Last year was a strange year, and one I am glad to see the back of. I'm sure you will agree.
I don't ever remember spending quite a year like it. Quarantines, lockdowns and viruses were front of mind and dominated almost every conversation I had - whether it was about work, sport or family. The daily news was dominated by COVID stories ... I guess this is another.
It was also a tough year for economists. COVID was unpredictable, producing a one in 200-year event that we call a black swan. And we poor old economists have not seen one in our lifetimes, so had nothing to guide our forecasting.
And weren't the forecasts dire? Some were saying real estate prices could fall up to 30 per cent. The stock market would crash. Unemployment would skyrocket.
Then came the COVID stock market crash in March. The All Ordinaries index lost almost one-quarter of its value in March alone. That seemed to vindicate what economists were forecasting.
But by the end of the year, the All Ordinaries had just about reclaimed all that ground it had lost. It left economists with egg on their faces.
Well, 2020 is over, and the numbers are starting to show us exactly how last year really was - economically speaking. The economic data for December will take a month or two to start rolling in but we know how the stock market and real estate prices finished right now. So let's have a look at how the region held up based on data which reflects our economic fortunes.
By the end of the year, the All Ordinaries had just about reclaimed all that ground it had lost.
Corelogic produces the real estate index used by the Reserve Bank to decide on the cash rate. It produces great indices that overcome many of the problems of other real estate indices - including the two-month delay in getting real estate data and calculating an index. Most importantly, Corelogic has just produced the index value for December 30, 2020 that tells us exactly how Illawarra real estate prices held up last year.
There is only one word to describe them - amazing! For the year ended December 31, 2020, real estate prices increased a staggering 10 per cent! In fact, 2020 was the first year that Illawarra real estate prices rose over the year since 2017. And in a COVID year, no less!
Last year, the price of Illawarra real estate did not take one step back in any month. The biggest monthly increase, two per cent, came in December. The stock market crash in March had no negative impact as that month the price of real estate ticked up one per cent.
There is something special about Wollongong. While Illawarra real estate prices marched up 10 per cent over the course of the year, they increased a modest three per cent for greater Sydney and four per cent for NSW.
Mining and Steelmaking
Miner South 32 and steelmaker BlueScope still remain two of our biggest employers in the region - and the biggest contributors to regional GDP through steel and coal mining output. Their share price reflects the future value of all its production that will unfold in future. And the importance of coal mining and steel for the region means that their share prices provide an indication of our own prospects.
While economists reasoned that COVID-19 would crush global demand for everything including energy and steel, the stock prices of South 32 and BlueScope tell a different story.
In March, like the rest of the market, BlueScope lost 25 per cent of its value through the COVID crash. But like every crash before it, the market and BlueScope clawed back all that lost ground. Indeed, BlueScope clawed back more than the lost ground to finish up a staggering 25 per cent for the year. That's the biggest gain in its price since 2017. Demand for steel remains strong and the steel sector in the Illawarra region remains in the hands of a very strong company.
South 32 lost 20 per cent of its value in March as a consequence of the COVID crash. Roll the clock forward to December 31, and it regained all that ground and finished the year almost square for the year. This follows on from a year (2019) which produced a fall in its value of almost 25 per cent. The COVID year turned out to be not so bad for South 32.
So that's what we have so far on the weirdest year in living memory for the Illawarra region. Real estate prices increased sharply, steel had a stellar year and mining held up. The markets are telling us that last year wasn't a shocker - quite the opposite. They are also telling us that the future looks good. It will be interesting to see how the economic data for last year unfolds as the ABS produces unemployment, building approvals and GDP data over the next three months.
- Alex Frino is Professor of Economics and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Strategy) at the University of Wollongong.