ACCC bells the cat on electricity | Graham Young

While on the fringe of our normal investment sphere, this article by Graham Young on energy costs, published today in Online Opinion, poses some serious questions for the Australian economy.

In an inversion of the social hierarchy of Yes Minister, it would appear that Australia has at least one courageous public servant – ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

When it comes to energy generation Sims has shown remarkable fortitude and has belled the cat a number of times, including calling-out the price gouging of the Queensland government through their publicly-owned electricity utilities.

His latest act of heroism is the ACCC Electricity supply and prices inquiry final report which is a tacit acknowledgement that current strategies for CO2 abatement will not work at an affordable price.

It is the best analysis of the energy market that we have, and must lead to a rethink of the role of the AEMO, AER and AEMC. These bodies have comprehensively failed and pushed Australian power prices up to unsustainable levels.

The report also calls into question the NEG, proposing a role for the federal government to provide stability through the provision of stable baseload power generation.

The role of the Chief Scientist, Mr Finkel, must also be under review as it shows how ineffective his Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market was.

It also means that the states should wind-down their subsidy schemes for wind and solar and hand control of these matters to the Commonwealth government. With a national electricity network the decisions in one state impact on the prices paid by consumers in all states.

Many on the left, including the Opposition, are pointing to market failure as a problem, but what the ACCC reveals is the real problem is regulator failure.

In an ideal world the ACCC proposal for the federal government to underwrite the construction of new baseload power is suboptimal, but a regrettable necessity in the current situation. It is likely to be less costly than building Snowy 2.0 to deal with the vagaries of increased penetration of wind and solar.

Another implication of the report is that Australia, and the world, also needs to adopt a new approach to CO2 abatement: intermittent energy will not power the world, even with storage.

Not only has the current approach led to unsustainably high power prices, but CO2 world emissions are still growing, and after an approximate 10% decrease since 2005, so too are Australia’s.

It’s likely that any decrease in Australian emissions is due to higher power prices creating a degree of de-industrialisation. But as we consume at ever increasing levels, the amount of CO2 embedded in our economic production and consumption is probably higher than it was in 2005.

All that has happened is there has been a flight of production from Australia to countries with lower electricity prices, and higher CO2 emissions.

The world has been running a number of real world experiments on renewable energy over the last 13 years since the Kyoto Climate Agreement came into effect. Those experiments prove conclusively that with present technologies renewables are not viable, even if the politicians of Germany and California, to mention two, haven’t worked it out yet.

Everywhere that penetration of renewables has exceeded 25% or so, prices have increased. This is because, while the collection of energy is relatively cheap, with the raw materials of wind and sunlight being provided free by nature, the systems components are phenomenally expensive, requiring investment in networks, standby power generation and storage, at the same time pushing the price of baseload power higher.

The only form of renewables that provide reliable power at reasonable prices are hydro schemes, and some of them run out of water at times as well.

The definitive proof of this failure is that, if it were possible to power an economy using renewables only, and if they were, as Mark Butler claimed yesterday, cheaper than alternatives, then the Communist People’s Republic of China, a brownfields site for industrialisation, would take this opportunity to provide all future power through renewable energy.

Instead of that, our chief strategic rival is building nuclear reactors (17 under construction and a total of 100 operational by 2030), and coal-fired power stations (299 units under construction in China today, according to the Australian Parliamentary Library).

They are then using that power to manufacture and then dump photovoltaic cells on the Western World which we are then using to deindustrialise, giving them a further industrial and strategic advantage.

If Butler is right they wouldn’t waste their time building a “more expensive” system with baseload power generators which they will then have to decommission, and retrofit the system for “cheaper” renewables – it just wouldn’t make sense.

The ACCC report gives us a chance to take account of these realities and recalibrate our approach to the Paris Accord.

In the first place we need to get a real feel for the CO2 intensity of world economies, and that can’t be measured just on domestic emissions, when much of our consumption is imported. We need to measure the CO2 actually embedded in our consumption.

This will provide a better discipline and put an end to the Ponzi scheme where we shuffle our emissions off somewhere else without actually changing much more than place of production.

Then we need to accept the reality that Bronze Age technologies like wind, and novelties like solar, cannot provide reliable grid-scale power, and increase actual electricity costs and that the only technology that has a chance of solving the energy trilemma (cost, reliability and emissions) is nuclear. So if we are serious about emissions we need to be serious about nuclear.

Given the issues with nuclear a sensible use of the resources being poured into “clean” energy should be redirected to researching nuclear power and handling spent nuclear fuel.

Australia is already a leader in one of these areas, having developed Synrock for safe storage of spent nuclear fuel in 1978.

An alternative to storage is reprocessing. As a country which already mines uranium and turns it into yellow cake we have advantages there as well.

While developing a nuclear program we need holding and bridging strategies to limit emissions. Efficiency is probably the lowest cost strategy, and an increased use of gas, which emits half as much CO2 as coal, another.

Finally we need to understand that storage will never be suitable for a large scale grid without repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics – that’s the one that put paid to perpetual motion machines.

Battery enthusiasts draw comparisons between computers and batteries and predict that, just as computers have dived in cost and soared in computing power, the same will happen to batteries and power output.

But computers have done this by miniaturising and using less power to do the same work. Batteries are all about producing energy, and only so much efficiency can be wrung out of this process.

A more realistic model for how much increased efficiency is available is the motor vehicle. While it is true to say that the modern car is a significant refinement on the Model T, that refinement is nothing like the one that occurred between a pioneering computer like ENIAC, and the laptop on which I am typing this article.

The only step change in energy production comparable to that in computing is contained in the equation e=mc2, where Einstein showed that changing a small amount of mass into energy released huge amounts of energy.

Which brings us back to nuclear.

While the ACCC report doesn’t mention nuclear, it does open up the conversation. Politicians need to grab the opportunity. Otherwise they face a grinding political death between the stones of increasing electricity costs and decreasing reliability, all while CO2 emissions continue to rise.

This article was first published in The Spectator. Republished under a Creative Commons License.

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

CPI rises but US stocks rally

June consumer price index (CPI) jumped to 2.8% but forward estimates of inflation, represented by the 5-Year breakeven rate (5-year Treasury yield minus TIPS) remain subdued at 2.06%.

CPI and 5-Year Breakeven

Core CPI (excluding food and energy) is at 2.2% while average hourly earnings (total private: production and non-supervisory employees) annual growth, representing underlying inflationary pressure, is higher at 2.7%.

Core CPI and Average Hourly Earnings: Production and Nonsupervisory

Credit and broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) growth remain steady, tracking nominal GDP growth at around 5.0%. A spike in credit growth often precedes a similar spike in broad money supply by several quarters.

Credit and Broad Money Supply Growth

And a surge in broad money supply growth, ahead of nominal GDP, flagged rising inflationary pressures ahead of the last two recessions, prompting the Fed to step on the brakes.

Nominal GDP and Broad Money Supply Growth

Overall, the inflation outlook appears subdued, with little urgency to hike interest rates at present.

The market is also getting more comfortable with the idea of trade tariffs. The S&P 500 is testing resistance at 2800. Breakout is likely and would suggest a primary advance to 3000.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 followed through above 7300, confirming the primary advance, with a target of 7700.

Nasdaq 100

This is the final stage of a bull market but there is no sign of it ending. I am wary of the impact of a trade war on individual stocks and have reduced exposure to multinationals that make a sizable percentage of their sales in China.

Financial markets are supposed to swing like a pendulum: They may fluctuate wildly in response to exogenous shocks, but eventually they are supposed to come to rest at an equilibrium point…. Instead, as I told Congress, financial markets behaved more like a wrecking ball, swinging from country to country and knocking over the weaker ones. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the international financial system itself constituted the main ingredient in the meltdown process.

~ George Soros on the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the need for greater regulation of global financial markets

S&P 500 and Nasdaq relief

June average hourly earnings growth came in flat at 2.74% for Total Private sector and 2.72% for Production and Non-supervisory Employees. This suuports the argument that underlying inflation remains benign, easing pressure on the Fed to accelerate interest rates.

Average Hourly Earnings Growth

The S&P 500 rallied off its long-term rising trendline. Follow-through above 2800 would suggest another primary advance with a target of 3000.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 respected its new support level at 7000, signaling a primary advance. The rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure. Target for the advance is 7700.

Nasdaq 100

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed is a healthy 1.51% for May. Well above the 1.0% level that suggests steady growth (falls below 1.0% are cause for concern).

Leading

Our estimate of annual GDP growth — total payroll x average weekly hours worked — is muted at 1.91% but suggests that earnings growth will remain positive.

Real GDP Estimate

Personal consumption figures for Q1 2018 show growth in consumption of services is slowing but durable goods remain strong, while nondurable goods are steady.

Consumption to Q1 2018

Declining consumption of nondurables normally coincides with a recession but is often preceded by slowing durable goods — below 5.0% on the chart below — for several quarters.

Consumption to Q1 2018

Conclusion: Expect further growth but be cautious of equities that are vulnerable to escalating trade tariffs.

We live in a global economy, but the political organization of our global society is woefully inadequate. We are bereft of the capacity to preserve peace and to counteract the excesses of the financial markets. Without these controls, the global economy, is liable to break down.

~ George Soros: The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998)

Australia: Good news and bad news

First, the good news from the RBA chart pack.

Exports continue to climb, especially in the Resources sector. Manufacturing is the only flat spot.

Australia: Exports

Business investment remains weak and is likely to impact on long-term growth in both profits and wages.

Australia: Business Investment

The decline is particularly steep in the Manufacturing sector and not just in Mining.

Australia: Business Investment by Sector

But government investment in infrastructure has cushioned the blow.

Australia: Public Sector Investment

Profits in the non-financial sector remain low, apart from mining which has benefited from strong export demand.

Australia: Non-Financial Sector Profits

Job vacancies are rising which should be good news for wage rates. But this also means higher inflation and, down the line, higher interest rates.

Australia: Job Vacancies

The housing and financial sector is our Achilles heel, with household debt climbing a wall of worry.

Australia: Housing Prices and Household Debt

House prices are shrinking despite record low interest rates.

Australia: Housing Prices

Broad money and credit growth are slowing, warning of a contraction.

Australia: Broad Money and Credit Growth

Bank profits remain strong.

Australia: Bank Profits

But capital ratios are low, with the bulk of profits distributed to shareholders as dividends. The ratios below are calculated on risk-weighted assets. Raw leverage ratios are a lot weaker.

Australia: Bank Capital Ratios

One of the primary accelerants of the housing bubble and household debt has been $900 billion of offshore borrowings by domestic banks. The chickens are coming home to roost, with bank funding costs rising as the Fed hikes interest rates. In the last four months the 90-day bank bill swap rate (BBSW) jumped 34.5 basis points.

The banks face a tough choice: pass on higher interest rates to mortgage borrowers or accept narrower margins and a profit squeeze. With an estimated 30 percent of households already suffering from mortgage stress, any interest rate hikes will impact on both housing prices and delinquency rates.

I continue to avoid exposure to banks, particularly hybrids where many investors do not understand the risks.

I also remain cautious on mining because of a potential slow-down in China, with declining growth in investment and in retail sales.

China: Activity

Be Data-driven not Fear-driven

A few months ago, markets feared a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. Those fears have now largely dissipated but been replaced by fears of a massive trade war with China. There is always a small probability that our fears may be realized but most market fears are not.

Unless you want to follow in the footsteps of some media-driven forecasters, and anticipate ten of the next two recessions, you need to focus on the data and not on your fears.

I have always used Fedex as a bellwether of economic activity in the USA. Shipments of goods are an excellent barometer of the economic climate — and closely tied to quarterly earnings which in the long-run drive prices.

Fedex

Unfortunately Fedex stock price is likely to become less reliable over time as an indicator of economic activity, with the entry of a new competitor: Amazon.

But Fedex produces excellent quarterly statistics of parcel shipments which remain a useful gauge of economic conditions.

Fedex Express Parcel Statistics

Parcel shipments for the quarter ended May 31, 2018 are up 1.1% on the same quarter in 2017. And the annual average is rising. Not fantastic but a step in the right direction, suggesting that earnings for the next quarter will improve.

The S&P 500 is testing its long-term rising trendline. Respect of support at 2700 would suggest another advance. Breakout above 2800 would strengthen the signal.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 retraced to test its new support level at 7000. Bearish divergence on the Trend Index hints at selling pressure. Breach of support would warn of another test of primary support at 6300. Lengthy consolidation would be likely. Respect of 7000, while less likely, on the other hand, would signal a fresh advance.

Nasdaq 100

Discount the obvious, bet on the unexpected.

~ George Soros

Zombie banks or zombie economies?

The last three decades was the era of zombie banks, with financial crises threatening the very survival of our financial system. Major banks close to the edge of the precipice, first in Japan but followed by the USA and Europe, were only rescued by drastic action by central banks. The flood of easy money kept the zombie banks afloat but every action has unintended consequences, especially when you are the Fed, BOJ or ECB.

Fed Balance Sheet and Funds Rate Target

Now that the Fed is attempting to unwind its swollen $4.4 trillion balance sheet — see The Big Shrink Commences — and normalize interest rates, Stephen Bartholomeusz at The Age highlights some of the unforeseen consequences:

US rate hikes are already sending threatening ripples through other economies as capital flows towards the US and the US dollar strengthens.

Argentina has sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Turkey, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, India and Pakistan have all been forced to raise their rates to defend their currencies.

US monetary policy and its rate structure is setting it apart from most of the rest of the developed world in a fashion that will impose pressure on economies that may be more fragile than they might previously have been regarded in an ultra-low global rates environment.

…..A consequence of the policies pursued by the Fed, the ECB and the Bank of Japan since 2008 has been a significant increase in global debt – at government, corporate and household levels – as ultra-low rates and torrents of liquidity ignited a global borrowing binge.

There was a particular appetite in developing economies for US dollar-denominated debt, which became abundant and cheap as US investors were incentivised and enabled by the Fed to take on more risk in return for higher returns.

The US rate rises, combined with a stronger US dollar, are now putting a squeeze on emerging market economies.

If the ECB were to also start unwinding its stimulus, economies and banking systems within the weaker southern regions of the eurozone would come under intense pressure, along with more debt-laden companies.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that after a decade of unprecedented policy interventions in economies and markets there could be unintended consequences that emerge as those policies are wound back.

The ECB indicated overnight that it will halt bond purchases at the end of 2018 and plans to keep interest rates accommodative “through the summer of 2019 and in any case for as long as necessary…”

ECB unwinding still appears some way off but tighter monetary conditions emanating from the Fed may be sufficient. Developing economies that gorged on low-rate US dollar-denominated debt during the liquidity surge are finding themselves in difficulties as the tide goes out.

Meanwhile in Australia

From Karen Maley at the AFR:

Australian banks are being squeezed by higher borrowing costs as the US Federal Reserve accelerates its interest rate hikes and drains liquidity from global financial markets…..

The woes of the local banks have been exacerbated by an unexpected and savage spike in a key Australian short-term interest rate benchmark – the three-month bank bill swap rate, or BBSW, in the past few weeks.

Analysts estimated that the spreads paid by Australian banks have climbed by close to 40 basis points since the beginning of the year, which has swollen the wholesale borrowing costs of the country’s banks by some $4.4 billion a year.

The ASX 300 Banks Index is headed for a test of primary support at 7000/7200. Breach of 7000 would warn of another decline, with a long-term target of the September 2011 low at 5000.

ASX 300 Banks Index

Aussie banks are being squeezed by higher interest rates on their international borrowing but are unable to pass this on to borrowers for fear of upsetting the local housing market. House prices are already under the pump, especially in the top end of the market.

Zombie banks would be too harsh but Aussie banks are in for a rough time over the next year or two.

12 Charts on the Australian economy

Australian GDP grew at a robust 3.1% for the year ended 31 March 2018 but a look at the broader economy shows little to cheer about.

Wages growth is slowing, with the Wage Price Index falling sharply.

Australia: Wage Price Index Growth

Falling growth in disposable income is holding back consumption (e.g. retail spending) and increasing pressure on savings.

Australia: Consumption and Savings

Housing prices are high despite the recent slow-down, while households remain heavily indebted, with household debt at record levels relative to disposable income.

Australia: Housing Prices and Household Debt

Housing price growth slowed to near zero and we are likely to soon see house prices shrinking.

Australia: Housing Prices

Broad money growth is falling sharply, reflecting tighter financial conditions, while credit growth is also slowing.

Australia: Broad Money and Credit Growth

Mining profits are up, while non-mining corporation profits (excluding banks and the financial sector) have recovered to about 12% of GDP.

Australia: Corporate Profits

But business investment remains weak, which is likely to impact on future growth in both profits and wages.

Australia: Investment

Exports are strong, especially in the Resources sector. Manufacturing is the only flat spot.

Australia: Exports

Iron ore export tonnage continues to grow, while demand for coal has leveled off in recent years.

Australia: Bulk Commodity Exports

Our dependence on China as an export market also continues to grow.

Australia: Exports by Country

Corporate bond spreads — the risk premium over the equivalent Treasury rate charged to non-financial corporate borrowers — remain low, reflecting low financial risk.

Australia: Non-financial Bond Spreads

Bank capital ratios are rising but don’t be fooled by the risk-weighted percentages. Un-weighted Common Equity Tier 1 leverage ratios are closer to 5% for the four major banks. Common Equity excludes bank hybrids which should not be considered as capital. Conversion of hybrids to common equity was avoided in the recent Italian banking crisis, largely because of the threat this action posed to stability of the entire financial system.

Australia: Bank Capital Ratios

Low capital ratios mean that banks are more likely to act as “an accelerant rather than a shock-absorber” in times of crisis (2014 Murray Inquiry). Professor Anat Admati from Stanford University and Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Fed are both campaigning for higher bank capital ratios, at 4 to 5 times existing levels, to ensure stability of the financial system. This is unlikely to succeed, considering the political power of the bank sector, unless the tide goes out again and reveals who is swimming naked.

The housing boom has run its course and consumption is slowing. The banks don’t have much in reserve if the housing market crashes — not yet a major risk but one we should not ignore. Exports are keeping us afloat because we hitched our wagon to China. But that comes at a price as Australians are only just beginning to discover. If Chinese exports fail, Australia will need to spend big on infrastructure. And infrastructure that will generate not just short-term jobs but long-term growth.

Falling bond yields fail to tame Gold bears

10-Year Treasury yields retreated below 3.0 percent after threatening a bond bear market for the past week.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Breakout above 3.0 percent would complete a large double bottom reversal in the secular down-trend.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Rising bond yields would be expected to weaken demand for gold as the opportunity cost of holding precious metals increases.

The other major influence on gold prices, the Dollar, continues to strengthen. A strong Dollar would weaken the Dollar-price of gold.

The Dollar Index is rallying to test resistance at 95. Penetration of the long-term descending trendline in April suggests that a bottom is forming. Bullish divergence on the Trend Index indicates buying pressure.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold retraced to test the new resistance level at $1300/ounce — the former support level. The declining Trend Index indicates selling pressure and respect of the descending trendline would warn of a test of primary support at $1250/ounce.

Spot Gold

Australian gold stocks fared better, with the All Ordinaries Gold Index finding support at 4950 and the rising Trend Index signaling buying pressure. Respect of the long-term trendline would confirm another primary advance.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

The reason is not hard to find. The Australian Dollar is at a watershed, testing primary support at 75 US cents as the greenback rallies. A Trend Index peak below zero would warn of strong selling pressure. And breach of primary support would signal a decline to 69/70 US cents.

AUDUSD

Offering a potential bull market for Aussie gold stocks.

Low inflation risk keeps yield curve safe

The Fed is advancing interest rates at a measured pace, with the objective of restoring balance in financial markets rather than to curbing inflationary pressures. Only if inflation spikes is the Fed likely to adopt a restrictive stance.

Elliot Clarke from Westpac sums up the FOMC (Fed Open Market Committee) view from their latest minutes:

Beginning with inflation, whereas the market has recently been concerned that inflation may be getting away from the FOMC (given annual CPI inflation at 2.5%yr and persistent strength in the oil price), the Committee is unperturbed.

Instead of the CPI, the FOMC’s benchmark remains PCE inflation, which is currently 2.0%yr on a headline basis and 1.9%yr for core…..

To see upside inflation risks build, a stronger wage inflation pulse is necessary. At present the employment cost index is only reporting “a gradual pickup in wage increases”, and the signal from other wage measures is “less clear”. Two other important considerations for the pass through of wages to activity and thus inflation is that real hourly earnings growth is currently flat and the savings rate near historic lows. The capacity of households to boost consumption and thus inflation is therefore very limited.

Hourly wage rates are growing at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Personal savings are low.

Personal Savings

And credit growth is modest.

Credit Growth

So not much sign of inflationary pressure.

….Turning to financial conditions, as yet there is no concern of them becoming an impediment to growth or policy. The 10yr yield has moved back to the highs of 2013, but the US dollar has only partly retraced its 2017 depreciation. Further, asset markets remain near recent highs.

Equally significant however is the reference to being nearer neutral and a clear desire to keep the yield curve’s positive slope…..

We do not believe that the yield curve will invert in this instance, in part because higher deficits should see the term premium rise. However, the curve will remain comparatively flat versus history, restricting both the timing and the scale of further rate hikes. This is a key justification for both the market’s and our own view of only two further hikes in 2018 and two more in 2019 – a stark contrast to the FOMC’s seven hikes to end-2020.

Yield Differential

A negative yield curve — when 10-year minus 3-month Treasury yields falls below zero — would give a strong recession warning. But the yield curve is only likely to invert if the Fed steps up interest rate increases. With little sign of rising inflationary pressure at present, the prospect seems remote.