Three men looking sad about business, is not an accurate reflection of business (Image: Getty Images).

Business confidence is bullshit. But that doesn’t mean the economy isn’t in trouble.

Business confidence has fallen off a cliff. Economist Cameron Bagrie says it’s meaningless, but other bad indicators can’t be ignored. 

The economy is headed for recession if you believe the readings from business confidence. Thankfully we can largely ignore business confidence readings.

We can’t ignore other survey measures though that are saying growth has slowed and the official statistics are showing the same. The last three quarterly GDP prints have been 0.6, 0.6 and 0.5% and we only have data up to March 2018. That’s annualised growth in the low 2’s and a dip below 2% now looks likely. We have the potential for a growth pothole. That is becoming a concern as the wheels of the economy need to be turning and tax revenue coming in the door for social agenda demands to be met.

A whopping net 45% of firms are pessimistic about the general economy according to the ANZ Business Outlook survey. That’s a level last seen around the global financial crisis. Of course, no one really believes things are that bad. We can’t blame the global scene as other countries would be seeing massive falls in confidence too if that was a key factor. Other countries are not. The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) is showing weak readings for business confidence within their Quarterly Survey of Business Opinion (QSBO) too.

The good news is that business confidence is hopeless as an economic indicator. The correlation with economic growth is poor and I largely ignore business confidence readings. Changes in direction can provide some insightful information – whether things are picking up or slowing down, but not the levels.  

Businesses tend to be more upbeat regarding general confidence about the economy under a blue flag as opposed to a red one. Business confidence averaged minus 18 between 2000 and 2007. The economy (measured by real gross domestic product) grew on average by more than 3.5% per year. Yep, confidence was negative, but growth was positive. So, we ignore business confidence as an economic indicator. This is nothing new. It’s surprising headline business confidence figures receive so much attention.

Commentators make the constant mistake of saying the ANZ survey is a business confidence survey. The same applies to the NZIER’s QSBO. They are surveys of business views across an array of key indicators including prospects for growth, hiring, whether firms are planning to invest and experiences with inflation / costs. These indicators matter. Business confidence is one question.

The so-called “soft” or “perception” indicators are the hard data of tomorrow. They are estimates and view based but you can’t ignore them. They are well correlated with growth.  

In a perfect world we’d have timely “hard” official data and statistics. We don’t. Official data comes with a lag. So, we need to rely on sentiment-based indicators if we want timely readings on the economy and a guide as to the year ahead.  

The likes of the ANZ survey are showing a sombre mood when it comes to indicators that matter. The ANZ survey asks key questions about activity, employment, investment and profitability. When these indicators head to zero, which they have done now, growth can do the same. Those indicators were weak in 2000 during the so-called winter of discontent – and growth slowed to 0.9% year on year.

Growth did rebound. But back then the economy was early in the economic expansion. The economy is late in the business cycle this time around. The economy has tended to go through a ten-year cycle, so businesses are naturally looking more nervously over their shoulders at present. The economy is going through substantial economic change too and businesses are wary. There is little argument over the need to change the economy. However, there are serious questions about the actual economic plan and what the new economy looks like. That is a key issue that needs addressed.

Some of the weakness in survey measures could be put down to the way survey questions are phrased. Firms are asked their view and given three options; will conditions improve, stay the same, or worsen. For a lot of firms’ things are damned good. It’s telling that finding skilled staff is the biggest problem firms are facing. Businesses are facing capacity constraints. So, zero readings may reflect a levelling out at a high base.

I also pay close attention to the gap between headline business confidence and what firms’ views are on prospects for their own business. This is a proxy for uncertainty and does influence the investment cycle. Firms tend to invest less when uncertainty is high. That uncertainty gap is wide at present and investment intentions are flat.

A common misperception towards various confidence surveys is that they reflect the (biased) views of a narrow bunch of corporate CEOs. This is not the case. More than half of the respondents to the ANZ’s survey comes from firms who employ less than 20 employees. The survey is not weighted by firm size, so the voice of the small firms carries equal importance to large businesses. So it’s a puzzle why some think the negative survey responses are just the biased views of a few CEOs.

Surveys which take on the views of those at the top and the key decision makers tend to come in more upbeat, or at least less downbeat. Suncorp’s Business Success Index (though surveyed at the end of 2017) sampled the key strategic decision makers of a large sample of businesses and they were optimistic about the general economy. The ANZ survey was showing a negative reading for business confidence at the end of 2017. So, it’s hoopla to say senior management and big corporates are biasing surveys.


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