Before and after: How COVID-19 affected Australian consumer behaviour

Posted: 5 May 2021 10:33 am
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Finder's Consumer Sentiment Tracker, the largest consumer survey in Australia, has now been running for 24 consecutive months. This timespan conveniently covers the full pre- and post-COVID-19 period in Australia.

The Consumer Sentiment Tracker (CST) is a nationally representative study of the Australian public. Designed by Finder and conducted by Qualtrics/SAP, it tracks consumer sentiment in Australia on an ongoing basis. The data so far covers a sample of over 24,000 Australians and is growing by 1,000 every month. The survey consists of over 50 questions covering, among other topics – wealth, happiness, trust in financial institutions, job satisfaction and travel plans. Finder also surveys a panel of leading economists and property experts as part of our RBA Cash Rate Survey.

To mark the completion of two years of work on this project, in this article we will take a deep dive into the research to examine how the pandemic affected consumer behaviour in Australia, what economists think of these trends, and what all of this could mean for our post-COVID economy.

Savings

One of the most interesting questions we ask Australians in the CST is how much they add to their savings accounts each month. The average amount reported has increased significantly through the pandemic. This figure hovered around $600-$700 between May 2019 and March 2020. A combination of economic uncertainty, government stimulus and cash saved due to working from home has encouraged many Australians to increase the amount they dump into their savings account each month. The average savings shot up to $989 in June, before falling back somewhat – but still remains significantly above pre-pandemic levels. It currently sits at $889.

This is a hugely encouraging trend – it's great to see the average amount saved going up, especially with the cash rate so low. With Aussies now seriously focused on saving, there's never been a better time to make sure you are getting a good interest rate. Rates are low, but some accounts in the market are offering 10 to 20 times the interest of others.

However, most economists were doubtful that this trend will hold. When asked, 14 of the 16 economists surveyed (88%) said it would not. Stephen Halmarick of Commonwealth Bank said that a large part of those savings came from government income, which will now disappear. Tony Makin of Griffith University agreed, saying the savings boost was triggered by uncertainty. However, Craig Emerson of Emerson Economics disagreed, saying Australians would remain cautious about the future path of the virus and continue to save at their current rate.

Trust in banks

The level of trust in big Australian banks has been rising steadily since the end of the Royal Commission in early 2019. The percentage of Aussies who say they trust big banks "a moderate amount", "a lot" or "a great deal" has risen from 43% in May 2019 to 62% in April 2021. What's interesting is that this metric has changed in such a consistent way. It is clear that the measures some of the banks have put in place since the Royal Commission have been sufficient to restore trust in these institutions for a significant number of Australians.

However, Australia's trust in small banks has remained higher than that of big banks. Trust in small banks currently sits at 68%, down from 71% in March. Finder did not define the difference between big and small banks for respondents, leaving that to their discretion.

It seems that Aussies naturally trust the smaller players more than the Big Four – which is a great sign for new neobanks such as Up and 86 400. These banks tend to be very popular with younger consumers, who may be the first generation never to sign up for an account with the Big Four in their lives.

Jobs and employment

The percentage of Australians expecting a pay rise in the next 12 months has recovered significantly since the start of the pandemic. While this figure hovered around the 50% mark for the 12 months leading up to April 2021, it fell to 36% that month and remained low until December 2020. Economists agree that a pay rise may indeed be on the horizon for many Australians.

With year-on-year wage growth to December 2020 sitting at a relatively low 0.6%, experts were asked what was in store for the next quarter. Ten out of 16 panellists (63%) expected wage growth of 1.0% or more. Two further experts expected growth of 0.80% or more. Only four (25%) expected growth to either stay the same or decrease.

What's clear from this metric is that both the economists and the public feel that the economy is turning a corner, and many Aussies may well receive a pay rise of some sort over the next year.

Happiness

Finder's Australian Happiness Index, a representation of the average percentage of Australians who said they were happy at the time of survey completion, took a steep decline as lockdowns rolled out across the country. The index fell from an average of 78-79% in the thirteen months to February 2020 to a low of 69% in April. From there, it recovered somewhat in June and July but then fell again in August as a state of disaster was declared in metropolitan Melbourne. Since then, the index has fully recovered with an average of 80% for every month of 2021.

Our happiness question is a great way to gauge the general level of unease in society. While the index bounced around a bit but always within a very small window for the first year of the study, sweeping COVID-19 lockdowns and general financial unease caused a significant dip in the index. What's really interesting is that, since the index recovered in January 2021, Aussies have reported being more consistently happy than in the 12 months before the pandemic.

Fear of Recession

Fear of an approaching recession peaked and then fell away during the lockdown periods of the pandemic. While between 12% and 18% of Australians said they thought a recession in the next 12 months was likely in the first year of the survey, this figure jumped to 56% in April and 57% in July. The index has since fallen back down to 22%.

Technically Australis both entered and exited recession in 2020. A serious fear of recession peaked as the country reported entering recession in the June quarter of 2020. By the September quarter, however, the economy had recovered. What's been really interesting is that the metric has not returned to exactly where it was pre-COVID, showing that many Aussies are still nervous about the economy. This level of fear is still far too high, according to economists. Fourteen of the sixteen economists surveyed (88%) said the current level of fear of recession among the public was not justified.

Most experts sounded optimistic.

Rebecca Cassells of Bankwest: "The Australian economy is in very good shape and a recession is very unlikely in the coming months. The combination of significant government support and a global vaccination roll out together with continued demand for iron ore, increasing business and consumer confidence will prevent Australia from heading into a recession."
Dale Willham of Wealth Within: "The economy is growing, we have seen positive GDP growth and with the continued vaccine roll out we should see things get back to normal over the next 12 months."

Leanne Pilkington of Laing + Simmons: "It's understandable for a significant proportion of Australians to remain concerned about the economic outlook. While there are some positives to take into account, including the resilience of the employment market, the strong housing market and optimism related to the vaccine, the pandemic affected different people in different industries in different ways, and for many, those impacts remain relevant."

David Robertson of Bendigo: "The likelihood of another recession (having just come out of recession) appears very low given fiscal support and RBA policy, although the slow vaccination rollout is a risk to growth.

Nicholas Gruen of Lateral Economics: "Because the economy has suffered a lot and there's no reason to expect it won't keep growing in the absence of some major new shock. Recessions don't normally occur immediately one is definitively over without major policy mistakes or other shocks."

The two who said the public's perception was accurate, however, did not.

Craig Emerson of Emerson Economics: When the fiscal and monetary stimulus is exhausted, and with very slow population growth, GDP growth could turn negative again, if only for a short while."

Julia Newbould of Money Magazine: "We haven't seen the impact of the end of jobkeeper and there are still a lot of people doing it tough and now having to resume mortgage payments etc."

Property

The perception that "now is a good time to buy" in the property market also took a significant dip during the early stages of the pandemic, recovered, and then fell again. As lockdowns rolled out across Australia and open houses became rarer, the Property Positivity Index nosedived, only to recover as the housing market sprang back to life. What's interesting is that the rock-bottom cash rate and FOMO has started to push prices up dramatically, making people fearful of a bubble and pushing the index down again. The index currently sits at 49%, only a few points higher than the pessimistic low of 42% in April 2020.

Similarly, when asked if property prices around them were likely to rise or fall, Australian sentiment followed a similar pattern. 74% of Australians now feel that property prices will continue to rise over the next 12 months, up from a low of only 24% in April. We've seen a massive turnaround in property positivity over the last 12 months, with the last six of those months resulting in the largest amount borrowed to buy housing in any six month period in Australian history. The property market really is surging back into life.

Experts were split on whether first time buyers would miss out if they didn't make a move soon. When asked if first-time buyers with a deposit saved may miss an affordability window if they do not purchase within the next 12 months, 9 experts said they would (64%) with the remaining saying they wouldn't.

Financial Stress

The percentage of Aussies in serious financial stress is rising. While the percentage of respondents saying they were "very" or "extremely" stressed about their financial position hovered between 18% and 20% for the first 12 months of the survey, it actually dropped during the pandemic - reaching a low of 14% in July 2020 as government stimulus began to reach bank accounts across the country. It has been rising since and now sits at 26%."The withdrawal of Job Keeper payments appears to have had a significant impact on Australians financial stress. Some of the recent increase may also be attributed to increasing house prices, and some Australians feeling they are now permanently trapped into a rental agreement."

Travel

I've been fortunate enough to do a lot of travelling in Australia. I've driven across the Nullarbor and the Great Ocean Road. I've snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef, picked fruit in the Riverland, checked out dinosaur footprints in Broome and sampled the local beer in every capital city. That's why the next statistic is probably my favourite.

Finder's research showed a huge increase in the number of Australians planning a holiday in Australia, with the percentage of respondents planning an exclusively domestic holiday peaking at 40% in March and April, up from around 22% pre-pandemic. Aussies are rallying to the call for the domestic tourism industry.

With no international visitors allowed, it's important that Australians support local businesses and holiday here, so these results are very positive. Trust me – there's a lot on offer in Australia.

When asked if they thought increased domestic tourism would be successful in sustaining the majority of tourist businesses when government aid is removed, most economists (10/14, 71%) thought it would. Let's hope they're right.

Finder's Insights Blog examines issues affecting the Australian consumer. It appears regularly on finder.com.au. This article will be updated with further CST results in the coming days.

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