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Australia has to climb the economic mountain again

Opinion Piece

Date : 01 June 2020

Author: The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP

The nation has proved to be remarkably resilient in the face of a once in a century global hit.

Less than 100 days ago, our nation was on the edge of an economic cliff.

The number of coronavirus cases was increasing by 20 per cent per day. Treasury was contemplating a collapse in GDP of more than 20 per cent in the June quarter.

It was an economist’s version of Armageddon.

In response to this one-in-100-year global event, we put in place a series of health measures that have hit the economy hard.

These were tough decisions but these were decisions we had to take.

Saving lives was our priority and that has been the result.

While tragically 102 people have died in Australia as a result of the coronavirus, it stands in stark contrast to the United States, where more than 100,000 people have lost their lives, and the United Kingdom, where around 40,000 people have lost their lives.

To illustrate just how bad we thought it could get, we purchased 5500 ventilators but thankfully today there is just one coronavirus patient in Australia on a ventilator, demonstrating the real progress we have made on the health front.

Notwithstanding the success of the health measures we have put in place, they have come at a significant economic cost and this is reflected in today’s national accounts.

It is important to remember that it was quite early on in the March quarter that the health restrictions were starting to be implemented.

Australia had its first coronavirus case confirmed on January 25th and a week later, on the 1st of February, Australia became one of the first countries to put in place travel restrictions with China.

These restrictions soon extended to Iran, South Korea and Italy and then to all nonresidents on 20 March.

Social distancing rules were also progressively implemented over the quarter.

On the 15 of March, outdoor gatherings were limited to 500, on 18th of March indoor gatherings were limited to 100, on 20th of March the four square metre rule came into place and on 24th of March overseas travel was banned and limits placed on the size of gatherings at weddings and funerals.

It was in this quarter – the March quarter – that consumer and business confidence hit record lows, the ASX 200 lost a third of its value and, on the 16th of March, saw its biggest daily fall on record of 9.7 per cent.

When combined with the ongoing drought, which saw farm GDP fall by 2.4 per cent in the quarter and the devastating impact of the fires raging across many states, one looks back on the March quarter and there wasn’t a lot of good news.

Seen in this context, the fact that the Australian economy only contracted by 0.3 per cent shows its remarkable resilience.

Indeed, Australia’s performance in the March quarter compares very well to that seen in other nations, with negative growth in China of 9.8 per cent, France 5.3 per cent, Germany 2.2 per cent, United Kingdom 2 per cent and the United States 1.3 per cent.

With the 40 million jobless claims in America in the last 10 weeks, the economic situation in that country and across the globe is quite severe indeed.

In Australia’s remarkable story of almost 29 consecutive years of economic growth, this is only the fourth negative quarter in that time. The ABS CAPEX survey released last week showed that despite investment intentions in the mining sector being downgraded, they remain positive for 2020-21.

With restrictions easing, we are seeing some encouraging signs across the economy.

As the RBA governor said last week in evidence to the Senate committee on COVID-19, ‘‘with the national health outcomes better than earlier feared, it’s entirely possible that the economic downturn will not be as severe as earlier thought”.

Equity, debt and credit markets have stabilised with the ASX recovering more than 60 per cent of its fall from its highs in February to its low in March.

The Australian dollar has now more than fully recovered the 11 cent fall that occurred in less than two weeks from above US66$ on 9th of March to a low of US55$ on 19th of March, levels previously seen in October 2002.

Consumer confidence has increased for nine consecutive weeks since the announcement of JobKeeper and has recovered around 95 per cent of the fall from mid-March.

Business confidence rose in April to reverse around one-third of its record fall in March. However, it remains well below its 10-year average.

With restrictions starting to lift in accordance with the decisions of national cabinet, it will be paramount to build confidence and to keep the momentum to consolidate these gains.

Today’s national accounts show once again that in the face of a one-in-100-year global pandemic, the Australian economy has been remarkably resilient.

We entered this economic crisis and this health crisis from a position of economic strength.

Growth was rising, the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.1 per cent in February, 1.5 million new jobs had been created and the budget was back in balance for the first time in 11 years.

This economic strength gave us the fiscal firepower to respond as we have done with around $260 billion in economic support, or the equivalent of 13.3 per cent of GDP.

We are not through this crisis. There will be difficult days ahead. But our nation, working together across geographical and political lines, has made great progress.

Through flood, fire, drought and now the coronavirus pandemic, Australians have shown a unity and purpose which should make all Australians proud and confident about their future.

Josh Frydenberg is the Federal Treasurer. 

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