax to win over struggling households as elections loom.

The mix of moderate growth and restrained wages poses a political challenge for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and is a major reason the RBA is expected to keep interest rates at a record low 1.50 percent at its June meeting on Tuesday.

Interest rates have been on hold since August 2016, marking the longest period of unchanged policy since the cash rate was introduced in 1990. The futures market <0#YIB:> is not fully pricing in a hike until September next year.

JOBS AND GROWTH

Monday’s figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed company gross operating profits climbed 5.9 percent to a record in the March quarter, beating expectations for a 3.0 percent increase.

Mining, construction, utility and recreation enjoyed hefty increases while financial services recorded the biggest fall.

Another bright spot in Monday’s data was stronger-than-expected business inventories, which climbed 0.7 percent in the March quarter compared with expectations of 0.1 percent rise.

The solid performance allowed companies to hire more, inflating their wage bill to a record A$135.5 billion ($103 billion) in the March quarter, up 0.8 percent on the previous quarter and 5.0 percent higher than a year ago.

The appetite for labor also showed few signs of diminishing, with job ads holding near a seven-year peak.

A survey by Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ.AX) on Monday showed weekly job ads in newspapers and on the internet up a brisk 11.5 percent in May from a year ago.

Yet, companies are still reluctant to reward pay hikes with annual wage growth crawling at around 2 percent, its slowest pace ever.

That has weighed on consumer spending with the household debt-to-income ratio hold near all-time highs of around 190 percent.

Still, retail sales rose 0.4 percent in April, Monday’s data showed, compared with a flat result in the previous month and expectations for a 0.2 percent increase.

Annual retail sales of more than A$315 billion account for almost 18 percent of GDP. Overall, household consumption accounts for around 57 percent of the country’s annual output, meaning a revival in consumer spending is necessary for steady economic momentum.

“With household finances still under pressure from low wage growth, rising petrol prices and a slowing housing market, we expect the annual rate of consumption growth to slow from about 3.0 percent in the first quarter to around 2.0 percent by the end of the year,” said Capital Economics analyst Kate Hickie.

Reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Sam Holmes

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