In this month’s update, we provide a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.
– US Fed pivots its interest rate policy
– Current estimates are for between three and eight interest rate cuts in the US in 2024
– The RBA while most unlikely to raise rates again does not appear to be in a hurry to start cutting
– Share markets respond positively to the Fed pivot and finish 2023 well into positive territory
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 your Financial Adviser.
The Big Picture
Given how markets finished up in 2023, there was a lot of pain endured in getting there.
The US 10-year Government Bond yield went from 3.8% to 3.8% via just above 5.0%
ASX 200 screamed up in January 2023 only to shed all those gains, and more, as the US regional bank crisis shook confidence. But the ASX 200 rallied back and gained 7.8% on the year (without dividends and franking credits)!
The S&P 500 was dominated by the so-called ‘Magnificent 7’ – 7 mega cap tech stocks like Apple, Amazon and Nvidia. The ‘other 493’ did not fare so well but they did finish the year with a little bit of a flourish. The index gained 24.2% on the year.
The Dow Jones reached an all-time high in the last week of 2023. The S&P 500 and the ASX 200 each came very close to all-time highs in the final week of the year.
There were plenty of obstacles along the way in 2023 that prevented markets moving in a straight line. US Regional banks’ crises, Israel-Gaza conflict, Red Sea drone attacks and the rest. But the big one was trying to second-guess central banks as they bobbed and weaved in their battle with inflation. The US Federal Reserve (Fed) stuck to its guns of reiterating higher for longer until mid-December. It even stated on December 2nd that it was ‘premature’ to talk about interest rates cuts. Then a slew of favourable data on US inflation convinced it to ‘pivot’ (change its mind) at its last meeting and press conference for the year – just two weeks after the ‘premature’ statement! The Fed dot plot forecasts for cash rates at various intervals for the coming few years (from 19 Fed members) suggested there might be three 0.25% interest rate cuts in 2024.
While the above is the view of the Fed board members, the US Government bond market is taking a different view with current interest rates implying a 96% chance that the Fed will cut interest rates between five and eight times in 2024. Needless to say, the Fed ‘pivot’ in December has seen the US bond prices rally strongly (interest rates falling).
Surprisingly, the RBA minutes revealed that Australia’s central bank was still considering a rate increase at its December 5th board meeting, this approach puts it at odds will all other developed world central banks. Despite this, in Australia, for four of the last five quarters, per capita GDP went backwards, the household savings ratio nearly fell to zero and retail sales showed lots of weakness.
While the RBA clearly has some concerns regarding the stubbornness of inflation there is growing evidence that the economy is slowing and interest rate policy has done enough to contain inflation. The concern now is that unless the RBA joins in with its developed world peers and begins easing monetary policy (reducing interest rates) then it risks sending the economy into a more sever slowdown than is otherwise anticipated.
The RBA interest rate tracker app on the ASX website assigns an 8% chance of a rate hike at its next meeting in February. The predominant outcome currently predicted is ‘no change’ to the RBA cash interest rate.
Media reports have possibly led many astray as they portrayed the Fed increasing interest rates from 0% to 5.5% in less than two years as being aggressive and strongly contractionary and will ultimately result in an economic recession, which hasn’t happened yet. This narrative is ignoring the whole point of monetary policy.
There is an economic concept of a ‘neutral’ central bank interest rate that neither causes the economy to slow down, nor is it accommodative. Most economists would agree that the neutral rate for the US and Australia – among others – is about 2.5% to 3.0%. That means the first set of Fed hikes shouldn’t have slowed down the economy until 3% was exceeded in September 2022! They’ve only had 2.5% points of tightening and not 5.5%! The first 3% of hikes were simply being less accommodative.
The other key insight is that at least from the late 1960s, it has been widely thought that the implementation of this sort of monetary policy acts with ‘long and variable lags’. Conventional wisdom is that this time frame is around 12 – 18 months. Even central bankers have agreed on occasion!
Putting these two concepts together and applying it to our current cycle, the first interest rate tightening that started in September 2022 shouldn’t have had any material impact until September 2023 to March 2024. So, the media tell us economists ‘got it wrong’ by stating that the anticipated recession never happened, when the more considered statement is ‘it hasn’t happened yet’. From an economic perspective it is just too early to say ‘it didn’t happen’, notwithstanding that it may not. Some reasons for this are that, US consumers were awash with Covid stimulus cheques and a student loan moratorium until October 2023. And fourth quarter US GDP data, even its preliminary form, is not available until late January 2024 so we don’t yet know how the US economy is travelling in late 2023.
There is likely to be plenty of pain in the pipeline for 2024 from rate hikes not yet felt. By reasonable definitions, Australia has been in recession for most of 2023 but massive immigration – running at about 2.6% of population – has distorted the headline data from revealing the hardship facing many.
The US economy is doing better than ours but there seems to be cracks appearing in the data picture. There has been solid job growth but increasingly this growth has not been in those sectors usually associated with a strong economy. Both the US and UK official statistics agencies have had to change their data collection methods to get normal response rates to survey methods. It is very difficult to measure what the unemployment rate really is!
It’s not obvious that recent labour force data can usefully be interpreted in the traditional manner. Moreover, with the growth in options to work in casual food and ride delivery, it is much easier for those who want to work to do so. The definition of work has changed.
With regard to market forecasts – particularly for the ASX 200 and S&P 500 – earnings forecasts are quite strong. LSEG (formerly Thomson Reuters) collects broker-forecasts of earnings for the relevant companies in the indices. Companies are required to report material changes in their expectations and they share their view of their futures with the brokers.
We have found over nearly two decades that these earnings expectations give useful guides to market direction. Of course, there is always the possibility of a ‘black swan’ event or some geopolitical upheaval.
The ASX 200 had a very strong December (+7.1%) to back up a strong November (+4.5%) to make a two-month total of near 12%.
The Materials sector did well at +8.8% in line with strong iron ore prices (+7.3%).
Total returns for the year were 12.4% making it a well-above average year. By our metrics we have the market overpriced by +3.3% making that a bit of a headwind for 2024. However, news of actual interest rate cuts might still spur on the market to new highs. Markets usually lead the real economy!
The S&P 500 gained +4.4% for the month or 24.2% for the year. The London FTSE and the German DAX were similarly strong for the month but Japan’s Nikkei was flat. China’s Shanghai Composite fell by -1.8%.
We have the S&P 500 overpriced by +4.6% so, by our estimation, that index also faces a modest headwind starting the year.
Bonds and Interest Rates
It seems that almost every economist and commentator is expecting cuts by the Fed during 2024. 75 bps of cuts seems to be the smallest number being predicted. There is an 11% chance of eight cuts to a range of 3.00% to 3.25%.
We think the Fed might start at the March meeting and then go again in June taking the rate down to a range 4.75% to 5.0%. What happens thereafter would seem to be highly dependent on whether inflation and unemployment stay down and GDP growth remains solid.
US CPI inflation over the last six months was below target at 1.9% pa.
The 10-yr US Treasurys yield fell from just over 5% on October 23rd to 3.88% at the end of the year.
The RBA minutes stated that the board considered a hike at their last board meeting. The newly constructed committee to deal with rate movements is expected to meet on the first Tuesday in February.
The ECB and the Bank of England appear to be on hold. EU inflation fell to 2.4% from 2.9% when 2.7% was expected with the core rate falling to 3.6% from 4.2%. Both economies are flirting with recessions.
The price of oil dropped sharply again in December with – West Texas Intermediate Crude (WTI) by -5.7% and Brent Crude by -7.0%. Brent ended the year at US$77 per barrel having traded in a range of $72 to $97 over 2023. OPEC+ appears to be losing its grip over controlling oil supply which they have historically used to influence the market price for oil.
The price of iron ore again rose very strongly – at 7.3% in December or +20.7% for the year. Copper and gold prices each rose in December by just under 2%.
The Australian dollar – against the US dollar – appreciated by 2.9% which will further help reduce import prices and, hence, domestic inflation in Australia.
Australian GDP growth for the September quarter disappointed at 0.2% being less than the expected +0.4%. The growth for the year was 2.1%.
But the really disappointing news was that per capita growth for the quarter was -0.5% and -0.3% for the year. The average resident went backwards in 2023.
The last three quarters of growth were all negative and four of the last five were negative. That should define a recession in anybody’s analysis.
GDP per hour also went backwards for the year at -2.1%. Importantly, the household savings ratio fell to 1.1% from 2.8% in the previous quarter and from 3.5% in the one prior.
These statistics do not mean that households are spending more than they earn – at least not yet – but they are saving less than they did before the pandemic – at around 5%. We interpret these data as meaning households are having trouble maintaining their lifestyle in the face of cost-of-living pressures. They are not saving enough for a ‘rainy day’ or retirement. At 1.1% as a savings ratio, there’s not much room left before households have to start going into debt.
While it is true that (the rate of) inflation has been falling – prices keep rising and wage increases have been insufficient to keep pace with price inflation.
The latest inflation print from the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been held over for a couple of weeks – as has the data for retail sales – owing to the Christmas and summer holidays.
The Labour Force Survey data looked good for November. There were 61,500 new jobs of which 57,000 were full-time positions. The unemployment rate rose to 3.9% from 3.8%. But, with immigration surging, how many jobs constitute a good number?
The Westpac and NAB consumer and business confidence indices were all weak and consistent with being in a recession.
Hopefully the RBA will see past the immigration flows distorting traditional economic statistics and not only not increase interest rates but give serious consideration to cutting them sooner rather than later.
China’s inflation data showed that it is experiencing deflation. CPI inflation came in as expected at -0.5% and wholesale price inflation as measured by the Producer Price Index (PPI) was -3.0% against and expected -2.8%.
While there is much speculation that China’s economy is struggling, the strength in iron ore prices gives us some comfort that China will not be adding to our economic woes.
US CPI inflation came in at 0.0% for the month and 3.1% for the year. The core inflation variant that strips out volatile fuel and food prices was 0.3% for the month and 3.4% for the year. PPI inflation was 0.0% for the month.
Our method of calculating CPI inflation, based on sound statistical principles, produced estimates of 2.2% for the headline rate and 3.4% for the core variant.
It is worth pointing out that a major component of CPI inflation is derived from Shelter (housing) estimates. A survey is conducted among owner-occupied housing to ask what they think the rent might be if it were rented out. We see this as a difficult estimate to produce at the best of times but, in a post-pandemic falling market we wonder whether there is inertia in owner’s assessment about what their properties are worth in a rental market. This component is running at around an inflation rate of 6% which could upwardly bias CPI estimates if, indeed, we are correct.
The Fed’s preferred core PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditure) inflation read was 0.1% for the month or 3.2% for the year. Headline inflation was -0.1% for the month and 2.6% for the year. PCE inflation over the last six months was 1.9% which is below the Fed target of 2%.
The second revision to the September quarter GDP growth reverted to 4.9% from the first revision of 5.2%. It should be recalled that the data appeared to be distorted by government infrastructure spending and a possibly unintended build-up in inventories.
The Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB) are claiming some success in fighting inflation. For both economies, inflation has fallen rapidly. For the European Union (EU), inflation is now only 2.4% and core inflation is 3.6%
We maintain that much of these and other economies success in inflation might be due to the winding back of supply conditions. The long and variable lags effect might bite in 2024.
Rest of the World
There is much being said and written about the Israel-Gaza conflict. We acknowledge the human tragedy and hope for a speedy resolution.
The Ukraine war with Russia continues with no apparent end in sight. Escalation of either or both of these conflicts presents a level of risk to the global economy.
It is reported that some terrorists based in Yemen have been using drones to intimidate or damage ships passing through the Red Sea in their quest to pass through the Suez Canal. It is said that this behaviour is related to the situation in Israel.
A number of ship owners have said that they will divert ships via the Cape of Good Hope which might add 10 – 15 days in travel time.
In unrelated reports, the Panama Canal has been very affected by drought limiting the traffic in this waterway potentially up to 50% by February.
A reduction in freight volumes through these two iconic waterways are putting renewed supply pressures on freight costs which in turn will feedback into inflationary pressures.
Canada’s latest GDP growth came in at -1.1% and New Zealand’s at -0.6%. The start of the global recession might be underway.