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Australians shun credit despite rate cuts (Wrap)

By Colin Brinsden, Economics Correspondent
30 Jan 2009 5:55 PM

CANBERRA, Jan 30 AAP - Australians are turning their backs on credit, gripped by the fear of losing their job as the economic outlook turns increasingly grim.

More economists now believe a recession is unavoidable, if the country hasn't already entered one for the first time since the early 1990s.

Technically, a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth.

Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan won't be drawn on whether Australia will suffer that fate.

"I don't speculate about the outcome of the figures," Mr Swan said on Friday.

"It's a global recession and we're not immune from the fallout ... It's got much, much worse than anybody could ever have imagined."

The world's largest bank, JP Morgan, has further downgraded its Australian growth forecast, and expects the economy to contract by 0.5 per cent in 2009, a marked change from its previous estimate for a modest 0.2 per cent expansion.

"Deteriorating conditions offshore and the worsening credit crunch point to a deeper Australian recession than previously forecast," JP Morgan's chief economist in Australia, Stephen Walters, said.

"Increased anxiety about job security will be a heavy burden for consumers in 2009."

New data released on Friday shows that demand for credit recorded its first monthly fall since the 1991-92 recession.

Total credit fell 0.3 per cent in December, while the annual rate of 6.7 per cent was the slowest pace since 1994.

Economists had expected a 0.5 per cent increase in the month.

"There should now be nothing in the way of the RBA (Reserve Bank of Australia) delivering a large interest rate cut next Tuesday and signalling a desire to do more of the same at future meetings," TD Securities senior strategist Joshua Williamson said.

Financial markets are pricing in the risk of the RBA cutting its official cash rate by a further 100 basis points when its board meets on Tuesday, it's first meeting this year.

This would take the cash rate to 3.25 per cent, a 45-year low.

The markets are fully pricing a 2.0 per cent cash rate by mid-year.

A breakdown of the RBA's credit data was even more dire.

Personal credit - outside of home loans - sunk a further 1.1 per cent in December and now stands 5.2 per cent lower than a year earlier.

This is despite the central bank's 300 basis points worth of easing in the last four months of 2008.

Total housing credit grew by a mere 0.4 per cent to an annual rate of 7.6 per cent.

"This was despite the increase in affordability from lower official interest rates and the increase in the First Home Owners Grant in the month," Mr Williamson said.

The government doubled the grant to $14,000 until June this year for existing home purchases, and to $21,000 for newly built homes, as part of last year's $10.4 billion economic stimulus package.

Worse still, business credit also fell for the first time in almost five years, down 1.1 per cent in December to an annual rate of 8.0 per cent.

"The fall in business credit does suggest that the impending slowdown in business investment is occurring earlier than we thought," ANZ senior economist Katie Dean said.

Business investment has been a major plank for the economy in recent years, particularly in the resources sector as profits from China's demand were sunk back into companies' infrastructure.