Monday, November 4, 2013

Spending surge lifts retailers

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Treasurer Joe Hockey claims that the stronger numbers are a sign that confidence is returning to the economy after the September election. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

Rising house prices and a sharemarket at five-year highs are drawing consumers back into shops, with retailers recording their best monthly growth since February.

Stronger-than-expected retail sales figures have all but cemented expectations that the Reserve Bank will sit on the sidelines for at least another month as it weighs up whether to cut official interest rates on Tuesday.

The bank is likely to wait for more evidence that its previous rate cuts are helping the economy return to strength.

Retail sales rose by 0.8 per cent in September, above economists' expectations of 0.4 per cent, official figures released on Monday showed.

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Monthly rises in retail spending were recorded in food, clothing and footwear, while broader department store turnover also surged ahead. Australians also spent more in restaurants and cafes.

The rises coincide with official figures showing that house prices continue to increase.

In the year to October, average house prices across the country rose 7.6 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In the same period, prices in Australia's largest property market, Sydney, jumped 11.4 per cent, while Melbourne gained 6.8 per cent and Brisbane 4.1 per cent.

''Consumers have now started taking their wallets out of their pockets,'' said federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, hailing the stronger numbers as a sign that confidence was returning to the economy after the September election.

The retail figures come on the back of several months of subdued sales, but retailers warned against too much optimism.

Harvey Norman joined other major retailers including Wesfarmers, Woolworths and Coca-Cola Amatil in pointing out that the rise in confidence had yet to lead to a strong lift in sales.

''Consumer confidence is higher,'' Harvey Norman boss Gerry Harvey said on Monday. ''But it hasn't translated into better business. Now, that wouldn't be right if you spoke to real estate agents selling houses and units at the moment.''

Deutsche Bank retail analyst Michael Simotas said the September growth in sales had been only modest, and feedback on October sales suggested those figures would be slightly softer.

Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly said her bank had detected signs of higher confidence among its customers in recent months, although the economy remained ''patchy''.

After unveiling a record full-year profit of $7.1 billion, the boss of Australia's second biggest bank was also relatively upbeat on the economy's prospects for 2014, saying she expected increased borrowing by consumers.

''We are clearly seeing some signs of improved confidence, both for consumers and for business, which is clearly a very positive thing,'' Mrs Kelly said.

The optimism has spread to the sharemarket, boosting shares in the big retailers. David Jones shares closed 4.5 per cent higher. Myer stocks rose 2.4 per cent and shares in JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman gained 1.7 per cent and 1.24 per cent respectively.

Commonwealth Bank senior economist Michael Workman said that after years of a hung Parliament in Canberra, the decisive win by the Coalition in September had helped consumer confidence and retail spending.

''Additionally, firmer house prices and the rising stockmarket lift householders' wealth position,'' he said.

Data on third-quarter house prices, also released on Monday, pointed to a continued recovery in the housing market.

Capital city prices rose by an average 1.9 per cent in the three months to September, with Sydney leading the charge with growth of 3.6 per cent. Melbourne was up 1.9 per cent.

''This is the first time since 2010 that the capital city average has shown four consecutive quarters of growth year on year,'' the Bureau of Statistics' Robin Ashburn said.

The Australian dollar jumped by a quarter of a cent to US94.93¢. It was buying US94.90¢ late Monday.

A monthly job advertisements survey by ANZ recorded a slight fall in October, pointing to a possible stabilisation in the employment market in trend terms, economists said.

With Clancy Yeates and Eli Greenblat


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