Economy: Are we on the path to recession? GDP figures hang in the balance

It's fifty-fifty whether the latest GDP figures will be negative or positive, according to the country's big banks. 

ASB and Kiwibank are picking a 0.5 percent gain in the three months to December 31, and BNZ a 0.4 percent gain, while Westpac and ASB are predicting a drop - 0.3 and 0.1 percent respectively.

Whatever happens, it'll be a massive drop from the September quarter's monster 14 percent growth following the level 4 lockdown that resulted in a 12.2 percent drop in April, May and June.

"The expected decline in some sectors appears to be due to production returning to business as usual after a glut of post-lockdown overtime," said ASB economist Nathaniel Keall, picking a 0.1 percent drop when Statistics NZ releases the latest figures on Thursday. 

"Still, NZ GDP is likely to remain above pre-pandemic levels - a creditable performance."

Economic consultancy Infometrics is picking a "slightly positive result", senior economist Brad Olsen told The AM Show on Wednesday - but it's hard to say for sure.

"It's been a pretty topsy-turvy time for the economy - we had a hard hit during the June quarter... we went through to September, very good bounce-back in activity.

"Now December, we're thinking things might have edged ahead just a slight touch, but we are expecting that not only December, but the 2021 year could be relatively volatile, a little bit up and down... basically the momentum is getting up there, but we're certainly not fully recovered and the car is still spluttering a little bit."

But the March quarter - whose figures we won't know until mid-June - is expected to be softer.

"Not only have we had that alert level 3 period twice in Auckland, but we also saw prior to those lockdowns spending activity and some of our other economic activities weren't being quite as upbeat," said Olsen.

"This period, January through to March, is often when international tourism really gets going - so we've lost that. For the December figures out tomorrow though, what we do know is domestic travellers have been boosting a lot of activity, certainly in some parts of the economy, and that has helped some of the tourism sector bounce back - not fully."

A recession is when there are two successive quarters of negative growth. If December's figures are negative, it appears likely we'll technically be in a recession when the March quarter numbers are released. Another possibility is the figures released Thursday show negative growth, but are within the margin of error and revised upwards when more data is available, said Olsen.

"Although we're regaining that economic momentum, we're not seeing the full recovery quite yet."

Kiwibank agrees. 

"The first quarter of 2021 will probably see a fall in GDP as the closed border hammers industries reliant on foreign visitors," the bank said in its First View newsletter earlier this week.

" On top of the border restrictions was of course the two level 3 lockdowns in Auckland. But the near-term bumps are expected as we navigate the COVID crisis, and we are looking through near-term weakness. Barring a prolonged lockdown due to a major covid outbreak, the NZ economy is now on a recovery trajectory."

Olsen said despite the problems here and globally, we still have strong employment and the primary sector - dairy, horticulture, meat and fruit - are doing "particularly well".

But he admits GDP isn't the be-all and end-all. 

"If we're using GDP to look at wellbeing and how people feel, we're doing it wrong. That's sort of like looking at your fuel gauge wondering why it's cold in the car. They're not quite related. 

"GDP tells us what sort of economic activity is happening out there - what we know is there are still people in jobs, that's one good indicator. We're not quite producing as much as we previously did, so again things are still yet to come back. 

"But the GDP numbers do tell us what position the economy is in, what speed and gear the car is running in, and what we also might want to target... when we want to get the economy rolling back again. It's not the only indicator we look at, but it is certainly one of the suite we should be focusing on."