Stephen Koukoulas

Stephen Koukoulas

Ok, it’s time to put my neck on the chopping block and make some forecasts for the economy and financial markets for 2019.

While I agree with my good friend Con Michalakis, market guru and CIO of State Super, that point forecasts on a calendar year basis are largely an artefact of the calendar and do not meet the demand of serious investment strategy, I do find it a useful discipline to make such forecasts each year. These forecasts capture where my analysis and judgment reveal which fundamentals are at greater risk of moving a particular way and most importantly, what this might mean for markets.

2019

For me, the broadest themes for Australia in 2019 are on going sub-trend economic growth, while wages and inflation will remain disappointingly low. The RBA will finally succumb to facts on the economy and will cut interest rates to below 1 per cent in the latter part of the year and the Australian stock market, which has been a dog in recent times, will surge, rising perhaps 20 per cent by the end of the year. Bond yields are likely to fall further in the first part of the year, although a lot of the rally I was looking in 2018 for has already occurred.

There might be another moderate yield reduction the mid to longer end of the curve, but once the RBA finally gives a bit of monetary policy stimulus, the yield curve will steepen in the latter part of 2019.

Now some details.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018 10:54

Smoking levels continue to plummet

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/smoking-levels-continue-plummet-210432040.html 

----------------------------------------------- 

Smoking levels continue to plummet

Some good news on health – Australians are smoking less with the amount of tobacco consumed dropping to a record low in the September quarter 2018, and this includes data back to 1959 when Australia’s population was about 60 per cent below the level of today.

The peak consumption of tobacco came in the mid-1970s. Since then, there has been an unrelenting fall, with the timing of the downturn broadly coincided with the increasing prominence given to the link between smoking and early death and a range of government regulations aimed at reducing smoking rates.

Most recently, the introduction of plain packaging laws, together with hefty increases in excises – taxes in other words – has continued to drive the consumption of tobacco lower. The decline in the volume of tobacco consumed in Australia has crashed a staggering 24.4 per cent since the plain packaging laws were introduced at the end of 2012. This is despite population growth of around 8.5 per cent over that time.

Factors other than the introduction of plain packaging laws were also driving smoking levels lower – as noted, the sharp rise in excise taxes, many years of health awareness, tobacco advertising bans, restricting smoking in public places and even the fact many smokers have died and therefore are not buying tobacco products are all driving smoking to record lows.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018 10:14

My house price bet with Tony Locantro: An update

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/35-house-price-crash-unlikely-201301480.html 

------------------------------------------------------ 

Why a 35% house price crash is 'very unlikely'

Australian house prices dropped again in the September quarter to be 2.8 per cent below the December quarter 2017 peak, based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics dwelling price series. In many respects, the data is old news – the comprehensive Corelogic house price series for November has already been released and they show further price falls in the last two months.

House price bet

Why the ABS dwelling price series matters, to me at least, it that it forms the basis of the bet on house prices I made in September with Tony Locantro, Investment Manager with Alto Capital in Perth.

Tony and I had a bet that at any stage between now and the time the December quarter 2021 dwelling price data are published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the price index for any of Sydney, Melbourne or the aggregate eight capital cities prices is down 35.0 per cent or more, I will give Tony $15,000 cash. Conversely, if by the time the December quarter 2021 data are published and the peak to trough decline is 34.9 per cent or less in Sydney, Melbourne and the eight capital cities, Tony has to give me $2,500.

These generous odds and benchmark for the 35.0 per cent price fall that I offered Tony reflected the absurd nature of a forecast from DFA’s Martin North to the effect that his forecast was for house prices to “drop 40 to 45 per cent over the next three years or so”.

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance web site at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/dont-fall-spin-scott-morrisons-budget-surplus-no-certainty-224422761.html 

--------------------------------------------------------

Don’t fall for the spin - Scott Morrison’s budget surplus is no certainty

Prime Minister Scott Morrison could yet be guilty of prematurely declaring that his government will deliver a budget surplus in 2018-19.

Sure, tax revenue is growing at a rapid pace and the government is underspending on a range of government services, but there are still seven long months to go between now and the end of the financial year that might yet blow up the surplus commitment.

PM Morrison’s ‘return to surplus’ boast is based, it appears, on hard data for the first four months of the 2018-19 financial year on revenue and spending information from the Department of Finance. These numbers do look strong, at least in terms of the budget numbers and if the trends on revenue and spending continue, the budget will probably be in surplus. Treasury will be factoring in ongoing economic growth, no increase in the unemployment rate and buoyant iron ore and coal prices over the remainder of the financial year. These forecasts and hence the budget bottom line are subject to a good deal of uncertainty, as they are every year.

If, as is distinctly possible, the economy stalls in the March and June quarters 2019, commodity prices continue to weaken and if there are some unexpected increases in government spending, the current erroneous forecasts for revenue and spending could leave the budget in deficit.

Wednesday, 05 December 2018 13:59

Change of view on monetary policy

In the wake of the September quarter national accounts, and with accumulating information on house prices, dwelling investment, the global economy and spare capacity in the labour market, I have revised my outlook for official interest rates.

For some time, I have been expecting the RBA to cut the official cash rate to 1.0 per cent, a forecast that has been wrong (clearly) given its decision to leave rates steady right through 2018.

That said, it has been a highly profitable call with the market pricing interest rate hikes when the call was made which has yielded a decent return as time has passed.

My updated profile for RBA rates is:

May 2019 – 25bp cut to 1.25%
August 2019 – 25bp cut to 1.00%
November 2019 – 25bp cut to 0.75%

The risk is for rates to 0.5% in very late 2019 or in 2020

It will be driven by:

  • Underlying inflation remaining below 2%
  • GDP growth around 0.25 to 0.5% per quarter in 2019
  • Annual wages growth stuck at 2.5% or less
  • Global growth slowing towards 3%
  • Labour market under-utilisation around 13 to 13.5%

There are likely to be other influences, but these are the main ones.

AUD, as a result, looks set to drop to 0.6000 – 0.6500 range.

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/business-investment-recession-two-quarters-decline-195204034.html 

----------------------------------------------------------- 

Business investment in recession with two quarters of decline

Businesses are under pressure and the economy remains in a problematic state with the latest news on private sector business investment painting a mixed picture. Business investment is the area the Reserve Bank and Treasury have pinned their hopes on for a strong economy into 2019 and 2020.

According to the latest ABS data, business investment fell 0.5 per cent in the September quarter after sliding 0.9 per cent in the June quarter and it was below the level of a year ago.
This is not good, which ever way you cut the data.

Business investment is the bedrock of any economy. When businesses are building factories, shopping centres, office blocks, hotels and the like or are buying new machinery, equipment and vehicles, the productive capacity of the economy is being nourished. This nourishment allows the economy to grow at a faster pace and create job opportunities for workers and good profit growth for the businesses doing the investment. The spin off for the rest of the economy is substantial from the cycle in business investment.

The reasons for the poor investment climate at the moment are linked to a protracted slump in the mining sector where there is a substantial amount of excess capacity that will take some time to absorb. Even with commodity prices being buoyant, the mining sector will continue to scaling back investment spending.

This article first appeared on the Yahoo 7 Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/heres-global-economic-slowdown-will-affect-australia-204836678.html 

-----------------------------------------------------

Here's how the global economic slowdown will affect Australia

There are a few worrying trends unfolding in the global economy, ones that threaten to have a negative impact on Australia into 2019. The question now is how significant the slowdown in global economic growth will be, and how will it show up in the Australian economy.

Some facts first.

In the September quarter, GDP fell in Japan and Germany and it has weakened in all other major countries, including China. The leading indicators on business sentiment and housing, which pre-empt economic conditions, point to the December quarter also being weak across the world. It is a scenario that has financial markets repricing stock markets, commodity prices and expectations for interest rates.

The reasons for the global slowdown are varied.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018 08:12

The RBA rolls the dice on house prices

This article first appeared on The Wire, the web page for FIIG, at this link: https://thewire.fiig.com.au/article/commentary/opinion/2018/11/19/rba-ignores-property-at-its-peril 

--------------------------------------------------- 

RBA ignores property at its peril

The RBA rolls the dice on house prices

The usually careful and well considered Reserve Bank of Australia is taking a huge gamble on the Australian economy into 2019 and 2020.

The RBA is betting that the current slump in house prices and dwelling approvals are orderly and will not have any material or lasting consequences for the economy. In fact, RBA Governor Philip Lowe believes the fall in Australian house prices “is good news”, “manageable” and “a welcome development”. Further, in its November Statement on Monetary Policy, the RBA suggested that house prices “have continued to ease gradually”, which is a remarkably bland assessment given that close to $400bn has been wiped off the value of Australian houses since the price peak in September 2017.

Governor Lowe and the RBA’s open indifference to what is a major shift in the $7trn valuation of residential property is bold.

Wealth and household spending – The link

While some cooling in house prices was always inevitable following the price boom in the four years to 2017, the price falls are getting close to a point where the loss of household wealth will impact household spending. The RBA itself and a bevy of global academic research show a link between changes in household wealth and growth in household spending.

This article first appeared on the Business Insider web page at this link: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/labor-negative-gearing-impact-housing-comment-2018-11 

---------------------------------------------

How Labor’s plans to revamp negative gearing could put a floor on house prices and lower rents

The economic policy debate over Labor’s plans to overhaul the negative gearing rules is hotting up.

It is an important debate on a policy change that will have implications for the housing market, particularly for first home buyer and investor demand.

The government is claiming that the negative gearing change will “take a sledgehammer”, “smash” and “punish” everyone in Australia. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says that under Labor, “your home will be worth less and renters will pay more.”

It is a frightening scenario for property obsessed Australians with the value of all dwellings in Australia estimated to be around $7 trillion.

But is it true? What are the facts about the current housing cycle and how will Labor’s plans to revamp negative gearing impact the housing market?

This article first appeared on the Yahoo 7 website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/heres-reserve-bank-needs-cut-rates-000642869.htm

 -------------------------------------------------------

An RBA rate cut is not about housing – it’s about exports and investment

Many people misunderstand my concern about falling house prices and the coincident call for the Reserve Bank to cut official interest rates.

Any interest rate cut that the RBA may yet deliver should not, and certainly will not, be aimed directly at supporting house prices. On the contrary – future interest rate cuts should be directed at supporting the economy more generally at a time when the house price falls threaten to erode household wealth, consumer spending and the economy more generally.

The house price declines in the current downturn are much what I was forecasting a year ago. The issues surrounding the price falls are being compounded by the recent acceleration of the decline, the historic collapse in housing auction clearance rates, the escalation of the bank credit freeze and the on-going problems with low wages and inflation that are all creating an environment that will hit the economy into 2019.

While a recession in Australia is still unlikely, very unlikely in fact, there is a growing risk the unfolding mix of events will hit the economy hard.

The destruction in household wealth from the falls in house prices alone is now about $300 billion. Add to this another $100 billion of wealth destruction from the recent fall in the stock market, and a climate of severe weakness in consumer spending is front and centre in the outlook for most credible forecasters.

THE LATEST FROM THE KOUK

It’s time to end the “strong economy” propaganda

Thu, 20 Jun 2019

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/its-time-end-strong-economy-propaganda-230414837.html 

----------------------------------------

It’s time to end the “strong economy” propaganda

For the last year or so, it has been obvious to anyone with an open mind that the economy is in trouble. Unfortunately, the government and the Reserve Bank not only ignored this growth slump, but they ran a propaganda campaign saying the economy was “strong”, that unemployment would keep falling and wages growth was poised to pick up.

It might have been politics that lead the RBA and Treasury to this view with the recent election swinging on the economic credentials of both major parties. Ahead of the election, the RBA and Treasury were loathe to undermine the government with an honest assessment of the rapidly spreading economic problems.

It is possible that the forecasts were a simple error, which sometimes happens when an external shock hits the economy.

Either way, things are so bad in the economy right now that forecasters are rushing to out-do each other on how low interest rates will go in this cycle. Some are canvassing negative interest rates, printing money or the need for a fiscal policy boost if the economy remains in its economic funk.

Time will tell.

The range of forecasts that where regularly produced by the government (Treasury) and the RBA up until very recently were unambiguously optimistic. The forecasts ignored all hard data on the economy, which suggests it may have been a political strategy to remain upbeat, rather than it being a clumsy forecasting error.

An update on my house price bet with Tony Locantro

Thu, 20 Jun 2019

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/house-prices-are-still-dropping-but-bottom-sight-210000929.html 

------------------------------------------- 

An update on my house price bet with Tony Locantro

It is difficult to think of a bigger issue that gets Australians fired up than house prices.Regular readers will know that back in September 2018, I made a bet on house prices with Tony Locantro, a fired-up Investment Manager with Alto Capital in Perth.

Tony wont mind me saying this, but he is what is called an ‘uber bear’ on house prices – he reckons prices are grossly inflated and are overdue to collapse. On the other hand, I reckon there is a cycle and that after the surge up to 2017, house price falls were inevitable, but that the decline would last only a couple of years and would not be too severe.

The bet was framed around a peak-to-trough fall in prices of 35.0 per cent in either Sydney, Melbourne or the 8 capital cities measure used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If prices fell by more than 35 per cent at any stage from the peak until the end of 2021, Tony would win, if the fall was less than 35 per cent, I would win.

Simple.

That background is important because the ABS just released the official dwelling price data for the March quarter 2019.

In the quarter, dwelling prices fell 3.0 per cent in the 8 capital cities and dropped 3.9 per cent in Sydney and 3.8 per cent in Melbourne.