Caton's Corner - July 2013

Share market volatility has continued in June. At the close on 20 June, the Australian market had fallen by 3.4% from its 31 May level while the US market was down by 2.6%. This brings the year-to gains to 2.4% and 11.4% respectively.

At the current low point for this correction, during the day on 13 June, the Australian market was down by more than 10% from its 14 May close of 5221. That low point may, however, be challenged on 21 June.

There is no doubt what the major international force driving markets is: the continued concern that the Federal Reserve may end its programme of quantitative easing (QE). QE expands the Fed's balance sheet, and the chart below shows the apparent effect this has had on the US share market in recent years.

Source: Deutsche Bank, Bloomberg Financial, L.P.

Earlier this week, in a press conference after an FOMC meeting, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke indicated that the Fed is likely to begin to "taper" QE - that is to buy fewer long-term securities than the current $85 billion per month--before the end of 2013, with an eventual aim of ceasing such purchases altogether by mid-2014. Note that this wasn't a statement of what the Fed will do so much as a statement of what it plans to do provided that the economy still shows consistent signs of growth.

Note also that "tapered" purchase would still result in further expansion of the Fed's balance sheet, so if the above chart has any meaning that should still be consistent with a rising share market.

The share market fell significantly that afternoon, and again on the following day. Meanwhile, long-term interest rates have risen sharply, with the 10-year bond rate now at 2.44%, from 1.64% as recently as 1 May. This, in turn, causes mortgage rates to rise and thus calls into question the ongoing housing recovery.

I continue to think that market analysts are jumping at shadows, and that a world in which the Fed is comfortable ending its programme is a world that should be conducive to further share market gains. It is, however, just as well that these issues are being discussed long before we get to the end of the process the more market volatility this causes now, the less there may be later.

In addition to the US effect, the Australian market has been held back by concern about the state of the Australian economy, along with continued soft Chinese data.

The national accounts for the first quarter, released in early June, depicted an economy growing at just 2.5% in the past year, down from 4.4% as recently as a year ago. They also suggested that the mining investment boom has already peaked, which removes from the economy a major source of growth in recent years. We knew the end of this boom was coming it just arrived a little earlier than anticipated.

This slowdown led to calls of recession, and to assessments that the Australian economy would already be in recession were it not for exports. The latter statement is meaningless: as a general rule, if one excludes all the stuff that is growing strongly the average growth rate always falls.

A couple of well-regarded private-sector economists have gained some publicity with their estimates that there is a 20-25% chance of a recession within a year. Think about that. What they are saying is that it may happen but it probably won't. Who can disagree with that?

The issue is that it's not clear that the rest of the economy will pick up the pace quickly enough to offset the loss of growth from mining capital spending. I am frequently asked just where the replacement growth is going to come from, and the answer does not always convince doubters. The response must be that it won't come from any one sector, but from everywhere that is helped by lower interest rates and a lower exchange rate (along with an improvement in business sentiment that seems likely to occur after 14 September).

Real GDP growth in Australia and the US

Source: Datastream

While I acknowledge that the current circumstances are challenging, there is simply no inevitability that economic growth in Australia will slow further. Prior to the GFC, year-to growth dipped to 2.5% or less in 2006, 2003, 2000 and 1997 (see chart). So a slowdown of the magnitude of the current one seems to happen about every three years or so. In none of these four cases did the economy finish in recession and it remains an unlikely outcome in this current case.

The $A continues to fall

The exchange rate has continued its plunge towards fair value. At time of writing, it stands around 92 cents (still well above my estimate of 80 cents for its "fair value"). The RBA is standing on the sidelines cheering the dollar on. As a rule of thumb, a 5-cent drop in the currency has a stimulative effect on the economy about equal to a quarter-point rate cut. It makes our exports easier to sell, and makes domestically produced goods more competitive with those from offshore (fresh-baked bread at Coles, for example). Thus the decline in the currency to date should do the work of two rate cuts.

The fall in the currency has added to the perils of the Australian market for overseas investors. Since the recent peak in our market, the $A has fallen by 8%, so a US investor in our market is down by about 16% in the past five weeks.

Financial markets continue to think that the cash rate has further to fall, and they may be right. My view is that, given that the cash rate is at a record low, the RBA will be extremely parsimonious in cutting further. It is probably hoping that the rate cuts already in place will get more traction, and that the lower exchange rate will help enough to obviate the need for further cuts.

Mea Culpa

Three weeks ago I stood by my then forecast of 5300 for the ASX200 at the end of the year. The ongoing weakness so far this month has persuaded me to revert to my original forecast, published in early January, of 5100. Last year, the reverse happened I cut my forecast by 200 points in mid-2012 and my original forecast finished up being too high by just 51 points. The lesson: never change a forecast until you are absolutely sure that it’s wrong.

Chris Caton
Chief Economist
BT Financial Group

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone. They should not be otherwise attributed.

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