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What if inflation rises and wages don’t?

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There’s a bigger economic threat starting to rumble ominously just beyond our immediate headline hogs of housing affordability and energy: What if inflation rises and wages don’t?

It’s a problem exercising the minds of retail analysts as their sector (already in a spot of bother) would be the first to feel the obvious impact of such a scenario – weaker consumption spending.

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What if inflation rises and wages don’t?

Australia has more economic challenges than just Sydney and Melbourne housing prices, for example wages growth is stubbornly low and so is inflation. Michael Pascoe comments.

And with consumption accounting for about 60 per cent of the economy and the government relying on real consumption growth of about 3 per cent to keep the overall GDP growth above trend, Houston might not have a problem but Canberra and much of the rest of the nation would. 

The worrying thing is that the analysts are starting to paint just such a picture, one that tells a story of spending power being squeezed by wages growth that fails to match a pick-up in key prices.

It’s been a worry for the Reserve Bank and the federal government for some time now that wages growth and inflation have remained stubbornly low. The RBA and the government would like both to be just a little bit higher to keep the system – and tax revenue – ticking over. But getting the desired inflation lift without matching wage increases would be the worst of worlds, creating political tensions worse that those currently arising from the housing and energy issues.

Two separate lots of broker research have pointed a finger at cost pressures building in retail and beyond. 

Citi analysts reckon retailers are facing higher raw materials and energy prices that they think will be passed on, triggering higher inflation.

Morgan Stanley analysts go a step further. As well as observing that energy is the largest cost for retailers after labour and rent, they think household energy prices rising by double digits will dampen consumer cash flows and sentiment over the coming year. 

Supermarkets are paying more for electricity, meat and fruit and vegetables, and will soon pass these price rises on to ... Supermarkets are paying more for electricity, meat and fruit and vegetables, and will soon pass these price rises on to customers, said investment bank Citi. Photo: Michelle Mossop

The Morgan Stanley observation is part of a broader concern they have for the outlook of profit gains in the industrial sector. They identify four headwinds for the sector:  tighter credit, subdued capital investment, weak wages and some real cost pressures.

Like Citi, Morgan Stanley notes that the cost of gas and electricity is spiking with spot wholesale electricity prices in major states increasing by two to three times in recent years. 

The recent strength in commodity prices isn't expected to trigger renewed hiring or another capital investment cycle. The recent strength in commodity prices isn’t expected to trigger renewed hiring or another capital investment cycle. Photo: Louie Douvis

“Our retail team highlights that energy is the largest cost for retailers after labour and rent, with recent pricing increases likely to be spread over the next three to four years and that the cost of energy for households will rise double digit and likely dampen consumer cash flows and sentiment over the coming year,” says the research note.

“Add to this pressure from insurance costs, health, education and housing-linked labour/construction costs, and the unhealthy mix of a slowing top line and cost-push inflationary pressures looms.”

A bit more inflation wouldn’t matter when we’ve been travelling below the RBA’s target band, but bad news arrives if wages don’t respond. So far, they haven’t been struggling to match even sub-par inflation. 

The analysts highlight that household income stood out as the low point in the December quarter national accounts with a fall of 0.1 per cent year-on-year in average non-farm employee compensation, the weakest result in the 44 years of the figures, other than a minus 0.7 per cent blip during the GFC. 

“Furthermore the savings rate has been increasingly tapped – down to 5.2 per cent from a peak of 10 per cent in 2012.” 

The recent strength in commodity prices isn’t expected to trigger renewed hiring or another capital investment cycle, so Morgan Stanley sees little scope for other sectors to turn wages growth around. 

I’d add that our present levels of unemployment and underemployment, plus reduced unionism, the pressures of globalised markets and a legion of chief financial officers determined to keep down labour costs mean wages have little chance of rising just because inflation does. 

Morgan Stanley joins many others in observing that consumption is already softening. Retail sales were disappointing in February and the NAB monthly business conditions survey found just one industry sector was in the red.

“Retail continues to disappoint, with conditions dipping into negative territory in the month (down 6 points, to -6) – the only industry with negative conditions.”

The February RBA statement on monetary policy remained relaxed about the inflation outlook. That will be updated just before next month’s federal budget with forecasting shared with Treasury. 

With wages going nowhere and key household costs increasing, the consumption forecasts in the budget papers will need to be watched closely. Expensive Sydney and Melbourne housing might end up being the least of Scott Morrison’s problems. 

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