Economic Outlook, March 2023

Here is a summary of Colin Twiggs’ presentation to investors at Beech Capital on March 30, 2023. The outlook covers seven themes:

  1. Elevated risk
  2. Bank contagion
  3. Underlying causes of instability
  4. Interest rates & inflation
  5. The impact on stocks
  6. Flight to safety
  7. Australian perspective

1. Elevated Risk

We focus on three key indicators that warn of elevated risk in financial markets:

Inverted Yield Curve

The chart below plots the difference between 10-year Treasury yields and 3-month T-Bills. The line is mostly positive as 10-year investments are normally expected to pay a higher rate of investment than 3-month bills. Whenever the spread inverted, however, in the last sixty years — normally due to the Fed tightening monetary policy — the NBER has declared a recession within 12 to 18 months1.

Treasury Yields: 10-Year minus 3-Month

The current value of -1.25% is the strongest inversion in more than forty years — since 1981. This squeezes bank net interest margins and is likely to cause a credit contraction as banks avoid risk wherever possible.

Stock Market Volatility

We find the VIX (CBOE Short-term Implied Volatility on the S&P 500) an unreliable measure of stock market risk and developed our own measure of volatility. Whenever 21-day Twiggs Volatility forms troughs above 1.0% (red arrows below) on the S&P 500, that signals elevated risk.

S&P 500 & Twiggs Volatility (21-Day)

The only time that we have previously seen repeated troughs above 1.0% was in the lead-up to the global financial crisis in 2007-2008.

S&P 500 & Twiggs Volatility (21-Day)

Bond Market Volatility

The bond market has a far better track record of anticipating recessions than the stock market. The MOVE index below measures short-term volatility in the Treasury market. Readings above 150 indicate instability and in the past have coincided with crises like the collapse of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) in 1998, Enron in 2001, Bear Stearns and Lehman in 2008, and the 2020 pandemic. In the past week, the MOVE exceeded 180, its highest reading since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

MOVE Index

2. Bank Contagion

Regional banks in the US had to be rescued by the Fed after a run on Silicon Valley Bank. Depositors attempted to withdraw $129 billion — more than 80% of the bank’s deposits — in the space of two days. There are no longer queues of customers outside a bank, waiting for hours to withdraw their deposits. Nowadays online transfers are a lot faster and can bring down a bank in a single day.

The S&P Composite 1500 Regional Banks Index ($XPBC) plunged to 90 and continues to test support at that level.

S&P Composite 1500 Regional Banks Index ($XPBC)

Bank borrowings from the Fed and FHLB spiked to $475 billion in a week.

Bank Deposits & Borrowings

Financial markets are likely to remain unsettled for months to come.

European Banks

European banks are not immune to the contagion, with a large number of banking stocks falling dramatically.

European Banks

Credit Suisse (CS) was the obvious dead-man-walking, after reporting a loss of CHF 7.3 billion in February 2023, but Deutsche Bank (DB) and others also have a checkered history.

Credit Suisse (CS) & Deutsche Bank (DB)

3. Underlying Causes of Instability

The root cause of financial instability is cheap debt. Whenever central banks suppress interest rates below the rate of inflation, the resulting negative real interest rates fuel financial instability.

The chart below plots the Fed funds rate adjusted for inflation (using the Fed’s preferred measure of core PCE), with negative real interest rates highlighted in red.

Fed Funds Rate minus Core PCE Inflation

Unproductive Investment

Negative real interest rates cause misallocation of capital into unproductive investments — intended to profit from inflation rather than generate income streams. The best example of an unproductive investment is gold: it may rise in value due to inflation but generates no income. The same is true of art and other collectibles which generate no income and may in fact incur costs to insure or protect them.

Residential real estate is also widely used as a hedge against inflation. While it may generate some income in the form of net rents, the returns are normally negligible when compared to capital appreciation.

Productive investments, by contrast, normally generate both profits and wages which contribute to GDP. If an investor builds a new plant or buys capital equipment, GDP is enhanced not only by the profits made but also by the wages of everyone employed to operate the plant/equipment. Capital investment also has a multiplier effect. Supplies required to operate the plant, or transport required to distribute the output, are both likely to generate further investment and jobs in other parts of the supply chain.

Cheap debt allows unproductive investment to crowd out productive investment, causing GDP growth to slow. These periods of low growth and high inflation are commonly referred to as stagflation.

Debt-to-GDP

The chart below shows the impact of unproductive investment, with private sector debt growing at a faster rate than GDP (income), almost doubling since 1980. This should be a stable relationship (i.e. a horizontal line) with GDP growing as fast as, if not faster than, debt.

Private Sector Debt/GDP

Even more concerning is federal debt. There are two flat sections in the above chart — from 1990 to 2000 and from 2010 to 2020 — when the relationship between private debt and income stabilized after a major recession. That is when government debt spiked upwards.

Federal & State Government Debt/GDP

When the private sector stops borrowing, the government steps in — borrowing and spending in their place — to create a soft landing. Some call this stimulus but we consider it a disaster when unproductive spending drives up the ratio of government debt relative to GDP.

Research by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff (This Time is Different, 2008) suggests that states where sovereign debt exceeds 100% of GDP (1.0 on the above chart) almost inevitably default. A study by Cristina Checherita and Philip Rother at the ECB posited an even lower sustainable level, of 70% to 80%, above which highly-indebted economies would run into difficulties.

Rising Inflation

Inflationary pressures grow when government deficits are funded from sources outside the private sector. There is no increase in overall spending if the private sector defers spending in order to invest in government bonds. But the situation changes if government deficits are funded by the central bank or external sources.

The chart below shows how the Fed’s balance sheet has expanded over the past two decades, reaching $8.6 trillion at the end of 2022, most of which is invested in Treasuries or mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

Foreign investment in Treasuries also ballooned to $7.3 trillion.

Fed Total Assets

That is just the tip of the iceberg. The US has transformed from the world’s largest creditor (after WWII) to the world’s largest debtor, with a net international investment position of -$16.7 trillion.

Net International Investment Position (NIIP)

4. Interest Rates & Inflation

To keep inflation under control, central bank practice suggests that the Fed should maintain a policy rate at least 1.0% to 2.0% above the rate of inflation. The consequences of failure to do so are best illustrated by the path of inflation under Fed Chairman Arthur Burns in the 1970s. Successive stronger waves of inflation followed after the Fed failed to maintain a positive real funds rate (green circle) on the chart below.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI in the 1970s

CPI reached almost 15.0% and the Fed under Paul Volcker was forced to hike the funds rate to almost 20.0% to tame inflation.

Possible Outcomes

The Fed was late in hiking interest rates in 2022, sticking to its transitory narrative while inflation surged. CPI is now declining but we are likely to face repeated waves of inflation — as in the 1970s — unless the Fed keeps rates higher for longer.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI

There are two possible outcomes:

A. Interest Rate Suppression

The Fed caves to political pressure and cuts interest rates. This reduces debt servicing costs for the federal government but negative real interest rates fuel further inflation. Asset prices are likely to rise as are wage demands and consumer prices.

B. Higher for Longer

The Fed withstands political pressure and keeps interest rates higher for longer. This increases debt servicing costs and adds to government deficits. The inevitable recession and accompanying credit contraction cause a sharp fall in asset asset prices — both stocks and real estate — and rising unemployment. Inflation would be expected to fall and wages growth slow.  The eventual positive outcome would be more productive investment and real GDP growth.

5. The Impact on Stocks

Stocks have been distorted by low interest rates and QE.

Stock Market Capitalization-to-GDP

Warren Buffett’s favorite indicator of stock market value compares total market capitalization to GDP. Buffett maintains that a value of 1.0 reflects fair value — less than half the current multiple of 2.1 (Q4, 2022).

Stock Market Capitalization/GDP

Price-to-Sales

The S&P 500 demonstrates a more stable relationship against sales than against earnings because this excludes volatile profit margins. Price-to-Sales has climbed to a 31% premium over 20-year average of 1.68.

S&P 500 Price-to-Sales

6. Flight to Safety

Elevated risk is expected to cause a flight to safety in financial markets.

Cash & Treasuries

The most obvious safe haven is cash and term deposits but recent bank contagion has sparked a run on uninsured bank deposits, in favor of short-term Treasuries and money market funds.

Gold

Gold enjoyed a strong rally in recent weeks, testing resistance at $2,000 per ounce. Breakout above $2,050 would offer a target of $2,400.

Spot Gold

A surge in central bank gold purchases — to a quarterly rate of more than 400 tonnes — is boosting demand for gold. Buying is expected to continue due to concerns over inflation and geopolitical implications of blocked Russian foreign exchange reserves.

Central Bank Quarterly Gold Purchases

Defensive sectors

Defensive sectors normally include Staples, Health Care, and Utilities. But recent performance on the S&P 500 shows operating margins for Utilities and Health Care are being squeezed. Industrials have held up well, and Staples are improving, but Energy and Financials are likely to disappoint in Q1 of 2023.

S&P 500 Operating Margins

Commodities

Commodities show potential because of massive under-investment in Energy and Battery Metals over the past decade. But first we have to negotiate a possible global recession that would be likely to hurt demand.

7. Australian Perspective

Our outlook for Australia is similar to the US, with negative real interest rates and financial markets awash with liquidity.

Team “Transitory”

The RBA is still living in “transitory” land. The chart below compares the RBA cash rate (blue) to trimmed mean inflation (brown) — the RBA’s preferred measure of long-term inflationary pressures. You can seen in 2007/8 that the cash rate peaked at 7.3% compared to the trimmed mean at 4.8% — a positive real interest rate of 2.5%. But since 2013, the real rate was close to zero before falling sharply negative in 2019. The current real rate is -3.3%, based on the current cash rate and the last trimmed mean reading in December.

RBA Cash Rate & Trimmed Mean Inflation

Private Credit

Unproductive investment caused a huge spike in private credit relative to GDP in the ’80s and ’90s. This should be a stable ratio — a horizontal line rather than a steep slope.

Australia: Private Credit/GDP

Government Debt

Private credit to GDP (above) stabilized after the 2008 global financial crisis but was replaced by a sharp surge in government debt — to create a soft landing. Money spent was again mostly unproductive, with debt growing at a much faster rate than income.

Australia: Federal & State Debt/GDP

Liquidity

Money supply (M3) again should reflect a stable (horizontal) relationship, especially at low interest rates. Instead M3 has grown much faster than GDP, signaling that financial markets are awash with liquidity. This makes the task of containing long-term inflation much more difficult unless there is a prolonged recession.

RBA Cash Rate & Trimmed Mean Inflation

Conclusion

We have shown that risk in financial markets is elevated and the recent bank contagion is likely to leave markets unsettled. Long-term causes of financial instability are cheap debt and unproductive investment, resulting in low GDP growth.

Failure to address rising inflation promptly, with positive real interest rates, is likely to cause recurring waves of inflation. There are only two ways for the Fed and RBA to address this:

High Road

The high road requires holding rates higher for longer, maintaining positive real interest rates for an extended period. Investors are likely to suffer from a resulting credit contraction, with both stocks and real estate falling, but the end result would be restoration of real GDP growth.

Low Road

The low road is more seductive as it involves lower interest rates and erosion of government debt (by rapid growth of GDP in nominal terms). But resulting high inflation is likely to deliver an extended period of low real GDP growth and repeated cycles of higher interest rates as the central bank struggles to contain inflation.

Overpriced assets

Vulnerable asset classes include:

  • Growth stocks, trading at high earnings multiples
  • Commercial real estate (especially offices) purchased on low yields
  • Banks, insurers and pension funds heavily invested in fixed income
  • Sectors that make excessive use of leverage to boost returns:
    • Private equity
    • REITs (some, not all)

Relative Safety

  • Cash (insured deposits only)
  • Short-term Treasuries
  • Gold
  • Defensive sectors, especially Staples
  • Commodities are more cyclical but there are long-term opportunities in:
    • Energy
    • Battery metals

Notes

  1. The Dow fell 25% in 1966 after the yield curve inverted. The NBER declared a recession but later changed their mind and airbrushed it from their records.

Questions

1. Which is the most likely path for the Fed and RBA to follow: the High Road or the Low Road?

Answer: As Churchill once said: “You can always depend on the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have tried everything else.” With rising inflation, the Fed is running out of options but they may still be tempted to kick the can down the road one last time. It seems like a 50/50 probability at present.

2. Comment on RBA housing?

We make no predictions but the rising ratio of housing assets to disposable income is cause for concern.

Australia & USA: Housing Assets/Disposable Income

3. Is Warren Buffett’s indicator still valid with rising offshore earnings of multinational corporations?

Answer: We plotted stock market capitalization against both GDP and GNP (which includes foreign earnings of US multinationals) and the differences are negligible.

Our 2023 Outlook

This is our last newsletter for the year, where we take the opportunity to map out what we see as the major risks and opportunities facing investors in the year ahead.

US Economy

The Fed has been hiking interest rates since March this year, but real retail sales remain well above their pre-pandemic trend (dotted line below) and show no signs of slowing.

Real Retail Sales

Retail sales are even rising strongly against disposable personal income, with consumers running up credit and digging into savings.

Retail Sales/ Disposable Personal Income

The Fed wants to reduce demand in order to reduce inflationary pressure on consumer prices but consumers continue to spend. Household net worth has soared — from massive expansion of home and stock prices, fueled by cheap debt, and growing savings boosted by government stimulus during the pandemic. The ratio of household net worth to disposable personal income has climbed more than 40% since the global financial crisis — from 5.5 to 7.7.

Household Net Worth/ Disposable Personal Income

At the same time, unemployment (3.7%) has fallen close to record lows, increasing inflationary pressures as employers compete for scarce labor.

Unemployment

Real Growth

Hours worked contracted by an estimated 0.12% in November (-1.44% annualized).

Real GDP & Hours Worked

But annual growth rates for real GDP growth (1.9%) and hours worked (2.1%) remain positive.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Heavy truck sales are also a solid 40,700 units per month (seasonally adjusted). Truck sales normally contract ahead of recessions, marked by light gray bars below, providing a reliable indicator of economic growth. Sales below 35,000 units per month would be bearish.

S&P 500

Inflation & Interest Rates

The underlying reason for the economy’s resilience is the massive expansion in the money supply (M2 excluding time deposits) relative to GDP, after the 2008 global financial crisis, doubling from earlier highs at 0.4 to the current ratio of 0.84. Excessive liquidity helped to suppress interest rates and balloon asset prices, with too much money chasing scarce investment opportunities. In the hunt for yield, investors became blind to risk.

S&P 500

Suppression of interest rates caused the yield on lowest investment grade corporate bonds (Baa) to decline below CPI. A dangerous precedent, last witnessed in the 1970s, negative real rates led to a massive spike in inflation. Former Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, had to hike the Fed funds rate above 19.0%, crashing the economy, in order to tame inflation.

S&P 500

The current Fed chair, Jerome Powell, is doing his best to imitate Volcker, hiking rates steeply after a late start. Treasury yields have inverted, with the 1-year yield (4.65%) above the 2-year (4.23%), reflecting bond market expectations that the Fed will soon be forced to cut rates.

S&P 500

A negative yield curve, indicated by the 10-year/3-month spread below zero, warns that the US economy will go into recession in 2023. Our most reliable indicator, the yield spread has inverted (red rings below) before every recession declared by the NBER since 1960*.

S&P 500

Bear in mind that the yield curve normally inverts 6 to 18 months ahead of a recession and recovers shortly before the recession starts, when the Fed cuts interest rates.

Home Prices

Mortgage rates jumped steeply as the Fed hiked rates and started to withdraw liquidity from financial markets. The sharp rise signals the end of the 40-year bull market fueled by cheap debt. Rising inflation has put the Fed on notice that the honeymoon is over. Deflationary pressures from globalization can no longer be relied on to offset inflationary pressures from expansionary monetary policy.

S&P 500

Home prices have started to decline but have a long way to fall to their 2006 peak (of 184.6) that preceded the global financial crisis.

S&P 500

Stocks

The S&P 500 is edging lower, with negative 100-day Momentum signaling a bear market, but there is little sign of panic, with frequent rallies testing the descending trendline.

S&P 500

Bond market expectations of an early pivot has kept long-term yields low and supported stock prices. 10-Year Treasury yields at 3.44% are almost 100 basis points below the Fed funds target range of 4.25% to 4.50%. Gradual withdrawals of liquidity (QT)  by the Fed have so far failed to dent bond market optimism.

10-Year Treasury Yield & Fed Funds Rate

Treasuries & the Bond Market

Declining GDP is expected to shrink tax receipts, while interest servicing costs on existing fiscal debt are rising, causing the federal deficit to balloon to between $2.5 and $5.0 trillion according to macro/bond specialist Luke Gromen.

Federal Debt/GDP & Federal Deficit/GDP

With foreign demand for Treasuries shrinking, and the Fed running down its balance sheet, the only remaining market  for Treasuries is commercial banks and the private sector. Strong Treasury issuance is likely to increase upward pressure on yields, to attract investors. The inflow into bonds is likely to be funded by an outflow from stocks, accelerating their decline.

Energy

Brent crude prices fell below $80 per barrel, despite slowing releases from the US strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). Demand remains soft despite China’s relaxation of their zero-COVID policy — which some expected to accelerate their economic recovery.

S&P 500

European natural gas inventories are near full, causing a sharp fall in prices. But prices remain high compared to their long-term average, fueling inflation and an economic contraction.

S&P 500

Europe

European GDP growth is slowing, while inflation has soared, causing negative real GDP growth and a likely recession.

S&P 500

Australia, Base Metals & Iron Ore

Base metals rallied on optimism over China’s reopening from lockdowns. Normally a bullish sign for the global economy, breakout above resistance at 175 was short-lived, warning of a bull trap.

S&P 500

Iron ore posted a similar rally, from $80 to $110 per tonne, but is also likely to retreat.

S&P 500

The ASX benefited from the China rally, with the ASX 200 breaking resistance at 7100 to complete a double-bottom reversal. Now the index is retracing to test its new support level. Breach of 7000 would warn of another test of primary support at 6400.S&P 500

China

Optimism over China’s reopening may be premature. Residential property prices continue to fall.

S&P 500

The reopening also risks a massive COVID exit-wave, against an under-prepared population, when restrictions are relaxed.

“In my memory, I have never seen such a challenge to the Chinese health-care system,” Xi Chen, a Yale University global health researcher, told National Public Radio in America this week. With less than four intensive care beds for every 100,000 people and millions of unvaccinated or partially protected older adults, the risks are real.

With official data highly unreliable, it is hard to track exactly what impact China’s U-turn is having. Authorities on Friday reported the first Covid-19 deaths since most restrictions were lifted in early December, but there have been reports that funeral homes in Beijing are struggling to handle the number of bodies being brought in.

“The risk factors are there: eight million people are essentially not vaccinated,” said Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Unless this variant has evolved in a way that makes it harmless, China can’t avoid what happened in Taiwan or in Hong Kong,” he added, referring to significant “exit waves” in both places.

The scale of the surge is unlikely to be apparent for months, but modelling suggests it could be grim. A report from the University of Hong Kong released on Thursday warned that a best case scenario is 700,000 fatalities – forecasts from a UK-based analytics firm put deaths at between 1.3 and 2.1 million.

“We’re still at a very early stage in this particular exit wave,” said Prof Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. (The Telegraph)

China relied on infrastructure spending to get them out of past economic contractions but debt levels are now too high for stimulus on a similar scale to 2008. Expansion of credit to local government and real estate developers is likely to cause further stagnation, with the rise of zombie banking and real estate sectors — as Japan experienced for more than three decades — suffocating future growth.

S&P 500

Conclusion

Resilient consumer spending, high household net worth, and a tight labor market all make the Fed’s job difficult. If the current trend continues, the Fed will be forced to hike interest rates higher than the bond market expects, in order to curb demand and tame inflation.

Expected contraction of European and Chinese economies, combined with rate hikes in the US, are likely to cause a global recession.

There are two possible exits. First, if central banks stick to their guns and hold interest rates higher for longer, a major and extended economic contraction is almost inevitable. While inflation may be tamed, the global economy is likely to take years to recover.

The second option is for central banks to raise inflation targets and suppress long-term interest rates in order to create a soft landing. High inflation and negative real interest rates may prolong the period of low growth but negative real rates would rescue the G7 from precarious debt levels that have ensnared them over the past decade. A similar strategy was successfully employed after WWII to extricate governments from high debt levels relative to GDP.

As to which option will be chosen is a matter of political will. The easier second option is therefore more likely, as politicians tend to follow the line of least resistance.

We have refrained from weighing in on the likely outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Ukraine presently has the upper hand but the conflict is a wild card that could cause a spike in energy prices if it escalates or a positive boost to the European economy in the unlikely event that peace breaks out.

Our strategy is to remain overweight in gold, critical materials, defensive stocks and cash, while underweight bonds and high-multiple technology stocks. In the longer term, we will seek to invest cash in real assets when the opportunity presents itself.

Acknowledgements

  • Hat tip to Macrobusiness for the Pantheon Macroeconomics (China Residential) and Goldman Sachs (China Local Government Funding & Excavator Hours) charts.

Notes

* The yield curve inverted ahead of a 25% fall in the Dow in 1966. The NBER declared a recession but later changed their minds and airbrushed it out of their records.

Australia: Hard times

You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure out that 2023 is going to be a tough year. Australian consumers have already worked this out, with sentiment plunging to record lows.

Australia: Consumer Sentiment

The bellwether of the Australian economy is housing. Prices are tumbling, with annual growth now close to zero.

Australia: Housing

Iron ore, another strong indicator, rallied on news that China is easing COVID restrictions but prices are still trending lower.

Iron Ore

The Chinese economy faces a host of problems. A crumbling real estate sector, over-burdened with debt. Threat of a widespread pandemic as COVID restrictions are eased. Private sector growth collapsing as the hardline government reverts to a centrally planned economy. And a major trading partner, the US, intent on restricting China’s access to critical technology.

China

Rate hikes and inflation

The RBA hiked interest rates by another 25 basis points this week, lifting the cash rate to 3.1%. But the central bank is way behind the curve, with the real cash rate still deeply negative.

Australia: RBA Cash Rate

Monthly CPI eased to an annual rate of 6.9% in October, down from 7.3% in September, reflecting an easing of goods inflation.

Australia: CPI

But a rising Wages Index reflects underlying inflationary pressures that may force the RBA to contain with further rate hikes.

Australia: Wages Index

The lag from previous rate hikes is also likely to slow consumer spending. Borrowers on fixed rate mortgages face a steep rise in repayments when their existing fixed rate term expires and they are forced to rollover at far higher fixed or variable rates. A jump of at least 2.50% p.a. means a hike of more than A$1,000 per month in interest payments on a $500K mortgage.

Australia: Housing Interest Rates

GDP Growth

The largest contributor to GDP growth, consumption, is expected to contract.

Australia: GDP Contribution

Real GDP growth is already slowing, with growth falling to 0.6% in the third quarter — a 2.4% annualized rate. Contraction of consumption is likely to take real GDP growth negative.

Australia: GDP Contribution

Plunging business investment also warns of low real growth in the years ahead.

Australia: Business Investment

Record low unemployment seems to be the only positive.

Australia: Business Investment

But that is likely to drive wage rates and inflation higher, forcing the RBA into further rate hikes.

Conclusion

We may hope for a resurgence of the Chinese economy to boost exports and head off an Australian recession. But hope is not a strategy and China is unlikely to do us any favors.

We expect rising interest rates to cause a sharp contraction in the housing market, tipping Australia’s economy into a recession in 2023.

Acknowledgements

Charts were sourced from the RBA and ABS.
Ross Gittins: Hard times are coming for the Australian economy

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.