Dr Shane Oliver
Head of Investment Strategy and Economics and Chief Economist
21 September 2018
Investment markets and key developments over the past week
The past week saw “risk on” with the latest escalation in the US/China trade conflict being less than feared. This saw shares rally, bond yields rise, commodity prices gain, the US$ fall and the A$ rise. US shares rose 0.9%, Eurozone shares gained 2.1%, Japanese shares rose 3.4%, Chinese shares rose 5.2% and Australian shares rose 0.5%. While the Australian share market participated in the global share market rebound, over the last week it has gone back to underperforming again, reflecting its relatively defensive/high-yield characteristics.
The latest round of US/China tariffs had been long flagged and both the US increase (10% on US$200 billion of imports from China, but not yet 25%) and China’s less than proportional retaliation (5-10% on US$60 billion of imports) were less than feared. This, along with reports China is planning a broad cut to its tariffs, was positive and leaves scope for negotiations. More significantly, we are still a long way from a full-blown trade war. After implementation of the latest round, only about 12% of US imports will be subject to increased tariffs and the average tariff increase across all imports will be just 1.6% – implying about a 0.2% boost to inflation and a less than 0.2% hit to growth. In China, the economic impact is likely to be less than 0.5% of GDP. This is all a long way from 1930 when the US levied a 20% tariff hike on all imports and other countries did the same making the depression “great”.
The trouble is that further escalation is still on the cards. Both sides are still well apart on the key issues (like IP protection) and President Trump remains defiant saying “it’s time to take a stand on China” and his threat to increase tariffs on all imports from China remains. Chinese growth is far from collapsing and China is using policy stimulus to offset the economic impact of the tariffs, so is in no hurry to respond to pressure from Trump. Our view remains that a negotiated solution is likely, but it’s unlikely to come until later this year or early next.
Brexit is another issue that continues to wax and wane. Lately the risks of a “no deal” or “hard Brexit”, which risk throwing the UK into recession, have shot up again. The EU rejection of the British Government’s Brexit plan with the “four freedoms” and the Irish border remain sticking points and time is running out. It’s still too early to take a bullish British pound bet.
Major global economic events and implications
US data remains strong. Manufacturing conditions remained strong in the New York and Philadelphia regions and the Markit manufacturing PMI rose, the Conference Board’s leading indicator is continuing to rise, and jobless claims fell further. Housing-related data, like starts, permits and sales, doesn’t have a lot of momentum but it’s consistent with a flat/modest contribution to economic growth and at least it’s a long way from the pre-GFC housing boom that went bust.
Eurozone business conditions PMIs fell slightly in September but remain consistent with reasonable growth.
As expected, the Bank of Japan made no changes to monetary policy and continued to describe the economy as “expanding moderately”. Also, PM Abe was elected as LDP President adding to confidence that Abenomics will continue. Core inflation rose to 0.4% year-on-year in August, which is good, but still a long way from the 2% inflation target.
Australian economic events and implications
In Australia, ABS data confirmed that home prices fell again in the June quarter, skilled vacancies rose slightly and population growth remained strong in the March quarter. In terms of house prices, our assessment remains that the combination of tighter bank lending standards, rising supply, poor affordability and falling capital growth expectations point to more falls ahead, with Melbourne and Sydney likely to see top to bottom home price falls of around 15% out to 2020.
But what about the risk of a property price crash as suggested by the recent Sixty Minutes report? Several things are worth noting in relation to this: predictions of a 30-50% property price crash have been wheeled out regularly in Australian media over the last decade including on Sixty Minutes; the anecdotes of mortgage stress and defaults don’t line up well with actual data showing low levels of arrears; borrowers have already been moving from interest only to principle and interest loans over the last few years, without a lot of stress; and the 40-45% price fall call on the program was “if everything turns against us”. Our view remains that in the absence of much higher interest rates, much higher unemployment, or a multi-year supply surge (none of which are expected) a property crash is unlikely. But the risks are now greater than when property crash calls started to be made a decade or so ago and so deeper price falls than the 15% top to bottom fall we expect for Sydney and Melbourne are a high risk. This is particularly so given the risk that post the Royal Commission bank lending standards become excessively tight, negative gearing is restricted and the capital gains tax discount is halved after a change in government in Canberra. There is also a big risk that FOMO (fear of missing out) becomes FONGO (fear of not getting out) for some.
One factor which supports the argument against a property price crash is ongoing strong population growth. Over the year to the March quarter it remained high at 1.6%, which is at the top end of developed countries. As can be seen in the next chart, net overseas migration has become an increasingly important driver of population growth in recent years.
However, there are a few qualifications to this: there is some risk that the migrant intake may be cut; while accelerating population growth in Queensland will support Brisbane property prices, population growth is slowing in NSW and Victoria so it’s becoming a bit less supportive of property prices in those states; and the supply of new dwellings has been catching up to strong population growth so undersupply is giving way to oversupply in some areas. The risk of the latter is highlighted by the continuing very high residential crane count which is still dominated by Sydney and Melbourne, indicating that there is still of lot of supply to hit the market ahead. Out of interest, Australia’s total residential crane count alone of 528 cranes is way above the total crane count (ie residential and non-residential) in the US of 300 and Canada of 123!
S&P’s revision of Australia’s AAA rating outlook from negative to stable is nice, but will have no impact on borrowing rates or the A$. Yes, the budget deficit has been improving, but risks remain around the Budget’s wages assumptions and there are risks around spending given the coming election.
What to watch over the next week?
In the US, news on the trade dispute with China will remain a focus. Beyond that, the focus will be the US Federal Reserve (Fed) (Wednesday) which is expected to raise interest rates for the eighth time for this cycle taking the Fed Funds rate range to 2-2.25% and signal that more gradual rate hikes are likely. Markets have already fully factored this in, so the interest will be on the Fed’s commentary about the outlook and its “dot plot” of future rate hikes. While the Fed may remove its description of policy as being “accommodative” its economic commentary is likely to be upbeat and the dot plot is likely to remain consistent with more gradual rate hikes, ultimately taking the Fed Funds rate above the Fed’s currently assessed long run “neutral rate” of around 2.75-3%. This will likely mean more rate hikes over the next two years than the three and a half the market is currently allowing for. On the data front in the US, expect ongoing home price gains and another strong consumer confidence reading (both Tuesday), slight gains in new home sales (Wednesday) and pending home sales (Thursday), ongoing strength in durable goods orders (also Thursday) continued strength in consumer spending but a fall back in core private consumption deflator inflation to 1.9% year-on-year for August (Friday).
Eurozone inflation data for September to be released Friday is likely to show core inflation remaining around 1% year-on-year. Economic confidence data will be released Thursday and Italy is due to release its draft budget by Friday.
Japanese data to be released Friday is likely to show continued labour market strength and a rebound in industrial production.
Chinese manufacturing conditions PMIs (Friday and Sunday) will be watched for the impact from the US trade conflict.
In Australia, job vacancies (Thursday) are likely to slow a bit and credit growth (Friday) is likely to be modest. The interim report of the financial services Royal Commission will also be released, with the risk it prompts a further tightening in bank lending.
Outlook for markets
We continue to see the trend in shares remaining up, as global growth remains solid helping drive good earnings growth and monetary policy remains easy. However, the risk of a correction over the next two months still remains significant given the threats around trade, emerging market contagion, ongoing Fed rate hikes, the Mueller inquiry in the US, the US mid-term elections and Italian budget negotiations. Property price weakness and approaching election uncertainty add to the risks around the Australian share market.
Low yields are likely to drive low returns from bonds. Australian bonds are likely to outperform global bonds helped by the relatively dovish RBA.
Unlisted commercial property and infrastructure are still likely to benefit from the search for yield, but it is waning.
National capital city residential property prices are expected to slow further with Sydney and Melbourne property prices likely to fall another 10% or so, but Perth and Darwin property prices bottoming out, and Hobart, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane seeing moderate gains.
Cash and bank deposits are likely to continue to provide poor returns, with term deposit rates running around 2.2%.
While the A$ is working off very negative short positions and oversold conditions resulting in another short-term bounce, it’s still likely to fall to around US$0.70 and maybe into the high US$0.60s as the gap between the RBA’s cash rate and the US Fed Funds rate pushes further into negative territory because the US economy is booming relative to Australia. Being short the A$ remains a good hedge against things going wrong in the global economy.