S&P 500 reaches 2600

The S&P 500 reached its medium-term target of 2600. This is stage 3 of a bull market; a short correction or consolidation followed by further gains is likely.

S&P 500

A sharp correction during stage 3 often warns of an impending top but is unlikely at this stage.

Bellwether transport stock Fedex found short-term support after a 3-week correction. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow so far suggests secondary selling pressure and not an alteration in the primary trend. Recovery above 220 would respect the rising trendline, indicating a healthy up-trend — a bullish sign for the broader economy.

Fedex

Elliot Clarke at Westpac raises concerns over low investment growth:

…the FOMC clearly sought to cement market expectations of a rate hike in December in their October/November meeting minutes. The economy was seen as continuing to enjoy above-trend growth thanks to robust gains for household consumption. Built on income gains as well as strong confidence, this trend is expected to persist. Inevitably though, an economy cannot be built on consumption alone. Investment is necessary, and this is an area of the growth outlook where we harbor doubts. Should, as we expect, investment growth remain tepid, then productivity and income growth will be held back. This is a key reason why we believe that this rate hike cycle is likely to top out around 1.875%, after the December decision and two further hikes in 2018.

I think he is right that the Fed will remain cautious about raising interest rates until investment growth strengthens. Low inflation is partly caused by low investment, but this is likely to fade as new job creation strengthens.

ASX 200 tests support at 5900

Australia is headed for a period of political uncertainty, while tighter Chinese monetary policy and a crackdown on capital outflows will slow the local real estate boom. Employment is strong but low wage growth suggests under-employment.

Wage Index

Reliance on mining and real estate as the backbone of the economy is bound to disappoint. What the economy needs is a vibrant manufacturing and tech sector but this is shrinking rather than growing, with investment in machinery and equipment falling from 8% to almost 4% of GDP over the last decade.

Wage Index

Stocks are rising but we need to temper our enthusiasm with a hint of caution. The ASX 200 is testing medium-term support at 5900. The tall shadow on Friday’s candle indicates continued selling pressure. Breach of 5900 would warn of a strong correction to test primary support at 5650, while respect (indicated by recovery above 6000) would confirm an advance to 6250 (5950 + 300).

ASX 200

* Target calculation: 5950 + ( 5950 – 5650 ) = 6250

I remain wary of the banks because of their low capital base and high mortgage exposure. Reversal below the medium-term trendline warns of a correction to test the band of primary support between 8000 and 8100. Recovery above 8800 is less likely.

ASX 300 Banks

Miners are more bullish despite the low iron ore price. The ASX 300 Metals & Mining index is testing medium-term support at 3300. Respect is likely and would signal another advance.

ASX 300 Metals and Mining

Australia: Housing bubbles and declining business investment

The Australian housing bubble is alive and kicking, with house prices growing at close to 10% per year.

House Prices

Loan approvals are climbing, especially for owner-occupiers. Fueled by record low interest rates.

Loan Approvals

Causing household debt to soar relative to disposable income.

Loan Approvals

Business Investment

Nominal GDP growth of 6.34% for the 2017 FY is a rough measure of the average return on capital investment.

Australia Nominal GDP

With a mean of close to 5% over the last two decades, it is little wonder that business investment is falling. Not only in mining-related engineering but in machinery and equipment.

Australia Business Investment

Capital Misallocation

More capital is being allocated to housing than to business investment.

Australia Credit Growth

Returns on housing are largely speculative, premised on further house price growth, and do little to boost GDP growth and productivity.

The result of soaring house prices and household debt is therefore lower business investment and lower GDP and wages growth.

Australia Wages Growth

You don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed to recognize that soaring household debt and shrinking wage growth is likely to end badly.

Australia: Housing, Incomes & Growth

A quick snapshot of the Australian economy from the latest RBA chart pack.

Disposable income growth has declined to almost zero and consumption is likely to follow. Else Savings will be depleted.

Disposable Income & Consumption

Residential building approvals are slowing, most noticeably in apartments, reflecting an oversupply.

Residential Building Approvals

Housing loan approvals for owner-occupiers are rising, fueled no doubt by State first home-buyer incentives. States do not want the party, especially the flow from stamp duties, to end. But loan approvals for investors are topping after an APRA crackdown on investor mortgages, especially interest-only loans.

Housing loan approvals

The ratio of household debt to disposable income is precarious, and growing worse with each passing year.

Household debt to disposable income

House price growth continues at close to 10% a year, fueled by rising debt. When we refer to the “housing bubble” it is really a debt bubble driving housing prices. If debt growth slows so will housing prices.

House price growth

Declining business investment, as a percentage of GDP, warns of slowing economic growth in the years ahead. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve productivity growth without continuous new investment and technology improvement.

Business investment

Yet declining corporate bond spreads show no sign of increased lending risk.

Corporate bond spreads

Declining disposable income and consumption growth mean that voters are unlikely to be happy come next election. With each party trying to ride the populist wave, responsible economic management has taken a back seat. Throw in a housing bubble and declining business investment and the glass looks more than half-empty.

Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

~ Eric Hoffer

ASX: Steam or froth?

The ASX 200 broke resistance at 5500. Follow-through above 5600 would confirm a primary advance with a long-term target of 6000*. Rising Twiggs Money Flow indicates medium-term buying pressure.

ASX 200

* Target medium-term: 5600 + ( 5600 – 5200 ) = 6000

The ASX 300 Banks Index has followed through after breaking resistance at 8000. Expect retracement to test the new support level but respect is likely.

ASX 300 Banks

What could go wrong?

….Apart from a precarious property bubble in China fueling commodity exports, a property bubble in Australia fueled by record low interest rates and equally precarious immigration flows, declining business investment and slowing wages growth.

The ASX price-earnings ratio is close to historic highs, suggesting we are in Phase III of a bull market — where stocks are advanced on hopes and expectations of future growth rather than on concrete results. By all means follow the rally, but keep your stops tight.

Australia: Say goodbye to growth

Business investment in Australia continues its sharp descent since the end of the mining boom, falling below 14% of GDP for the first time since the Dotcom crash.

Australia Business Investment
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Apart from the expected “cliff” in Engineering, investment in Machinery and Equipment has fallen to record lows.

Australia Business Investment - Components
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Without investment, growth is likely to contract. The impact on Australian wages is an ominous warning.

Australia Wage Growth
Source: RBA Chart Pack

Priming the Pump

US stocks are buoyant on hopes that a Donald Trump presidency will benefit business, with major indexes flagging a bull market. But promises come first, the costs come later. While I support a broad infrastructure program and the creation of a level playing field in global markets, the actual execution of these ideas is critical and should not be allowed to be hijacked by the establishment for their own ends.

Erection of trade barriers is a useful negotiating position but is unlikely to be achieved without enormous damage to the global economy. As long as your trading partners think you are crazy enough to do it, they may be more amenable to establishing fair ground rules for international trade. If they don’t believe the threat, they will be happy to continue on their present path. So Trump walks a fine line between reassuring his allies and the domestic market, while keeping others guessing about his intentions.

Before we get carried away with hopes and expectations, however, we need to evaluate the current state of the economy in order to assess the current potential for growth.

The Cons

Let’s start with the negatives.

Construction spending is slow, at about three-quarters of pre-GFC (and sub-prime) levels. It will take more than an infrastructure program to restore this (though it is a step in the right direction). What is needed is higher growth expectations for the economy.

Construction Spending to GDP

Industrial production is close to its pre-GFC peak but has been declining since 2014.

Industrial Production Index

Job growth is slowing. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Employment Growth

Rail and freight activity also reflects a slow-down since 2015.

Rail & Freight Index

The Philadelphia Fed’s broad-based Leading Index has also softened since 2014. Decline below 1.0 percent would be cause for concern.

Leading Index

One of my favorite indicators, this graph compares profit margins (per unit of gross value added) to employee costs. There is a clear cycle: employee costs (per unit) fall after a recession while profits rise. As the economy recovers and approaches full capacity, employee costs start to rise and profits fall — which leads to the next recession. At present we can clearly see employee costs are rising and profit margins are falling.

Profits and Employee Costs per unit of Value Added

It will be difficult for corporations to continue to grow earnings in this environment. Business investment is falling.

Gross Private Nonresidential Fixed Investment

Plowing money into stock buybacks rather than into new investment may shore up corporate performance for a while but hurts construction and industrial production. Turning this around is a major challenge facing the new administration.

The Pros

Retail sales are rising as increased employee compensation costs lift consumer confidence. Solid November sales with strong Black Friday numbers would help lift confidence even further.

Retail Sales

Light vehicle sales are also recovering, a key indicator of consumers’ long-term outlook.

Light Vehicle Sales

Rising sales and infrastructure investment are only part of the solution. What Donald Trump needs to do is prime the pump: introduce a fairer tax system, minimize red tape and reduce political interference in the economy, while enforcing strong regulation of the financial sector. Not an easy task, but achieving these goals would help restore business confidence, revive investment, and set the economy on a sound growth path.

In the short run, the market is a voting machine
but in the long run it is a weighing machine.

~ Benjamin Graham: Security Analysis (1934)