CPI shock upsets markets

The consumer price index (CPI) dipped to 8.25% (seasonally adjusted) for the 12 months to August but disappointed stock and bond markets who were anticipating a sharp fall.

CPI

The S&P 500 fell 4.3% to test support at 3900. Follow-through below 3650 would confirm earlier bear market signals.

S&P 500

Services CPI — which has minimal exposure to producer prices and supply chains — climbed to 6.08%. Rising services costs indicate that inflation is growing embedded in the economy.

CPI Services

Fueled by strong growth in average hourly earnings.

CPI & Wage Rates

But it is not only services that present a problem.

Food prices are growing above 10% p.a. — signaling hardship for low income-earners.

CPI Food

The heavily-weighted shelter component — almost one-third of total CPI — climbed to 6.25%. We expect further increases as CPI shelter lags actual home prices — represented by the Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Home Price Index (pink) on the chart below — by 6 to 12 months.

CPI Shelter

CPI energy is still high, at 23.91% for the 12 months to August, but the index has fallen steeply over the past two months (July-August).

CPI Energy

The decline is likely to continue until the mid-term elections in November, as the US government releases crude from its strategic reserves (SPR) in order to suppress fuel prices.

SPR Levels

The reduction in strategic reserves is unsustainable in the longer-term and reversal could deliver a nasty surprise for consumers in the new year.

SPR Lowest since 1984

Conclusion

Strong CPI growth for the 12-months to August warns that inflation will be difficult to contain. Services CPI at 6.08% also confirms that inflation is growing embedded in the economy.

Energy costs are falling but this may be unsustainable. Releases from the strategic petroleum reserve (SPR) are likely to end after the mid-term elections in November.

The Fed is way behind the curve, with the real Fed funds rate (FFR-CPI) at -5.92%, below the previous record low of -4.97% from 1975.

Real Fed Funds Rate (FFR-CPI)

We expect interest rates to rise “higher for longer.” A 75 basis-point hike is almost certain at next weeks’ FOMC meeting (September 20-21).

Long-term Treasury yields are rising, with the 10-year at 3.42%. Breakout above resistance at 3.50% is likely, signaling the end of a four decade-long secular bull trend in bonds.

10-Year Treasury Yields

Stocks and bonds are both falling, with the S&P 500 down 18.0% year-to-date compared to -25.4% for TLT.

S&P 500 and iShares 20+ Year Treasury ETF (TLT)

The best short-term haven is cash.

Deconstructing Evergrande’s effect on China

Elliot Clarke at Westpac says that China will be able to withstand the shock of Evergrande’s collapse and that power outages are a bigger threat.

We still think that the property sector contagion is part of a broader issue that China will struggle to overcome, as Michael Pettis succinctly explained:

China’s debt problem

Tweeted by Prof. Michael Pettis:

In the past — e.g. the SOE reforms of the 1990s, the banking crisis of the 2000s, SARS in 2003, the collapse of China’s trade surplus in 2009, COVID, etc. — whenever China faced a problem that threatened the pace of its economic growth, Beijing always responded by accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment by enough to maintain targeted GDP growth rates. It didn’t adjust, in other words, but rather goosed growth by exacerbating the underlying imbalances.

That is why it had always been “successful” in seeing off a crisis. But when the main problem threatening further growth becomes soaring debt and the sheer amount of non-productive investment in property and infrastructure, it is obvious, or should be, that accelerating debt creation and pumping up property and infrastructure investment can no longer be a sustainable solution. All this can do is worsen the underlying imbalances and raise further the future cost of adjustment.

Can the Fed keep a lid on inflation?

Jeremy Siegel, Wharton finance professor, says the Fed has poured a tremendous amount of money into the economy in response to the pandemic, which will eventually cause higher inflation. David Rosenberg of Rosenberg Research argues that velocity of money is declining and the US economy has a large output gap so inflation is unlikely to materialize.

CNBC VideoClick to play

Both are right, just in different time frames.

Putting the cart before the horse

The velocity of money is simply the ratio of GDP to the money supply. Fluctuations in the velocity of money have more to do with fluctuations in GDP than in the money supply. If GDP recovers, so will the velocity of money. Equating velocity of money with inflation is putting the cart before the horse. Contractions in GDP coincide with low/negative inflation while rapid expansions in GDP are normally accompanied, after a lag, by rising inflation.

CPI & GDP

Money supply and interest rates

Inflation is likely to rise when consumption grows at a faster rate than output. Prices rise when supply is scarce — when we consume more than we produce. Interest rates play a key role in this.

Low interest rates mean cheap credit, making it easy for people to borrow and consume more than they earn. Low rates also boost the stock market, raising corporate earnings because of lower interest costs, but most importantly, raising earnings multiples as the cost of capital falls. Speculators also take advantage of low interest rates to leverage their investments, driving up prices.

S&P 500

In the housing market, prices rise as cheap mortgage finance attracts buyers, pushing up demand and facilitating greater leverage.

Housing: Building Starts & Permits

Wealth effect

Higher stock and house prices create a wealth effect. Consumers are more ready to borrow and spend when they feel wealthier.

High interest rates, on the other hand, have the exact opposite effect. Credit is expensive and consumption falls. Speculation fades as stock earnings multiples fall and housing buyers are scarce.

Money supply is only a factor in inflation to the extent that it affects interest rates. There is also a lag between lower interest rates and rising consumption. It takes time for consumers and investors to rebuild confidence after an economic contraction.

The role of the Fed

Fed Chairman, William McChesney Martin, described the role of the Federal Reserve as:

“…..to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.”

In other words, to raise interest rates just as the economic recovery starts to build up steam — to avoid a build up of inflationary pressures.

The Fed’s mandate is to maintain stable prices but there are times, like the present, when their hands are tied.

Federal government debt is currently above 120% of GDP.

Federal Debt/GDP

GDP is likely to rise as the economy recovers but so is federal debt as the government injects more stimulus and embarks on an infrastructure program to lift the economy.

With federal debt at record levels of GDP, raising interest rates could blow the federal deficit wide open as the cost of servicing Treasury debt threatens to overtake tax revenues.

Conclusion

Inflation is likely to remain low until GDP recovers. But the need to maintain low interest rates — to support Treasury markets and keep a lid on the federal deficit — will then hamper the Fed’s ability to contain a buildup of inflationary pressure.

US Stocks: Bull or Bear?

I have read several commentators proclaiming that the crisis is over and the stock market and US economy are back on track for solid growth. Let’s examine some of the evidence.

The Yield Curve (Bearish)

While the US yield curve has uninverted in the past and yet a recession has still come along, the uninversion seen in recent months coming after such a shallow and short-lived inversion provides confidence that the inversion seen last year gave a false signal…. (Shane Oliver at AMP)

Treasury 10 Year-3 Month Yield Differential

Yield curve inversions seldom last long. For one simple reason: the Fed fires up the printing press to reduce short-term interest rates and boost the economy. The yield curve uninverted before the last three recessions and this time looks no different.

Consumer Confidence (Bullish)

Retail sales kicked up in December, a sign of growing consumer confidence.

Retail excluding Auto

Auto sales are still flat but housing starts have also jumped.

Housing Starts & Permits

Economic Activity (Bearish)

When it comes to economic activity, Cass freight shipments are falling.

Cass Index

Rail freight indicators also point to declining activity levels.

Rail Freight

Employment (Neutral)

Leading employment indicators, such as temporary jobs and job openings, warn that labor market growth is slowing.

Temporary Jobs

Job Openings

But overall payroll growth, albeit subdued is still stable, with the 3-month TMO of non-farm payroll growth respecting the 0.5% amber warning level.

Payroll TMO

Valuations (Bearish)

Last week we compared market cap to profits before tax. This week, we compare to profits after tax. Recent levels above 20 have only previously been exceeded, in the past 60 years, during the Dotcom bubble.

Market Cap/Corporate Profits after Tax

Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan conceded that expansion of the Fed balance sheet is helping to lift asset prices.

Commenting on the Fed’s massive liquidity response to the repo crisis, Kaplan said that “my own view is it’s having some effect on risk assets……It’s a derivative of QE when we buy bills and we inject more liquidity; it affects all risk assets. This is why I say growth in the balance sheet is not free. There is a cost to it. And we need to be very disciplined about it and sensitive to it.”

This is a clear warning to investors to stay on the defensive. We maintain our view that stocks are over-valued and will remain under-weight equities (over-weight cash) until normal earnings multiples are restored.

Warren Buffett is not infallible but the level of cash on Berkshire’s balance sheet seems to indicate a similar view regarding stock valuations.

Berkshire Hathaway Cash Holdings

Australia: Bearish apart from mining

Household disposable income lifted in response to the recent tax cuts but households remain risk-averse, with consumption still falling and extra income going straight to debt repayment — reflected by a jump in the Saving ratio below.
Australia Household Saving

Housing prices are recovering despite high levels of mortgage stress in the outer suburbs but building approvals for new housing continue to fall. Construction expenditure is likely to follow.

Australia Building Approvals

GDP growth is falling, while corporate profits (% of GDP) remain in the doldrums apart from the mining sector.

Australia Corporate Profits

Low household disposable income and corporate profit growth in turn lead to low business investment (% of GDP).

Australia Business Investment

Low investment leads to low job creation. Job vacancies and job ads both warn of declining employment growth.

Australia Job Ads

Cyclical employment growth is expected to slow in line with the fall in the Leading Indicator over the past year.

Australia Leading Employment Indicator

We maintain a bearish outlook for the Australian economy, though Mining continues to surprise to the upside.

ASX and 3 headwinds

Despite recent strong performance, investor enthusiasm may be cooling, with the Australian economy facing three headwinds.

Declining Household Spending

Household income growth is faltering and weighing down consumption. Household spending would have fallen even further, dragging the economy into recession, if households were not digging into savings to maintain their living standards.

Australia: Disposable Income, Consumption and Savings

But households are only likely to draw down on savings when housing prices are high. Commonly known as the “wealth effect” there is a clear relationship between household wealth and consumption. If housing prices were to continue falling then households are likely to cut back on spending and boost savings (including higher mortgage repayments).

Consumption is one of the few remaining contributors to GDP growth. If that falls, the economy is likely to go into recession.

Australia: GDP growth contribution by sector

Housing Construction

The RBA is desperately trying to prevent a further fall in house prices because of the negative effect this will have on household spending (consumption). But rate cuts are not being passed on to borrowers, and households are maintaining their existing mortgage repayments (increasing savings) if they do benefit, rather than increasing spending.

House prices ticked up after the recent fall, in response to RBA interest rate cuts. But Martin North reports that the recovery is only evident in more affluent suburbs with lower mortgage exposure (e.g. Eastern suburbs in Sydney) and that newer suburbs and inner city high-density units are experiencing record levels of mortgage stress.

Housing

Building approvals reflect this, with a down-turn in detached housing and a sharp plunge in high density unit construction.
Building Approvals

Dwelling investment is likely to remain a drag on GDP growth over the next year.

Falling Commodity Prices

Iron ore and coal, Australia’s two largest commodity exports, are falling in price as the global economic growth slows. Dalian Commodity Exchange’s most-traded iron ore contract , with January 2020 expiry, closed at 616 yuan ($86.99) per tonne, close to a seven-month low. Falling prices are likely to inhibit further mining investment.

Iron Ore and Coal Prices

Metals & Mining

The ASX 300 Metals & Mining index is testing long-term support at 4100. Breach would complete a head and shoulders reversal, with a target of 3400.

ASX 300 Metals & Mining

Financials

The Financial sector recovered this year, trending upwards since January, but faces a number of issues in the year ahead:

  • customer remediation flowing from issues exposed by the Royal Commission;
  • net interest margins squeezed as the RBA lowers interest rates;
  • continued pressure to increase capital ratios are also likely to impact on dividend payout ratios;
  • low housing (construction and sales) activity rates impact on fee income; and
  • high levels of mortgage stress impact on borrower default rates.

ASX 200 Financials index faces strong resistance at 6500. There is no sign of a reversal at present but keep a weather eye on primary support at 6000. We remain bearish in our outlook for the sector and breach of 6000 would warn of a primary decline with a target of 5200.

ASX 200 Financials

REITs are experiencing selling pressure despite an investment market desperate for yield. Dexus (DXS) may be partly responsible after the office and industrial fund reported a 26% profit fall in the first half of 2019.

ASX 200 REITs

ASX 200

The ASX 200 is showing signs of (secondary) selling pressure, with a tall shadow on this week’s candle and a lower peak on the Trend index. Expect a test of support at 6400; breach would offer a target of 5400.

ASX 200

We maintain exposure to Australian equities at 22% of portfolio value, with a focus on defensive and contra-cyclical stocks, because of our bearish outlook.

Martin North: Mortgage stress highest ever in Australia

Martin North at DFA does monthly household surveys to assess the granularity of property data in Australia. What he finds is that one-third of households (about 1 million) are in mortgage stress. In Sydney, the problem is concentrated in the Western suburbs and inner city units.

Many Western and outer fringe households bought in at high prices and have experienced price falls of 30% or more. They are locked in because of little or no remaining equity and cannot refinance to get the benefit of lower rates. They have run down savings and run up credit cards in the hope that the situation would improve but there has been little movement in these areas and banks are starting to foreclose.

Inner city units have suffered similar price falls but also face the problem of poor construction standards which makes resale difficult.

Martin is skeptical of high auction clearance rates and recovery in prices, pointing out that this is largely restricted to the Eastern suburbs where households enjoy much lower mortgage exposure relative to property values.

Hat tip to Macrobusiness where I found the video.

 

The high cost of uncertainty

High levels of uncertainty in international trade, geopolitical outlook, and domestic politics in the USA are likely to have a domino effect on business and consumer confidence.

Business is likely to postpone or curtail new investment decisions. This is already evident in a down-turn in new capital formation, along with GDP growth, in the first half of the calendar year.

New Capital Formation

A similar picture is emerging in construction spending.

Construction/GDP

CEO confidence levels are way down.

CEO Confidence Levels

A slow-down in business investment in turn impacts on employment, causing a decline in payroll growth and average weekly hours worked.

Non-farm Payroll Growth and Weekly Hours Worked

Which in turn impacts on consumer sentiment as employees’ anticipation of future earnings declines.

Consumer Sentiment

The feedback loop will be completed if consumption falls. Retail sales dipped sharply in late 2018 but are keeping their head above water.

Retail Sales

And purchases of durables, like light motor vehicles, have leveled off but there is no significant decline so far.

Light Vehicle Sales (Units)

New housing starts and building permits even kicked up in August in response to lower interest rates.

Housing Starts

Consumers have, so far, continued spending but a down-turn in the stock market would weigh heavily on sentiment and consumption.

The S&P 500 broke its rising trendline, indicating a correction. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of secondary selling pressure and a test of support at 2800. Breach of support is by no means certain but would offer a target of 2400.

S&P 500

We have reduced our equity exposure for International Growth to 34% of portfolio value because of our bearish outlook for the global economy.

ASX 200 tests resistance, Iron ore tests support

Iron ore found resistance at $95/ton and is likely to again test short-term support at $90. Support is unlikely to hold and breach would offer a medium-term target of $80 per ton.

Iron Ore

The ASX 300 Metals & Mining index found support at 4100 but the rally is weak. Breach of 4100 would complete a head and shoulders reversal, giving a target of 3400.

ASX 300 Metals & Mining

A fall in iron ore prices would increase downward pressure on the Aussie Dollar.

The Financial sector continues to look bullish, testing resistance at 6500, with Trend Index troughs above zero indicating buying pressure. Housing woes are far from over, despite improved auction clearance rates, and we expect the sector to remain a drag on growth for the next three to five years — unless the RBA & APRA go “all-in” on a housing bubble to “rescue” the economy.

ASX 200 Financials

The ASX 200 is edging upwards, towards a test of resistance at the 2007 high of 6800. Expect stubborn resistance. Reversal below 6400 would warn of a decline to test primary support at 5400.

ASX 200

We maintain exposure to Australian equities at 25% of portfolio value, with a focus on defensive and contra-cyclical stocks, because of our bearish long-term outlook.