Australia: RBA hands tied

Falling wage rate growth suggests that we are headed for a period of low growth in employment and personal consumption.

Australia Wage Index

The impact is already evident in the Retail sector.

ASX 300 Retail

The RBA would normally intervene to stimulate investment and employment but its hands are tied. Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble. Household debt is already precariously high in relation to disposable income.

Australia: Household Debt to Disposable Income

Like Mister Micawber in David Copperfield, we are waiting in the hope that something turns up to rescue us from our predicament. It’s not a good situation to be in. If something bad turns up and the RBA is low on ammunition.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and — and in short you are for ever floored….

~ Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

IMF warns about Chinese debt

From FT (via the Coppo Report at Bell Potter):

China’s leaders need to look beyond the current solutions being floated to tackle the country’s mounting corporate debt problems and come up with a bigger plan to do so, the International Monetary Fund’s top China expert has warned. The IMF has been expressing growing concern about China’s debt issues and pushing for an urgent response by Beijing to what the fund sees as a serious problem for the Chinese economy. It warned in a report earlier this month that $1.3tn in corporate debt — or almost one in six of the business loans on Chinese banks’ books — was owed by companies who brought in less in revenues than they owed in interest payments alone. In a paper published on Tuesday, James Daniel, the fund’s China mission chief, and two co­authors, went further and warned that Beijing needed a comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem. They warned that the two main responses Beijing was planning to the problem — debt­-for­-equity swaps and the securitization of non­performing loans — could in fact make the problem worse if underlying issues were not dealt with. The plan for debt­ for equity swaps could end up offering a temporary lifeline to unviable state­ owned companies, they warned. It could also leave them managed by state­ owned banks or other officials with little experience in doing so.

Bad debt is bad debt …… and nonproductive assets are nonproductive assets. Financial window-dressing like securitization or debt-for-equity swaps will not change this. The assets are still unproductive. Effectively, China has to stump up $1.3 trillion to re-capitalize its banks. And that may be the tip of the iceberg.

If we don’t understand both sides of China’s balance sheet, we understand neither | Michael Pettis

From Michael Pettis’ OpEd in the Wall St Journal:

History suggests that developing countries that have experienced growth “miracles” tend to develop risky financial systems and unstable national balance sheets. The longer the miracle, the greater the tendency. That’s because in periods of rapid growth, riskier institutions do well. Soon balance sheets across the economy incorporate similar types of risk.

….Over time, this means the entire financial system is built around the same set of optimistic expectations. But when growth slows, balance sheets that did well during expansionary phases will now systematically fall short of expectations, and their disappointing performance will further reinforce the economic deceleration. This is when it suddenly becomes costlier to refinance the gap, and the practice of mismatching assets and liabilities causes debt, not profits, to rise.

Read more at If we don’t understand both sides of China’s balance sheet, we understand neither | Michael Pettis’ CHINA FINANCIAL MARKETS

Government Debt and Deficits Are Not the Problem. Private Debt Is. | Michael Hudson

Professor Michael Hudson writes:

Student loan debt, now the second largest debt in the US at around $1 trillion, is the one kind of debt that has been growing since 2008. It is depriving new graduates of the ability to start families and buy new homes. This debt is partly a byproduct of cutbacks in federal and local aid to the universities, and partly of turning them into profit centers – financializing education to squeeze out an economic surplus to invest in real estate and financial holdings, to pay much higher salaries to upper management (but not to professors, who are being replaced by part-time, un-tenured help), and especially to create a thriving high-profit, zero-risk, government guaranteed loan business for banks.

This is not really “socializing” student loans. Its social effects are regressive and negative. It is a bank-friendly giveaway that is helping polarize the economy.

via Government Debt and Deficits Are Not the Problem. Private Debt Is. | Michael Hudson.

Real Recovery: America’s Debt is on the Decline

[A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute] estimated that home equity loans and cash-out refinancing increased consumer spending by a percentage point to 3 percent growth a year during the housing bubble years. But with that source of debt financing gone, retailers are more likely to see 2 percent annual growth over the next few years, which is about where it has been in recent months.

via Real Recovery: America’s Debt is on the Decline.

The path to recovery: how to bring the debt binge under control

The debt binge since 1975, fueled by an easy-money policy from the Fed, has landed the US economy in serious difficulties. Wall Street no doubt lobbied hard for debt expansion, because of the boost to interest margins, with little thought as to their own vulnerability. There can be no justification for debt to expand at a faster rate than GDP — a rising Debt to GDP ratio — as this feeds through into the money supply, causing asset (real estate and stocks) and/or consumer prices to balloon. What we see here is clear evidence of financial mismanagement of the US economy over several decades: the graph of debt to GDP should be a flat line.

US Domestic and Private Non-Financial Debt as Percentage of GDP

The difference between domestic and private (non-financial) debt is public debt, comprising federal, state and municipal borrowings. When we look at aggregate debt below, domestic (non-financial) debt is still rising, albeit at a slower pace than the 8.2 percent average of the previous 5 years (2004 to 2008). Public debt is ballooning in an attempt to mitigate the deflationary effect of a private debt contraction. Clearly this is an unsustainable path.

US Domestic and Private Non-Financial Debt

The economy has grown addicted to debt and any attempt to go “cold turkey” — cutting off further debt expansion — will cause pain. But there are steps that can be taken to alleviate this.

Public Debt and Infrastructure Investment

If private debt contracts, you need to expand public debt — by running a deficit — in order to counteract the deflationary effect of the contraction. The present path expands public debt rapidly in an attempt to not only offset the shrinkage in private debt levels but also to continue the expansion of overall (domestic non-financial) debt levels. This is short-sighted. You can’t borrow your way out of trouble. And encouraging the private sector to take on more debt would be asking for a repeat of the GFC. The private sector needs to deleverage but how can this be done without causing a total economic collapse? The answer lies in government spending.

Treasury cannot afford to borrow more money if this is used to meet normal government expenditure. Public debt as a percentage of GDP would sky-rocket, further destabilizing the economy. If the proceeds are invested in infrastructure projects, however, that earn a market-related return on investment — whether they be high-speed rail, toll roads or bridges, automated port facilities, airport upgrades, national broadband networks or oil pipelines — there are at least four benefits. First is the boost to employment during the construction phase, not only on the project itself but in related industries that supply equipment and materials. Second is the saving in unemployment benefits as employment is lifted. Third, the fiscal balance sheet is strengthened by addition of saleable, income-producing assets, reducing the net public debt. Lastly, and most importantly, GDP is boosted by revenues from the completed project — lowering the public debt to GDP ratio.

Public debt would still rise, and bond market funding in the current climate may not be reliable. But this is the one time that Treasury purchases (QE) by the Fed would not cause inflation. Simply because the inflationary effect of asset purchases are offset by the deflationary effect of private debt contraction. Overall (domestic non-financial) debt levels do not rise, so there is no upward pressure on prices.

Infrastructure investment should not be seen as the silver bullet, that will solve all our problems. Over-investment in infrastructure can produce diminishing marginal returns — as in bridges to nowhere — and government projects are prone to political interference, cost overruns, and mismanagement. But these negatives can be minimized through partnership with the private sector.

Projects should also not be viewed as a short-term, band-aid solution. The private sector has to increase hiring and make substantial capital investment in order to support them. All the good work would be undone if the spigot is shut off prematurely. What is needed is a 10 to 20 year program to revamp the national infrastructure, restore competitiveness and lay the foundation for future growth.

There are no quick fixes. But what the public needs is a clear path to recovery, rather than the current climate of indecision.

Debt and deleveraging: The global credit bubble and its economic consequences | McKinsey Global Institute

Empirically, a long period of deleveraging nearly always follows a major financial crisis. Deleveraging episodes are painful, lasting six to seven years on average and reducing the ratio of debt to GDP by 25 percent. GDP typically contracts during the first several years and then recovers.

via Debt and deleveraging: The global credit bubble and its economic consequences | McKinsey Global Institute | Financial Markets | McKinsey & Company.

Perils of ignoring Europe’s lessons – P.M.

DAVID MURRAY: The lending system for housing has resulted in a house price which is higher than it should be and part of the net foreign liabilities that are higher than they should be.

I believe that will be worked through by a stabilisation of house prices and steady increase in incomes and hopefully that’s the outcome but based on a price to income test, house prices in Australia are higher than they should be.

The regulations in the banking sector significantly promoted that outcome because the risk weight on housing is very low, so the gearing for housing is high. Historically the write-off rate’s been low. People believe that will last forever, which is always a worry. And this is purely with the benefit of hindsight, particularly on my part.

via PM – Perils of ignoring Europe’s lessons 24/11/2011.

ECB’s Top German Representative Resigns – WSJ.com

Germany’s top representative on the European Central Bank resigned in an apparent protest of the bank’s recent interventions in euro-zone debt markets…….Jürgen Stark is stepping down “for personal reasons,” the ECB said in a statement…… Mr. Stark, one of the ECB’s most outspoken anti-inflation “hawks,” had opposed the ECB’s decision last month to reactivate its government bond purchase program….

via ECB’s Top German Representative Resigns – WSJ.com.

Troika Talks on Aid to Greece Stall – WSJ.com

“I expect a hard default definitely before March, maybe this year, and it could come with this program review,” said a senior IMF economist who is keeping close tabs on the situation. “The chances for a second program are slim.”

Failure of Greece to meet its targets, growing reluctance by some euro members to continue lending and the fact that private-sector participation in a second bailout won’t significantly alter Greece’s debt profile are the primary factors, the IMF official said.

via Troika Talks on Aid to Greece Stall – WSJ.com.

When debt levels turn cancerous – Telegraph Blogs

The professoriat has been a little too cavalier in arguing that debt does not really matter for the world as a whole because we all owe it to ourselves. Debtors are offset by creditors (not always from friendly countries). Common sense suggest that this academic solipsism is preposterous, and so it now proves to be.

“As modern macroeconomics developed over the last half-century, most people either ignored or finessed the issue of debt. Yet, as the mainstream was building and embracing the New Keynesian orthodoxy, there was a nagging concern that something had been missing…..There are intrinsic differences between borrowers and lenders; non-linearities, discontinuities… It is the asymmetry between those who are highly indebted and those who are not that leads to a decline in aggregate demand.”

Creditors do not step up spending to cover the shortfall when debtors are forced to retrench suddenly. So the economy tanks.

via Ambrose Evans-Pritchard|When debt levels turn cancerous – Telegraph Blogs.