Archive for July, 2011

What will happen if Uncle Sam does not raise the debt ceiling?

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Today, the financial markets are abuzz with chatter about the possible default of the US government due to Congress not raising the debt ceiling. A lot of investors are also interested in this topic and hence, this article.

First, what do we think will happen? We do not know what will happen in future. But our bet is that the debt ceiling will eventually be raised. If not by August 2, then it will be soon after. Maybe that will involve Obama invoking the 14th amendment clause in the Constitution to bypass Congress to raise the debt ceiling. Or maybe some other measures that we have not thought off. Or maybe there will be a surprise hugs and kisses in Congress as both Democrats and Republicans agree to raise the ceiling. Maybe… Anyway, this is not the first time this is happening. Every time, the debt ceiling is eventually raised. But because it was always raised eventually, it becomes like a game of crying wolf. So, each time it happens, the brinkmanship has to bring the country nearer to the edge in order to be taken more seriously.

But what if the unthinkable happens? What if the Uncle Sam fails to raise the debt ceiling and defaults on its debt?

US government debt is supposed to be the safest forms of cash in the world. It is supposed to be the debt that can never ever be defaulted. As a result, the yields on long-term US government debt become the benchmark to appraise every other investment, including stocks and bonds. The heart of value investing depends on the sacred safety of US government debt (see our series, Value investing for dummies). Now, there is talk that the US government may default on its debt. The fact that such a talk exists shows that it can happen. It hasn?t happen yet. But you can be sure that if it happens, it will throw chaos into the world of investing because if the world?s safest form of cash becomes unsafe, how do you value all the other investments?

So, what will happen?

Obviously, the US dollar will go down. But go down relative to which currency? Euros? Nay, Europe has its own sovereign debt problems. Yen? Maybe yes, but Japan?s government debt as a percentage of GDP dwarfs even the Greeks. Chinese Yuan? Perhaps, but it is still not a fully convertible currency. Australian dollar? That sounds better, and that can explains why the AUD is surging. Gold and silver? Yes, if the sacred safety of Uncle Sam?s debt is no longer safe, then there?s no recourse but to return to what is historically money for thousands of years.

Next, what will happen to interest rates in the US? Imagine all the US government bond holders heading for the exits together. US government bond prices will tank, which means its yields will surge. That will then lead to surging borrowing rates in the US.

But wait! Will Ben Bernanke sit there and do nothing while interest rates sky-rocket? Of course not! We think the Federal Reserve will step in by conjuring up money from thin air to buy the bonds from the panicking herd in order to support US government bond prices. And Bernanke will surely be praying that this will turn the tide of the massive wave of selling. What if the herd saw Bernanke?s money printing and believes that he is going to unleash a tidal wave of money into economy. That?ll be hyperinflationary! But if Bernanke does not do what it takes to support the US government bond prices, it will be hyperdeflationary as the already weak US economy get crunched by oppressively high interest rates.

Remember two years ago when National Party Barnaby Joyce suggested that Australia must have a contingency plan for an US government debt default. The then Prime Minister Rudd denounced him as an irresponsible loony. Today, that loony looks to be saner than Rudd.

Interesting times lies ahead. Those who had read our book, How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion and had already taken action have much less to fear. And by the way, our book is now also available in iTunes, for those who owns Apple’s iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad.

Is price inflation good for real estate in Australia?

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

One of the assumptions made by many people is that rising price inflation is good for property prices in nominal terms. In other words, many people see property as a hedge against price inflation. The experience of the past (especially 1970s) has a strong influence on this belief.

But today, in Australia, from our observations, we believe that the relationship between price inflation and property prices is breaking down. In fact, we would argue that price inflation probably has a negative effect on property prices.

To understand why, recall that we wrote in Does inflation (deflation) benefits the borrower (lender)?,

Debt servicing burden = (Debt payment rate ? Growth in wage) + Price inflation rate

Today, the problem is that in Australia, with the two-speed economy, wages are rising in one section of the economy but is relatively stagnant on the other. In relative terms, mining wages in Western Australia are sprinting ahead of wages at say, office workers in Sydney.

But unfortunately, since the GFC, cost of living has been rising faster than general rise in wages. For example, as Retail therapy impossible in this housing market reported,

Now look at your pay packet, take away the things you can’t avoid spending money on, remove what you’re paying in rent or paying off a loan, and look at what is left. You may find that’s smaller than ever, despite the fact we’re in a mining boom. But the trickle-down effect of that boom seems a long way away from Sydney. We’re part of the second tier of the economy here, the one that isn’t doing so well. Still, rent and housing prices continue to go up. And the bills come first before that new coat, that new stereo . . . even repairing those cracks on the walls or the dents on your car.

As you can see from our simple equation, with the cost of living rising faster than increase in wages, debt servicing burden will increase. Furthermore, the Reserve Bank did not help by raising interest rates. The increase in debt servicing burden puts a squeeze in discretionary spending- that explains why shoppers seems to be going on strike, putting the retail sector under pressure.

This increase in debt servicing burden is putting on the dampener on house prices. It dampens people’s appetite for borrowing more money and increases their propensity to save. Less borrowing means less capacity to bid up house prices. It also pushes more mortgage holders to be delinquent with their home loans, which increases the likelihood of forced sales. This is the first round of effect on house prices.

Rising cost of living pushes the retail sector deeper into trouble as shoppers shut up their wallets. Since consumer spending account for 60% of the Australian economy, a weak retail sector is hardly good news for employment in the country. As we wrote in RBA committing logical errors regarding Australian household finance,

Given Australia?s high household debt (see Aussie household debt not as bad as it seems?), prime debt can easily turn sub-prime when unemployment rises.

Rising unemployment will put further pressure on house prices. As we wrote in Does house price crash follow unemployment or is it the other way?,

[Rising unemployment] will feed into the second round of impact of lower house prices, which in turn lead to further rising unemployment. This will feed into the? third round of impact.

Now, cost of living is rising despite a rising Australian dollar. What if the dollar falls substantially? What will happen to the cost of living?