Australia: Warning signs of a contraction

Australia faces shrinking inflationary pressures.


Wage growth is falling.

Wage Price Index

Credit growth is shrinking.


Growth of currency in circulation is also slowing. The fall below 5% warns of a contraction.

Currency in Circulation: Growth

One piece of good news is that Chinese monetary policy seems to be easing. After a sharp contraction of M1 money stock growth in January, February shows a partial recovery. Collapse of the Chinese property bubble may be deferred a while longer.

China M1 Money Stock

Which is good news for iron ore exporters. At least in the short-term.

Inflation surges

Inflation is rising, with CPI climbing steeply above the Fed’s 2% target. But core CPI excluding energy and food remains stable.

Consumer Price Index

Job gains were the lowest since May 2016.

Job Gains

But the unemployment rate fell to a low 4.5%.


Hourly wage rate growth has eased below 2.5%, suggesting that underlying inflationary pressures are contained.

Average Hourly Earnings Growth

The Fed is unlikely to accelerate its normalization of interest rates unless we see a surge in core inflation and/or hourly earnings growth.

Jobs, Inflation & the Fed | ECRI

From Lakshman Achuthan at ECRI:

Headline jobs growth came in well below expectations, and weather played some part in suppressing job growth, both in construction and retail.

But the jobless rate dropped to 4.5%, its lowest reading since 2007, so the Fed’s “full-employment” mandate has been met.

Their other mandate is on inflation, and over the past year I’ve discussed our U.S. Future Inflation Gauge, which anticipated the inflation cycle upturn shown by the chart. Today the forward looking USFIG remains near an 8¾ -year high.

The chart shows the year-over-year PCE inflation rising sharply to a 5-year high, and breaching the Fed’s 2% inflation target which is defined by this inflation measure.

For those who might think this is just about oil prices, please note that core PCE inflation, ex-food and energy, has also been rising, and now above 1¾%, the highest reading in over 2½ years.

This is what a cyclical upswing in inflation looks like.

Moreover, the U.S. economy has a good tailwind from rising global growth.

All of this helps explain why the Fed is finally able to implement a full-fledged rate hike cycle.

Source: Jobs, Inflation & the Fed | News | News and Events | ECRI

Robert Shiller: Is he right that stocks are overpriced?

I frequently come across stocks such as Netflix [NFLX], trading on a forward PE of 137 (Morningstar), or even Coca Cola [KO] and Procter & Gamble [PG] that leave me muttering about unrealistic valuations.

Nobel laureate Robert Shiller this week commented that he was no longer buying stocks as he believed they were overvalued. His justification is the CAPE index which compares current stock prices to the 10-year average of inflation-adjusted earnings.

Shiller CAPE Index

The index is below its Dotcom high but is approaching the same level that it peaked at in 1929. Is the CAPE index flawed or does this portend disaster?

Bear in mind that Shiller is not selling all his existing stocks — he has merely stopped buying — and is the first to point out that the CAPE index is a poor tool for timing market tops and bottoms.

Before we make any rash decisions let us compare Shiller’s index to a few other handy measures of market valuation.

Warren Buffett’s favorite

Warren Buffett’s favorite measure of market value is to compare total stock market capitalization to GDP. The higher the ratio, the more the stock market is overvalued.

US Market Cap to GDP

This looks even worse than the CAPE index, with market cap to GDP well above its 2007 high and well on its way to Dotcom levels.

Adapting the ratio to include offshore earnings of multinational companies makes very little difference to the results. Here I compare market cap to GNP as well as GDP. GNP, or gross national product, includes offshore earnings of domestioc companies rather than just domestic earnings as with GDP. The end result is much the same.

US Market Cap to GNP

Market Cap to Corporate Profits

When we compare market capitalization to current profits after tax, however, valuations are still high but nowhere near the irrational exuberance of the Dotcom era.

US Market Cap to Profits after Tax

The current peak resembles earlier peaks in the 1980s and 1960s.

What this tells us is that corporate profits are rising faster than GDP. And that a 10-year average may be a poor reflection of future sustainable earnings.

Sustainable Earnings

Are current earnings sustainable? There is no clear answer to this. But there are some key criteria if earnings are to remain at current levels of GDP.

First, wage rate growth remains low. The graph below illustrates how profits fall when employee compensation rises (per unit of value added).

Wage Rates

Second, that interest rates stay low. The Fed is doing its best to normalize interest rates but monetary tightening would spoil the party. That is, deliberate tightening by the Fed to subdue rising inflationary pressures.

A third element is corporate taxes but there seems little risk of rising taxes in the current climate.

The key variable for both #1 and #2 is wage rates. At present these are subdued, so no cause for alarm.

Wage Rates


Australia’s economic growth is slowing.

Employment and Participation rates are falling.

Australia Employment & Participation Rates

Wage rate growth is slowing.

Australia Wage Rates

Slowing wage rate growth and inflation confirm that the economy is faltering.

Australia Underlying Inflation

The RBA, with one eye on the housing bubble, has indicated its reluctance to cut rates further. Increased infrastructure spending by Federal and State governments seems the only viable alternative.

With the motor industry winding down and apartment construction headed for a cliff, this is becoming increasingly urgent.

US Job Growth, Wage Rates & Inflation

Payrolls jumped by a seasonally adjusted 235,000 jobs in February, setting the Fed on track for another rate rise next week.

US Job Growth

GDP growth is projected to lift in line with employment, wage rates and hours worked. At this stage, the Fed is still attempting to normalize interest rates rather than slow the economy to cool inflationary pressures.

Projected GDP

Wage rate growth remains muted, at close to 2.5 percent, so rate hikes are likely to proceed at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rates and Money Supply

The need to tighten monetary policy is only likely to be seriously considered when wage rate growth [light green] exceeds 3.0 percent [dark green line]. Then you are likely to witness a dip in money supply growth [blue], as in 2000 and 2006, with bearish consequences for stocks.

*The dip in 2010 was a mistake by the Fed, taking its foot off the gas pedal too soon after the 2008 crash.

The key component driving inflation

Two interesting graphs on inflation from Niels Jensen at Absolute Return Partners:

….similarities between the story unfolding in the UK and the one in the US. Core inflation in both countries is significantly higher than it is in the Eurozone – just above 2% in the US and just below 2% in the UK whereas, in the Eurozone, it is only 0.9%. Furthermore, services are very much the engine that drives core inflation in both the UK and the US (exhibit 6).

Exhibit 6: The drivers of core inflation (US only)Source: The Daily Shot, BEA, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Haver Analytics, February 2017. Data as of December 2016

To a very significant degree that is down to rising medical care costs (exhibit 7). As the populace ages, this can only get worse – at least in the US, where almost all healthcare is provided privately and paid for by insurance companies.

Exhibit 7: US personal consumption expenditures by component (%)
Source: The Daily Shot, BEA, Haver Analytics, February 2017

Source: A Note on Inflation: Is it here or isn’t it? – The Absolute Return Letter

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

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.


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

China’s Day of Reckoning | The Market Oracle

From Michael Pento:

Therein lies China’s dilemma: Allow the yuan to intractably fall, which will increase capital flight and destroy its asset-bubble economy. Or, raise interest rates to stabilize the currency and risk collapsing asset bubbles that will crumble under the weight of rising debt carrying costs.

China embodies a Keynesian dystopia that results from central planning gone mad. It’s mirage of prosperity should soon be coming to an unpleasant end. The misguided belief any government can print unlimited amounts of money and issue a massive amount of new credit; while providing the conditions that are the antitheses necessary for viable growth, has one significant Achilles heel: eventually, it will destroy your currency. Currency is always the pressure valve that explodes in an economy that has reached the apogee of dysfunction. The Red nation isn’t the only offender on this front, but is certainly one of the worst. Therefore, China and the yuan may have finally run out of time.

Source: Chinese Yuan’s Day of Reckoning :: The Market Oracle ::

China hits turbulence

Shanghai Composite Index is retracing from its recent high at 3300. A test of support at 3100 is likely. Rising Twiggs Money Flow indicates long-term buying pressure but this may be distorted by state intervention in the stock market earlier this year.

Shanghai Composite Index

* Target medium-term: 3100 + ( 3100 – 2800 ) = 3400

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index found support at 22000 but falling Money Flow warns of strong selling pressure. Breach of 22000 would signal a primary down-trend with an initial target of 20000.

Hang Seng Index

The best summary I have seen of China’s dilemma is from David Llewellyn-Smith at Macrobusiness:

…China’s choices are limited here by the “impossible trinity”, that a country [pegged to the Dollar] can only choose two out of the following three:

  • control of a fixed and stable exchange rate
  • independent monetary policy
  • free and open international capital flows

China has been trying to run this gauntlet by sustaining an overly high growth rate via loose monetary policy and recently liberalised capital markets plus exchange rate. But it can’t have stability in all three and so is in full reverse on the last two to prevent a currency rout and/or monetary tightening.

Rising interest rates in the US are likely to bedevil China’s monetary policy. A falling Yuan would encourage capital flight. Capital flight would damage the Yuan, encouraging further outflows. Support of the Yuan would deplete foreign reserves and cause monetary tightening. Loose monetary policy would encourage speculative bubbles which could damage the banking system. A falling Yuan and loose monetary policy would fuel inflation. Inflation would further weaken the Yuan and encourage capital flight. Restriction of capital outflows would end capital inflows.

I am sure that there are some very smart people working on the problem. But they are probably the same smart people who created the problem in the first place.

Why would the Fed raise interest rates when the economy is slowing?

10-Year Treasury yields have rebounded off their all-time low, shown here on a monthly chart, but remain in a secular down-trend. Only recovery above 3.0 percent (a long way off) would signal that the long-term down-trend has reversed.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The 5-year breakeven inflation rate (5-year Treasury Yield – 5-year TIPS yield) suggests that the long-term outlook for inflation is low. But growth in Hourly Non-Farm Earnings and Core CPI (excluding Food and Energy) has started to rise.

5-year Breakeven rate & Hourly Non-Farm Earnings Growth

One would expect the Fed to be preparing for another rate increase to tame inflationary pressures. But there are still concerns about the strength of the recovery.

Growth in estimated total weekly Non-Farm Earnings has been declining since early 2015; calculated by multiplying Average Hourly Earnings by Average Weekly Hours and the Total Non-Farm Payroll.

Estimated Weekly Non-Farm Earnings

If we examine the breakdown, growth in the Total Non-Farm Payroll is slowing and Average Weekly Hours Worked are declining.

Non-Farm Payrolls & Average Weekly Hours

Not what one would expect from a robust recovery.

Credit bubbles and GDP targeting

In 2010 Scott Sumner first proposed that the Fed use GDP targeting rather than targeting inflation, which is prone to measurement error. Since then support for this approach has grown, with Lars Christensen, an economist with the Danish central bank, coining the term Market Monetarism.

Sumner holds that inflation is “measured inaccurately and does not discriminate between demand versus supply shocks” and that “Inflation often changes with a lag… but nominal GDP growth falls very quickly, so it’ll give you a more timely signal….” [Bloomberg]

The ratio of US credit to GDP highlights credit bubbles in the economy. The ratio rises when credit is growing faster than GDP and falls when credit bubbles burst. The graph below compares credit growth/GDP to actual GDP growth (on the right-hand scale). The red line illustrates a proposed GDP target at 5.0% growth.

US Credit Growth & GDP Targeting

What this shows is that the Fed would have adopted tighter monetary policies through most of the 1990s in order to keep GDP growth at the 5% target. That would have avoided the credit spike ahead of the Dotcom crash. More importantly, tighter monetary policy from 2003 to 2006 would have cut the last credit bubble off at the knees — avoiding the debacle we now face, with a massive spike in credit and declining GDP growth.

While poor monetary policy may have caused the problem, correcting those policies is unlikely to rectify it. The genie has escaped from the bottle. The only viable solution now seems to be fiscal policy, with massive infrastructure investment to restore GDP growth. That may seem counter-intuitive as it means fighting fire with fire, increasing public debt in order to remedy ballooning private debt.

Rising public debt is only sustainable if invested in productive infrastructure that yields market-related returns. Not in sports stadiums and public libraries. Difficult as this may be to achieve — with politicians poor history of selecting projects based on their ability to garner votes rather than economic criteria — it is our best bet. What is required is bi-partisan selection of projects and of private partners to construct and maintain the infrastructure. And private partners with enough skin in the game to enforce market discipline. I have discussed this at length in earlier posts.

Rising inflation, Dollar weakens

The consumer price index (CPI) ticked up 1.14% (year-on-year) for April 2016, on the back of higher oil prices. Core CPI (excluding energy and food) eased slightly to 2.15%.

CPI and Core CPI

Inflation is muted, but a sharp rise in hourly manufacturing (production and nonsupervisory employees) earnings growth (2.98% for 12 months to April 2016) points to further increases.

Manufacturing Hourly Earnings Growth

Despite this, long-term interest rates remain weak, with 10-year Treasury yields testing support at 1.65 percent. Breach would signal another test of the record low at 1.50% in 2012. The dovish Fed is a contributing factor, but so could safe-haven demand from investors wary of stocks….

10-year Treasury Yields

The Dollar

The US Dollar Index rallied off long-term support at 93 but this looks more a pause in the primary down-trend (signaled by decline of 13-week Momentum below zero) than a reversal.

US Dollar Index

Explanation for the Dollar rally is evident on the chart of China’s foreign reserves: a pause in the sharp decline of the last 2 years. China has embarked on another massive stimulus program in an attempt to shock their economy out of its present slump.

China: Foreign Reserves

But this hair of the dog remedy is unlikely to solve their problems, merely postpone the inevitable reckoning. The Yuan is once again weakening against the Dollar. Decline in China’s reserves — and the US Dollar as a consequence — is likely to continue.

USD: Chinese Yuan

S&P 500 still flaky

From Howard Silverblatt at S&P Indices:

“With almost 90% of the Q4 2015 earnings reported, 67.6% of the issues are beating estimates (the historical rate is two-thirds), but only 36.8% beat As Reported GAAP rule based earnings estimates and less than half, 46.8%, beat sales estimates.

Explained ‘responsibility’ for any short fall on the cost side includes currency costs and a growing list of special one-time items (never to be repeated, of course). On the income side, helping earnings, are the ‘difficult decisions made’ by companies under the heading of cost-cutting (as layoffs and location changes appear to be on the rise).”

As Reported 12-Month Earnings Per Share (EPS) for the S&P 500 has fallen 12.5% from its Q3 2014 high, with 88.5% of companies having reported.

S&P 500 EPS

While same-quarter sales will fall an estimated 2.6% in December 2015.

S&P 500 Quarterly Sales

Manufacturing activity is declining, with the PMI Composite index below 50 signaling contraction.

PMI Composite index

Growth in the Freight Transportation Services Index has also slowed.

Freight Transportation Services Index

But electricity production recovered from its alarming downward spike in December last year.

Freight Transport Index

The jobs market remains bouyant, with annual manufacturing earnings growth rising 2.5%.

Annual Change in Hourly Earnings

Inflation has kicked upwards as a result.

CPI and Core CPI

While profit margins are likely to remain under pressure.

Nonfinancial Profit Margins

Light vehicle and retail sales are holding their own.

Light Vehicle Sales

Retail Sales (ex-Gas and Automobiles)

And bank lending continues to post steady growth.

Bank Loans and Leases

But net interest margins have fallen below their 2007 lows.

Bank Interest Margins

With rising spreads warning of a credit squeeze.

10-year Baa minus Treasury Spreads


Sales levels are reasonably healthy, but rising wages and competition from imports is putting pressure on profits. Rising credit spreads and falling margins suggest all is not well in the banking sector, which could impact on broader economic activity.

Housing starts remain slow.

Housing Activity

Only when this sector (housing) eventually revives can we expect to see a full recovery.

Cement and Concrete Production

Gold rallies but how long?

We are witnessing a flight to safety as money flows out of stocks and into bonds, driving 10-year Treasury yields as low as 1.88 percent. Breach of support at 2.0 percent suggests that another test of primary support at 1.5 percent lies ahead.

10-Year Treasury Yields

What makes this even more significant is that it occurred while China is depleting foreign reserves — quite likely selling Treasuries — to support the Yuan. Heavy intervention in the past few weeks to prevent further CNY depreciation against the Dollar may well show recent estimates of a further $0.5 Trillion outflow in 2016 to be on the light side.


China is caught in a cleft stick: either deplete foreign reserves to support the Yuan, or allow the Yuan to weaken which would fuel further selling and risk a downward spiral. Regulations to restrict capital outflows may ease pressure but are unlikely to stem the flow.

Chinese sales of Dollar reserves have slowed appreciation of the Dollar Index. Cessation of support for the Yuan would cause breakout above 100 and an advance to at least 107*.

Dollar Index

* Target calculation: 100 + ( 100 – 93 ) = 107


Gold has also benefited from the flight to safety, rallying to $1150/ounce. The rally may well test $1200 but resistance is expected to hold. Respect would suggest a decline to $1000/ounce*; confirmed if support at $1050 is broken. Continued oscillation of 13-Week Twiggs Momentum below zero flags a strong primary down-trend.

Spot Gold

* Target calculation: 1100 – ( 1200 – 1100 ) = 1000

Gold breaks support

Gold fell to $1070/ounce, breaching the band of primary support between $1080 and $1100 per ounce. 13-Week Twiggs Momentum peaks below zero indicate a strong primary down-trend. The next level of support is $1000/ounce*.

Spot Gold

* Target calculation: 1100 – ( 1200 – 1100 ) = 1000


Core CPI is close to the Fed target of 2.0 percent but inflation expectations continue to fall, with the 5-year breakeven rate (5-year Treasury minus 5-year TIPS yield) as low as 1.2 percent.

5-Year Breakeven Rate

Interest Rates and the Dollar

Long-term interest rates are rising, anticipating a Fed rate hike. 10-Year Treasury yields retraced to test the new support level after breaking through 2.25 percent. Respect of support is likely and will signal an advance to 2.50 percent. Recovery of 13-week Twiggs Momentum above zero suggests an up-trend. Breakout above 2.50 percent would confirm.

10-Year Treasury Yields

Low inflation and a stronger Dollar are weakening demand for gold. The Dollar Index is testing resistance at 100. Respect of zero by 13-week Twiggs Momentum indicates long-term buying pressure. Breakout above 100 is likely and would signal an advance to 107*.

Dollar Index

* Target calculation: 100 + ( 100 – 93 ) = 107

Low inflation and a stronger dollar indicate weak gold

Growth in hourly manufacturing earnings has climbed above the Fed target of 2.0 percent, while core CPI continues to track near the target. But the 5-year breakeven rate (5-year Treasury minus TIPS yield) is close to 1.0 percent. The market expects inflation to fall over the next few years.

5-Year Breakeven Rate, Core CPI and Growth in Hourly Manufacturing Earnings

The reasoning is straight-forward: the end of the infrastructure boom in China and slowing economic growth means low energy and commodity prices for the foreseeable future. Slow credit growth in the West will also act as a brake on aggregate demand, maintaining downward pressure on CPI.


Long-term interest rates are low, with 10-year Treasury yields testing support at 2.0 percent. Declining 13-week Twiggs Momentum, below zero, suggests further weakness.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Dollar Index rallied off support at 93. A higher trough indicates buying pressure. Breakout above 98 would suggest another advance.

Dollar Index


A strong dollar and low inflation would weaken demand for gold. Spot gold is testing medium-term support at $1150/ounce. Breach would warn of a test of the primary level at $1100. 13-Week Twiggs Momentum is rising, but a peak below zero would signal continuation of the primary down-trend.

Spot Gold

* Target calculation: 1200 – ( 1400 – 1200 ) = 1000