After an unprecedented summer of bushfires, we hope that Autumn brings cooler temperatures and soaking rain for all those who have been affected.
Data released in February give an early indication of how the Australian economy has been impacted by the bushfires and coronavirus, on top of the US-China trade war. The Reserve Bank of Australia lowered its near-term growth forecast for the year to June 2020 from 2.5% to 2.0% and cut the official cash rate from 0.75% to 0.5% on the 3rd March 2020. New business investment fell 2.8% in the December quarter and 5.8% over 2019. Retail sales rose 0.5% in the normally super busy December quarter but were up just 0.3% over 2019, the slowest year on record. New vehicle sales were also sluggish, down 8.2% last year while the value of construction work done fell 7.4%. Consumers have perked up a bit since then, with the Westpac/Melbourne Institute consumer sentiment index up 2.3% in February.
Australian, US and European share markets all fell by more than 8% in February. Commodity prices also fell, although gold was up more than 5% due to its safe haven status. And the Aussie dollar dipped below US$66c, its lowest level since 2009.
Despite the economic challenges, the Australian corporate sector remains in good health. As the interim profit reporting season comes to an end, more than 90% of companies reported a first half profit (although a bare majority lifted profits), while record numbers issued dividends.
The low dollar, a rise in unemployment to 5.2% in January, annual wage growth stuck at 2.2% in the December quarter and sluggish economic growth make another cut in official interest rates more likely.