What are the key risks facing the Australian economy?

By Gareth Aird, senior economist at CBA:

Re-published with kind permission from Macrobusiness.

Key Points:

  • GDP growth has lifted in 2017 and the labour market has tightened.
  • Our base case has these trends continuing over the next two years, but there are a number of downside risks.
  • The ability of monetary policy to support the economy in the event of a negative shock is more limited than in the past thereby exacerbating the potential impact that any negative shock may bring.

On some important metrics it’s been a reasonably good for year the Australian economy. The labour market has tightened courtesy of very strong employment growth and real GDP growth has lifted. At the same time, nominal GDP growth has been buoyant due to firmer commodity prices when compared to a year earlier. Wages growth, however, remains soft and real wages are barely in positive territory.

The house view is that the improvement in the labour market continues over the next two years and the unemployment rate should continue to grind lower. But there are plenty of risks that would change the outlook if they were to materialise.

This note discusses some of the key global and domestic risks to the Australian economy. It begins with an outline of CBA’s base case for the economy over the next two years before delving into some of the potential risks. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather it covers a few areas that the author considers to be the most acute risks to our central scenario. They are: (i) the capacity to respond to a negative shock with monetary policy (and to a lessor extent fiscal policy), (ii) a solid fall in commodity prices; (iii) a sharp correction in dwelling prices; (iv) a policy “mistake”; and (v) a fall in net migration via a policy change.

CBA’s central scenario

CBA’s base case for the economy over the next two years is a benign one. It is broadly similar to the RBA’s forecast profile for the economy which is also not dissimilar to the consensus view.

On the key components, we see output growth continuing to lift to a pace of around 3%pa in 2018 (chart 1). We put potential growth at 2¾% (population plus productivity growth) which means our forecast profile has a gradual decline in the unemployment rate as spare capacity recedes (chart 2). In 2018, most of the key components of the economy are expected to contribute to growth, with dwelling investment the exception.


Our base case has inflation remaining soft due to elevated slack in the labour market which is suppressing wages growth. We have core inflation tracking at the bottom of the RBA’s target band (chart 3). This means that a rate rise still looks a long way off. We have commodity prices drifting a little lower which means that we expect the terms-of-trade to ease over the next few years, but to remain above its trough in early 2016. As a result, nominal GDP growth should step down.


We don’t explicitly forecast dwelling price growth. But the most likely outcome, in our view, is for dwelling price growth to slow and converge with household income growth (i.e. a low single digit annual growth rate). Such an outcome would also represent a best case outcome from a financial stability perspective.

We expect housing credit growth to continue to slow driven by a further easing in lending growth to investors.

The capacity to respond to a negative shock with monetary and fiscal policy

Monetary policy: While strictly speaking not a risk to the economic outlook per se, in many ways the reduced capacity to respond to a negative shock, particularly via monetary policy, is the biggest risk to the economy outlook.

Over the past 30 year the interest rate lever has been used to smooth out business cycles. When output and employment growth have fallen and/or the outlook for inflation has been lowered, interest rates have come down.

Conversely, the policy rate has been raised when it’s been necessary to slow the pace of growth and inflation in the economy. That process has worked relatively well. But it may have a limited shelf life because it’s required a structural decline in interest rates to support the economy over the past 30 years (chart 4).


The amount of fire power the central bank has on the cash rate front is effectively the difference between the current policy rate and the lower bound. We aren’t at the lower bound yet. But with a current cash rate of 1.5% we are close. In our view, a policy rate of around 0.75% would probably be the lower bound in Australia, which is higher than the lower bound of many other advanced and bigger economies. In the Eurozone and Japan, for example, policy rates have gone negative. But these regions run current account surpluses which probably gives them greater scope to take rates down without causing a massive fall in their currencies (chart 5). In Australia, it may not be possible to cut the cash rate below 0.75% because the current account deficit has been sizeable in the past as a share of GDP and must be funded (note that the current account deficit would blow out if there was a negative commodity price shock). As a result, there may only be a few rate cut ‘bullets’ left if we are right. The RBA will hope that if/when the next shock arrives the cash rate is a fair bit higher than it is today to allow them scope to cut and provide stimulus to the economy. But while the cash rate sits at 1.5% the economy is more vulnerable than usual to a shock.

The limited capacity to stimulate the economy further via rate cuts means that the ability of household leverage to increase further is also hamstrung. As interest rates have come down over the past 30 years the stock of household debt relative to income has risen (chart 6). That is because households have been able to borrow more for a given level of income. As a result, Australia has
the second most indebted household sector in the world.


In previous downturns rate cuts both encouraged and made it possible for households to increase debt relative to income. That debt initially went into higher dwelling prices, but ultimately the new credit created found its way into consumption. But with very little capacity to take interest rates lower and with the household sector already very stretched, the consumer is not going to absorb the next economic shock by borrowing through it.

Fiscal policy: There is some scope to stimulate the economy via fiscal policy if/when a negative shock arrives. In fact, the Government’s balance sheet looks in a much better condition than most other advanced countries when assessed on a debt to GDP basis. But we should not get too carried away because Australia has a structural deficit which means debt to GDP will rise quite quickly if/when the next negative shock arrives. From here, any downturn in the economy would almost certainly see the Government’s triple A credit rating stripped. While there is some conjecture over the precise implications of losing the triple A, its loss would certainly carry some weight from a symbolic perspective given it’s been the proud boast of successive Treasurers.

A commodity price shock

From an external perspective, a commodity price shock carries the greatest risk to the Australian economy. Australia continues to be heavily reliant on commodities for its resource revenue (chart 7). And a huge chunk of our exports go to China (chart 8). As such, the biggest threat to commodity prices is a slowdown in China that would lead to lower investment growth (or possibly a fall in investment). Such a slowdown could occur it if the Chinese authorities accept a lower level of output growth for the sake of financial stability given the rapid build-up of corporate debt. It could also happen if a greater emphasis is placed on delivering growth through services rather than investment. And it could of course come via a China hard landing (a Trump-led lift in tariffs in the US, for example, could be the trigger). In any event, commodity prices get hit and that would have implications for the Australian economy.


A sizeable fall in commodity prices would pull Australia’s terms-of-trade substantially lower. Roughly speaking, a 40% fall in commodity prices would see Australia’s terms-of-trade fall by 30% (chart 9). This is an illustrative example, but it is also represents a plausible outcome if there was a material slowdown in investment growth in China. In such a scenario the AUD could fall to the low-mid US 50 cent mark (chart 10).


A terms-of-trade shock would weigh on income across the economy more broadly given the strong correlation between commodity prices and nominal GDP (chart 11). In addition, Government revenue would be hit because of the relationship between the terms-of-trade and the tax take. Finally, unemployment would rise. While a lower AUD would provide some support to the economy, the limited capacity of monetary policy to absorb a commodity price shock from here would see the unemployment rate rise faster than would otherwise have been the case.

The capacity of wages growth to slow further from here is also limited in the event of a commodity price shock. That is because wages growth is already at record lows and wages growth is sticky downwards. A fall in wages growth was able to cushion the most recent terms-of-trade shock (late-2011 to early 2016) because growth in wages slowed in line with the weakness in commodity prices. This helped to support the labour market and keep the unemployment rate from rising as much as it otherwise might have. But this time, a fall in wages growth will not be able to absorb the shock to the same extent given wages growth is already so low.

A sharp correction in dwelling prices

The single biggest risk to the domestic outlook looks to be a sharp correction in dwelling prices. In our view, this carries a greater risk to the real economy than it does to financial stability given the banking system is well capitalised.

There is a commonly held belief in Australia that the main trigger for a fall in dwelling prices is a rise in unemployment. This seems logical because rising unemployment would generally be associated with a lift in mortgage delinquencies which would put downward pressure on prices. But the data suggests that employment is more likely to lag changes in dwelling prices rather than lead (chart 12). The obvious question to then ask is why? We attribute the answer, in part, to the wealth effect and the recent track record of monetary policy in smoothing out the business cycle.

In periods when employment growth is slowing, the RBA is generally easing policy. When this is occurring, as long as the RBA can fend off a recession, falling interest rates tend to push up dwelling prices via cheaper credit which in turn encourages spending and supports employment growth. Of course, it’s a different story if employment growth falls too fast and unemployment rises sharply. But so far, at the national level, this hasn’t happened since the recession of the early 90s.

The risk of a material correction in dwelling prices looks higher now than it has been for a long time given: (i) the incredible lift in dwelling prices over the past five years; (ii) mortgage rates are probably unlikely to go lower and indeed can’t go much lower; (iii) household debt to income is at a record high; and (iv) dwelling supply is in the process of lifting quite significantly in some jurisdictions.

A soft correction in dwelling prices would probably have no material negative impact on the labour market. But there is a risk that a hard correction in prices (a fall of 20% or more) would lead the economy into a downturn via the wealth effect (i.e. the notion that changes in demand are influenced by changes in the value of assets). Since income to one person comes via the spending of another, there is a risk that falling home prices leads households to put the brakes on spending which ultimately drags consumption and employment growth lower.

A policy “mistake”

We consider a policy mistake by the central bank to be a risk to the economy given how much debt the household sector is carrying. Specifically, if the RBA hikes too early it could derail the improvement in the labour market that has been underway over the past two years. The record level of debt being carried by the household sector means that interest payments as a share of income will rise quickly if/when rates move higher (chart 13).


We consider a policy mistake to be a risk because the RBA has been overly bullish on wages and the consumer over the past five years (charts 14 & 15).


The apparent bias in their forecasts towards a lift in wages and consumer spending means there is a risk that they hike too early if/when wages growth starts to rise.

Here we note that the RBA puts the neutral cash rate at 3.5% which is 200bpts above current settings (this is higher than our estimate of 3.0%). This means that on their own numbers, the RBA would be tightening to 3.5% if it thought the economy was on a sustained path to full employment and inflation at the mid-point of their target band. That to us looks too aggressive and therefore
there is a risk that the central bank hikes too early or too quickly.

A change in immigration policy

Australia’s population growth rate is significantly higher than most other OECD countries. Australia’s population grew by a strong 1.6% (i.e. 373k) in 2016. Net overseas migration accounted for 56% of that increase (chart 16).


A strong population growth rate boosts the potential growth rate of the economy (not output per person, however) as well as puts upward pressure on dwelling prices through stronger demand for housing. It also, over time, alters the industry composition of the economy (chart 17).

The construction sector in Australia, for example, is proportionately bigger than the construction sector in most other advanced economies because strong growth in people means that more needs to be built – dwellings, roads, schools, hospitals, ports etc. Finally, at the margin, a strong population growth rate at a time when there is labour market slack is likely to be putting downward pressure on wages as workers from offshore add competition to domestic labour.

At present, both major sides of politics (i.e. the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor party) support maintaining a high permanent migrant intake every year. But there is a risk that one of the major parties opts for a different policy stance. The example here is to be found in New Zealand where there has been a change in immigration policy following the recent election outcome that means migration should drop substantially over the next few years. As a result, a change in immigration policy cannot and should not be ruled out in Australia.

A material reduction in net migration to Australia would increase the risk of a fall in dwelling prices as well as weigh on total output growth (not GDP per capita) and negatively impact the construction sector. But it would also likely put upward pressure on wages growth by reducing the pool of workers in many occupations. In that context, it’s not so much a downside risk, but rather one that would see a shift in the economic outlook that would have both winners and losers. From a policy perspective it’s about assessing whether there is a net societal benefit. But that’s a question for another day.

How Will Tax Cuts Affect the US Economy and Corporate America?

Bob Doll at Nuveen Investments discusses the likely impact of tax cuts in the US:

Is it even a good idea to enact tax cuts at this point in the economic cycle? After all, growth has picked up, unemployment is at a 17-year low and capacity utilization is high. It’s reasonable to wonder whether tax cuts spur inflation higher rather than boost economic growth. We agree that inflation is likely to move modestly higher next year (more so if tax rates are reduced), but lower tax rates will likely improve productivity and benefit the economy.

Tax cuts are unlikely to have a significant impact on inflation or productivity other than through indirect stimulation of new investment and job creation.

…..If the corporate tax rate is reduced from 35% to 20%, we estimate this would increase S&P 500 earnings-per-share between $12 and $15 annually. Companies could also see an additional boost in the form of earnings repatriation. It’s possible (and even likely) that some companies would use these earnings benefits to lower prices to increase market share, so some gains may be “competed away.” But we think an overall boost in profits and earnings is likely.

That would amount to an annual increase of between 10 and 13 percent in S&P 500 earnings per share (based on a forecast $114.45 EPS for calendar 2017). Companies that invest in building market share would expect a return on that investment by way of increased growth which would still benefit future earnings streams.

Furthermore, if U.S. companies finally bring their overseas earnings home in a tax-effective manner, it’s fair to wonder what they would do with their cash windfalls. Should this happen, we expect increases in balance sheet improvements, more hiring, a rise in capital expenditures, dividend increases, higher levels of share buybacks and an increase in merger and acquisition activity. All of these actions would be a positive for corporate health and equity prices.

I would expect a big increase in stock buybacks as that will boost stock prices and have a direct impact on executive bonuses. Mergers and acquisitions have less certain outcomes and are likely to be secondary, while new investment and job creation will most likely get the short straw.

The bull market in equities is aging | Bob Doll

Great summary of market conditions by Bob Doll:

Weekly Top Themes

  1. Last week’s elections signal possible trouble for Republicans in 2018. We caution against reading too much into the results. But Democratic gains in Virginia and elsewhere confirm signals from national polling that suggest the GOP will struggle to hold the House next year.
  2. We expect a tax bill to be passed in 2018, which should help the economy and equity markets. While there are significant differences between the two plans, the simple reality is that it would be political suicide for Republicans if they don’t pass tax reform before next year’s elections. Depending on the details of the final bill, we expect individual tax cuts to be a plus for consumption, while repatriation and corporate tax cuts should contribute to corporate revenues and earnings.
  3. Despite some views to the contrary, we believe the global economy should continue to improve. Some argue the world is in a period of secular stagnation. After all, growth remains very slow despite years of low or even negative interest rates. In our view, the world economy is enjoying a period of reflation and should experience more synchronized growth in 2018.
  4. Stronger global growth is benefiting multinational companies. These companies have reported stronger revenue and earnings results than domestically oriented companies this quarter.
  5. The bull market in equities is aging but remains very much intact. The current bull market is closing in on nine years, which makes it natural to ask how much longer it can continue. In our experience, there are several reasons for a bull market to end, including advanced Federal Reserve tightening, the flattening of the yield curve, slower levels of money growth, widening credit spreads and rising inflation. We are watching these factors closely, and don’t see signals yet that would point to the end of the current run.

In a nutshell: the bull market will continue until the Fed tightens monetary policy in response to rising inflation. When this will happen, no one is sure.

Read the rest of his report here: Nuveen Weekly Investment Commentary

Australian growth faces headwinds but the index has other ideas

Bill Evans at Westpac sums up their outlook for the Australian economy:

….Constraints on growth next year are likely to centre on a lack lustre consumer who struggles under the weight of weak wages growth; high energy prices and excessive leverage. Conditions in housing markets, particularly in the eastern states, are likely to soften while the residential construction boom will turn down.

We are also less euphoric about growth prospects for our major trading partners than seems to be the current consensus. We expect China’s growth rate to slow from 6.7% to 6.2% as the authorities step up policies to slow its long running credit boom.

Yet the ASX 200 broke out of its line formed over the last 4 months, signaling a primary advance.

ASX 200

Miners are advancing, with the ASX 300 Metals & Mining Index breaking resistance at 3300.

ASX 300 Metals & Mining Index

The ASX 300 Banks Index is headed for a test of 8800. Upward breakout would complete a bullish outlook for the ASX 200.

ASX 300 Banks Index

Why is Macquarie long the “perpetual leveraging doomsday machine” | Macrobusiness

By David Llewellyn-Smith (“Houses & Holes”)
Reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness:

Great stuff today from the always entertaining and cross-disciplinary Viktor Shvets at Macquarie:

Investors seem to be residing in a world without any notable perceived risks. It is an extraordinary and unprecedented situation, particularly given unresolved issues of over leveraging and associated over capacity as well as profound disruption of business and economic models, which are not just depressing inflation but also causing extreme political and electoral outcomes while feeding Maslowian-type disappointments across labour markets.

What can explain such lack of concern regarding potential risks?

In our view, the only answer is one of investors’ perception that, as we discussed in our preview of 2H’17, ‘slaves must remain slaves’ and hence, neither Central Banks nor other public institutions can afford to step aside but need to continue to guarantee asset price inflation. In its turn, this can only be achieved by ensuring that volatilities are contained (as they are the deadliest enemy of an ongoing leveraging) and liquidity is expanding at a sufficient pace to accommodate nominal demand.

The optimists would argue that the productivity slowdown that the world experienced over the last decade was primarily caused by the global financial crisis (GFC) and that we are starting to turn the corner. Hence, optimists argue that velocity of money is likely to improve, and this would allow Central Banks to gradually (and very carefully) withdraw liquidity and rate supports. While this is the ‘dream outcome’ from Central Banks’ perspective, we don’t see any convincing evidence that this is occurring.

We maintain that the best explanation for investors’ perception that risks are low is that a combination of Central Banks’ liquidity (still running at ~US$1.5-2.0 trillion per annum), an assumption that Central Banks would swiftly reverse their policies at the slightest sign of volatility reemerging, and China’s real estate and infrastructure investment, act as ‘risk buffers’. Investors seem to believe that liquidity cannot be withdrawn, volatility must be arrested and cost of capital cannot go up, and hence, financial assets are in many ways underwritten. While Central Banks would like to have a little bit more volatility and a little bit more price discovery, they would be highly averse to shocking what is the highly financialized and leveraged global economy.

While it is hard to back what is essentially a long-term ‘doomsday’ machine, nevertheless, the above describes our view. We remain constructive on financial assets (both equities and bonds), not because we expect a return to self-sustaining private sector led recovery and growth but because we believe that an ongoing financialization is the only politically and socially acceptable answer. In our view, therefore, the greatest risk is one of policy miscalculation.

We remain constructive on financial assets, not because we believe in a sustainable recovery, but because we back the perpetual leveraging ‘doomsday’ machine.

Shvets has been pushing the “long grinding cycle” narrative for a number years now:

Despite all these challenges, Shvets still recommends his clients to invest in certain types of stocks. “The outcomes of the next 10-15 years could be quite dramatic. How do you invest in that climate? There are only two ways of investing. The first is: Assume non-mean reversion. The private sector will never recover. The only thing left would be the public sector cycle.”

This means we can conveniently forget about corporate profits, or valuations like the price-earnings ratio of the S&P 500, as many investors already have done. The only thing that matters is public sector activity in the form of central bank intervention or government stimulus programs.

An extreme example of this cycle is perhaps Venezuela. While the country is going up in flames, people don’t have enough food, and the currency is dissolving itself in a vicious hyperinflation, the stock market actually went up 10 times since the beginning of 2012. Only recently has reality caught up with stocks and the market gave up 15 percent of its gains since the beginning of the year.

‘Buy quality sustainable growth, high returns on equity. Companies capable to generate a high return on equity through margins and without leverage. Don’t worry about the price to earnings ratio, there is no mean reversion,” says Shvets. And don’t own any financials. Good advice. The stock price of the likes of Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse have been decimated this year.

The share prices of Deutsche Bank AG (DBK) and Credit Suisse AG (CSGN) have both lost almost 50 percent of their value this year (Source: Google Finance).

The other option is to invest along some pretty grim themes which benefit from the new trends identified by Shvets. “People are still going back to 20th-century thematics, it’s so old-fashioned.”

None of the new trends can be described as inspirational or uplifting, but the Macquarie portfolio reflecting the themes has bested the MSCI World Index by almost 30 percent since the beginning of 2015.

“The biggest theme is declining return on humans, the replacement of humans, biotech, augmentation of humans, opium for the people, like computer games and gambling,” Shvets said.

Performance of the Macquarie Group Thematics portfolio (Macquarie Group)

Then there are themes catering to geopolitical risk and potential regional war or civil uprisings, like detention and prison centers, weapons, and drones. Another theme supports the aging demography in the West, so companies holding hospitals, funeral operators, and psychiatric institutions should do well.

On the positives, Shvets notes technological disruptors like Amazon and Google. All those companies should be independent of the government and long-term structural shifts. “They go on no matter what.”

If readers shy away from profiting from these themes, there is always gold.

“If you think of gold, the only way gold loses is if normal business and private sector cycles come back. If that is the case, gold goes back $100 per ounce. The other outcomes: deflation, stagflation, hyperinflation are all good for gold.” As for a return to a gold standard, Shvets has more bad news: “Gold standards come back after the war, not before the war.”

In principle I agree therefore the MB Fund is long:

  • US stocks despite the valuations;
  • we are underweight Australian assets given interest rates will go to zero or the equivalent in a world of endless oversupply;
  • investment becomes a matter of discerning the most potent disruptors or the most embedded rent-seekers at the best prices.

Where I disagree is that the business cycle is entirely dead. To my mind, this is a process not a one-off shift, driven by successive crises that shunt de-globalisation and de-privatisation forward with each convulsion. After all, we have not yet had an earnings-destroying event in the US in this cycle so the lack of risk has been real.

Next year China is going to slow and the Fed tighten, at some point one two many times. Mean reversion will come but then so will our next round of socialisation.

Australia: Economy needs more support

Low corporate bond spreads (BBB-Treasury) indicate the absence of financial stress.

Corporate Bond Spread

Australian wage growth is also low, but declining.

Wage Index

And shrinking currency growth suggests the economy needs even more support than the large recent spend on public infrastructure.

Currency Growth

It’s a bull market

US hourly wages continue to grow at a subdued 2.5% per year. The Fed will normally only move to tighten monetary policy when annual growth exceeds 3.0%.

Hourly Wage Growth

Currency in circulation, growing at a healthy annual rate of 7.3%, shows the Fed stance remains supportive.

Currency in Circulation

Turning to corporations (excluding the financial sector), employee compensation remains low relative to net value added (below 70%), while corporate profits are high at 12%. Economic contractions are normally preceded by rising employee compensation and falling profits as in 1999/2000.

Employee Compensation & Corporate Profits Relative to Net Value Added

The rising Freight Services Index indicates that economic activity is strong.

Freight Services Index

While a low corporate bond spread — lowest investment-grade (Baa) minus the equivalent Treasury yield — indicates the absence of stress in financial markets.

Corporate Bond Spreads

What more can I say: It’s a bull market.

US: Low CPI and soft Treasury Yields

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Core CPI (excluding food and energy) both came in at a low 1.7% p.a. for the 12 months ended July 2017.

Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Core CPI

Source: St Louis Fed, BLS

Long-term interest rates are trending lower as CPI moderates. Breach of support at 2.10% by 10-Year Treasury Yields would signal another primary decline with a target of 1.80%*.

10-Year Treasury Yields

Target: 2.10% – (2.40% – 2.10%) = 1.80%

Bank credit growth is slowing, to the level where it is tracking nominal GDP growth, avoiding some of the excesses of previous cycles. But if bank credit falls below GDP growth that would warn of tighter monetary conditions and the economy is likely to slow.

Bank Credit and GDP growth

Source: St Louis Fed, FRB, BEA

The S&P 500 is testing its long-term rising trendline, while bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of selling pressure. But the market appears to have shrugged off Donald Trump’s promises of North Korean “fire and fury” and both of these movements seem secondary in nature. A correction is likely but the primary trend remains on track for further gains.

S&P 500

Target 2400 + ( 2400 – 2300 ) = 2500

Why is it so hard to forecast interest rates? | San Francisco Fed

Interesting paper by Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Fed:

….The difficulty of predicting changes in interest rates mainly arises from two features that characterize their evolution over time. First, like other financial variables, interest rates vary widely from day to day, which makes them difficult to link to economic fundamentals such as monetary or fiscal policy. This well-documented “excess volatility,” was first pointed out in Shiller (1979), and it reflects the importance of frequent changes in investor sentiment due to a never-ending stream of economic data releases and other news.

Second, as evident from 10-year Treasury yields since 1971, seen in Figure 1, interest rates have not fluctuated around a stable average level over this period. Instead of “mean reversion” around a constant average, they exhibit slow-moving trends, such as the rise during the “Great Inflation” period of the 1970s, and the long-lasting decline since then.

….the gap model does not assume that the level of the series will revert to some constant mean, but instead that the gap between the series and its trend component will revert to zero. Estimating trend components and gaps underlies most macroeconomic forecasting, and Faust and Wright (2013) recently demonstrated the gap model’s excellent performance for inflation forecasting.

….Since inflation is ultimately determined by monetary policy, the long-run inflation trend corresponds to the perceived inflation target of the central bank. This can be estimated reasonably well from surveys. Figure 1 plots the publicly available and mostly survey-based inflation trend estimate (red line) that underlies the Federal Reserve Board’s structural model of the U.S. economy, FRB/US. For the trend in the real interest rate, also called the natural or equilibrium real interest rate, Laubach and Williams (2003) suggested a way to estimate it from macroeconomic data and popularized its use in policy analysis (see also Williams 2016). Figure 1 includes an estimate of the equilibrium real interest rate (green line) taken as the average of several popular estimates, as discussed in Bauer and Rudebusch (2017).

Figure 1 also plots the sum of these two trends (red line); this estimate of the trend component in interest rates has exhibited a very pronounced decline since the 1980s. The 10-year yield generally fluctuated near this trend, and both are currently very low in historical comparison, with important consequences for policymaking (Williams 2016). Figure 1 suggests that it may be useful to take into account the level of the trend when forecasting interest rates.

….the final piece required for a practical forecast rule is an assumption about the transition of interest rates to their trend. Based on how quickly interest rates have historically reverted back to the trend, a reasonable assumption to make for this forecasting exercise is that 20% of the remaining gap is closed each quarter. But the precise speed of reversion to the trend is typically not crucial for forecasting performance (Faust and Wright 2013). Furthermore, it becomes essentially irrelevant for long-horizon forecasts, since forecasts are approximately equal to the estimated trend…..

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco |

Bob Doll: Lack of  infrastructure stimulus might benefit stocks

Bob Doll at Nuveen makes a good point about Trump’s failure to get infrastructure spending through the House.

Washington, D.C. seems mired in gridlock, despite the fact that Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. No significant economic legislation has been passed, and the optimism from January about health care reform, infrastructure spending and tax cuts has all but vanished. Political attention will soon be focused on the 2018 midterm elections, and the window for pro-growth policy action is closing.

The lack of fiscal stimulus is disappointing, but it comes with a silver lining: We are unlikely to see the significant and sharp advance in interest rates or in the U.S. dollar that would probably result from such stimulus. The lost opportunity on the political front might therefore have the ironic effect of prolonging the bull market in stocks.

It seems crazy when you consider that both Clinton and Trump campaigned on a platform of major infrastructure programs to boost the economy. Just shows how dysfunctional Washington has become.

But I agree with the silver lining. Infrastructure spending would have boosted employment — the US is already below its long-term natural rate of unemployment — and upward pressure on wage rates. Which would have drawn a sharp increase in interest rates from the Fed, to combat inflation. Populist policies often ignore the hidden/unforeseen consequences and can produce the opposite result to that intended.

Unemployment v. LT Natural Rate

Source: Weekly Investment Commentary from Bob Doll | Nuveen

Stronger dollar, weaker inflation could check rate hawks

Jens Meyer at the AFR says that a stronger Dollar and low inflation are likely to prevent the RBA from raising interest rates for some time:

Inflation is expected to remain below the Reserve Bank’s comfort zone when second-quarter CPI data is unveiled on Wednesday. Despite a jump in vegetable prices due to damage caused by Cyclone Debbie, economists predict consumer prices rose just 0.4 per cent over the second quarter and 2.2 per cent over the year.

More importantly for the central bank, ongoing softness in wages growth is tipped to have kept a cap on the less volatile core inflation, coming in at 0.5 per cent over the quarter and 1.8 per cent over the year, below the Reserve Bank’s target band of 2 to 3 per cent.

Rising iron ore prices helped the Aussie Dollar break long-term resistance at 78 cents, testing 80 against the greenback. This goes against the wishes of the RBA who need a weaker Dollar to assist exports and boost import substitution.

Aussie Dollar

But the RBA is in a cleft stick. It cannot lower rates in order to weaken the Dollar as this would encourage speculative borrowing and aggravate the property bubble. It also can’t raise rates when inflation is low, the Aussie Dollar is strong and the economy is weak. Like Mister Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, the RBA has to sit and wait in the hope that something turns up.

Source: Stronger dollar, weaker inflation could check rate hawks

Australia: Job gains

ABS June figures reflect solid gains for the labor market. Justin Smirk at Westpac writes:

“….The annual pace of employment growth has lifted from 0.9%yr in February to 2.0%yr in May and it held that pace in June. In the year to Feb there was a 106.9k gain in employment; in the year to June this has lifted to 240.2k. The Australian labour market went through a soft patch in 2016 that was particularly pronounced through August to November when the average gain in employment per month was a paltry 2.2k. We have clearly bounced out of this soft patch and now holding a firmer trend.”

My favorite measure, monthly hours worked, jumped (year-on-year) by 3.1%.

Monthly Hours Worked

Infrastructure spending, particularly in NSW and Victoria, is doing its best to offset weakness in other areas.

Wage rate growth remains subdued, indicating little pressure on the RBA to lift rates.

Monthly Hours Worked

Weekly Top Themes from Bob Doll | Nuveen

  1. U.S. monetary policy should remain equity-market friendly. In her comments last week, Janet Yellen stated that the neutral rate for the fed funds rate is “currently quite low,” and rates would not have to rise much more to become neutral. In our view, a neutral fed funds rate is closer to 2% than the 3% currently implied by the fed funds futures market. If this is accurate, it would likely be good news for economic growth, corporate earnings and the stock market.
  2. Global monetary policy is starting to normalize, but still supports stocks. The Bank of China raised rates by 25 basis points last week and other central banks are becoming less dovish. We think this is good news since it reflects improving global economic growth, while overall policy remains easy. Central banks are still promoting liquidity, which should support equities and other risk assets.
  3. Inflation remains surprisingly low. Although economic growth is improving and the Fed is normalizing, inflation has not increased similarly. Inflation should eventually react to tightening labor markets, but the process is taking a long time.
  4. If the “Goldilocks” environment persists, we think equities can continue to make all-time highs. Low inflation, slow-but-positive economic growth, climbing earnings and a cautious Fed have contributed to record-high stock prices. We think these conditions should remain in place for at least the next 6 to 12 months.
  5. Active fund manager performance has improved. According to Merrill Lynch, 54% of active large cap U.S. equity managers outperformed their benchmarks for the first half of the year and more than half also outperformed for the last four months. This is the longest such streak since Merrill Lynch began tracking this data in 2009, and it marks the first time a majority of managers outperformed for the first half of a year.

Global monetary policy supportive of stocks, low inflation and slow-but-stable earnings growth. Nothing much wrong here. Inflation is the one to watch though. A surge in wage rates as the labor market tightens would tighten monetary policy, with a domino effect on earnings and stock performance.

Source: Weekly Investment Commentary from Bob Doll | Nuveen

Australia faces headwinds

Australian wage rate growth, on the other hand, is declining. is in a worse position, with a dramatic fall in investment following the mining boom.

Australia: Wage Price Index

Source: RBA & ABS

As is inflation.

Australia: Inflation

Source: RBA & ABS

Growth in Household Disposable Income and Consumption.

Australia: Household Income and Consumption

Source: RBA & ABS

And Banks return on shareholders equity.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA & APRA

But not Housing.

Australia: Banks Return on Equity

Source: RBA, ABS, APM, CoreLogic & Residex

At least not yet.

Falling house prices would complete the feedback loop, shrinking household incomes, consumption and banks ROE.

US adds 222 thousand jobs

From the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. employers picked up their pace of hiring in June. Nonfarm payrolls rose by a seasonally adjusted 222,000 from the prior month, the Labor Department said. The unemployment rate ticked up to 4.4% from 4.3% the prior month as more people joined the workforce…..

Job Gains

Source: St Louis Fed & BLS

Forecast GDP for the current quarter — total payrolls * hours worked — is rising, showing an improving economy.

Real GDP Forecast

Source: St Louis Fed, BLS & BEA

Declining corporate profits as a percentage of net value added (RHS) is typical of mid-cycle growth, while employee compensation (% of net value added) is rising at a modest pace. Peaks in employee compensation are normally accompanied by troughs in corporate profits…..and followed by a recession.

US Corporate Profits and Employee Compensation as percentage of Value Added

Source: St Louis Fed & BEA

Average wage rate growth, both for production/non-supervisory and all employees, remains below 2.5% per year. Absence of wage rate pressure suggests that the Fed will be in no hurry to hike interest rates to curb inflationary pressure.

Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Source: St Louis Fed & BLS

Which should mean further growth ahead.

Gold-Oil ratio warns of further easing

I don’t attach much significance to the Gold-Oil ratio on its own but it’s back in overbought territory, above 25.

Spot Gold/Light Crude

The chart below — plotting inflation-adjusted prices (over CPI) — far better depicts the relationship between gold and crude oil. Each major spike in crude prices over the last 50 years has been followed by a rising gold price.

Spot Gold/Brent Crude

Falling crude prices are likely to weaken demand for gold over the next few years, both through lower inflation and declining foreign reserves of major oil producing nations.

Gold finds support at $1250

The Dollar Index continues to test support at 96.50. The primary trend is down and breach of support is likely, signaling a decline to test the 2016 low at 92/93.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold found support at $1250. A weaker Dollar and rising political uncertainty both favor an up-trend but rising interest rates are expected to weaken demand. Respect of support at $1250 would confirm the up-trend, while breach of $1200 would warn of another decline.

Spot Gold

Australia: Warning signs of a contraction

Australia faces shrinking inflationary pressures.

Inflation

Wage growth is falling.

Wage Price Index

Credit growth is shrinking.

Inflation

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.