The Western world has been holding its breath for a financial recovery for almost three years, waiting for the economic calamity of 2007 to work its way through the system and for normal, predictable growth to return.
This time it seemed that normal had been thrown out the window and the combination of different problems in different economies, which were all separate, yet somehow all linked, the fall in consumer confidence around the world and what can only really be called anemic government responses, meant the recovery which has threatened never really sputtered into life.
Less than a month ago this blog called attention to the fact that the data coming out of the US was surprisingly robust – not only was growth puttering along at a relatively low 2.5%, not enough to cut debt particularly or to salvage the still brutal unemployment rates, but enough to see some signs of spending emerge.
There are three real phases to spending post economic collapse – investment spending, which occurs as the rich hoover up mispriced or discounted assets, deferred spending, which is what happens when the middle classes start to replace worn assets (like cars or washing machines) and normal investment spending (closely followed by investment debt – but that’s a matter for another blog.)
In any case, the point to this is that investment spending is starting to emerge in the US and white goods and car sales are on the march as the Americans replace their worn assets. What’s worth noting in this that 4WD sales are down and middle-of-the-range car sales are up, which means that money is flowing from the savings accounts to the retailers once again.
The second swallow – which is somewhat more meaningful, given the geographic location – is that the Germans have once again started to spend – and even more meaningfully. Unemployment in the Teutonic powerhouse has fallen by a third (down from 9% to 6%).
In part, the spending is straight consumption because the cost of imports has collapsed (Spanish wine, which is better than you might imagine and was once prohibitively pricey throughout Europe, is now cheap) and in part because confidence is emerging among businesses.
The Germans, mostly because of the investment of the Americans in post-war machinery in the 1950s, and partly because of the way their education and banking industry works, are an exporting economy. They take in raw materials, turn it into something useful and once again their order books are starting to fill up.
This means that the German public, among the great thrifty nations of the world (a list headed by Japan yet now curiously containing the Australians) has started to spend – heralding that a modicum of confidence has returned to the uncertainty of Western Europe.
In truth, there are a couple of things that can still derail any recovery. Both Brazil and China are writing down any growth ambitions and the central controls in those countries have been reset from aggressive growth to wait and see, but the reality remains there is a real chance that a recovery is likely.
It seems that the great barrier to this will not be the will of the people but the governments, whose propensity to engage in useless tinkering and an addiction to election winning surpluses might yet be our undoing.
All that aside, it might be time for Australian businesses to stop worrying about customer retention and start thinking about how they will compete for the estimated $700 billion of retail savings that will be looking for a home away from cash at the first sign of something really interesting happening in the world.