Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reports on a statement by Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of the People’s Bank (PBOC):
Mr Zhou told China Daily that asset speculation and property bubbles could pose a “systemic financial risk”, made worse by the plethora of wealth management products, trusts, and off-books lending.
He warned that corporate debt had reached disturbingly high levels and that local governments were using tricks to evade credit curbs.”If there is too much pro-cyclical stimulus in an economy, fluctuations will be hugely amplified. Too much exuberance when things are going well causes tensions to build up. That could lead to a sharp correction, and eventually lead to a so-called Minsky Moment. That’s what we must really guard against,” he said.
The function of the central bank is to remove the punch bowl just as the party really gets going (William McChesney Martin jr., Fed chair 1951 – 1970). It looks like the PBOC may have left it too late:
Non-financial debt has galloped up to 300 per cent of gross domestic product – uncharted territory for a big developing economy.
The International Monetary Fund says debts in the shadow banking system grew by 27 per cent last year.
Less widely known is that the “augmented” budget deficit – including local government spending and the deficits of quasi-state entities – has jumped to 13 per cent of GDP. This is an astonishing level of fiscal stimulus at this stage of the economic cycle. It was around 6 per cent in 2010….
What this means is that public and quasi-public debt in China is growing at the rate of 13% of GDP. China has achieved its growth targets but at what cost to economic stability? There are no free lunches, especially from the “perpetual leveraging doomsday debt machine”.
The ASX 300 Metals & Mining index breached its new support level at 3300, warning of a bull trap. Penetration of the rising trendline would test primary support at 3100.
The divergence between iron ore and miners was bound to end and a correction of the Metals & Mining index is now likely. Iron ore below support at $62 warns of a test of primary support at $53. Declining Twiggs Trend Index signals selling pressure.
The ASX 200 encountered resistance at 5900. Retracement is likely to test the new support level at 5800 (top of the narrow ‘line’ formed over the last four months). Twiggs Money Flow reversal below zero would be a bearish sign.
The ASX 300 Banks index are testing resistance at 8800. Respect of resistance would warn of another test of primary support at 8000.
If banks and miners both turn bearish, the index is likely to follow.
Stephen Koukoulas says Australians have little to worry about high household debt:
….According to the latest data complied by the RBA, household assets are growing very strongly, aided by a building up in savings, unrelenting growth in superannuation holdings, growth in bank deposits and of course, from rising house prices.
While household debt is indeed just under 200 per cent of disposable income, household holdings of financial assets, which includes superannuation, direct share holdings and deposits, is now over 400 per cent of income…..
….The total value of housing in Australia is …. over 500 per cent of disposable income.
…. for every $1 of debt that the house sectors has, they have $5 of assets, which is a loan to value ratio of 20 per cent.
…..while the asset side of the household balance sheet remains healthy, the debt side will remain a non-problem.
That’s the problem with averages, they conceal a multitude of sins. Many Australians own houses without a mortgage. Probably the same group own most of Australia’s financial assets. They are financially secure, no doubt, and help to make the averages look reasonable.
But there are vast numbers of Australians in the mortgage belt with low financial assets and high loan-to-value ratios (LVRs) on their household mortgage. Any rise in interest rates would cause them financial stress and the impact of this would flow through the entire economy.
Almost 50,000 households are at risk of defaulting on their home loans in the next 12 months and nearly a third of homeowners are in mortgage stress, new figures show.
The latest mortgage stress and default modelling from Digital Finance Analytics for the month of September reveals more than 905,000 households are estimated to be in mortgage stress — 45,000 more than there were the month prior.
….Of those households, 18,000 are in severe stress, which means they are unable to meet home loan repayments with their current income.
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.
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 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.
“The Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged and said Wednesday that it would begin to withdraw some of the trillions of dollars that it invested in the US economy after the 2008 financial crisis.” ~ Binyamin Applebaum
The Federal Reserve balance sheet ballooned in the last decade to current holdings of $2.5 trillion of US Treasury securities and $1.8 trillion of mortgage-backed securities.
Fed total assets of $4.5 trillion (the red line on the above chart) does not give the full picture. Of the cash injected into the economy, $2.2 trillion found its way back to the Fed by way of excess reserves deposited by banks (the blue line). These deposits earn interest at the rate of 1.25% p.a., providing a secure return on surplus funds. What this means is that the net effect of the balance sheet expansion is the difference between the two lines, or $2.3 trillion.
Even $2.3 trillion is a big number and any meaningful sale of securities by the Fed would contract the supply of money, tipping the economy into recession. So how does the Fed propose to manage “normalization of its balance sheet” without disrupting the economy?
Firstly, the Fed does not intend to sell securities. It will simply decrease the “reinvestment of principal repayments it receives from securities held” according to its June 2017 Normalization Plan.
The amount withheld from reinvestment will commence at $10 billion per month ($6bn US Treasuries and $4bn MBS) and step up by $10 billion each quarter until it reaches a total of $50 billion per quarter.
That means that $100 billion will be withheld in the first year and $200 billion in each year thereafter….”so that the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings will continue to decline in a gradual and predictable manner until the Committee judges that the Federal Reserve is holding no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively.”
Second, the Fed will reduce the level of excess reserves by an appreciable amount in order to soften the impact of the first step. So a $100 billion reduction in investments may only result in a net reduction of say half that figure, after taking into account the decline in reserves.
Third, the federal funds rate will remain the primary tool of monetary policy and will be used to fine tune monetary policy to fit economic conditions.
It appears that the Fed will start quite tentatively, withholding only $30 billion in the first quarter, but the longer term targets seem ambitious.
With currency in circulation now growing at an annual rate of $100 billion, even a $50 billion reduction in the first year (net of excess reserves) could leave a big hole.
This is bound to take some of the heat out of the stock market. The plus side is it may restore some sanity to market valuations, but any sudden moves could cause an overreaction.
Even if we compare the reduction to the annual change in M1 money supply, it takes a big bite.
M1 consists of: (1) currency outside the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve Banks, and the vaults of depository institutions; (2) traveler’s checks of nonbank issuers; (3) demand deposits; and (4) other checkable deposits (OCDs), which consist primarily of negotiable order of withdrawal (NOW) accounts at depository institutions and credit union share draft accounts.
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%.
Currency in circulation, growing at a healthy annual rate of 7.3%, shows the Fed stance remains supportive.
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.
The rising Freight Services Index indicates that economic activity is strong.
While a low corporate bond spread — lowest investment-grade (Baa) minus the equivalent Treasury yield — indicates the absence of stress in financial markets.
The S&P 500 continues with a secondary correction that is likely to test the long-term rising trendline and support at 2400. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of selling pressure but this seems secondary in nature.
Target 2400 + ( 2400 – 2300 ) = 2500
Twiggs Volatility (21-day), at 0.63% for the S&P 500, is way below the 1.5% warning level for elevated market risk.
The yield curve is flattening, with the 10-year minus 3-month Treasury Yield Differential close to 1.0%. But this is still well above the 0.5% early-warning level. A negative yield curve, where the Yield Differential falls below zero, is normally followed by a recession within 6 to 12 months.
Fed monetary policy remains accommodative, with currency in circulation expanding at a healthy annual rate of 6.9%.
The bull market remains on track for further gains.
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.
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%*.
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.
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.
July labor stats are out and shows the jobless rate fell to a 16-year low at 4.3%. Unemployment below the long-term natural rate suggests the economy is close to capacity and inflationary pressures should be building.
Source: St Louis Fed, BLS
But hourly wage rates are growing at a modest pace, easing pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates.
Source: St Louis Fed, BLS
Fed monetary policy remains accommodative, with the monetary base (net of excess reserves) growing at a robust 7.5% a year.
Source: St Louis Fed, FRB
Our forward estimate of real GDP — Nonfarm Payroll * Average Weekly Hours — continues at a slow but steady annual pace of 1.79%.
Source: St Louis Fed, BLS & BEA
The Nasdaq 100 has run into resistance at 6000. No doubt readers noticed Amazon [AMZN] and Alphabet [GOOG] both retreated after reaching the $1000 mark. This is natural. Correction back to the rising trendline would take some of the heat out of the market and provide a solid base for further gains. Selling pressure, reflected by declining peaks on Twiggs Money Flow, appears secondary.
The S&P 500 is also running into resistance, below 2500. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of moderate selling pressure but this again seems to be secondary — in line with a correction rather than a reversal.
Manufacturing is holding its head above water (50 on the PMI chart) and industrial production shows a small upturn but investment growth is falling, as in many global economies including the US and Australia. Retail sales growth has declined but remains healthy at 10% a year.
Electricity generation continues to climb but steel, cement and plate glass production all warn that real estate and infrastructure development are slowing.
Interest rates remain accommodative.
Real estate price growth is slowing but remains an unhealthy 10% a year. Real estate development investment rallied in response to lower interest rates but is clearly in a long-term decline.
There are no signs of an economy in immediate trouble but there are indications that the real estate and infrastructure boom may be ending. Through a combination of fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary policy the Chinese have managed to stave off a capitalism-style correction. But failure to clear some of the excesses of the past decade will mean that the inevitable correction, when it does come, is likely to display familiar Asian severity (Japan 1992, Asian Crisis 1997).
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…..
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) made a new low of 9.30 indicating record low levels of stock volatility. High levels of stock buybacks and large ETF fund inflows may both have contributed, but this is only the third time in its 27-year history that index has broken below 10%. The first was in late 1993. The second, in late 2006, was followed a year later by a massive market snap-back. This time is no different. Volatility is unlikely to remain at such low levels and eventually we will see a market down-turn, accompanied by high volatility, but there is no crystal ball that can tell us whether this will be in one year or five.
Corporate bond spreads are also falling, with the spread between lowest investment grade Baa (10-year) and equivalent Treasury yields at their lowest point since 2008.
Source: St Louis Fed & Moody’s
The yield curve is flattening but remains comfortably above a flat or negative yield curve when
the yield differential (10-year minus 3-month yields) falls below zero. A negative yield curve is a reliable warning of recession within 12 months.
Source: St Louis Fed
The Freight Transportation Services Index displays a steady increase in economic activity.
Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census
And the S&P 500 continues its advance towards 2500.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.