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.

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

RBA strategy: Fight fire with gasoline

This is just plain wrong.

Bulk Commodity Prices

The Australian economy is sitting atop an enormous housing bubble caused by credit expansion from 1995 to 2007. To counter the end of the mining boom, the RBA lowered interest rates to stimulate the economy. While this may be necessary to relieve pressure on borrowers, what we don’t need is another credit expansion. That would simply make the economy more unstable and increase the risk of a crash. Banks are moving to curb lending to speculators, with lower LVRs, but not fast enough in my view. We can’t afford a credit contraction, but the RBA needs to impose sufficient discipline to keep credit growth at/below the inflation rate — so that it gradually declines in real terms as the economy grows.

US GDP: Where is it headed?

I originally got this from Matt Busigin (I think). Average Hourly Earnings multiplied by Average Weekly Hours (Total Private: Nonfarm) gives a pretty good indication of where GDP is headed, well ahead of the BEA accounts.

Nominal GDP compared to Average Hourly Earnings of All Employees (Total Private) multiplied by Average Weekly Hours (Total Private Nonfarm)

Remember this is nominal GDP, so the latest (April 2015) figure of 4.38% would need to be adjusted for inflation. Inflation is somewhere between 0.5% and 1.75% depending on how you measure it. The GDP deflator looks like it will come in below 1.0% which would leave us with real GDP of at least 3.38% p.a.

GDP Price Deflator compared to Core CPI

Will the stock market collapse when QE is withdrawn?

This chart in Westpac’s Northern Exposure chart summary implies that US stocks rely on Fed balance sheet expansion (QE) for support.

Fed Securities Held Outright v. S&P 500

The curve shows an almost perfect fit. There are just two things wrong with it. First, the scales on the left and right sides of the chart are not proportionate: the scale on the left compares a 9 times increase to a 3 times increase on the right. Second, while the Fed has expanded its balance sheet to more than $4 Trillion, a large percentage of that money has washed straight back to the Fed — deposited by banks as excess reserves.

Fed Total Assets and Excess Reserves

The impact on the working monetary base (monetary base adjusted for excess reserves) is far smaller: a rise of 66% (or $544 billion) over the past 7 years.

Fed Total Assets minus Excess Reserves compared to Working Monetary Base

A chart since 1985 shows nominal GDP (GDP before adjustment for inflation) normally expanded between 5% and 7.5% a year outside of recessions. But NGDP has not recovered above 5% after 2008. This may be partly attributable to lower inflation, but the Fed would clearly want to see NGDP above 5% — roughly 3% real growth and 2% inflation.

Working Monetary Base Growth compared to NGDP

We can also see that growth of below 5% in the working monetary base is often precursor to a recession, 1995/1996 being one exception. The second is when the Fed took their foot off the gas pedal too early, after QE1 in 2010, but were able to resume in time to head off a major contraction. They have been far more circumspect the second time and are likely to maintain monetary base growth North of 5%. Too sharp a slow-down would be cause for concern.

When we calculate the ratio of total US stock market capitalisation to the working monetary base [blue line] it is apparent that market response to the increase in monetary base is far more cautious than it was in 1998/1999.

Working Monetary Base Growth compared to NGDP

With Forward Price to Earnings Ratios for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq close to their long-term average (Westpac Northern Exposure, Page 118), I consider the likelihood of the QE taper precipitating a major market collapse to be remote.