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Has the apartment construction boom saved Australia from recession?

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With construction beginning on more than 50,000 dwelling units in the September 2014 quarter, up almost 20% on the previous year, is the construction sector all that’s holding Australia back from a recession?

That may certainly be the case, according to comments from BIS Shrapnel economists at its Melbourne business forecasting conference earlier this week. And the Reserve Bank (RBA) board may just agree.

In its March meeting minutes, the RBA board noted further softening in the mining sector, with “steep declines” in mining investment contributing to below-trend gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the December quarter.

“The ABS survey of capital expenditure intentions implied further large falls in mining investment, as current projects were completed and few new projects were likely to proceed,” the minutes read.

Meanwhile, income growth stayed low by historical measures and “the unemployment rate had continued its gradual upward trend”.

Aside from low oil prices, the RBA board didn’t see much that would continue to support consumer demand – except for residential investment.

“The current strength of housing construction and the increase in housing prices were expected to provide a measure of support for consumption,” read March’s minutes.

“A range of indicators, including residential building approvals, suggested further strong growth of dwelling investment in the near term.”

The Reserve Bank’s comments crediting construction investment with supporting the domestic economy are supported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) December quarter GDP figures. The ABS noted that: “In seasonally adjusted terms, the main contributors to GDP growth were Construction and Health care and social assistance each contributing 0.1 percentage points to the increase in GDP.”

According to the ABS, $50.35 billion worth of construction work was done (on a seasonally adjusted basis) in the final quarter of 2014. While the figure is slightly down from its previous peak in the final quarter of 2012 (as noted by Pete Wargent), on a historical basis, the pace of Australia’s construction industry in the past few years has been unprecedented.

The value of total construction work done in the December 2014 quarter was also down on the figure recorded in the same period in 2013, by 4.8%. However, the decline can be attributed to engineering work and commercial construction, down 12.3% and 4.8% respectively over the year.

In fact, BIS Shrapnel managing director Robert Mellor noted on Tuesday that the state with the strongest relative commercial property construction sector currently was Tasmania, thanks to the Royal Hobart Hospital redevelopment.

Nationally, the value of residential work was up 12.7% from the December 2013 quarter.

The Reserve Bank has also acknowledged the weak commercial property construction figures, noting in the March minutes that:

“Overall, survey measures of business conditions had remained around their average levels, while the trend in non-residential building approvals was at a low level and conditions in the commercial property market remained weak, with office vacancy rates in all capital cities at high levels.”

But while residential investment has been able to buoy a flagging commercial property market, can it continue to uphold the entire economy as the mining sector slows further?

This story originally appeared on Property Observer.

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