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

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.

China holds its head above water

A quick snapshot from the latest RBA chart pack.

Manufacturing is holding its head above water (50 on the PMI chart) and industrial production shows a small upturn but investment growth is falling, as in many global economies including the US and Australia. Retail sales growth has declined but remains healthy at 10% a year.

China

Electricity generation continues to climb but steel, cement and plate glass production all warn that real estate and infrastructure development are slowing.

China

Interest rates remain accommodative.

China

Real estate price growth is slowing but remains an unhealthy 10% a year. Real estate development investment rallied in response to lower interest rates but is clearly in a long-term decline.

China

There are no signs of an economy in immediate trouble but there are indications that the real estate and infrastructure boom may be ending. Through a combination of fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary policy the Chinese have managed to stave off a capitalism-style correction. But failure to clear some of the excesses of the past decade will mean that the inevitable correction, when it does come, is likely to display familiar Asian severity (Japan 1992, Asian Crisis 1997).

RBA stuck

Great slide from the NAB budget presentation:

RBA Interest Rates in a Cleft Stick

The RBA is in a cleft stick:

  • Raising interest rates would increase mortgage stress and threaten stability of the banking system.
  • Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble, creating a bigger threat in years to come.

The underlying problem is record high household debt to income levels. Housing affordability is merely a symptom.

There are only two possible solutions:

  1. Raise incomes; or
  2. Reduce debt levels.

Both have negative consequences.

Raising incomes would primarily take place through higher inflation. This would generate more demand for debt to buy inflation-hedge assets, so would have to be linked to strong macroprudential (e.g. lower maximum LVRs for housing) to prevent this. A positive offshoot would be a weaker Dollar, strengthening local industry. The big negative would be the restrictive monetary policy needed to slow inflation when the job is done, with a likely recession.

Shrinking debt levels without raising interest rates is difficult but macroprudential policies would help. Also policies that penalize banks for offshore borrowings. The big negative would be falling housing prices as investors try to liquidate some of their investments and the consequent threat to banking stability. The slow-down in new construction would also threaten an economy-wide down-turn.

Of the two, I would favor the former option as having less risk. But there is a third option: wait in the hope that something will turn up. That is the line of least resistance and therefore the most likely course government will take.

Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts?

From Jens Meyer:

Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts and no-one noticed?

Well, not exactly no-one. Goldman Sachs chief economist Tim Toohey reckons the speech RBA assistant governor Chris Kent delivered on Tuesday amounts to an explicit shift to a neutral policy stance.

Dr Kent spoke about how the economy has been doing since the mining boom, and in particular how its performance matched the RBA’s expectations.

Reflecting on the RBA’s forecasts of recent years, Dr Kent essentially framed the RBA’s earlier rate cut logic around an initial larger than expected decline in mining capital expenditure and subsequent larger than expected decline in the terms of trade, Mr Toohey said.

Having so closely linked the RBA’s easing cycle to the weakness in the terms of trade (and earlier decline in mining investment), Dr Kent’s key remark was to flag “the abatement of those two substantial headwinds” and highlight that this “would be a marked change from recent years”….

Source: Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts and no-one noticed?

Gold: Should I BREXIT?

Odds of a BREXIT are drifting at the bookmakers, with REMAIN a firm 1 to 4 favorite. Fears of a BREXIT have been driving demand for gold and a REMAIN vote is likely to spur a sell-off.

Gold

* Target calculation: 1300 + ( 1300 – 1050 ) = 1550

Breakout above resistance at $1300/ounce turned into a bull trap with a sharp retreat to support at $1250/$1260. A REMAIN vote on June 23rd would test support at $1250 and possibly $1200. But the up-trend remains intact if support at $1200 holds.

Political uncertainty is unlikely to fade before the November US election. And economic uncertainty, fueled by Chinese instability, is likely to last a lot longer.

USDCNY

Capital outflows from China continue, with USDCNY running into resistance at 6.60. This is a sign that PBOC sale of foreign reserves has resumed, weakening the Dollar and boosting demand for Gold.

Gold’s up-trend is likely to continue. And breakout above $1300 would offer a long-term target of $1550/ounce*.

Disclosure: Our Australian managed portfolios are invested in gold stocks.

Gold strengthens as Dollar weakens

Long-term interest rates continue their decline, with 10-year Treasury yields testing support at 1.65 to 1.70 percent. Breach would signal a test of the all-time (July 2012) low of 1.40 percent.

10-year Treasury yields

Gold rallied in response, breaking initial resistance at $1250/ounce to signal a test of $1300.

Gold

The Chinese appear to have resumed selling foreign reserves to support the Yuan, with USDCNY running into resistance at 6.60. PBOC sale of reserves would weaken the Dollar, boosting demand for Gold. Failure to support the Yuan is unlikely, but would increase safe haven demand for Gold from Chinese investors.

USDCNY

The Dollar Index, representing predominantly the Euro and Yen crosses, fell sharply. Breach of support at 93 would confirm the primary down-trend earlier signaled by 13-week Momentum below zero.

Dollar Index

The Australian All Ordinaries Gold Index broke through 4500 to signal another advance, with the weakening Australian Dollar adding further impetus. Gaps between trough lows (orange line) and preceding highs (brown line) indicate strong buying pressure.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

Disclosure: Our Australian managed portfolios are invested in gold stocks.

Gold tanked? Not yet!

Gold broke below its recent flag formation, warning of a test of support at $1200/ounce.

Gold

Selling is driven by expectations of a Fed interest rate hike in June …..and recent Chinese stimulus which postponed Yuan devaluation against the Dollar. But expectations of a rate hike are causing a sell-off of the Chinese Yuan, with the USDCNY strengthening over the last few weeks.

USDCNY

…Which in turn will cause the Chinese to sell foreign reserves to support the Dollar peg (…..else devalue which would panic investors and cause a downward spiral). Sale of Dollar reserves by China would drive the Dollar lower.

Dollar Index

…and Gold higher. I remain bullish as long as support at $1200/ounce holds.

Disclosure: Our Australian managed portfolios are invested in gold stocks.

Will the RBA cut interest rates in May?

From Justin Smirk at Westpac:

The headline CPI surprised in Q1 falling 0.2% compared to Westpac’s forecast for +0.4%….. The annual rate is now just 1.3%yr compared to 1.7%yr in Q4.

The core measures, which are seasonally adjusted and exclude extreme moves, rose 0.2% compared to the market’s expectation of 0.5% rise…. The annual pace of the average of the core inflation measures is now 1.5% from 2.0% in Q4 (Q4 was unrevised) and is the lowest print we have yet seen from this measure.

From Jens Meyer at The Age:

Today’s weak inflation numbers are a game changer for the Reserve Bank that will trigger a rate cut, says JPMorgan head of fixed income and foreign exchange strategy Sally Auld.

The investment bank now expects the RBA to cut by 0.25 percentage points next week and to follow this up with a further 25 basis points cut in August, taking the cash rate to 1.50 per cent.

Smirk disagrees:

…..But low inflation, on its own, is not a trigger for a rate cut. Sure, it unlocks the interest rate door for the RBA should it decide it needs to walk through that door as the Bank would not have to wait for another CPI update before doing so. However, it does not mean that the RBA will cut rates! A rate cut is dependent on local economic conditions demanding a rate cut. With unemployment on a new downtrend this is not so at the moment and we suggest that the RBA is waiting to see a new weaker trend in domestic activity and employment before it would embark on such a strategy.

Source: Australian 14 CPI 2016 | Westpac

Source: Three reasons for the Reserve Bank of Australia to cut official interest rates in May