Investors look to US for growth story

As the local economy turns down, analysts are seeing better value offshore, writes Max Mason.

As the local economy turns down, analysts are seeing better value offshore, writes Max Mason.

You can't keep a good market down, not for long at least.

Despite all the problems faced by the US economy over the past six years, American investors pushed Wall Street to record highs this week.

While US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and his $US85 billion a month bond-buying program have helped fuel the gains, there's much more to the story.

Sentiment is rising in the home of the brave. Unlike Australia, the US has experienced some of the toughest economic times in its history since the financial crisis struck in 2008, but the clouds are clearing.

The unemployment rate, while still high, has fallen from 9.9 per cent in 2010 to 7.6 per cent last month, and the S&P/Case Shiller home price indices had their biggest annual increase in seven years in the year to April.

"The US has hit the bottom, that's the difference [with Australia]," Tyndall senior analyst Craig Young said. "Their earnings growth is looking better. We're the opposite. We've had the mining capex boom, which is definitely rolling off."

Those sceptical of the US recovery point to Wall Street's reaction to the first signs from Dr Bernanke in May that the central bank was reconsidering its stimulus efforts. US markets lost between 5 per cent and 6 per cent in about a month before powering back. As they stand now, the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average are each up a little more than 18.5 per cent this year.

The managing director at Neuberger Berman in New York, Matthew Rubin, said tapering "should really be viewed as a positive thing".

"The market should have interpreted what Bernanke was saying as, 'Look, we've been providing medicine for a patient that we feel needed improvement and we're going to continue to provide that medicine, until we feel the situation has improved'," he says.

Some analysts worry that this week's records came about because the US Fed said it won't be turning off the "easy money" tap any time soon. But the fact that the Fed is even thinking about winding back quantitative easing is a sign that American companies are beginning to get back on their feet.

"Beyond quantitative easing, we're actually seeing a significant improvement in company fundamentals," Mr Rubin said. "Company balance sheets are in great shape, companies are very eager to buy back their own stock."

Much of the data coming from reporting season in the US is supporting the thesis of a recovering economy.

"As we go into the second half of the year, our expectation is to see companies that really are leveraged to the domestic economy outperform," Mr Rubin said.

"In that regard, financials, industrials, information technology, consumer discretionary and energy are likely to do well."

Coming back home across the Pacific, things are a little different.

Thanks to a resources boom driven by strong demand for raw materials from China, Australia rode out the worst of the global financial crisis. But as spending on mining infrastructure peaks, the economy's dependence on the revenue from the resources sector has become a weakness.

Despite economic indicators such as unemployment and gross domestic product being the envy of the developed world, they are softening and investors are increasingly worried that growth will be hard to sustain.

"In absolute terms, we're doing pretty well, relative to where we were five or six years ago," Tyndall's Mr Young said. "While the US is obviously doing much worse than they were five-six years ago, our direction is to normalise down a bit while theirs is to normalise up."

The Australian reaction to Dr Bernanke's comments in May was more severe. The ASX 200 had risen 12.3 per cent from January 1 to May 14, but it lost 11 per cent before recovering to be about 7.4 per cent higher for the calendar year.

However, investors are now keenly aware that Australia faces an uphill battle to maintain growth, with some economists suggesting a recession is imminent.

"The only thing that's looking really interesting is housing, but then you look at the share prices and they've all run," Mr Young said.

Big resources companies look cheap and they will be producing heavily for many years to come, but they offer risk.

"At the moment, you've seen quite negative news on China, forecasts for GDP coming down and people scared of where it would go to, so people are staying away from those sorts of stocks for now," Mr Young said.

The chief investment officer at global fund Platinum, Andrew Clifford, said the most obvious thing for an Australian investor is to think about investing offshore.

"Locally there's not much that is attractive to us, because this has been such a good economy," he said. "I think there are lots of interesting things going on around the world where people can look to invest."

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