In a recent report by the National Australia Bank (ASX:NAB)
, a noticeable shift in business conditions signals a softer beginning to 2024 for many sectors. The latest monthly business survey reveals a dip in conditions, marking a departure from two years of above-average performance and raising concerns about the economic landscape moving forward.
According to the survey, business confidence remained low in the previous month, while a decline in conditions ended a streak of robust performance. Business conditions eased by 2 index points to +6, falling just below the long-run average. Trading conditions experienced a similar decline, dropping by 3 points to +8 index points. Moreover, both profitability (down 1 point) and employment (down 2 points) also witnessed a slight downturn, settling at +5 index points. Although employment remains above its long-run average, trading and profitability indexes now linger below average levels.
Despite a marginal uptick of one index point in business confidence, sentiments remain subdued overall. The NAB noted that while manufacturing and construction sectors showed slight improvement, confidence across industries remains relatively weak. Particularly, the goods industries, including retail and wholesale, exhibited signs of softness.
Alan Oster, Chief Economist at NAB, commented on the persisting weakness in confidence, attributing it to ongoing economic pressures. He highlighted a noticeable deceleration in growth during the latter half of 2023, coupled with persistent cost escalations despite some alleviation in the latter part of the year.
Oster emphasized the likelihood of sustained high interest rates throughout the year, amidst global uncertainties, and the continued concern over price pressures. As the economy navigates through these challenges, Oster stressed the importance of closely monitoring the evolution of business confidence, especially as price pressures ease and attention shifts towards the rate cycle's easing phase.
The survey also shed light on industry-specific trends, revealing persistently low retail conditions and signs of relaxation in service sectors. Despite this, capacity utilization remains elevated, indicating lingering concerns over cost growth for labor and other inputs. Moreover, businesses reported a noticeable uptick in price growth, signaling attempts to pass on cost pressures to consumers.
Looking ahead, Oster anticipates a gradual easing in price pressures across the economy in early 2024, despite the lag effect typically associated with economic activity. However, he cautioned that margins may come under pressure, especially if conditions continue to soften.
In conclusion, NAB's monthly business survey underscores the ongoing challenges facing the Australian economy as it grapples with slowing growth, persistent cost pressures, and uncertainties on the global front. As businesses navigate through these turbulent times, close monitoring of key indicators remains essential for gauging the economy's trajectory in the months ahead.