Originally published in The Guardian on May 25, 2023

You can’t sustain household spending while real wages continue to fall, and households are starting to let everyone know

The Australian economy – like all economies – is about people. And yet too often company profits are used as a judge of economic health. Throughout the pandemic and in the years since, company profits have soared while the real wages of workers has fallen. This situation is inherently unsustainable with an economy dependent upon household consumption. As policy director Greg Jericho writes in his Guardian Australia column, we are beginning to see households struggle to keep going.

The Budget delivered this month by Treasurer Jim Chalmers revealed that the next financial year starting in little over a month is set to be one of the worst in the past 40 years. Household consumption is expected to rise just 1.5% – the 5th worst since 1985-86. Even worse if we account for an expected 1.7% rise in population this means in a per capita sense, real household spending is about to fall.

And when household spending slows, so too does the entire economy.

We have already see the beginnings of this with sharp slowing in the volume of retail spending being done, all while the amount of money we are spending rises. In effect we are paying more for less. This means the “nominal” figures in the retail trade data hides the weakness in the economy and the pain households are going through.

With mortgage repayments rising nearly 80% in the past year, households are switching from spending in shops and on services that employ people, to paying off their loans – driving up the profits of banks ever more, but in doing so actually slowing the economy.

The Reserve Bank is getting what it wanted – a slowing economy, less money being spent and rising unemployment.  But with conditions only seen in recessions expected in the next year, the risk that this slowing will lead to the economy stopping completely is rising, and the Reserve Bank must not raise rates any further and be extremely mindful of the pain they have already caused to households struggling from the fastest increase in loan repayments in over 30 years at the same time as real wage fall faster than they have on record.

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