By Wayne Cole
SYDNEY, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Australian business investment flatlined last quarter as gains in mining and manufacturing were offset by weakness elsewhere, frustrating hopes for a long-awaited and much-needed pick up in spending.
During the September quarter, investment dipped 0.2% to A$29.4 billion ($19.95 billion), figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed on Thursday. That was near market forecasts and followed a 0.6% fall in the June quarter.
Worryingly, spending on equipment and machinery slid 3.5% and likely dragged on economic growth in the September quarter.
The reluctance of businesses to invest is a global problem, blamed in part on the uncertainty generated by the endless Sino-U.S. trade dispute.
Australian firms seemed no more confident, with plans for spending in 2019/20 edging up only modestly to A$116.7 billion when analysts had hoped for something around A$120 billion.
"A subdued domestic environment and uncertainty in the global economy may be weighing," said Sarah Hunter, chief Australia economist at BIS Oxford Economics.
"Given the challenging economic conditions, firms may well be choosing to sit on their hands, rather than take on a risky capital investment project."
Figures due next week are likely to show Australia's A$1.9 trillion annual gross domestic product (GDP) expanded around 0.5% in the quarter, much as in the previous two quarters, though analysts had yet to finalise their forecasts.
Such a result would see annual growth tick up a touch to 1.6%, from a decade low of 1.4%.
While still sub par, that could be taken as a hint of better times ahead.
The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has said it sees signs of a "gentle turning point" in the economy having cut interest rates three times since June to a record low of 0.75%.
In a speech this week, RBA Governor Philip Lowe remained doggedly optimistic on the outlook citing low rates, recent tax cuts, public spending on infrastructure, a revival in home prices and rapid population growth.
Financial markets, however, are not as hopeful and futures 0#YIB: are almost fully priced for a further rate cut to 0.5% by April. They also imply around a 36% chance rates will get as low as 0.25% by August.
Westpac is one of several banks tipping not only a move to 0.25% but also the adoption of quantitative easing (QE), as the RBA struggles to lift inflation and lower unemployment.
"It would appear that the hurdle for QE is high with a further deterioration in the unemployment rate and, potentially, the inflation rate required," said Westpac chief economist Bill Evans.
Yet he fears the jobless rate will indeed rise to 5.6%, from the current 5.3%, and stay there through 2020.
"It seems a reasonable prospect that the QE option will become quite attractive," argued Evans. "Moving too slowly towards QE runs the risk of an unwelcome rise in the AUD."
($1 = 1.4736 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Wayne Cole. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)
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