“A surprisingly bleak forecast for the world economy pushed stocks to their biggest loss in two months.”
That’s not something we’ve said, that’s straight from the Associated Press. It’s based on research released by the World Bank.
Considering the fairly poor record of any government endorsed institution to predict the current economic downturn, we’re almost tempted to think we should view this as a reason to become bullish on the global economy.
But we won’t just yet.
If you fancy reading the full report from the World Bank, you can do so by clicking here. It’s 167 pages of pure delight.
The World Bank is clearly in a difficult position. It needs to lay on the sauce to highlight how bad things are – so it can get increased funding – yet compliment its paymasters (governments) on the:
“[A]mbitious unilateral and multilateral actions, both conventional and unconventional, governments have drawn on monetary policy, fiscal stimulus, and guarantee programs to shore up the banking industry, which lay at the epicenter of the crisis.”
All of which “are beginning to have a positive impact on financial markets.”
They are certainly having an impact. Whether it is positive is another matter.
In fact, based on the story on the front page of today’s Australian Financial Review (AFR), the seeds for a further slump appear to have not only been sowed, but are being nicely watered in as well.
The AFR tells us:
“Business stocks up on stimulus-package tax breaks.”
The story goes on to say, “Businesses are pulling forward capital expenditure to take advantage of the Rudd government’s $3.7 billion tax break for investment in new plant, equipment and motor vehicles before the end of the financial year.”
Conventional wisdom, ie, the wisdom of the mainstream press, is that this is good. They’ll tell us it’s a good sign for the economy. They’ll tell us that business is seeing the ‘green shoots’ of recovery. Just like they have done about rising bond yields – more on that below.
They’ll also tell us this will be good when the consumer is ready to spend again next year.
We don’t have a problem with predictions. We’re prone to make the odd one or two as well. But we do have a problem when the entire basis of the prediction stems entirely from arbitrary and non market-driven government aid.
Let’s look at the facts. Why are these businesses bringing forward capital expenditure? They are doing so for one reason only – for a tax break. There is little difference between a business and an individual making an investment purely due to a tax break.
They are both destined to end in tears, unless there is a genuine economic or financial reason for the investment. As you know, we’re not a fan of taxation. But we also know that governments have no intention of lowering the tax burden. Any tax cut today, is a tax increase tomorrow.
The AFR points out Caltex is bringing forward “$9 million of pump supply and installation at its service stations.” For what reason? “before July 1, when the 30 per cent investment allowance for large businesses winds back to 10 per cent.”
But as Money Morning reader Andy asked yesterday on the subject of government spending, “isn’t this consistent with one of the aims of government – to smooth out the cycles – by creating jobs in a recession, and restricting job growth in a boom?”
The simple answer to that is, that’s what governments will tell you they do. Hence the clamour to get all the stimulus packages approved, so that government could “fill the gap” left by the private sector, and to be seen to be doing something.
What they forget to add is that it’s the policies of government and central bankers that cause the problems in the first place – I guess you could argue it’s only right they try and fix it! Except they just end up making it worse.
As we’ve stated before, government incentives and tax breaks only succeed in misallocating resources at precisely the wrong time. Currently the economy is trying to shrink. It has experienced a boom and therefore it must shrink.
Any attempts to stand in the way of this merely prolong the effects of the downturn and makes it worse.
If we use the example of Caltex above, we can assume they already had plans to invest in “pump supply and installation” at its service stations. Based on its revenues and profitability and budgeting we’ll assume it had previously planned to do this sometime later than July 1st.
Perhaps much later.
However, the incentive of a government subsidy has caused Caltex to bring that expenditure forward. Possibly forward to a time when they hadn’t considered it to be economic.
The government incentive changes that. We can assume therefore that Caltex is taking on extra risk by doing so. Instead of basing its decision on profitability, it is basing the decision on getting a tax break.
If we amplify this same example across the entire economy, there will be thousands of businesses contemplating exactly the same thing. They will splurge on capital goods now, just because the market is being distorted with the tax break.
Of course no-one’s forcing them to do it. But that’s where the fear of losing out comes in. If Business A doesn’t invest now, he’ll fear that his competitor – Business B – will do so, and potentially gain at Business A’s expense if the economy does pick up.
Normally a business would make the judgment to invest based on expected profitability of the investment – sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong.
The real danger now is that money is being borrowed and profits spent in the hope that the increased capital expenditure will pay off next year as demand rises from business and consumer customers.
The only problem is that if all the spending is taking place now, who will be left to spend next year? Especially as the costs of these expenditures have to be built into the product price.
What happens if spending doesn’t pick up? Because businesses have brought forward all their investment to today. Don’t forget, there are still forecasts for unemployment in Australia to rise above 7.5% – some have even forecast closer to 10%. Companies are laying off staff, and corporate and government borrowing must still be repaid.
And it doesn’t help matters when bond yields continue to rise, as you can see from an update to the Aussie Bond Yield Curve we’ve been publishing recently…
Interests rates are moving higher and therefore the cost to business and consumers is moving higher. That’s when the impact of inflation really starts to bite.
So, far from government stepping in to smooth out the business cycle, it actually steps in to contribute to the booms and busts and damage the economy further.
Based on the reaction of the markets in recent weeks, the rose-tinted glasses worn by those who believed in a strong economy next year are starting to become a little more tarnished.
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