Australia & Canada in 4 charts

RBA governor Phil Lowe recently made a speech comparing the experiences of Australia and Canada over the last decade. Both have undergone a resources and housing boom. Four charts highlight the differences and similarities between the two countries.

Australia’s spike in mining investment during the resources boom did serious damage to non-mining investment while Canada’s smaller boom had no impact.

Australia & Canada: Mining v. Non-Mining Investment

Immigration fueled a spike in population growth in Australia, adding pressure on infrastructure and housing.

Australia & Canada: Population Growth

Both countries are experiencing a housing bubble, fueled by low interest rates and lately by export of China’s property bubble, with capital fleeing China and driving up house prices in the two countries.

Australia & Canada: Housing

Record levels of household debt make the situation more precarious and vulnerable to a correction.

Australia & Canada: Household Debt

Hat tip to David Llewellyn-Smith at Macrobusiness

We Are Growing Less Positive (But Not Negative) Toward Equities | Bob Doll

Great headline from Bob Doll (Nuveen Investments) latest newsletter.

Bob Doll

“….we think the easy gains for equities are in the rearview mirror and we are growing less positive toward the stock market. We do not believe the current bull market has ended, but the pace and magnitude of the gains we have seen over the past year are unlikely to persist.”

His key points:

  • We believe investors are overly complacent about the state of the global economy and the political backdrop.

  • We remain cautiously optimistic toward equities, but think the pace of recent gains is unlikely to persist and that risks will rise this year.

Still positive on the economy but wary of the political backdrop seems a common theme among investment managers. The timing of any reversal (Doll: 2018) will largely be determined by inflation and interest rates.

Source: Weekly Investment Commentary from Bob Doll | Nuveen

Michael Gove on Brexit, productivity and innovation

Interesting viewpoint on Brexit.  How the EU became anti-innovation, erecting barriers to entry which favor incumbents.

Bond spreads bullish for US, less so Australia

Yield Curve

The yield curve is one of the best predictors of US economic recessions. Every time the yield curve has turned negative in the last fifty years, a recession has followed.

First of all, what is a yield curve? It is the plot of yields on bonds, normally Treasuries, against their maturities. Long maturity bonds are expected to have higher yields than short-term bills, to compensate for the increased risk (primarily of interest rate changes). If you tie your money up for longer, you would expect a higher return. Hence a rising yield curve.

A rising yield curve is a major source of profit to the banks as their funding is mostly short-term while they charge long-term rates to borrowers, pocketing a healthy interest margin.

When the Fed steps into the market, however, restricting the flow of money into the economy, then short-term rates rise faster than long-term rates and the yield curve can invert (referred to as a negative yield curve).

Bank interest margins are squeezed — it is no longer profitable to borrow short and lend long — and they restrict the flow of new credit.

Credit is the lifeblood of the economy and activity slows.

The chart below compares US recessions to the yield differential: the difference between 10-year Treasury yields and the yield on 3-month T-bills. The yield differential falls below zero when 3-month T-bills yield more than 10-year T-notes.

Yield Differential: 10-year Treasury yields minus 3-month T-bills

You can see that every time the yield differential dips below zero it is followed by a gray bar indicating a recession. There is one exception: the phantom recession of 1966 when the S&P 500 fell 22%. This was originally certified as a recession by the NBER but they later changed their mind and airbrushed it out of history.

You can also see that the yield differential is declining at present but, at 2.0%, it is a long way from a flat or negative yield curve. This supports my argument last week that current Fed rate hikes are more about normalizing interest rates than about monetary tightening.

That could change in the future but at present the bull market still appears to have plenty in the tank.

Corporate Bond Spreads

Corporate bond spreads — the yield difference between high-grade corporate bonds and the risk-free Treasury rate — are another useful indicator of the state of the economy.

Wide bond spreads indicate increased risk of corporate default. Investors are concerned about the state of the economy and demand a higher premium for taking credit risk.

Narrow spreads suggest that credit premiums are low and confidence in the economy is good.

If we examine the chart below, bond spreads are declining, indicating confidence in the US economy, with even the lowest investment grade BBB dipping below 150 basis points (or 1.50%). This is synonymous with a bull market.

US Bond Spreads

Australian corporate bond spreads are higher than the US, with BBB still at 200 bps. They have also declined over the last year but seem to be trending upward from their 2013 low. This is not conclusive as the current trough is not yet complete, but a higher low would warn that credit risk is rising.

Australian Bond Spreads

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

~ Warren Buffett

Jewel Kilcher – Hands

Interesting life story:

Europe: More bull markets

The FTSE 100 continues to advance after respecting its new support level at 7000/7100. Rising troughs on Twiggs Money Flow indicate strong buying pressure. Follow-through above 7350 would signal an advance to 7500*. The long-term target is 8000.

FTSE 100

* Target: 7100 + ( 7100 – 6700 ) = 7500

A weak correction on Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 50 over the last 6 weeks suggests buying pressure, also reflected by rising Twiggs Money Flow. Recovery above 3300 signals a fresh advance with a target of 3500*.

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 50

* Target: 3300 + ( 3300 – 3100 ) = 3500

Dow and Nasdaq: It’s a bull market

The Nasdaq 100 is in blue sky territory, having broken clear of its Dotcom high at 4900. Rising troughs on Twiggs Money Flow signal long-term buying pressure. A correction to test the new support level remains likely but this is unlikely to upset the bull market.

Nasdaq 100

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is also in a bull market, headed for a test of 21000. Twiggs Money Flow troughs above zero again indicate strong buying pressure.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

The Dow Jones Transport Average is also in blue sky territory having respected its new support level at 9000. The up-trend provides bull market confirmation required by classic Dow Theory.

Dow Jones Transport Average

Interest rates bearish for gold

10-Year Treasury Yields are consolidating below resistance at 2.50%. Long tails suggest medium-term buying pressure. Breakout is likely and would offer a target of 3.0%.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Dollar Index rally has so far been muted since finding support at 100. But rising long-term yields are likely to fuel the advance, with bearish consequences for gold.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold is consolidating below $1250/ounce. Reversal below $1200 would warn of another decline. Breach of primary support at $1130 would confirm. Arguments for a further advance appear weak, but breakout above $1250 would signal an advance to $1300.

Spot Gold

ASX banks lead the charge

The ASX 200 followed-through above 5750 after respecting its new support level at 5600, indicating an advance to 6000*. Rising Twiggs Money Flow signals buying pressure.

ASX 200

* Target medium-term: 5800 + ( 5800 – 5600 ) = 6000

Australian banks are leading the charge, with the ASX 300 Banks Index testing 9000. A trough high above zero on Twiggs Money Flow indicates strong buying pressure. Breakout above 9000 would signal another advance.

ASX 300 Banks Index

Bank profits have declined for the last two years, but Bad and Doubtful Debt Charges are not a major cause.

RBA Chart Pack: Bank Profits and Bad Debt Expenses

The main culprit is declining return on equity as banks beefed up capital ratios and risk-weighting on residential mortgages in response to pressure from APRA.

RBA Chart Pack: Bank Return on Equity

Seven Signs Australians Are Facing Economic Armageddon

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

Here are his seven signs:

Seven Signs Australians Are Facing Economic Armageddon

Sign 1: Record Australian Household Debt

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

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

Sign 2: Record Australian Net Foreign Debt

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

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

Sign 3: Record Low Interest rates

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

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

4: Australian Housing Bubble

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

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

5: Significant Increases in Global Debt

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

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

Sign 6: Major International Asset Bubbles

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

Sign 7: Global Derivatives Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the risks may be overstated:

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

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

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

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

From Joe Hildebrand at News.com.au:

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

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

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

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

Source: Apocalyptic warning for Australian families

India’s Sensex meets resistance

India’s Sensex is running into resistance at 29000, with last week’s doji candlestick indicating indecision. Twiggs Money Flow recovered above zero but has since leveled off. Breakout above 29000 would find long-term resistance at 30000 which may prove to be stubborn. Reversal below 28000 would warn of another correction to test support at 26000.

Sensex Index

Reserve Bank chief gently reproves Turnbull’s failings

RBA governor Philip Lowe told the Turnbull government to get moving on infrastructure last Thursday. From Ross Gittins:

Another point worth noting is Lowe’s implication that the budget needs to achieve balance in spite of the huge cost of cutting company tax.
….Note, too, Lowe’s reference to “achieving a balance between recurrent spending and fiscal revenue” (my emphasis).

This isn’t the first time he’s quietly taken issue with Treasury’s longstanding practice of exaggerating the size of budget deficits by lumping spending on capital works in with recurrent spending – unlike the state governments.

Borrowing part of the cost of building infrastructure that will deliver economic and social benefits for 30 or 50 years is in no way “living beyond our means”.

And, indeed, one place higher on Lowe’s to-do list than achieving budget surplus in spite of company tax cuts is the task of “providing adequate high-quality infrastructure to help our citizens be as productive as they can be and enjoy a high quality of life”.

He notes we’ve got a strongly growing population which, if we fail to invest in sufficient infrastructure, including transport infrastructure, can “impair our ability to compete and be as productive as we can be”.

It’s surprising how many people are great advocates of high immigration levels, but won’t countenance the increased spending and borrowing needed to provide the additional infrastructure – roads, public transport, hospitals, schools – used by all the extra people.

Then they wonder why our productivity performance is weak.

Productivity improvements require more than just infrastructure, but it’s a start. A modern infrastructure lowers input costs and makes industry more competitive.

Other structural adjustment, in addition to infrastructure spending, is needed to make Australia competitive in global markets instead of simply digging holes in the ground. Some day the ore and coal may run out, or demand shrink, leaving a hole in exports.

Electricity costs are one of my favorite examples, where the average retail price of electricity is almost 3 times that of the US, Canada and Mexico….and more than 4 times that of India and China. Basic input costs like this help to make economies competitive. Some may argue that Japan and Germany are successful despite similar high electricity costs, but consider how much more competitive they would be if they could match their trading partners.

Source: Reserve Bank chief Dr Philip Lowe gently reproves Turnbull’s failings

A quiet giant of investing weighs in on Donald Trump

Andrew Ross Sorkin discusses a private letter to investors written by Seth A. Klarman, the 59-year-old value investor who runs Baupost Group, a hedge fund which manages about $US30 billion:

While Mr Klarman has long kept a low public profile, he is considered a giant within investment circles. He is often compared to Warren Buffett, and The Economist magazine once described him as “The Oracle of Boston”, where Baupost is based. For good measure, he is one of the very few hedge managers Mr Buffett has publicly praised.

In his letter, Mr Klarman sets forth a countervailing view to the euphoria that has buoyed the sharemarket since Mr Trump took office, describing “perilously high valuations”.

“Exuberant investors have focused on the potential benefits of stimulative tax cuts, while mostly ignoring the risks from America-first protectionism and the erection of new trade barriers,” he wrote.

“President Trump may be able to temporarily hold off the sweep of automation and globalisation by cajoling companies to keep jobs at home, but bolstering inefficient and uncompetitive enterprises is likely to only temporarily stave off market forces,” he continued. “While they might be popular, the reason the US long ago abandoned protectionist trade policies is because they not only don’t work, they actually leave society worse off.”

Investors are hypnotised

In particular, Mr Klarman appears to believe that investors have become hypnotised by all the talk of pro-growth policies, without considering the full ramifications. He worries, for example, that Mr Trump’s stimulus efforts “could prove quite inflationary, which would likely shock investors”.

Much of Seth Klarman’s anxiety seems to emanate from the leadership style of US President Donald Trump.

And he appears deeply concerned about a swelling national debt that he suggests can undermine the economy’s growth over the long term.

“The Trump tax cuts could drive government deficits considerably higher,” Mr Klarman wrote. “The large 2001 Bush tax cuts, for example, fueled income inequality while triggering huge federal budget deficits. Rising interest rates alone would balloon the federal deficit, because interest payments on the massive outstanding government debt would skyrocket from today’s artificially low levels.”

Much of Mr Klarman’s anxiety seems to emanate from Mr Trump’s leadership style. He described it this way: “The erratic tendencies and overconfidence in his own wisdom and judgment that Donald Trump has demonstrated to date are inconsistent with strong leadership and sound decision-making.”

He also linked this point – which is a fair one – to what “Trump style” means for Mr Klarman’s constituency and others.

‘Shockingly unpredictable’

“The big picture for investors is this: Trump is high volatility, and investors generally abhor volatility and shun uncertainty,” he wrote. “Not only is Trump shockingly unpredictable, he’s apparently deliberately so; he says it’s part of his plan.”

While Mr Klarman clearly is hoping for the best, he warned: “If things go wrong, we could find ourselves at the beginning of a lengthy decline in dollar hegemony, a rapid rise in interest rates and inflation, and global angst.”

From the letter, it is hard to divine exactly how Mr Klarman is investing his fund’s money. His office declined to comment on the letter. His fund has more than 30 per cent in cash. He has lost money in only three of the past 34 years.

The New York Times

Forward P/E for the S&P 500 is falling, so I do not agree that valuations are spiraling out of control. But if, at some point, earnings take a hit, either from tighter Fed monetary policy or a trade war, then we are in for a wild ride.

I do agree that protectionism is dangerous and can lead to uncompetitive industries. Trump has to be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when abandoning international trade agreements. There are unfair elements that need to be fixed* but once these are addressed the US would stand to gain more than it gives in return.

We will have to assess the impact of tax cuts when the full proposal is on the table. At present I see some good, some bad, so am not too alarmed about the effect on the national debt. Hopefully saner heads will prevail.

But I share Klarman’s concern about Trump’s unpredictability. Though this may be exaggerated by a hostile media, we have seen enough to be concerned.

It would be wise to overestimate the abilities of some of the USA’s competitors (and some allies) and to underestimate his own. Trump faces some shrewd and wily statesmen with many years of experience to whom he must seem like a kid in short pants, full of enthusiasm and naivety. That way way we are less likely to be taken by surprise.

Source: A quiet giant of investing weighs in on Donald Trump

  • The primary source of unfairness, currency manipulation, could be minimized by negotiation of a new monetary order — governing monetary policy and exchange rates — to replace the Bretton Woods system abandoned by Nixon in the early 1970s.

The Threat of Inflation

From the Trading Diary:

I received a message from a US reader suggesting I should “stay out of politics”.

I would love to stay out of politics. Frankly, I find it tiresome. Unfortunately, politics and the economy are so intertwined as to make the study of one meaningless without consideration of the other. I say “unfortunately” because a lot of the damage done to the economy is caused by the political system.

As for Donald Trump, I am a conservative but do not support him. He is not another Reagan who can lead from the center and inspire his country. If anything he is a polarizing force, more ego-driven than Nixon and just as unpredictable.

I hope I am wrong. Trump has many sound policies and has made some solid appointments to his team. Don’t believe everything you read from a hostile media. They could do a lot of good. Provided they are able to manage the elephant in the lifeboat — the destabilizing side of Trump’s nature.

Now that I have offended at least half of all US readers — slightly less than half if you listen to bleating about the majority vote — let me explain why politics and economics are so intertwined.

Apart from trade wars, which I will discuss at a later date, I see the main threat to the US economy as inflation.

Before I start, let me say that these dangers are not immediate and the present boom is likely to continue for the next 12 to 18 months. But they could quickly materialize, bringing the boom to a premature end, so it is best to keep a weather eye on them.

Inflation

Earlier this week I discussed why the inflation outlook is so important to stock market performance:

From Tim Wallace at The Sydney Morning Herald:

Nine years on from the start of the financial crisis, the US recovery may be overheating, Legal & General Investment Management economist James Carrick has warned.

He has predicted a series of interest rate hikes will tip the US into a 2018 recession.”Every recession in the US has been caused by a tightening of credit conditions,” he said, noting inflation is on the rise and the US Federal Reserve is discussing plans for higher interest rates.

Officials at the Fed have only raised interest rates cautiously, because inflation has not taken off, so they do not believe the Fed needs to take the heat out of the economy.

But economists fear the strong dollar and low global commodity prices have restricted inflation and disguised domestic price rises. Underneath this, they fear the economy is already overheating.

As a result, they expect inflation to pick up sharply this year, forcing more rapid interest rate hikes.

That could cause a recession next year, they say. In their models, the signals are that this could take place in mid-2018.

Harvard scholar Paul Schmelzing points out that inflation is starting to rear its head in both China and Germany, with producer prices rising. This may in part be a result of the falling value of the Yuan and Euro against the Dollar, resulting in higher domestic commodity prices.

The opposite, however, is true for the US, with a rising Dollar lowering import prices and acting as a headwind against inflation.

The consumer price index (CPI) is rising because of higher crude oil prices but core CPI (excluding food & energy) has remained fairly constant, around the 2.0 percent target, over the last five years.

Core CPI and CPI

So why the concern?

Well the Fed is more concerned about underlying inflation, best reflected by hourly wage rates, than the headline CPI figure.

A sharp rise in hourly earnings rates would force the Fed to respond with tighter monetary policy to take the heat out of the economy.

The chart below shows how the Fed slams on the brakes whenever average hourly earning rates grow above 3.0 percent. Each surge in hourly earnings is matched by a dip in the currency growth rate as the Fed tightens the supply of money to slow the economy and reduce inflationary pressure. And tighter monetary normally leads to recession.

Hourly Earnings Growth compared to Currency in Circulation

Two anomalies on the above chart warrant explanation. First, is the sharp upward spike in currency growth in 1999/2000 when the Fed reacted to the LTCM crisis with monetary stimulus despite high inflationary pressures. Second, is the sharp dip in 2010 when the Fed took its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the financial crisis of 2008/2009, mistaking it for a regular recession.

Hourly earnings growth is currently at 2.5 percent, so the Fed has some wiggle room and is only likely to react with tighter monetary policy when the figure reaches 3.0 percent.

Recent rate rises are more about normalizing interest rates — not taming inflation — and are not cause for alarm.

But Paul Schmelzing warns that the combination of a tight labor market and fiscal stimulus could fuel inflation and lead to a bear market in bonds similar to the 1960s.

That is exactly where Donald Trump is headed with a major infrastructure program likely to hit the ground next year. In a tightening labor market, the Fed would be forced to tighten monetary policy, slowing the economy and leading to another bear market in stocks as well as bonds.

Politics is tricky; it cuts both ways. Every time you make a choice, it has unintended consequences.

~ Stone Gossard

Dow: Expect further advances

The Dow Jones Industrial Average respected support at 20000, signaling another advance. Probably to 21000 but it could carry as far as the upper trend channel at 22000. Twiggs Money Flow troughs above zero indicate strong buying pressure.

ASX 200

* Target: 18000 + ( 18000 – 16000 ) = 20000

ASX finds support

The ASX 200 respected its new support level at 5600. Twiggs Money Flow respected the zero line, suggesting buying pressure. Follow-through above 5750 would offer a target of 6000*.

ASX 200

* Target medium-term: 5800 + ( 5800 – 5600 ) = 6000

Europe: Footsie finds its feet

The FTSE 100 respected its new support level at 7000/7100. Rising Twiggs Money Flow indicates buying pressure. Follow-through above 7350 would signal an advance to 7500* and offer a long-term target of 8000.

FTSE 100

* Target: 7100 + ( 7100 – 6700 ) = 7500

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 50 is a long way below its 2007 peak at 4500 but has formed a solid base at 3000. Rising Twiggs Money Flow signals long-term buying pressure, while long tails on recent weekly candles indicate shorter term enthusiasm. Recovery above 3300 would signal a fresh advance.

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 50

Golf: Amazing chipping