Why the RBA shouldn’t cut interest rates

There are growing cries in local media for the RBA to cut interest rates in order to avoid a recession. House prices are falling and shrinking finance commitments point to further price falls. Declining housing values are likely to lead to a negative wealth effect, with falling consumption as household savings increase. Employment is also expected to weaken as household construction falls. Respected economist Gerard Minack thinks “a recession in Australia is becoming more likely”.

The threat should not be taken lightly, but is cutting interest rates the correct response?

Let’s examine the origins of our predicament.

A sharp rise in commodity prices in 2004 to 2008.

Commodity Prices

Led to a massive spike in the Trade-weighted Index.

Australia Trade Weighted Index

And a serious case of Dutch Disease: the destructive effect that offshore investment in large primary sector projects (such as the 1959 Groningen natural gas fields in the Netherands) can have on the manufacturing sector.

Business investment in Australian has fallen precipitously since 2013.

Australia Business Investment

With wages growth in tow.

Wages Index

Instead of addressing the underlying cause (Dutch Disease), Australia tried to alleviate the pain by stimulating the housing market. Housing construction boosted employment and the banks were only to happy to accommodate the accelerating demand for credit.

Leading Index

But house prices have to keep growing and banks have to keep lending else the giant Ponzi scheme unwinds. When house prices and construction slows, the economy is susceptible to a severe backlash as Gerard Minack pointed out.

How to fix this?

The worst response IMO would be to pour more gasoline on the fire: cut interest rates and reignite the housing bubble. Low interest rates have done little to stimulate business investment over the last five years, so further cuts are unlikely to help.

The only long-term solution is to lift business investment which creates secure long-term employment. To me there are three pillars necessary to achieve this:

  1. Accelerated tax write-offs for new business investment;
  2. Infrastructure investment in transport and communications projects that deliver long-term productivity gains; and
  3. A weaker Australian Dollar.

Corporate tax write-offs

Accelerated corporate tax write-offs were a critical element of the US economic recovery under Barack Obama. They encourage business to bring forward planned investment spending, stimulating job creation.

Infrastructure

Government and private infrastructure spending is important to fill the hole left by falling consumption. But this must be productive investment that generates a market-related return on investment. Else you create further debt with no income streams to service the interest and capital repayments.

A weaker Australian Dollar

Norway is probably the best example of how an economy can combat Dutch Disease. They successfully weathered an oil-driven boom in the 1990s, protecting local industry while establishing a sovereign wealth fund that is the envy of its peers. Their fiscal discipline set an example to be followed by any resource-rich country looking to navigate a sustainable path through a commodities boom.

In Australia’s case that would be closing the gate after the horse has bolted. The benefits of the boom have long since been squandered. But we can still protect what is left of our manufacturing sector, and stimulate new investment, with a weaker exchange rate.

I doubt that the three steps are sufficient to avert a recession. But the same is true of further interest rate cuts. And at least we would be addressing the root cause of the problem, rather than encouraging further malinvestment in an unsustainable housing bubble.

Robust US employment but global bear market warning

The US economy remains robust, with hours worked (non-farm) ticking up 2.2% in January, despite the government shutdown. Real GDP growth is expected to follow a similar path.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

Average hourly earnings growth increased to 3.4% p.a. for production and non-supervisory employees (3.2% for all employees). The Fed has limited wiggle room to hold back on further rate hikes if underlying inflationary pressures continue to rise.

Average Wage Rate Growth

History shows that the Fed lifts short-term interest rates more in response to hourly wage rates than core CPI.

Average Wage Rate Growth, Core CPI and 3-Month T-Bills

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed ticked down below 1% (0.98%) for November 2018. While not yet cause for concern, it does warn that the economy is slowing. Further falls, to below 0.5%, would warn of a recession.

Leading Index

Markets are anticipating a slow-down, triggered by falling demand in China more than in the US.

S&P 500 volatility remains high and a large (Twiggs Volatility 21-day) trough above 1.0% (not zero as stated in last week’s newsletter) on the current  rally would signal a bear market. Retreat below 2600 would strengthen the signal.

S&P 500

Crude prices have plummeted, anticipatiing falling global (mainly Chinese) demand. Another test of primary support at $42/barrel is likely.

Light Crude

Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index breached primary support at 79, signaling a primary decline with a target of 70.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

China’s Shanghai Composite Index is in a bear market. Respect of resistance at 2700 would confirm.

Shanghai Composite Index

Bearish divergence on India’s Nifty also warns of selling pressure. Retreat below 10,000 would complete a classic head-and-shoulders top but don’t anticipate the signal.

Nifty Index

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 rallied but is likely to respect resistance at 365/370, confirming a bear market.

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 Index

The UK’s Footsie also rallied but is likely to respect resistance at 7000. Declining Trend Index peaks indicate selling pressure, warning of a bear market.

FTSE 100 Index

My conclusion is the same as last week. This is a bear market. Recovery hinges on an unlikely resolution of the US-China ‘trade dispute’.

Concessions to adversaries only end in self reproach, and the more strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

Get ready for economic slowdown | Trivium China

While we cannot rule out the chance of a large Chinese stimulus, senior officials are talking this down. In 2008/2009, China injected a whopping 19% of GDP to revive its flagging economy, compared to roughly 6.5% of GDP by the Obama administration at the height of the GFC. The size and scope of the stimulus achieved the desired result but had several undesirable side effects, including accelerating the property bubble and rapid growth expansion of the informal shadow banking sector as speculative fever grew.

From Trivium China:

At his meeting with businessmen on Tuesday, Li Keqiang [Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China] also laid out his views on the economy.

In a nutshell: Things do not look good (Gov.cn).

  • “Downward economic pressure is increasing.”
  • “[We must] thoroughly prepare to react to difficulties and challenges.”

But Li stressed (again!) that the government’s response to this slowdown will be different than in the past:

  • “[We] will not rely on traditional measures.”

Instead, Li wants to take a more measured, precise approach:

  • “Macro policies should be stable, precise, and effective in order to counter external uncertainties.”

The top priority will continue to be improving the business environment, with a focus on three areas:

  • Eliminating government interference in business operations
  • Reducing taxes and fees
  • Making financing easier and cheaper to get

Get smart: If you haven’t gotten the message yet, you have not been listening. The government is not going to repeat the massive stimulus that it enacted 10 years ago in response to the financial crisis.

It’s a funny kind of bear market

The US economy continues to show signs of robust good health.

Total hours worked are rising, signaling healthy real GDP growth.

Real GDP and Total Hours Worked

Growth in average hourly wage rates is rising, reflecting a tighter labor market. Underlying inflationary pressures may be rising but the Fed seems comfortable that this is containable.

Average Hourly Wage Rates

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed maintains a healthy margin above 1.0% (below 1% is normally a signal that the economy is slowing).

Leading Index

But market volatility remains high, with S&P 500 Volatility (21-day) above 2.0%. A trough above 1% on the next multi-week rally would confirm a bear market — as would an index retracement that respects 2600.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 is undergoing a similar retracement with resistance at 6500.

Nasdaq 100

The primary disturbance is the trade confrontation between the US and China. There is plenty of positive spin from both sides but I expect trade negotiations to drag out over several years — if they are successful. If not, even longer.

I keep a close watch on the big five tech stocks as a barometer of how the broader market will be affected. So far the results are mixed.

Apple is most vulnerable, with roughly 25% of projected sales to China. Recent downward revision of their sales outlook warns that Chinese retail sales are falling. AAPL is testing its primary support level at 150.

ASX 200

Facebook and Alphabet are largely unaffected by a Chinese slowdown, but have separate issues with user privacy. Facebook (FB) is in a primary down-trend.

ASX 200

While Alphabet (GOOGL) is testing primary support at 1000.

ASX 200

Amazon (AMZN) is similarly isolated from a Chinese slow-down although there may be a secondary impact on suppliers. Primary support at 1300 is likely to hold.

ASX 200

Microsoft (MSFT) is the strongest performer of the five. Their segment reporting does not provide details of exposure to China but it appears to be a small percentage of total sales.

ASX 200

The outlook for stocks is therefore mixed. Be cautious but try to avoid a bearish mindset, where you only see problems and not the opportunities. Even if China does suffer a serious slowdown we can expect massive stimulus similar to 2008 – 2009, so the impact on developing markets and resources markets may be cushioned.

Best wishes for the New Year.

Significant divergence

Market commentators are sifting through the data, looking for reasons to explain the sharp sell-off in stocks over the last two months. But everything they examine is likely to be shaded by their bear-tinted spectacles after the S&P 500 broke primary support at 2550.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 also broke primary support, confirming the bear market.

Nasdaq 100

Of the big five tech stocks, Apple and Google are both testing primary support, threatening to follow Facebook into a primary down-trend. If the two break primary support, that would further strengthen the bear signal.

Big Five tech stocks

Volatility (21-day) is now close to 2% but the key is how volatility behaves on the next multi-week rally. If volatility forms a trough above 1% that would confirm the elevated risk.

S&P 500

Divergence? What Divergence?

Why do I say there is a significant divergence? Look at the fundamentals.

Fedex has just released stats for its most recent quarter, ended November 30. Package volumes are rising, not falling.

Fedex Stats

Supported by a very bullish Freight Transportation Index.

Freight Transportation Index

Consumption is strong, with Services and Non-durable goods rebounding. No sign of a recession here.

Consumption

Light vehicle sales are at a robust annual rate of 17.5 million.

Light Vehicle Sales

Retail sales growth (ex motor vehicles and parts) weakened in the last month but is still in an up-trend.

Retail

Housing starts and authorizations are still climbing.

Housing

Real construction spending (adjusted by CPI) is strong.

Construction

Manufacturers new orders (ex defense and aircraft) have rebounded after a weak 2015 – 2016.

Manufacturers New Orders

Corporate investment is growing at a faster rate than the economy, with rising new capital formation over GDP.

New Capital Formation

The Fed is shrinking its balance sheet which is expected to impact on liquidity. But commercial banks are running down excess reserves on deposit at the Fed at a faster rate, so that Fed assets net of excess reserves (green line) is actually rising. Hardly a drain on liquidity.

Fed Balance Sheet

Market pundits are watching the yield curve with bated breath, waiting for the 10-year to cross below the 2-year yield.

Yield Differential 10-Year minus 2-Year

In the past this has served as a reliable early warning, normally 12 to 24 months ahead of a recession. But the St Louis Fed Financial Stress Index is well below zero, signaling an accommodative financial environment.

Financial Stress Index

Why the mismatch? Fed actions — QE, Operation Twist, and even steps to shrink its balance sheet — have all suppressed long-term interest rates. We need to be wary of taking signals from a distorted yield curve.

Why have stocks reacted?

This is not a Pollyanna outlook. Never argue with the tape — we are clearly in a bear market. So why are stocks diverging from the economy?

The answer is China.

The impact of a trade war with the US would most likely cause a recession in China. Oil prices are already plunging in anticipation of falling demand.

Nymex Light Crude and Brent Crude

Commodities are likely to follow.

DJ UBS Commodities Index

The impact of a Chinese recession would be felt around the globe. Europe has its own problems and could easily follow.

DJ Europe Financial Index

The US is likely to emerge relatively unscathed but Wall Street is going to be exceedingly cautious until some semblance of normality is restored.

I do not suggest selling all your stocks but make sure that there is enough cash in the portfolio to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

Buckley’s chance that rate hikes will slow

Average hourly wage rates are rising, with Production & Non-Supervisory Employees growing at an annual rate of 3.20% and All Employees at 3.14%.

Average Hourly Wage Rate

This is a clear warning to the Fed that underlying inflationary pressures are rising. There is Buckley’s chance* that they will ease off on rate hikes.

The Fed adopts a restrictive stance whenever hourly wage rate growth exceeds 3%, illustrated below by a high or rising Fed Funds Rate.

Average Hourly Wage Rate

The market is adopting a wait-and-see attitude ahead of Tuesday’s mid-term elections. Stocks like Apple (AAPL) have been sold down on strong volume despite good earnings results: earnings per share of $2.91 and revenue of $62.9 billion for Q4-18, compared to consensus estimates of $2.79 and $61.5 billion.

Apple

Optimism over a possible trade deal with China may not last the week.

A harami-like candle on the S&P 500 reflects indecision, while bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of long-term selling pressure. Breach of 2550 is still unlikely but would warn of a primary down-trend.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 tells a similar story, with primary support at 6300.

Nasdaq 100

* William Buckley was an English convict transported to Australia. He escaped when the ships laid anchor in Port Phillip Bay in 1803. The nearest permanent settlement, Sydney, was more than 1000 km away and, considered to have no chance of survival, he was given up for dead. Thirty-two years later, having lived among the Wathaurung Aboriginal people, he emerged from the bush when a settlement was established at Port Phillip in 1835. “Buckley’s chance” is an Australian colloquialism meaning having no chance at all.

President Trump should look in the mirror

President Trump has repeatedly attacked the Fed and his recent appointee Jerome Powell for raising interest rates. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the President made clear his displeasure, stating that he sees the FOMC as the biggest risk to the US economy “because I think interest rates are being raised too quickly”.

What the President fails to grasp is that his actions, increasing the budget deficit when the economy is thriving, are the real threat. Alan Kohler recently displayed a chart that sums up the Fed’s predicament.

Unemployment and the Budget Deficit

The budget deficit is normally raised when unemployment is high (the scale of the deficit  is inverted on the above chart to make it easier to compare) in order to stimulate the economy. When unemployment falls then the deficit is lowered to prevent the economy from over-heating and to curb inflation.

At present unemployment is at record lows but Trump’s tax cuts have increased the deficit. The Fed is left with no choice but to steadily increase interest rates in order to prevent inflation from getting out of hand.

Real GDP growth came in at a robust 3.0% for the third quarter, while weekly hours worked are rising.

Real GDP and estimated Weekly Hours Worked

It’s the Fed’s job to remove the punch-bowl before the party gets out of hand.

Extraordinary times of low unemployment and low inflation

Unemployment fell to 3.7% for September, well below the long-term natural rate of unemployment. This normally signifies a tightening labor market, a precursor to higher inflation.

Unemployment and the Natural Rate

But growth in average hourly earnings dipped slightly, to 2.75% for the past 12 months. Underlying inflationary forces remain subdued.

Average Wage Rates

As Fed Chairman Powell suggested, the Fed may be overestimating the natural rate. In his speech on Tuesday Powell summed up the current situation:

…Many of us have been looking back recently on the decade that has passed since the depths of the financial crisis. In light of that experience, I am glad to be able to stand here and say that the economy is strong, unemployment is near 50-year lows, and inflation is roughly at our 2 percent objective. The baseline outlook of forecasters inside and outside the Fed is for more of the same.

This historically rare pairing of steady, low inflation and very low unemployment is testament to the fact that we remain in extraordinary times. Our ongoing policy of gradual interest rate normalization reflects our efforts to balance the inevitable risks that come with extraordinary times, so as to extend the current expansion, while maintaining maximum employment and low and stable inflation.

Wage increases haven’t made a dent in profits

Average hourly earnings growth continues to rise, albeit at a leisurely pace. Average hourly earnings for all employees in the private sector grew at 2.92% over the last 12 months, while production and nonsupervisory employee earnings grew at 2.80% over the same period. The Fed is likely to adopt a more restrictive stance if hourly earnings growth, representing underlying inflationary pressures, exceeds 3.0%. So far the message from Fed Chair Jerome Powell has been business as usual, with rate hikes at a measured pace.

Average Hourly Earnings

Rising wage rates to-date have been unable, up to Q2 2018, to make a dent in corporate profits. Corporate profits are near record highs at 13.4%, while employee compensation is historically low at 69.5% of net value added. Past recessions have been heralded by rising employee compensation and falling corporate profits. What we are witnessing this time is unusual, with compensation rising, admittedly from record low levels, while profits rebounded after a low in Q4 2016. There is no indication that this will end anytime soon.

Corporate Profits and Employee Compensation as Percentage of Value Added

Weaker values (1.17%) on the Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed reflect a flatter yield curve. A fall below 1.0% would be cause for concern.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

Our surrogate for real GDP, Total Payrolls x Average Weekly Hours Worked, is lagging behind recent GDP growth (1.9% compared to 2.9%) but both are rising.

Real GDP and Total Payroll*Average Hours Worked

Another good sign is that personal consumption expenditure, one of the key drivers of economic growth, is on the mend. Services turned up in Q2 2018 after a three-year decline. Durable goods remain strong. Nondurables are weaker but this may reflect a reclassification issue. New products such as Apple Music and Netflix are classified as sevices but replace sales of goods such as CDs and videos.

Personal Consumption

There is no cause for concern yet, but we will need to keep a weather-eye on the yield curve.

Markets are constantly in a state of uncertainty and flux, and money is made by discounting the obvious and betting on the unexpected.

~ George Soros

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