Australia Consumers lose confidence, and those in states not affected by COVID lockdown feel it most

00:06  21 july  2021
00:06  21 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a man standing in front of a store: Economic uncertainty means consumers aren't spending, hitting businesses like Go Figure Collectables. © Provided by ABC Business Economic uncertainty means consumers aren't spending, hitting businesses like Go Figure Collectables. "It's just forever and forever into debt," says founder Jeff Xuereb. (Michael Barnett: ABC News)

Surrounded by Batman, Black Widow and Godzilla, Jeff Xuereb does not look like he's in trouble.

But the owner of Go Figure Collectables has been hammered by the loss of walk-in customers during Melbourne's lockdown, with only the online store to keep his seven staff busy.

"We're feeling it more than ever. At the moment we're almost on the brink… we can't keep taking a hit like this."

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Shutting down businesses and paying people for lost wages for four to six weeks could help keep the coronavirus pandemic in check and get the economy on track until a vaccine is approved and distributed, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a coronavirus advisor to President-elect Joe Biden. Osterholm, who serves as director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said earlier this week that the country is headed toward " Covid hell." Cases are rising as more people grow tired of wearing masks and social distancing, suffering from so-called

"To say we're struggling is an understatement. When we had (wage subsidy) JobKeeper it made a whole lot of difference. It gave us confidence that we could still survive the last three lockdowns (when) we've had no financial support."

With almost half the Australian population in lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, businesses are struggling because consumers are shutting their wallets.

JobKeeper supported up to 3.5 million workers at one point last year, providing decent wages and cementing a link between bosses and employees.

At the same time, a coronavirus supplement was added to welfare payments, boosting the amount of money in the economy.

Both schemes have ended.

Businesses affected by lockdowns can attempt to access state-based schemes. Workers who've lost hours may have access to a payment modelled on those given to survivors of natural disasters.

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Consumers are less confident

Data from the weekend – as Sydney's lockdown was tightened, but before Victoria's was extended – shows consumer confidence fell sharply.

The 5.2 per cent drop was the steepest since the chaotic period in late March 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

"It's important to note that consumer confidence is still a lot stronger now than it was at the worst of the pandemic last year, or even during the extended lockdown in Victoria last year," said Catherine Birch, senior economist with ANZ Research.

"So confidence is still not too far below the long-run average. History does show that as soon as restrictions start to ease we should see confidence rebound pretty quickly."

The falls impacted the states differently.

Perhaps surprisingly, the smallest drop was in NSW (-2.3 per cent) while the biggest were in states not at that time subject to lockdowns, including South Australia (-7 per cent), Western Australia (-8.8 per cent) and Tasmania (-11.3 per cent).

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And that means 18% of people who are just as susceptible to the most severe effects of Covid as they were earlier in the epidemic and at just the same risk of severe illness, long-term illness in the form of long Covid , hospital admission and death. If that risk is now reduced because someone is double vaccinated it feels as though we need more sophisticated advice. If we are visiting an elderly relative or a cancer patient then take the ping seriously but, if you are doing something relatively Covid -friendly then maybe make a different decision.

"The hit to confidence from a lockdown in one area actually flows through to other areas as well because there is that concern that cases can spread and lockdowns will be enforced in people's own states as well," Ms Birch explained.

Consumer confidence fell 6.6 per cent in Victoria and 2.4 per cent in Queensland.

Savings 'obliterated'

There is another problem: businesses have already been stretched by lockdowns, restrictions and the end of stimulus and support programs like JobKeeper and coronavirus supplements boosting welfare payments.

"The big thing is we've seen a drop off in the number of invoices and the value of those invoices that are being issued," said CreditorWatch chief executive Patrick Coghlan.

"That immediately spells a reduction in revenue in particular and, naturally, a reduction in savings and more pressure on the finances of businesses as well."

The credit reporting service gets information from inside companies that helps assess how risky they are.

Like many observers, Mr Coghlan expected an increase in companies going bust when JobKeeper ended. That did not happen but, instead, turnover kept falling.

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"Businesses had less money coming in, less revenue is being generated," he said.

For small businesses, any money squirreled away in the good times is likely gone.

"There's maybe two weeks worth of savings for most small businesses," he said.

"Those savings have been probably obliterated since the end of JobKeeper and JobSeeker. And now they've got these huge wage bills that will just essentially eat all savings within a couple of weeks."

Because businesses are consumers too – buying labour, supplies and renting space – an outbreak of penny-pinching will hurt beyond just one shop's door.

"You see them keep the purse strings closed," Mr Coghlan added.

"They don't buy anything that's not totally necessary to their business operations. They're not hiring, they're not investing in technology or the future.

"There's this huge uncertainty out there."

Uncertainty shakes confidence

As of today, you cannot enter Greater Sydney to hold or attend a wedding. In Victoria they are banned unless there are compassionate reasons, such as someone at the end of their life. In South Australia, the maximum number of attendees is 10 people.

"Usually our customers have a gathering of 200 to 300 people. Some of them go up to 400," said Chandra Shanmugam of The Saree Shop in Sydney's western suburb of Harris Park.

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"Last year … also definitely a very big disaster, a number of weddings were canceled or postponed."

The inability of customers to plan large weddings with certainty has hit the retailer.

"It's very much impact, including (on) the staff that we have. Now we have not operated for this month at all. Last year, we didn't operate for six continuous months."

Mr Shanmugam has not been able to access any business support this year. Surrounded by luxurious and beautiful fabrics, he is struggling to see a clear way ahead.

"The number of small businesses being affected, very seriously, is large," he said.

"The support from the government needs to be very imminent … else we can't operate."

Go Figure's Jeff Xuereb started his store on eBay 20 years ago, and now has a warehouse bigger than a basketball court. He is worried it will all go.

"Well, at the moment without any assistance, no JobKeeper, certainly there'll be no jobs," he warned.

"I mean, we can't keep going this way. I'm losing. I'm going into debt — I shouldn't say I'm going into debt, I am in debt now – it's just forever and forever into debt.

"We need help," he said. We just cannot keep going this way."

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