In this month’s update, we provide a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.
– The US Federal Reserve has pivoted from a tightening interest rate policy to an easing one
– Markets are looking at growth and inflation data points to estimate first interest rate cuts
– Economic indicators are softening but inflation is still at risk from the Middle East conflict
We hope you find this month’s Economic Update as informative as always. If you have any feedback or would like to discuss any aspect of this report, please contact the team.
The Big Picture
The US Federal Reserve (Fed) chairman, Jerome Powell, started last December by pronouncing it was ‘premature to talk about rate cuts’. By the end of December, the Fed ‘pivot’ was locked in (and the Fed had changed from a tightening interest rate policy bias to an easing one). Even the Fed then expected three cuts in 2024 but the market wanted more, forecasting up to 6!
During January 2024 opinions settled into less diverse scenarios. Cuts are still very much on the table but the 31 January meeting was considered ‘dead’, i.e. no change to interest rates throughout the month. However, the market had ascribed about a 50% chance of a cut in March and an 85% chance of at least two cuts by June.
Powell did not disappoint by keeping rates on hold but he did upset the market by saying that ‘he didn’t see a cut in March’. He said he was confident that inflation has been on track over the last six months but that he was not sufficiently confident to start cutting interest rates by March.
After these comments by Powell, the market priced in a 35% change of an interest rate cut in March. But the market is still pricing in two or more cuts by June at around a 90% chance. The bond market is still pricing in six cuts this year but the S&P 500 lost steam after Powell’s post Fed meeting press conference losing -1.6% on the day.
Interestingly, a survey conducted by media company CNBC just prior to the January Fed meeting reported that only 9% of respondents expected a cut by March and 70% said the first cut would be in June! Economists and traders often disagree. Usually only the latter has real skin in the game.
Depending on how one looks at the data – in the US and Australia – one can see a serious slow down or, at the other extreme, a gentle ‘soft landing’. The deciding factor, as we see it, relates to how one interprets the factors that caused the recent slow-down in inflation across the major economies. Those who think it was the deft response of central banks harnessing demand-side inflation with rate cuts, fear letting monetary policy ease – in case inflation then consequently re-emerges. This is Powell’s stated position.
Those who think the source of the inflation, starting in 2020 from the Covid pandemic, largely resulted from the supply side (i.e. global production slowed because of lockdowns, likewise transportation of goods largely stopped and the price of available goods rose materially due to lack of local supply during, and after the Covid restrictions eased, this being further exacerbated by the Ukraine war) are of the view that interest rates could be cut without inflation being reignited because the supply side issues have ceased. This group includes some eminent people – bankers and academics and a Nobel Laureate.
While we subscribe to this view more recently, we agree that rates could be cut without material consequence at this juncture. Failure to cut interest rates from the current restrictive levels could see them rapidly start to bite and cause economies to slow more than anticipated or intended by Central Banks. However, we do not as yet advocate the respective interest rates should move to below the neutral rate of about 2.5% to 3% in this easing cycle and certainly, they should not reduce back to emergency levels.
It has only been a little over a year since monetary policy in Australia and the US has been tightened (above the neutral rate). With the long and variable lags (say, 12 to 18 months) of effect of monetary policy settings, we are only just starting to witness some slowing effects from the interest rate hikes. Fed chair Powell acknowledged this in his January press release.
Of course, the pandemic added its own idiosyncrasies into the mix. People were forced to save because of lack of opportunities to spend under lock downs and governments added stimulus payments to ease the crisis. Those excess savings sheltered economies from monetary policy tightening – for a while. This time was indeed different but those excess savings have now largely been depleted. We are back to normal conditions for assessing monetary policy effects.
The latest Australian labour force data (for December) revealed an apparent massive crack in the economy. Total employment went down by 65,100 but the full-time position loss was even worse. 106.600 full-time jobs were lost in a month while the population grew by 48,200.
The monthly data does jump around somewhat but we have only had six months of decreases in the last 24 and the next worst result was less than half of the December outcome.
The unemployment rate held up at 3.9% but only because of the discouraged-worker effect. People who left jobs and didn’t bother joining the unemployment queues!
Before we jump to a disturbing conclusion, it is important to note that data have regular seasonal patterns (e.g. temperature related demand). The ABS uses averaging techniques to remove the regular seasonal component so that month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter changes better reflect new directions rather than predictable seasonal patterns.
For many data series, the ABS also smooths the seasonal data to produce ‘trend data’ so that longer-run trends become more apparent. While these are useful for a cursory glance, we tend not to rely on trend data in research houses and create our own opinions of underlying movement.
So, in relation to employment the actual number of jobs (original data) went up by 18,400 and not down sharply in December by the seasonally-adjusted 65,100. It was the statistical process designed to smooth out the data that did the damage. What if the seasonal patterns have changed since last year? We have had a year of record immigration and December is a month when lots of students start to enter the workforce. The large loss could be due to a statistical anomaly.
Furthermore, the monthly official data are prone to bounce around as the figure for the population are extrapolated from a very small sample. In addition to the sampling issue, it has been noted in various countries that telephone surveys are becoming less reliable because younger folk are less likely to ‘pick up’ the phone call from a number not familiar to them.
We are not unnecessarily concerned over these employment data but we are on alert to look for more clues when the January data are released in mid-February.
The US jobs data seemed somewhat stronger. 216,000 jobs were created compared to the expected 170,000. The expected range of forecasts was quite wide: 100,000 to 250,000. Importantly, digging deeper, reflected new jobs yet again largely being created in less productive sectors. The three-month average of new jobs was 165,000 compared to 284,000 in the same period a year earlier. And these data have a strong tendency to be revised downwards in subsequent months.
The US labour market is slowing and possibly a little more quickly than the headline data appear to convey.
It seems to be generally agreed that inflation in the US and Australia is returning to target levels more quickly than many had anticipated. Our own calculations based on more timely measures indeed suggest inflation is all but back to target.
However, the big issue on the sidelines might be events starting to cause a second-round oil-price inflation problem like that at the onset of the Ukraine conflict.
We are not experts in analysing military conflicts and their evolution but a simple reading of respectable news sources leads us to note that the Israel-Palestine conflict has involved more countries and groups over the last couple of months.
Some oil tankers and container ships are reportedly being diverted away from the Red Sea route to Europe and the US (and the reverse) because of drone and other attacks. The route via the Cape of Good Hope adds much time and, hence, cost to traded goods.
Brent oil prices declined to about US$75 per barrel before the Middle East conflict after having been US$95 slightly earlier in 2023. Brent oil bounced back to US$85 and has settled to just below that level – so some new inflation pressures must be building.
We have no insight into how, or indeed if, the conflict will be resolved but it is apparent that some of the hard-fought gains in inflation control will be eroded. However, it is equally obvious that keeping interest rates higher for longer will do nothing to reduce oil-price inflation pressure.
Markets have largely performed well in January. The S&P 500 and the ASX 200 reached all-time highs during the month. Bond yields have retraced a little from the late 2023 fall but not alarmingly so.
With the December quarter reporting season in the US and second half reporting season in Australia getting underway, we have a great opportunity to understand better what 2024 has in store for us. Our analysis of LSEG (formerly Thomson Reuters) company earnings expectations suggests that the outlook for 2024 has, if anything, improved over January as brokers update their forecasts.
The early reporting results on Wall Street have produced a bit of a mixed bag of success and failure in the big tech space. United Parcel Service (UPS) is laying off lots of workers because it doesn’t see internet-created demand sustaining the old system. Big Tech might not perform anywhere are strongly as it did in 2023 but we are expecting above average gains in the broad index.
But with recent all-time highs on the US S&P 500 and the local ASX 200, and stable bond markets, 2024 does not look bad! We think the Fed will do what we expected and cut interest rates as it does not want to alarm markets by changing their monetary policy direction and settings too much and too quickly despite it now being characterised as a ‘pivot’.
The ASX 200 was modestly up in January (+1.2%), largely because the index started the month at an elevated level following the December rally, but that was not so for the individual sectors. Energy and Financials each grew about +5.0% but Materials (-4.8%) fell by a largely offsetting amount. The broader index closed January at an all-time high.
January and July often witness bigger changes in broker expectations about earnings as the new half-yearly reporting season sets to get underway (for February and August). We did not see much change this January but, if anything, expectations point to a slightly stronger year than we saw for 2024 at the end of 2023.
However, the consensus end of year (eoy) 2024 forecast we have gleaned from published reports (made at January 1st) from reputable houses was, for the ASX 200, 7,600 points or just below the closing value on 31 January (7,681). While we are not expecting a bumper 2024, our analysis suggests that this consensus forecast could be a little too pessimistic. Our expected capital gains in the ASX 200 look reasonable but when dividends and franking credits are factored in, this asset is worthy of serious consideration for 2024.
Japan’s share market index, the Nikkei, had a particularly strong month (+8.4%) but the US S&P 500 (+1.6%) was only moderately strong – largely because of the big sell-off on the last day of January following the Fed’s press conference. China (-6.3%) and Emerging Markets (-3.1%) went backwards.
A lot might depend on whether the Artificial Intelligence (AI)-led rally of 2023 continues or, indeed, retraces. Without the so-called Magnificent Seven (big technology stocks), the S&P 500 index would not have been impressive at all in 2023.
However, the consensus eoy 2024 forecast we have gleaned for the S&P 500 from published reports (made at 1 January) was 5,000 points or just above the closing value on 31 January (4,846). While we are not expecting a bumper 2024, our analysis of broker forecasts suggests that this consensus is somewhat pessimistic.
Bonds and Interest Rates
At the end of January the Fed funds interest rate was on hold at a range 5.25% to 5.5%. The CME Fedwatch tool is pricing in about a 35% chance of a 0.25% interest rate cut at the Fed’s March meeting. The same source is predicting that there is only about a 10% chance of the Fed funds interest rate being unchanged by June. The prospect of two or three 0.25% interest rate cuts by June being about the same and collectively by far the most likely outcome.
The European Central Banks (ECB) and the Bank of England (BoE) also kept interest rates on hold in January in spite of their slightly improving inflation outlooks.
The RBA kept our interest rates ‘on hold’ on their meeting on the first Tuesday in February. In our opinion, there is evidence that the Australia economy is in need of some rate relief, as the surging immigration levels are masking the cost-of-living pressures on the average household.
Since company earnings from selling to Australians are determined by aggregate demand – and not by per capita (household) demand – the ASX 200 can grow while a per capita recession takes place.
The 10-year Treasury yield in the US fell from just on 5% in October to a recent low of 3.8%, since then it drifted up a fraction to 4.1%. After the latest Fed meeting this yield retraced to just under 4.0%. The Australian 10-year yield ended January at 4.01%.
We expect some more visibility on Australian monetary policy from the RBA from here onwards, as the new committee appears to be charged with the task of improving communications.
The price of oil bounced back sharply from December’s lows. Both West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent Crude oil were up by about +8% largely on the impact of the Middle East conflict and more recently issues with shipping in the Red Sea.
The prices copper and gold were largely flat over January. The price of iron ore fell by -6.3%.
The Australian dollar – against the US dollar – depreciated by -3.9% which will not help our inflation cause through import prices increases.
Australian November retail sales (in value terms) published at the start of January surprised at +2.0% for the month – but they grew only +2.2% for the year. This growth becomes negative when inflation is taken into account. In addition, population growth running at about +2.5% p.a. suggests the average citizen was consuming a lot less in inflation and population-adjusted terms.
The monthly retail value data for December were published at the end of January. The seasonally adjusted monthly growth for December was 2.3% (not annualised) wiping out the November gain. But, just as with the change in employment data, retail sales as collected by the ABS were up +14.3% on the month in ‘original terms’. It was the seasonal adjustment process that converted +14.3% into -2.3%.
Non-specialists might ask if the ABS is competent at performing the task at hand. While we think the ABS is world class, their task is very difficult when seasonal patterns are changing. In due course, we believe that the data will be revised. They will still likely not be good but not as bad as we see at first sight.
There were also two reads on the monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation gauge published in January owing to the delay in reporting November data because of our holiday season.
Both the headline and the core monthly variants for November were +0.3%. The 12-month gains were +4.3% for the headline and +4.8% for the core variant that excludes volatile energy, food and holiday travel. Our rolling quarterly estimates which we produce each month was +3.0% p.a. for both the headline and core variants. That puts these inflation estimates at the top of the RBA target range.
At the end of January, quarterly CPI data were released. The monthly data, in order to be more timely, has only about 70% coverage of the quarterly basket of goods and services.
The official read for the Quarterly index series was +0.6% for the quarter and +4.1% for the year (expected +4.3%). Note that +0.6% for the quarter, if annualised, becomes +2.4% p.a. and is within the RBA target range.
The monthly series official reads over the year for December were +3.4% from +4.3% for the headline and +4.0% from +4.6% for the core. Our in-house rolling quarterly estimates (annualised) were +1.3% p.a. for the headline and +2.4% p.a. for the core. The RBA has over-achieved! +1.3% is below the target range.
The core measures over the last five months have been +5.5%, +5.1%, +4.1%, +2.7% and +2.4%. We think that is a stable downward trend and indicative of the RBA may have gone too far, and at a minimum, far enough, given the lags in the system for interest rate hikes to work through. With the RBA target range being 2-3% the RBA needs to act in a timely manner with rate cuts to prevent overshooting on core inflation.
The jobs data for December showed that the participation rate had fallen from 67.3% to 66.8% reflecting a strong discouraged worker effect. In essence, 41,400 full-time jobs were converted to part-time while, in addition, 65,100 full-time jobs were lost from the workforce. The unemployment rate remained at 3.9%.
China’s GDP growth came in at +5.2% against an expected +5.3% but the market seemed to interpret this result as being very weak. Retail sales also missed at +7.4% compared to +8.0% expected but industrial output at +6.8% beat the +6.6% forecast.
The Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) a measure of industrial demand was 49.0 for December which was down from the 49.4 read in November. At the end of January the PMI for January rose slightly to 49.2.
The big problem in China still relates to the debt burden mainly of property developers. The Hong Kong government recently ruled that Evergrande the formally very large mainland property developer should be placed into liquidation. The government is reportedly trying to ring-fence a few of the big developers to stop a spread of the problem. At the end of the January, China noted that it had merged ‘hundreds of rural banks’ to reduce risks of failure.
US CPI inflation came in at +0.3% for both the headline and the core variants of the measure.
Over the year, headline inflation has come down to +3.4% and the core to +3.9%. While these numbers are far from the Fed target of 2% the market seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that substantial progress had been made.
Our rolling quarterly estimates (annualised) were +1.8% p.a. and +3.3% p.a. for the headline and core variants, respectively. The headline rate was below the Fed target of 2%! There should be two more releases of the US CPI before the next Fed meeting to make the next interest rate call.
The Fed’s preferred Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) inflation data painted an even better picture. The monthly core and headline rates were each +0.2% while for the year they were +2.9% and +2.6% respectively.
The Fed fears a resurgence in inflation if it starts to cut too soon. Supply-side shocks such as higher oil prices and disrupted supply chains due to restricted access to the Suez Canal due to the conflict in the Middle East, are almost unpredictable and inflation expectations data do not support a demand-side surge in inflation.
The US consumer appeared to be somewhat resilient in January. Retail sales (for December) grew by +0.6% – well ahead of inflation. The December quarter GDP growth was +3.3% when only +2.0% had been expected. The household savings ratio fell to +4.0% from +4.2% indicating some pressure on budgets.
Over 2023, economic growth was +2.5% following +1.9% for the previous year. The University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey showed that 28% of Americans thought the economy is in excellent or good shape. The corresponding figure for April 2022 was only 19% but, in January 2020, just prior to the onset of the pandemic, the Michigan figure was 57%.
While some reported that the current 28% figure showed some resilience, we think it would at least be equally plausible to state that the consumer is not as pessimistic as they were but nowhere near as optimistic as they were before the interest rate-hiking cycle began.
Existing home sales were the lowest since 1995 but, that is to be expected when mortgage rates are historically high and expected to fall in the coming months.
German inflation rose to +3.8% while, for the eurozone, it was +2.9%. The UK recorded +4.6% inflation and its retail sales fell -3.2% when a fall of only -0.5% had been expected.
The Europe economy is clearly in a worse position than the US and it has been paying the price for once becoming so dependent on energy/fuel from Russia.
Rest of the World
The conflict in the Middle East has certainly escalated and the deaths of US soldiers has seen a retaliatory military action against specific targets in the region, in particular to stem the terrorist attacks from inside Yemen on ships in and around the Red Sea and other military targets. To date, the economic consequences of the conflict seem less than that from the Ukraine war as there is a simple, but costlier, option to avoid the Red Sea shipping lanes by diverting round the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa to access Europe and the US particularly with crude oil sourced from the Middle East.