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Australia's GDP falls 0.3% in first quarter, outlook uncertain

29-year recession-free run ends, downturn seen to deepen in current quarter on Covid-19 shutdown

Sydney

AUSTRALIA'S almost 29-year recession-free run has come to a close, ending the developed world's longest uninterrupted economic growth streak.

Gross domestic product (GDP) declined 0.3 per cent in the first three months of the year, government data showed on Wednesday, and that downturn is set to deepen in the current quarter as the full effect of shutdown to stem Covid-19 takes hold. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg responded with a simple "yes" today when asked if Australia is in recession.

Yet the combination of one of the largest fiscal-monetary injections among Group of 20 nations and authorities' success in suppressing the outbreak means activity is already resuming Down Under. Unlike the US and Japan, where governments struggled to deliver cash to those most in need, most Australians received their stimulus by May.

Scott Morrison's government is pumping A$259 billion (S$249 billion), or 13.3 per cent of GDP, into the economy to support workers, households and businesses. It is also discussing a fresh round of fiscal stimulus to put residential construction back on its feet.

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"The relatively good handling of the virus and supportive economic policies will mean that Australia comes out of the crisis in better shape compared to many of our global counterparts," said Shane Oliver, chief economist at AMP Capital Investors Ltd. "We think there will be a strong bounce back in GDP growth in the second half."

Consumer confidence has now risen for nine straight weeks after tumbling to an almost 50-year low at the end of March. Data on Tuesday showed that household views on current economic conditions lifted by 15.7 per cent, and those on who thought it is a good time to buy a major household item rose by 10.9 per cent. Spending data by the major lenders reflects the renewed optimism.

The GDP report showed that the household savings ratio climbed to 5.5 per cent, the highest since 2016. These funds will likely be unwound as the job market recovers should households feel confident enough about the recovery.

"The outlook, including the nature and speed of the expected recovery, remains highly uncertain," Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) governor Philip Lowe said on Tuesday. "In the period immediately ahead, much will depend on the confidence that people and businesses have about the health situation and their own finances."

Meantime, rising commodity prices are boosting miners' profitability, with the terms of trade 2.9 per cent higher in the first three months of 2020, pushing the current account surplus to a record A$8.4 billion. Yet, miners will be keeping a watchful eye on the nation's currency, which has surged almost 20 per cent in the past two-and-a-half months.

"Typically backward-looking national accounts releases contain an array of hidden trends that are often overlooked. Mining investment has climbed to a seven-year high, Australia's terms of trade have risen and exploration intentions are elevated. This bodes well for the recovery," said economist James McIntyre.

The Australian dollar edged a little lower after the GDP release and traded at 69.31 US cents at 5:36 p.m. in Sydney.

Wednesday's data set up an end to Australia's record run of avoiding two straight quarters of shrinking GDP - the local definition of recession - after it dodged downturns during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the dotcom bubble and the 2008 global financial crisis.

The recession-free streak really comes down to its definition. The US National Bureau of Economic Research defines it as a significant decline in economic activity lasting from a few months to more than a year. Australia has experienced such periods since 1991 without meeting the local definition - until now. BLOOMBERG

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