Ay yay yay! What a week it’s shaping up to be. The task of today’s Markets and Money is to take stock of the 25% rally in the All Ordinaries since March 06th and figure out what’s behind it. Is it “sustainable,” to use a word that’s become so popular with budget deficit runners lately? Also, just how DO you make money in an inflationary boom? And did spiking bond yields pop the government debt bubble on Friday?
First things first. The budget comes out tomorrow. Blah blah blah. What is really left to say? The Treasurer predicts collapsing revenues from the GFC and has cut spending in some places while increasing it in others. The annual deficit could be around $70 billion (we expect it to be lower so it’s ‘not as bad as we expected’) and the government predicts more deficits for years to come until the relationship between falling revenues and rising spending becomes “more sustainable.”
How Australia chooses its social spending priorities is a political question. And who wants to get into the sewer and debate politics on a Monday morning? The effect of financing those priorities/promises, however, is an economic question. And for that we’d say watch out for a steepening Aussie yield curve. This indicates rising long-term interest rates. In other words, big government borrowing to financing deficit spending is going to make borrowing more expensive for ALL Australians. More on the bubble in government bonds below.
What about the stock market though? Australia reported its second-best ever trade surplus last week. Chinese purchases of Aussie exports have surged 80% in the last four months, according to government statistics. China purchased a record $4.4 billion in Aussie goods in March.
Surely that must be the kind of national income that boosts corporate earnings? But whose income? Well, farm exports were up 10%, with wheat exports up about 40%. Imports were down three percent. That would begin to explain some of the surplus. But what about minerals and metals?
Coal and other mineral exports were actually down five and six percent, respectively. But metal ore and mineral exports were up 8% to $354 million. Iron ore exports were up 9%, although in volume terms, exports were up 19% while prices were down 8%.
So wheat and coal held up the trade figures in March, along with a decline imports. That makes sense doesn’t it? Australia has a fair bit of wheat and coal. But we have to confess we find the iron ore export data perplexing. If Chinese demand is being driven by the government stimulus, that might explain it.
But remember, iron ore and coal prices are going to be a lot lower this year than they were last year, once contract negotiations are settled (this also means export values are going to value). Why, then, would the Chinese government pay a higher price for ore now when it could have it at a lower price in the spot market or in a new contract price in just a few months?
Who knows? One possibility is that the surge in ore exports to China is being driven by speculators who are stockpiling. It could be steel-makers could rebuilding inventory. Or it could be what some people seem to think it is: a new boom! We’ll see.
For now, the simplest explanation for the market rally is this: inflation. All over the worlds, fiscal and monetary stimulus packages are kicking into the gear. Their effect in the real economy is dubious. Their effect in the stock market is obvious. Rally! A huge amount of money is being pumped into the global financial system. Stocks are surfing it.
By the way, lest you think we’re against the idea of making money in these rallies, we’re not. The two investment newsletters we publish, Australian Small Cap Investigator and Diggers and Drillers, have each recommended resource and small cap stocks that we think will do well in an inflationary boom.
In fact, that’s probably the simplest way to make big returns in an enormous inflationary boom: owning small and micro cap stocks, especially natural resource stocks. Mind you that is pure speculation. That’s the only caveat we’d add. Can you do it? Yes you can! Is it risky? Yes it is!
What the current rally is NOT is a new bull market rising from the ashes of reasonable valuations and an economic recovery. The boom in government debt issuance is driving investors out of the bond market and into the stock market. The consequences are going to be…not good.
“The government is reinflating the financial bubble,” MIT professor Simon Johnson told the Wall Street Journal this weekend. “The over subsidizing by the government in the financial sector will get us stuck in the same kind of financial bubble that got us into the mess in the first place. Last year, what we saw was a private-sector financial bubble.”
Johnson says this government debt bubble is what directly precedes inflation. “We should look out for inflation as early as the end of the year. The government credit put in the banks makes inflation almost inevitable. It’s a recipe for going to hyper-inflation. Within the next one-to-two years, the government will have to cut back to prevent it from happening…Reality will hit roughly in the next two to five years. What we should watch is the interest rate of 10-year Treasury note. When it approaches 5%, the strategy is in trouble.”
Do you think the government is going to cut back its borrowing?
Meanwhile, 5% on the ten-year note may get here even sooner than Johnson reckons. On Friday, the U.S. Treasury endured what fixed income trader Mary Anne Hurley called a “horrible bond auction.” Uncle Sam’s debt dealer was trying to hawk US$18 billion in 30-year bonds. The auction did not go well, and yields on the 30-year climbed to over 4.25%.
What does it mean for Australia? Well, yields on ten-year Aussie government notes are back over 5%, according to data from Bloomberg. On Friday Bloomberg wrote that, “Australian government bonds fell four days this week with the yield on 10-year notes rising 29 basis points, or 0.29 percentage point, to 4.96 percent.” At the start of the trading week, yields had climbed even higher.
Obviously investors don’t like the idea that Aussie government debt could rise to 15% of GDP by 2012, given the government’s budget projections. So bond investors are demanding higher yields to provide credit to profligate borrowers. The IMF reckons that the four biggest government bond issuers will float nearly $4 trillion in new debt this year.
That is a lot of supply for private investors to absorb. And private investors have a clear choice. They can hitch a ride on the market rally or flee to the perceived safety of the government bond market. But if inflation is really on the way as Simon Johnson suggests, you’d expect falling bond prices and rising yields. You’d expect the bond bubble to pop with a resounding thwack.
That means money flows could pump stocks even higher as equities inflate faster than cash depreciates. We wouldn’t exactly call that a recovery from the bubble excesses of the previous fifteen years. But if you’re a trader, then profiting from an inflationary boom means dipping your toe in the speculative end of the resource market. If you’re an investor? More on that tomorrow.
for Markets and Money