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Dreaded R Word Catching Up With Australia

Sydney, Australia
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Sydney, Australia

After 21 years of uninterrupted economic growth, the risk of Australia's economy slipping into recession is growing, analysts say.

A fall in commodity prices, expectations for an imminent peak in mining investment, a cutback in government spending and a relatively high Australian dollar are some of the reasons for the growing pessimism.

Economists say they are particularly concerned because there are few signs that the 200 basis points worth of interest rate cuts since late 2011 are doing much to help out.

"The risk of recession in Australia has certainly gone up," said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy and chief economist at AMP Capital in Sydney.

"The mining investment boom is slowing down but the rest of the economy has so far only shown tentative signs of picking up as yet after being subdued over the last three years by a combination of relatively high interest rates and the high Australian dollar," he added.

A mining boom fueled by demand from China has helped underpin Australia's economy, which remained resilient even as many of its peers in the developed world slipped into recession following the global financial crisis.

(Read More: Will Lady Luck Return to Australia This Year)

But Oliver said he put the risk of a recession this fiscal year (2013-2014), defined technically as two quarters of negative economic growth, at around 15 to 20 percent.

U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs this week cut its 2013 growth forecast for the Australian economy to 2.0 percent from 2.4 percent and put the risk of a recession at around 20 percent.

Data released last week showed the Australian economy grew 0.6 percent in the first quarter of the year from the previous three months, below expectations for a 0.8 percent increase. On an annual basis, gross domestic product (GDP) was also weaker than expected, rising 2.5 percent.

Where Are the Spenders?

Australia's central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), has been hoping that the non-mining sectors of the economy will help drive growth as mining investment tapers off.

But the signs of that happening are not strong, analysts say. Australian retail sales for instance rose just 0.2 percent in April from a month earlier, while consumer sentiment has fallen sharply.

(Read More: Consumer Apathy: Next Threat to Australian Economy)

"Over the last 18 months, the Australian consumer has moved from a net spender to a net saver - something Australians are not renowned for," Evan Lucas, market strategist at trading firm IG, said in a note.

"It is very understandable why this [recession] call is surfacing: wages growth is stalling, the cost of living is spiraling out of control as rates and inefficient taxes push spending in the wrong direction, mining is slowing faster than forecast and the non-mining sector is falling right away - some even suggesting it is in a recession already. It's all very doom-and-gloom," he added.

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A fall in the Australian dollar had provided exporters with some relief but the currency, trading below parity with the U.S. dollar, is still more than 50 percent above a low hit in 2008.

(Read More: Aussie Dollar Slide Is Turning Into a 'Massacre')

And against a backdrop of weak growth, the RBA could drive borrowing rates much lower, analysts say.

Macquarie Bank expects Australia's key interest rate, at a record low of 2.75 percent, to fall to 2 percent by the end of this year.

(Read More: Australia Holds Fire on Rates, but for How Long?)

"The most interest-rate sensitive sides of the economy such as consumption, residential construction are showing no or few signs of an uptick compared with previous easing cycles. So the RBA, although it has cut rates aggressively, has not got much for that," said David Forrester, G-10 foreign exchange and fixed income strategist at Macquarie.

"We don't have a recession forecast for Australia but we do think economic growth could be sub 0.5 percent in late 2013, early 2014," Forrester added.

— By CNBC.Com's Dhara Ranasinghe, Follow her on Twitter: @DharaCNBC

Contact World Economy

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