Is the Interest Rate Injection Running Out?

The all-wise and knowing board of the Reserve Bank of Australia met yesterday and felt that the price of credit in Australia was just about right. Official interest rates remain at 2.5%. The accompanying statement suggests they’ll stay there…until something changes. That is, there was no easing or tightening ‘bias’ for the market to hang onto. The Reserve Bank of Australia is on ‘hold’.

They’re waiting. Waiting for the effects of the last round of rate cuts to work their way through the economy. Here’s the RBA’s hope paragraph (our emphasis):

The easing in monetary policy that has already occurred since late 2011 has supported interest-sensitive spending and asset values. The full effects of these decisions are still coming through, and will be for a while yet. The pace of borrowing has remained relatively subdued overall to date, though recently there have been signs of increased demand for finance by households. There is also continuing evidence of a shift in savers’ behaviour in response to declining returns on low-risk assets. Housing and equity markets have strengthened further over recent months, trends which should in time be supportive of investment.

That sentence that we’ve underlined sums it all up. The RBA firmly believes in the doctrine that higher asset prices will lead to higher investment in the real economy. That’s despite all the evidence pointing to a different outcome. Australia, with some of the highest property prices in the world, has a supply shortage.

That’s telling you there is a lack of investment in housing. No, it’s telling you there is a lack of investment in NEW housing. Most of the easy money is going into the existing stock of housing. So the RBA can sit back and pump asset prices higher and hope that investment follows. But it won’t. And it won’t because monetary policy is almost impotent in a sector retarded by poor incentives and tax structures.

Sure, the recent rate cuts are going to have a short term inflationary impact on the sector. You’ll see a relative increase in investment. But then the inflationary tide will recede and the industry will once again be screaming for easier money to boost investment.

Let’s see how long it will take…

The easing cycle began two years ago, with rates falling 0.25% to 4.5% in November 2011. Another 0.25% cut followed in December. Then in May 2012, the RBA reduced rates by 0.5%, followed by a 0.25% reduction in June, October and December. 2013 saw two reductions of 0.25%, in May and August.

Apparently it takes about a year for the effects of easy money to flow through the system, although no one really knows. If that’s the case, the vast majority of the inflationary boost to the system has already flowed through the economy. We’re at the tail end of it right now.

That is, from November 2011 to December 2012, the RBA cut rates from 4.75% to 3%. Working on the assumption that it takes a year to work its way through the system, give or take a few months, by early 2014 that stimulus will have worn off.

According to our calculations, over 75% of the easing cycle is in, moving through, and now moving out of the system. There are just the two 2013 rates cuts still in the pipeline. We’re not sure about this, but our guess would be that interest rate stimulus becomes less effective the lower that rates go.

That’s because the very fact that interest rates are so low means nearly anyone who had an intention of borrowing has already done so. The lower they go, the lower the quality of creditors coming in the door looking for a loan. It’s questionable just how willing the banks would be to accommodate an influx of poor quality creditors.

Anyway, if we’re right on this don’t expect monetary policy to lead to an economic rebound in 2014. Expect a ‘confounding’ slowdown in the housing market, and a weak economy in general, leading to more cries of easy money as the addicts become restless.

Speaking of a weak economy, today we get September quarter economic growth data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). As we write this, it’s not out, so we’ll comment on it tomorrow. But one weird aspect to the report was yesterday’s balance of payments data, which showed that a positive trade balance for the quarter will contribute 0.7 percentage points to the economic growth figure.

The positive trade balance for the quarter was $8.5 billion dollars. At least it was in ‘seasonally adjusted, chain volume terms’. The ABS adjusts imports and exports to remove the effect of price changes so it can estimate the real value of the nations’ production. So in terms of volumes our trade performance was good.

But in the same release, the ABS tells us that Australia’s current account deficit blew out to a seasonally adjusted $12.7 billion in the September quarter. And $2.57 billion of that was due to a goods and services deficit!

We don’t understand how price changes can account for such a large discrepancy. If anyone has any ideas, please let us know!

The current account deficit is a combination of our trade performance and what is known as our net income deficit. Because Australia has net foreign debt of $829 billion, and net foreign equity of $25 billion, there is an interest and earnings outflow every quarter, to service the debt. Despite falling interest rates, the outflow is not improving. The September quarter saw $9.6 billion in net income payments, making up the bulk of the current account deficit.

The reason why the current account deficit is not improving is because our foreign debt keeps growing. At the start of the GFC, in the September 2008 quarter, net foreign debt stood at $658 billion.

Since that time, despite the biggest surge in national income in history, Australia still managed to add a net amount of $171 billion to our foreign debt pile.

The bottom line is that foreigners still overwhelmingly fund our standard of living. And they will continue to do so, at least in the short term, given our exposure to China and Asia. But if China experiences a ‘credit event’, which we think is a higher probability than most people think, then foreigners views of Australia will change markedly.


Greg Canavan+
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Greg Canavan is a Contributing Editor at Markets & Money and Head of Research at Port Phillip Publishing. He advocates a counter-intuitive investment philosophy based on the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’. Greg says that investing in the ‘Information Age’ means you now have all the information you need. But is it really useful? Much of it is noise, and serves to confuse rather than inform investors. And, through the process of confirmation bias, you tend to sift the information that you agree with. As a result, you reinforce your biases. This gives you the impression that you know what is going on. But really, you don’t know. No one does. The world is far too complex to understand. When you accept this, your newfound ignorance becomes a formidable investment weapon. That’s because you’re not a slave to your emotions and biases. Greg puts this philosophy into action as the Editor of Crisis & Opportunity. He sees opportunities in crises. To find the opportunities, he uses a process called the ‘Fusion Method’, which combines charting analysis with more conventional valuation analysis. Charting is important because it contains no opinions or emotions. Combine that with traditional stock analysis, and you have a robust stock selection strategy. With Greg’s help, you can implement a long-term wealth-building strategy into your financial planning, be better prepared for the financial challenges ahead, and stop making the same mistakes that most private investors do every time they buy a stock. To find out more about Greg’s investing style and his financial worldview, take out a free subscription to Markets & Money here. And to discover more about Greg’s ‘ignorance is bliss’ investment strategy and the Fusion Method of investing, take out a 30-day trial to his value investing service Crisis & Opportunity here. Official websites and financial e-letters Greg writes for:


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