(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s business conditions eased and confidence remained subdued, pointing to softer economic growth as tight monetary policy takes its toll, while consumers reported a more upbeat outlook on expectations interest-rate hikes have ended.
Business conditions, which measure sales, employment and profitability, slid 2 points to 6 in January, below their long-run average, a National Australia Bank Ltd. survey showed Tuesday. Business confidence edged up to 1 point from zero.
“Rates will remain high for much of the year and price pressures are still a concern against a raft of global uncertainty,” said Alan Oster, NAB’s chief economist. “We will keep a close watch on how confidence evolves through early 2024 as price pressures ease further and the focus on the easing phase of the rates cycle grows.”
A separate household survey from Westpac Banking Corp. released an hour earlier showed consumer sentiment jumped 6.2% to 86 points, spurred by the view that the Reserve Bank’s rate-hike campaign is over, as well as tax cuts ahead.
Still, pessimists continued to outweigh optimists with a reading of 100 the dividing line. The index of consumer confidence has held below 100 since February 2022.
“While sentiment is still firmly pessimistic there finally looks to be some light at the end of the tunnel,” said Matthew Hassan, a senior economist at Westpac. “Moderating inflation and shifting expectations for interest rates appear to be the main factors behind the lift with some additional support coming from the prospect of broader income tax cuts.”
The weakening of the corporate outlook and improvement in household sentiment represents a reversal of past trends where consumer sentiment tumbled in response to rate rises while business showed greater resilience.
The RBA has raised rates by 4.25 percentage points since May 2022, its most aggressive tightening cycle in a generation in a bid to rein in inflation. The hikes hammered consumer confidence as Australians hunkered down in the face of rising mortgage repayments.
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The central bank has kept borrowing costs at a 12-year-high of 4.35% since a surprise hike in November. Most economists now believe the bank is done hiking — and that the next rate move is down.
“Price pressures remain solid despite the ongoing easing in activity measures,”NAB’s Oster said. “However, they typically lag activity in the economy and we expect an ongoing easing in price pressures across the economy in early 2024.”
Other key data points:
- Trading conditions fell 3 points, profitability fell 1 point and employment fell 2 points, NAB’s survey showed
- Forward orders rose 1 point to -1 to be still below the long-run average and is much worse in retail at -19
- Labor cost growth was unchanged at 2% in quarterly equivalent terms
- Westpac’s report showed the family finances compared to a year ago sub-index climbed 4.9%, but at 66.1 remains at extremely weak levels
- The time to buy a major household item sub-index surged 11.3% to 86.8
- The time to buy a dwelling index advanced 3% to 74.2
Westpac’s report “shows tentative signs that cost-of-living headwinds may be starting to ease,” Hassan said. “It also suggests that sentiment could bounce back quite strongly if an expected pivot to rate cuts is ‘franked’ by RBA messaging.”
(Adds business confidence data.)
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