Archive for March, 2011

Are you against negative gearing?

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Yesterday, the major newspaper reported on the First Home Buyer price strike on the front pages. Judging from the numerous vitriol and insults in the ensuing comments of the article, it is very clear that this social media campaign has touched the raw nerves of many. It goes to show that far too many people in Australia are too emotionally invested in property.

Related to this cause is the issue of negative gearing. Economist Saul Eslake put it the best in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald article- Imagine a tax system that penalised work. If you feel very much against negative gearing, you may want to join this Facebook cause: End negative gearing tax subsidy, affordable housing for next generation.

China is slowing down

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Many things happened since we last wrote. The earthquake in Japan was the biggest news of the day. As Japan’s nuclear crisis unfolded, stock markets around the world panicked amidst screams of “nuclear meltdown.” Today, the nuclear situation in Japan seemed to be stabilising, even though the long-term radiation impacts are still unclear at this moment.

To help you keep things in perspective, please note one thing about Japan’s nuclear crisis: despite screams of “nuclear meltdown,” there is ZERO chance of a nuclear explosion. A nuclear reactor is NOT a nuclear bomb. Our guess is that this nuclear crisis is just a blip in the economic big picture, even though in some localised areas in Japan, it is the end of the world (e.g. some areas may not be habitable for a long time). Therefore, contrarian investors may use this opportunity to buy Japanese stocks (we know it is probably too late to do so now).

However, do not let the nuclear crisis distract you to a more important development that is already brewing for quite some time- the coming slowdown in China. This development is far more important than the Japanese nuclear crisis, which by now is no longer a crisis. Remembered we wrote in January last year at Chinese government cornered by inflation, bubbles & rich-poor gap,

By not allowing the yuan to appreciate, the Chinese government shows that at least for now, they fear unemployment and excess capacity more than inflation.

But there will be a day when they have to tackle the inflation problem. As long as the inflation problem is not solved, there will be rising prices and bubbles in the asset markets.

Today, we can say that the Chinese government are tackling the inflation problem. 2009 and 2010 was the year when they pumped in steroids into the economy. Today, they are dealing with the effects of the steroids- price inflation. China is tightening monetary conditions (e.g. rising interest rates, increasing bank reserves requirements) for quite some time already. They are serious about dealing with price inflation, at least for now. Premier Wen Jiabao had already declared that China’s target for economic growth will be lower (see China lowers growth rate target in sustainability drive), from 8% to 7%. Incidentally, the lower target of 7% is pretty close to Gary Shilling’s (a respected bear on China) definition of a ‘hard landing’ in China, which is a growth rate of 6% or less.

So, it should be extremely obvious by now that China’s economy will slow down this year. In other words, China is aiming for a soft landing.

The big question is, when the slowdown begins to bite, will China step on the accelerator again? Our belief is that there’s too much vested interests in China to keep the growth going and to prevent the bubble from bursting spectacularly. Also, the central bank in China is not independent. Thus, as we wrote in Why should central banks be independent from the government?, without an independent central bank, the bias in China is towards more inflation.

The risk for China (and by extension, Australia- see Turkeys fattened for slaughter in the Chi-tralia bubble) is that the control freaks in Beijing may stuff up and either turn the soft landing into a hard landing or losing control of inflation.

Watch this space.

Deleveraging in the Australian economy bites

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

If you read the newspaper headlines and billboard advertisements recently, you may notice something interesting (if not, strange) happening. National Australia Bank (NAB) announced that it is ‘breaking up’ with the rest of the banks in a new campaign. That immediately provoked reactions from the other banks, including Suncorp with its “breaking up” theme in a recent billboard advertisement.

Soon, bank investors are fretting about a price war among the banks, which means the race is on to the bottom for profits. As this news article reported,

Investors are becoming nervous about the prospect of a price war breaking out between the banks, with one major brokerage labelling the attacks a ?negative sum game?.

What on earth is happening?

Only as recently as four months, politicians were aiming their gun sights on the banks for ‘lack’ of competition, when Commonwealth Bank (CBA) initiated a rise in their mortgage rates that was almost twice the rate rise of the Reserve Bank (RBA). There were talk about building a “fifth pillar” in the banking system. Today, the banks seem to be starting a price war among themselves, in a race to the bottom.

Well, the reason is dead simple. To put it simply, banks are in the business of lending money. That’s their core business. As we wrote before in The dark side of rising bank profits,

One way to make more money is to increase lending.

Banks, as publicly listed companies in the stock exchange, are always under pressure to increase their profits year after year (i.e. seek growth). Heavens forbid that their profits ever fall! All hell breaks lose if that ever happens!

But there’s one big problem for them today- the savings rate of Australians have shot up to 10%, which is the highest since the early 1990s! That means that Australians are saving more money and repaying their debts. In other words, the Australian economy is now undergoing a deleveraging process. Consequently, it is becoming harder for the banks to make more money by lending more money. A very crude (and thus, inaccurate) analogy would be to compare the banks to dogs fighting among each other for a shrinking pie. As that article reported,

The infighting is an indirect result of the sluggish credit market, with banks under pressure to find growth, the report said.

What does this mean for the Australian economy?

As we explained in detail in Significant slowdown for Australia ahead?, deleveraging sucks away the aggregate demand from the economy. The first to get hit will be the retail sector that is related to discreditionary spending. The structural shift of Australian consumers from shopping in retail stores to shopping in the Internet is a symptom of deleveraging.

Given that the retail sector accounts for approximately 60% of the economy, continuation of this structural shift in consumer behaviour imply that more pain is in store for the retail sector.