Australian households are spending more than they are earning | ABC

Interesting chart from Stephen Letts at the ABC:

Thomson Reuters: Australian Consumption v. Disposable Income

Household consumption is growing at a faster rate than disposable income, with savings rates (net savings / disposable income) falling. This is clearly unsustainable. Savings rates, which include compulsory super contributions, fell to just 1.0% in Q2, with savings outside of super being rapidly eroded.

That relationship is even more unsustainable now house prices are falling, according to Deutsche bank’s Phil Odonaghoe.

“Strengthening housing wealth accrued by the household sector has been an important factor supporting the decline in saving. With house prices now falling, that support has been removed.”

From Households are now spending more than they are earning — and that’s not sustainable | Stephen Letts | ABC.

Hat tip to Macrobusiness.

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.

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.

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

Australia: APRA capitulates to Big Four banks

From Clancy Yeates at The Age:

Quelling investor fears over moves to strengthen the financial system, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority on Wednesday said major banks would have until 2020 to increase their levels of top-tier capital by about 1 percentage point, to 10.5 per cent.

The target was much more favourable to banks than some analyst predictions, with some bank watchers in recent months warning lenders may need to raise large amounts of equity or cut dividends to satisfy APRA’s long-running push for “unquestionably strong” banks.

Markets are now confident banks will hit APRA’s target, estimated to require about $8 billion in extra capital from the big four, through retained earnings or by selling new shares through their dividend reinvestment plans…..

“The scenario where banks had to raise significant capital appears to be off the table for now,” said managing partner at Arnhem Asset Management, Mark Nathan.

Mr Nathan said the banks’ highly prized dividends also looked “safer”, though were not likely to increase. National Australia Bank and Westpac in particular have high dividend payout ratios, which could put dividends at risk from other factors, such as a rise in bad debts……

APRA’s chair Wayne Byres said the changes could be achieved in an “orderly” way, and the new target would lower the need for any future taxpayer support for banks.

“APRA’s objective in establishing unquestionably strong capital requirements is to establish a banking system that can readily withstand periods of adversity without jeopardising its core function of financial intermediation for the Australian community,” he said.

APRA chairman Wayne Byres used the words “lower the need for any future taxpayer support.” Not “remove the need…..” That means banks are not “unquestionably strong” and taxpayers are still on the hook.

A capital ratio of 10.5% sounds reasonable but the devil is in the detail. Tier 1 Capital includes convertible (hybrid) debt and risk-weighted assets are a poor reflection of total credit exposure, including only that portion of assets that banks consider to be at risk.

Recent bailout experiences in Europe revealed regulators reluctant to convert hybrid capital, included in Tier 1, because of fears of panicking financial markets.

Take Commonwealth Bank (Capital Adequacy and Risks Disclosures as at 31 March 2017) as a local example.

The Tier 1 Capital Ratio is 11.6% while Common Equity Tier 1 Capital (CET1), ignoring hybrids, is more than 17% lower at 9.6%.

But CBA risk-weighted assets of $430 billion also significantly understate total credit exposure of $1,012 billion.

The real acid-test is the leverage ratio which compares CET1 to total credit exposure. For Commonwealth this works out at just over 4.0%. How can that be described as “unquestionably strong”?

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari conducted a study last year in the US and concluded that banks need a leverage ratio of at least 15% to avoid future bailouts. Even higher if they are considered too-big-to-fail.

3 Headwinds facing the ASX 200

The ASX 200 broke through stubborn resistance at 5800 but is struggling to reach 6000.

ASX 200

There are three headwinds that make me believe that the index will struggle to break 6000:

Shuttering of the motor industry

The last vehicles will roll off production lines in October this year. A 2016 study by Valadkhani & Smyth estimates the number of direct and indirect job losses at more than 20,000.

Full time job losses from collapse of motor vehicle industry in Australia

But this does not take into account the vacuum left by the loss of scientific, technology and engineering skills and the impact this will have on other industries.

…R&D-intensive manufacturing industries, such as the motor vehicle industry, play an important role in the process of technology diffusion. These findings are consistent with the argument in the Bracks report that R&D is a linchpin of the Australian automotive sector and that there are important knowledge spillovers to other industries.

Collapse of the housing bubble

An oversupply of apartments will lead to falling prices, with heavy discounting already evident in Melbourne as developers attempt to clear units. Bank lending will slow as prices fall and spillover into the broader housing market seems inevitable. Especially when:

  • Current prices are supported by strong immigration flows which are bound to lead to a political backlash if not curtailed;
  • The RBA is low on ammunition; and
  • Australian households are leveraged to the eyeballs — the highest level of Debt to Disposable Income of any OECD nation.

Debt to Disposable Income

Falling demand for iron ore & coal

China is headed for a contraction, with a sharp down-turn in growth of M1 money supply warning of tighter liquidity. Falling housing prices and record iron ore inventory levels are both likely to drive iron ore and coal prices lower.

China M1 Money Supply Growth

Australia has survived the last decade on Mr Micawber style economic management, with something always turning up at just the right moment — like the massive 2009-2010 stimulus on the chart above — to rescue the economy from disaster. But sooner or later our luck will run out. As any trader will tell you: Hope isn’t a strategy.

“I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if — if, in short, anything turns up.”

~ Wilkins Micawber from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Seven Signs Australians Are Facing Economic Armageddon

Economics advisor John Adams warns that Australia faces “economic Armageddon” because of “significant structural imbalances” not seen since the lead up to the Great Depression in the 1920s.

Here are his seven signs:

Seven Signs Australians Are Facing Economic Armageddon

Sign 1: Record Australian Household Debt

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, Australia’s household debt as a proportion of disposable income now stands at a record high of 187%.

The two closest episodes were the 1880s and the 1920s, which both preceded the only two economic depressions ever experienced in Australian history in 1890 and 1929.

Sign 2: Record Australian Net Foreign Debt

Australia’s net foreign debt now stands at more than $1 trillion and as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product was at a record high of 63.3% in June 2016.

This makes Australians much more vulnerable to international economic developments such as higher global interest rates, international financial crises or major government or corporate bankruptcies.

Sign 3: Record Low Interest rates

Australia has its lowest official interest rates on record with the Reserve Bank of Australia’s cash rate sitting at 1.5%. The current low rate of interest is not sustainable over the medium term and will inevitably rise.

Australians, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, who have borrowed record amounts of money are very susceptible to higher interest rates.

4: Australian Housing Bubble

The expansion of credit by the Reserve Bank of Australia has been pumped into the Australian housing market over the past 25 years. Credit, which has been directed to Housing as a proportion of Australia’s GDP, has exploded from 21.07% in June 1991 to 95.06% in June 2016.

Over the same period, credit which has been directed at the business sector or to other personal expenses has remained relatively steady as a proportion of GDP.

5: Significant Increases in Global Debt

The General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements stated on 6 February 2017:

“Total debt in the global economy, including public debt, has increased significantly since the end of 2007 … Over the past 16 years, debt of governments, households and non-financial firms has risen by 63% in the United States, the euro area, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, 52% in the G20 and 85% in emerging economies. Heavy debt can only leave less room for manoeuvre in responding to future challenges.”

Sign 6: Major International Asset Bubbles

There are significant asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and real estate in major economies such as the United States and China, which has been fueled by the significant increases in global debt.For example, the Shiller PE Index in the United States which measures the price of a company’s stock relative to average earnings over the past 10 years is now at 28.85. This is the third highest recorded behind the Tech Bubble in 1999 and “Black Tuesday” in 1929.

Sign 7: Global Derivatives Bubble

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the value of the over the counter derivatives market (notional amounts outstanding) stood at US$544 trillion.

Much of these derivatives contracts are concentrated on the balance sheets of leading global financial and banking institutions such as Deutsche Bank. The concentration of complex derivative contracts on bank balance sheets poses significant risks to both individual institutions and the global financial system.

Veteran Investor Warren Buffet has repeatedly warned that derivatives are “financial weapons of mass destruction” and could pose as a “potential time bomb”.

Household debt is too high. Rising foreign debt and record low interest rates are fueling a housing bubble. Global debt is too high and rising, while stocks are over-priced. Throw in the global derivatives “bubble” with some truly terrifying numbers just to scare the punters out of their wits.

Nothing new here. Nothing to see. Move along now. The global economy is in good hands…..

Or is it? Aren’t these the same hands that created the current mess we are in?

John Adams is right to warn of the dangers which could have a truly apocalyptic effect, that makes the global financial crisis seem like a mild tremor in comparison.

Some of the risks may be overstated:

The derivatives “bubble” is probably the least of our worries as most of these positions offset each other, giving a net position a lot closer to zero.

Defensive stocks like Consumer Staples and Utilities are over-priced but there still appears to be value in growth stocks. And earnings are growing. So the stock “bubble” is not too alarming.

Global debt is too high but poses no immediate threat except to countries with USD-denominated debt — or Euro-denominated debt in the case of Greece, Italy, etc. — that cannot issue new currency to repay public debt (and inflate their way out of the problem).

But that still leaves four major risks that need to be addressed: Household debt, $1 Trillion foreign debt, record low interest rates and a housing bubble.

From Joe Hildebrand at News.com.au:

Mr Adams called on the RBA to take pre-emptive action by raising interest rates and said the government needed to rein in tax breaks like negative gearing as well as welfare payments.

This, he admitted, would result in “a mild controlled economic recession” but would stave off “uncontrolled devastating depression”.

The problem is that the Australian government appears to be dithering, with one eye on the next election. These are not issues you can “muddle through”.

If not addressed they could turn into the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Source: Apocalyptic warning for Australian families

Intent as the enemy of truth | On Line Opinion

From Jennifer Marohasy:

When all 1,655 maximum temperature series for Australia are simply combined, and truncated to begin in 1910 the hottest years are 1980, 1914, 1919, 1915 and 1940.

…..Considering land temperature across Australia, 1914 was almost certainly the hottest year across southern Australia, and 1915 the hottest across northern Australia – or at least north-east Australia. But recent years come awfully close – because there has been an overall strong warming trend since at least 1960, albeit nothing catastrophic.

……there is compelling evidence that the Bureau of Meteorology remodels historical temperature data until it conforms to the human-caused global warming paradigm.

I would like to see more open debate around this issue rather than the typical “trust me I’m an expert” or “the science is settled” response.

Source: Intent as the enemy of truth – On Line Opinion – 9/1/2017

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