9 Feb 2023

Light traffic index falls 0.7% in January suggesting economy contracting

11:27 am on 9 February 2023
Traffic including trucks on Auckland motorway

The truckometer survey defines light traffic as motorbikes, cars and vans. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

A softening in commercial traffic movements may be suggesting the economy is already contracting.

The ANZ Bank's Truckometer heavy and light traffic measures have eased back to their more normal ranges after strong growth during the pandemic.

The Light Traffic Index (LTI), which looks at the medium term and is regarded as a measure of consumers' willingness to spend, fell 0.7 percent in January, the fourth consecutive monthly fall, for an annual growth rate of 9.7 percent.

However, the Heavy Traffic Index (HTI), a pointer for current activity and production, rose 0.8 percent for the month giving an annual growth rate of 1.9 percent.

ANZ chief economist Sharon Zollner said the drop in the light traffic measure was consistent with the slowing in retail activity.

"On the face of it, the quarterly weakness in both the HTI and LTI suggests a risk GDP (gross domestic product) growth could come in negative in Q4, compared to our forecast for a 0.3 percent lift."

However, Zollner said changes in the way the data was being collected meant there were gaps in the data, which was not as accurate, and she cautioned about drawing too strong a conclusion.

Meanwhile, in its latest quarterly forecasts ANZ has suggested the Auckland floods might result in a more shallow recession.

"Auckland hosts around a third of the population, and its higher-than-average GDP per capita means it accounts for around 38 percent of GDP. Any significant shock that occurs in the region is thus likely to have economy-wide implications," the ANZ economists said.

There would be negative shocks to the supply side of the economy with destruction of inventories, intermediate goods, and household possessions, and damage to transport routes, but positive on the demand side from the need for repairs and replacements, they said.

ANZ said it was still early days to make any precise estimate, but the negative economic hit would come in the first quarter ended March, which would be made up later in the year as demand for goods and services ramped up.

"We've shaved 0.2 percentage points off our forecast for quarterly growth in Q1, and added a little more than that back over the following few quarters. The net difference: our forecast now has the economy contracting 1.1 percent overall versus 1.3 percent previously."