The Fed and Alice in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland a young Alice experiences a series of bizarre adventures after falling down a rabbit hole. The new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will similarly have to lead global financial markets through a series of bizarre, unprecedented experiences.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Bros, financial markets were in complete disarray and in danger of imploding. The Fed, under chairman Ben Bernanke, embarked on an unprecedented (and unproven) rescue attempt — now known as quantitative easing or QE for short — injecting more than $3.5 trillion into the financial system through purchase of long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

The Fed aimed to drive long-term interest rates down in the belief that this would encourage private sector borrowing and investment and revive the economy. Their efforts failed. Private sector borrowing did not revive. Most of the money injected ended up, unused by the private sector, as $2.5 trillion of excess commercial bank reserves on deposit at the Fed.

Fed Excess Reserves

Richard Koo pointed out that the private sector will under normal cirumstances respond to lower interest rates with increased borrowing but during a financial crisis, when their balance sheets have been destroyed and their liabilities exceed their assets, their sole focus is to restore their balance sheet, using surplus cash flow to pay down debt. The only way to prevent a collapse is for the government to step in and plug the gap, borrowing surplus capital and investing this in infrastructure.

One Pill Makes you Larger

Fortunately Bernanke got the message.

US and Euro Area Public Debt to GDP

… and spread the word.

Japan Public Debt to GDP

And One Pill Makes you Small

Unfortunately, other central banks also followed the Fed’s earlier lead, injecting vast sums into the financial system through quantitative easing (QE).

ECB and BOJ Total Assets

Driving long-term yields to levels even Lewis Carroll would have struggled to imagine.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Pool of Tears

Then in 2014, another twist in the tale. Long-term yields continued to fall in Europe and Japan, while US rates stabilised as Fed eased off on QE. A large differential appeared between US and European/Japanese rates (observable since 2014 on the above chart), causing a flood of money into the US, in pursuit of higher yields.

….. with an unwanted side-effect. The Dollar strengthened. Capital inflows caused the trade-weighted value of the US Dollar to spike upwards beween 2014 and 2016, damaging US export industries and local manufacturers facing competition from foreign imports.

US Trade-Weighted Dollar Index

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

A jobless recovery in manufacturing and low wage growth in turn led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 promising increased protectionism against global competition.

US Manufacturing Jobs

Then in 2017, to the consternation of many, despite rising interest rates the US Dollar began to fall.

US TW Dollar Index in 2017

Learned analysis followed, ascribing the weakening Dollar to rising commodity prices and a recovery in emerging markets. But something doesn’t quite add up.

International bond investors are a pretty smart bunch. When they look at US bond markets, what do they see? The new Fed Chairman has inherited a massive headache.

Donald Trump is determined to stimulate job growth through tax cuts and infrastructure spending. This will certainly create jobs. But when you stimulate an economy that is already at full employment you get inflation.

Who Stole the Tarts?

Jerome Powell is sitting on a powder keg. More than $2 trillion of excess reserves that commercial banks can withdraw without notice. Demand for bank credit is expected to rise as result of the Trump stimulus. Commercial banks, not known for their restraint, can make like Donkey Kong with their excess reserves provided by the Bernanke Fed.

Under Janet Yellen the Fed mapped out a program to withdraw excess reserves from the market by selling down Treasuries and MBS at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion each year thereafter. But at that rate it will take 10 years to remove the excess.

Bond markets are worried about what will happen to inflation in the mean time.

Off With His Head

The new Fed Chair has made all the right noises about being hawkish on inflation. But can he walk the talk? Especially with his $2 trillion headache.

….and the Red Queen, easily recognizable from Lewis Carroll’s tale, tweeting “off with his head” if a hawkish Fed threatens to spoil the party.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

….When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low….

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

~ White Rabbit by Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane (1967)

Australia: Housing, Incomes & Growth

A quick snapshot of the Australian economy from the latest RBA chart pack.

Disposable income growth has declined to almost zero and consumption is likely to follow. Else Savings will be depleted.

Disposable Income & Consumption

Residential building approvals are slowing, most noticeably in apartments, reflecting an oversupply.

Residential Building Approvals

Housing loan approvals for owner-occupiers are rising, fueled no doubt by State first home-buyer incentives. States do not want the party, especially the flow from stamp duties, to end. But loan approvals for investors are topping after an APRA crackdown on investor mortgages, especially interest-only loans.

Housing loan approvals

The ratio of household debt to disposable income is precarious, and growing worse with each passing year.

Household debt to disposable income

House price growth continues at close to 10% a year, fueled by rising debt. When we refer to the “housing bubble” it is really a debt bubble driving housing prices. If debt growth slows so will housing prices.

House price growth

Declining business investment, as a percentage of GDP, warns of slowing economic growth in the years ahead. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve productivity growth without continuous new investment and technology improvement.

Business investment

Yet declining corporate bond spreads show no sign of increased lending risk.

Corporate bond spreads

Declining disposable income and consumption growth mean that voters are unlikely to be happy come next election. With each party trying to ride the populist wave, responsible economic management has taken a back seat. Throw in a housing bubble and declining business investment and the glass looks more than half-empty.

Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

~ Eric Hoffer

US Retail & Light Vehicle Sales slow

Retail sales growth (excluding motor vehicles and parts) slowed to 2.4% over the 12 months to June 2017.

Retail Sales ex Motor Vehicles & Parts

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

Seasonally adjusted light vehicle sales are also slowing.

Light Vehicle Sales

Source: St Louis Fed & BEA

Seasonally adjusted private housing starts and new building permits are starting to lose momentum.

Housing Starts & Permits

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

The good news is that Manufacturer’s Durable Goods Orders (seasonally adjusted and ex Defense & Aircraft) are recovering.

Manufacturing Durable Goods Orders ex Defense & Aircraft

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

Cement and concrete production continues to trend upwards.

Cement & Concrete Production

Source: US Fed

And estimated weekly hours worked (total nonfarm payroll * average weekly hours) is growing steadily.

Estimated Weekly Hours Worked

Source: St Louis Fed & BLS

All of which suggest that business confidence is growing and consumer confidence is likely to follow. Bellwether transport stock Fedex advanced to 220, signaling rising economic activity in the broader economy.

Fedex

Target: 180 + ( 180 – 120 ) = 240

The S&P 500 broke resistance at 2450, making a new high. Narrow consolidations and shallow corrections all signal investor confidence typical of the latter stages of a bull market. The immediate target is 2500* but further gains are likely.

S&P 500

Target: 2400 + ( 2400 – 2300 ) = 2500

The stock market remains an exceptionally efficient mechanism for the transfer of wealth from the impatient to the patient.

~ Warren Buffett

Investment the key to growth

Elliot Clarke at Westpac recently highlighted the importance of investment in sustaining economic growth:

The importance of sustained investment in an economy cannot be understated. Done well, investment in real capacity begets greater production volume and employment as well as a productivity dividend. Its absence in recent years is a key factor behind sustained soft wage inflation and the US economy’s inability to consistently grow at an above-trend pace despite the economy being at full-employment and household balance sheets having more than fully recovered post GFC.

The graph below highlights declining US investment in new equipment post GFC.

S&P 500

source: Westpac

There are three factors that may influence this:

  1. Accelerated tax depreciation allowances after the GFC encouraged companies to bring forward capital spending in order to stimulate the recovery. But the 2010 to 2012 surge is followed by a later trough when the intended capital expenditure was originally planned to have taken place.
  2. Low growth in personal consumption, especially of non-durable goods and of services, would discourage further capital investment.

US Net Debt & Equity Issuance

  1. The level of stock buybacks increased as companies sought alternative measures to sustain earnings (per share) growth. The graph below shows debt issuance has soared while net equity issuance remains consistently negative.

US Net Debt & Equity Issuance

source: Westpac

Net capital formation (the increase in physical assets owned by nonfinancial corporations) declined between 2015 and 2017. While this is partly attributable to the falling oil price curtailing investment in the Energy sector, continuation of the decline would spell long-term trouble for the economy.

US Net Capital Formation

The cycle becomes self-reinforcing. Low growth in personal consumption leads to low levels of capital investment ….which in turn leads to low employment growth…..leading to further low growth in personal consumption.

Major infrastructure investment is needed to break the cycle. In effect you need to “prime the pump” in order to create a new virtuous cycle, with higher investment leading to higher growth.

It is obviously important that infrastructure investment target productive assets, that generate income, else taxpayers are left with increased debt and no income to service it. Or assets that can be sold to repay the debt. But the importance of infrastructure investment should be evident to both sides of politics and any attempt to obstruct or delay this would be putting political ahead of national interests.

Australia

Australia is in a worse position, with a dramatic fall in investment following the mining boom.

Australia: Business Investment

source: RBA

If we examine the components of business investment, it is not just Engineering that has fallen. Investment in Machinery & Equipment has been declining for the last decade. And now Building Investment is also starting to slow.

Australia: Components of Business Investment

source: RBA

You’ve got to prime the pump…. You’ve got to put something in before you can get anything out.

~ Zig Ziglar

Federal budget 2017: The next boom is under way – before another bust

From Michael Pascoe:

A Caterpillar and Komatsu cavalry is arriving just in time to save the next two federal budgets from the effects of slowing residential building approvals, solving one of Treasurer Scott Morrison’s fiscal dilemmas. National spending on transport infrastructure is in the process of soaring 73 per cent from last financial year to 2018-19, according to industry research company Macromonitor.

Spending on road and rail hit a cyclical low of about $19 billion in 2015-16. In constant dollars, the cycle is expected to peak at $33 billion in 2018-19. That spending would more than cover a 10 per cent decline from last year’s $63 billion worth of new residential building….

Increased infrastructure spending is welcome but former RBA governor’s comments on setting up a proper process of infrastructure planning and selection [see link below] highlight the negative boom-bust mentality of government focused on the election cycle.

Source: Federal budget 2017: The next boom is under way – before another bust

Australia: Say goodbye to growth

Business investment in Australia continues its sharp descent since the end of the mining boom, falling below 14% of GDP for the first time since the Dotcom crash.

Australia Business Investment
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Apart from the expected “cliff” in Engineering, investment in Machinery and Equipment has fallen to record lows.

Australia Business Investment - Components
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Without investment, growth is likely to contract. The impact on Australian wages is an ominous warning.

Australia Wage Growth
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Priming the Pump

US stocks are buoyant on hopes that a Donald Trump presidency will benefit business, with major indexes flagging a bull market. But promises come first, the costs come later. While I support a broad infrastructure program and the creation of a level playing field in global markets, the actual execution of these ideas is critical and should not be allowed to be hijacked by the establishment for their own ends.

Erection of trade barriers is a useful negotiating position but is unlikely to be achieved without enormous damage to the global economy. As long as your trading partners think you are crazy enough to do it, they may be more amenable to establishing fair ground rules for international trade. If they don’t believe the threat, they will be happy to continue on their present path. So Trump walks a fine line between reassuring his allies and the domestic market, while keeping others guessing about his intentions.

Before we get carried away with hopes and expectations, however, we need to evaluate the current state of the economy in order to assess the current potential for growth.

The Cons

Let’s start with the negatives.

Construction spending is slow, at about three-quarters of pre-GFC (and sub-prime) levels. It will take more than an infrastructure program to restore this (though it is a step in the right direction). What is needed is higher growth expectations for the economy.

Construction Spending to GDP

Industrial production is close to its pre-GFC peak but has been declining since 2014.

Industrial Production Index

Job growth is slowing. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Employment Growth

Rail and freight activity also reflects a slow-down since 2015.

Rail & Freight Index

The Philadelphia Fed’s broad-based Leading Index has also softened since 2014. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Leading Index

One of my favorite indicators, this graph compares profit margins (per unit of gross value added) to employee costs. There is a clear cycle: employee costs (per unit) fall after a recession while profits rise. As the economy recovers and approaches full capacity, employee costs start to rise and profits fall — which leads to the next recession. At present we can clearly see employee costs are rising and profit margins are falling.

Profits and Employee Costs per unit of Value Added

It will be difficult for corporations to continue to grow earnings in this environment. Business investment is falling.

Gross Private Nonresidential Fixed Investment

Plowing money into stock buybacks rather than into new investment may shore up corporate performance for a while but hurts construction and industrial production. Turning this around is a major challenge facing the new administration.

The Pros

Retail sales are rising as increased employee compensation costs lift consumer confidence. Solid November sales with strong Black Friday numbers would help lift confidence even further.

Retail Sales

Light vehicle sales are also recovering, a key indicator of consumers’ long-term outlook.

Light Vehicle Sales

Rising sales and infrastructure investment are only part of the solution. What Donald Trump needs to do is prime the pump: introduce a fairer tax system, minimize red tape and reduce political interference in the economy, while enforcing strong regulation of the financial sector. Not an easy task, but achieving these goals would help restore business confidence, revive investment, and set the economy on a sound growth path.

In the short run, the market is a voting machine
but in the long run it is a weighing machine.

~ Benjamin Graham: Security Analysis (1934)

Australia: Infrastructure spending nosedives

From Andrew Hanlan at Westpac:

Infrastructure Activity

Total real infrastructure activity contracted by almost 10% in the June quarter 2016, to be 26% below the level of a year ago. That was the fourth year of contraction…..

Infrastructure construction work is declining rapidly. First, we had the end of the mining boom as existing projects reached completion while demand, mainly from China, contracted. This was followed by falling demand in the oil & gas sector, ending the development boom in that sector. If you think the apartment boom — driven by investor demand from China — is going to fill the hole, think again.