ASX 200: Don’t ignore the headwinds

The ASX 200 is advancing to test its all-time (2007) high at 6830, having respected its new support level at 6350.

ASX 200

Shane Oliver, AMP economist, argues that an Australian recession is unlikely as the economy has tailwinds as well as headwinds:

  • mining exports have surged on the back of strong iron ore prices, narrowing the current account deficit;
  • a falling Aussie Dollar will act as a shock absorber to stabilize the economy;
  • the Australian government has strong capacity to stimulate the economy, through tax cuts and infrastructure spending;
  • house prices may be falling but there is no panic selling; and
  • the RBA has further capacity to cut rates if necessary.

The tailwinds can be summed up in two words: iron ore. Without high ore prices, our current account deficit and fiscal deficit would be much larger, limiting the ability of government to stimulate the economy.

Australian headwinds, on the other hand, can be summed up by one words: jobs. High ore prices do not create many jobs.

Job growth is falling and unemployment is expected to rise.

Low jobs growth is eroding consumer confidence, flagged by falling spending on durables such as motor vehicles.

ASX 300 Autos & Components

And housing.

House Prices

The critical question is: will the iron ore tailwind last long enough to save the Australian economy from recession?

High iron ore prices are unlikely to last long. From Reuters on Thursday:

Mining giant Rio Tinto on Thursday lowered its guidance on volumes of iron ore it expects to ship from the key Pilbara producing region in Australia for the third time since April, citing operational problems.

The guidance cut came just hours after Brazilian miner Vale, the world’s No. 1 iron ore producer, said late on Wednesday that it will fully resume Brucutu operations within 72 hours, after a favourable ruling from an appeals court…..Brucutu, which has been operating at only a third of its capacity, was shuttered in February as Vale’s mine operations came under close scrutiny after a tailings dam collapsed in Brazilian town of Brumadinho, killing more than 240 people…..The full operation of Brucutu “should help alleviate concerns about tightness in the market,” said ANZ Research analysts in a note. “However, issues at Rio Tinto’s operations suggest the market still has some challenges ahead.”

Rio Tinto said it now expects shipments from Pilbara at between 320 million tonnes and 330 million tonnes, mostly lower-grade and lower-margin product. Its previous target was between 333 million tonnes and 343 million tonnes.

Vale at the same time reaffirmed its 2019 iron ore and pellets sales guidance of 307 million to 332 million tonnes, saying sales should be around the midpoint of that range, instead of the low end of the range as previously expected.

Chinese steel production is strong.

China Output

Housing construction is rising.

China Housing

But rising housing inventories warn that construction is running ahead of demand, which is likely to exert downward pressure on prices.

While Chinese automobile production is faltering. From WSJ:

Auto sales in China declined for an 11th straight month in May, with the slump in demand showing no sign of easing and the country’s automotive industry bracing for losses tied to new emissions standards.

Sales for the latest month fell 16% from a year earlier, to 1.91 million vehicles….

I am not sure how long the iron ore shortfall will last but I wouldn’t bet on high prices by the end of the year. Nor would I bet on the G20 meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping resolving US-China trade differences.

That leaves uncertain tailwinds and far more certain headwinds.

Australia’s irrelevant election

Satyajit Das spells out the challenges facing the Australian economy in the next decade:

The centerpiece of both major contenders’ campaigns are large tax cuts and significant government spending on infrastructure and welfare. Both parties pay lip service to sound public finance. But the sustainability of policies based on outbidding political opponents and financing permanent expenditure with impermanent revenues is questionable.

….This striking lack of control that Australia has over its economy is grounded in four factors.

….Sadly, no party’s manifesto addresses these fundamental challenges. Tax cuts will not reform a system which needs to be overhauled. Infrastructure spending provides a short-term increase in demand. Bad choice of projects and poor delivery, evidenced by the disappointing National Broadband Network which is over-budget and slow by the best international standards, may not enhance longer-term efficiency and productivity.

The narrowness of the economic base is ignored. No political party is willing to address over-investment in housing, the total value of which is around $6 trillion or around 4 times gross domestic product and constitutes a large proportion of household wealth. Encouraged by complex subsidies, capital is locked up in property, unavailable for more productive activities such as new industries. Leaders are reluctant to champion forceful structural reforms to improve education and skill levels as well as streamline regulation. Instead, all contenders seem happy to rely on windfalls to finance the nation’s living standards through ever shorter electoral cycles.

Worth reading the full article at Nikkei Asian Review

Hat tip to Macrobusiness.

Australia: Headwinds persist

From Elliot Clarke & Simon Murray at Westpac:

…the take home from Budget 2019 is that, while supportive of activity over the long-term, the near-term impact on incomes and activity is limited. Labor’s alternative proposals, as per the budget reply, are also spread out over time. So no matter which party wins in May, the headwinds of persistent weak income growth and declining house prices are set to hold growth well below trend through 2019. This is clear justification for interest rate cuts from the RBA, which Westpac believes will come in August and November.

While the RBA is yet to adopt an easing bias, the April meeting decision statement did emphasise the fluidity of the situation…

The last sentence is important: the RBA has not yet adopted an easing bias. Perhaps because of the housing debt bubble.

Australia: Household Debt and Disposable Income

Business investment has already failed to respond to interest rate cuts.

Australia: Business Investment

10-Year AGB yields are already below US Treasuries but have failed to significantly weaken the Australian Dollar.

Australia: Difference to US 10-Year Bond Yield

House prices are falling.

Australia: Housing Prices

Plunging high-density housing approvals promise a sharp slow-down in housing construction.

Australia: Building Approvals

Dwelling Investment is likely to join Mining Investment in the red, detracting from GDP growth. Windfall iron ore prices (Exports) are keeping the economy afloat, while they last.

Australia: GDP Components

Bank’s impaired and total non-performing assets are low, but likely to rise if the housing fall (and construction down-turn) continues.

Australia: Bank Non-Performing Assets

Bank capital ratios are modest at just over 10% of common equity (CET1) against risk-weighted assets. But that falls to about 5.5% without risk-weighting (leverage ratio). Not a lot of room for comfort.

Australia: Bank Capital

ASX 200 gravestone

Australian housing prices are falling.

Australia: Housing Prices

Fueled by declining credit growth.

Australia: Housing Credit growth

With falling contribution to GDP growth from dwelling investment, and mining investment shrinking….

Australia: GDP Contribution

GDP growth is expected to weaken further.

Australia: GDP growth

The gravestone candlestick on the ASX 200 weekly chart warns of selling pressure. The primary trend is down and the index unlikely to break through resistance at 6300. Expect a correction to test support at 5650; breach would warn of another decline.

ASX 200

I remain cautious on Australian stocks and hold more than 40% in cash and fixed interest in the Australian Growth portfolio.

ASX awaits bear market confirmation

The ASX 200 is testing the former band of primary support between 5650 and 5750. Respect is likely and would confirm a bear market for Australian stocks. Target for a primary decline is 5000.

ASX 200

ASX 300 Metals & Mining Index is testing primary support at 3400. Declining Trend Index peaks warn of selling pressure. Breach of 3400 would confirm a primary down-trend, strengthening the bear signal.

ASX 300 Metals & Mining

House prices are falling but this has not yet had an impact on the record high ratio of household debt to disposable income. Wages growth is slow and it will take a long time for debt ratios to return to saner levels. Expect the housing bear market to last for a similar length of time unless the RBA is desperate enough to make further rate cuts.

RBA: Credit & Broad Money

Bank performance is closely aligned with the housing market. The ASX 300 Banks Index is testing long-term support at 7000. Declining Trend Index peaks warn of selling pressure. Breach of support at 7000 is likely to lead to another decline, with a long-term target of 5000.

ASX 300 Banks Index

I have been cautious on Australian stocks, especially banks, for a while, and hold 40% cash in the Australian Growth portfolio.

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

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).

Australia: RBA hands tied

Falling wage rate growth suggests that we are headed for a period of low growth in employment and personal consumption.

Australia Wage Index

The impact is already evident in the Retail sector.

ASX 300 Retail

The RBA would normally intervene to stimulate investment and employment but its hands are tied. Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble. Household debt is already precariously high in relation to disposable income.

Australia: Household Debt to Disposable Income

Like Mister Micawber in David Copperfield, we are waiting in the hope that something turns up to rescue us from our predicament. It’s not a good situation to be in. If something bad turns up and the RBA is low on ammunition.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and — and in short you are for ever floored….

~ Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Is the Coalition prepared to die defending the housing bubble?

I don’t always agree with David Llewellyn-Smith but love his pithy style. Here he takes the Turnbull government to task over their housing and immigration policies.

Cross-posted with kind permission from Macrobusiness:

….Because that’s what it looks like.

We all know that the Coalition hearts the housing bubble. Everything it does spells undying infatuation:

  • protecting property tax rorts;
  • focusing only on supply-side reform and even then doing pretty much nothing;
  • shelving any and all policy reform that might disrupt its smooth and burgeoning progeny, plus
  • running a staggeringly huge immigration program despite widespread economic damage.

It’s the last point that I want to focus on today because that’s the one where Coalition bubble-love rubber hits the road for its electoral prospects.

Since the WA election, Coalition polling has been devastated. A little bounce in Newspoll has been wiped out by landslides against the government in Ipsos and Essential polls. Moreover, the carnage has been just as apparent in the Coalition’s primary vote which has hemorrhaged voters to One Nation. The latter has been unaffected by the WA election despite doing less well than expected.

The major change in politics since the state result has been a commitment by One Nation to never ally with the Coalition again. The fringe party has realised that such pragmatism is lethal to its prospects.

This simple truth seems yet to have filtered through to the federal Coalition. As One Nation takes a material portion of its vote, and that vote refuses point blank to ally with it, there is ZERO chance of the Coalition winning a federal election ever again, and probably not at the state level either. While One Nation exists in this form, the Coalition has effectively ceased to exist as a political force.

One might have thought that the prospect of NEVER WINNING ANOTHER ELECTION might be enough to trigger some soul-searching in the party. And it has done a little. Do-nothing Malcolm has switched from toying with random ideas to deploying random ideas but it’s still all at the margins and is meaningless:

  • 18c reform won’t move the needle;
  • contradictory coal and hydro investment won’t move the needle;
  • a retrograde company tax cut won’t move the needle;
  • a supply-side housing affordability Budget won’t move the needle.

All together they might nudge it a little but it won’t be enough. Nothing like it.

Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that the Coalition could do the following immensely popular policies and it would still get clubbed from office:

  • abolish negative gearing;
  • install gas reservation;
  • offer tax cuts.

The problem is that these are all cyclical fixes for what is a structural shift to One Nation driven by one very simple truth: Australians are done with high immigration.

That’s Pauline Hanson’s primary appeal. She makes little sense on other issues and is bat shit crazy on many. But her one great power, the one that vibrates deep in the bowels of every Australian that is marginalised by house prices, falling wages, can’t get a job, is fearful of Islam or just a bigot, or is just plain pissed off at the direction of the country, is the deep and legitimate truth that running a mass immigration program during a period of high unemployment is treasonous economics.

Thus there is only one policy shift that can change the Coalition’s fate and it is as plain as the nose on Pauline Hanson’s face: cut immigration and cut it hard.

Cutting immigration back to 70k per year or less would completely shift every electoral parameter as the Coalition:

  • finally had a housing affordability policy to put up against Labor’s negative gearing reforms;
  • finally had an environmental policy to put up against the immigration-hypocritical Greens;
  • could gut One Nation overnight and go to work on wiping it out by exposing the loons as weakening polls divide them.

This one policy shift would put the Coalition instantly in the running for the next election even if it were Do-nothing Malcolm that did it.

So, why does the Coalition suffer from such suicidal bubble-love that it can’t or won’t grab this lifeline?

  • many Coalition MPs are personally leveraged to the bubble so they’ve their own financial interests in mind;
  • as yesterday’s revelations about the MPs that prevented negative gearing reform showed, they are political hacks with terrible policy judgement;
  • they are bereft of the intellectual depth and corporate memory to contemplate alternative economic models. Cutting immigration to 70k would take pressure off eastern capital house prices enabling further rate cuts and a lower currency;
  • the Howard and Costello myths make this even worse,
  • and, the Coalition is closely wedded to the business interests in banking, retail and construction that benefit from high immigration even as the net result is negative for the wider economy.

I’ll add one more factor which appears increasingly important. Career politicians don’t care for their own political party or its nominal values as they used to. The dominant ideology of unglued self-interest comes with the wonderful fringe benefit of not having to take responsibility for anything. Contemporary Coalition MPs see party membership as a gravy train to private sector riches in board positions, lobbying roles and other forms of ‘control fraud’ in the very sectors that thrive on the bubble. So, for them, arbitraging the fate of the party for personal gain is all just a part of being a good liberal.

Backing self-interest used to work in political forecasting but does this rabble even have that in them?