View From The Couch – 06/Sep/2014

Lessons For A Saturated Economy

I found this commentary about the impact of the property bubble in the Sydney Morning Tabloid this week. it’s written from the perspective of the younger people who cannot get into the market. A lot of people seem to think it’ young people whining, but there are lessons in history from all this property bubble business (that all these banks are denying exists here). The experience in Japan in the late 1980s through to earl 1990s was pretty instructive. The Bubble and the aftermath of the Pop created economic havoc on the Japanese Gen-X who were coming into the workforce at the time. This resulted in high youth unemployment as well as low rates of marriage and birthrates – and effectively brought forward the peak population date of Japan. The resulting impact of that event was that all the projections the government had made about pension plans and how the labour force was going to support the retiring Baby Boomers went out the window. Much of the low growth and sluggish economy of Japan in the aftermath of The Bubble can be put down to a generation of working people essentially placed out of options and never finding the traction that earlier generations had.

I have friends who are basically economic refugees from Japan. They got out because there were no immediate options that were rewarding or befit their education. Many ended up without kids, others delayed having kids. The 90s and early 2000s saw a remarkable exodus of young, educated Japanese people, who are now not over there contributing to economic growth.

The process of writing off and paying down debts in Japan has been grueling, and worse still government intervention into what they called PKOs – price keeping operations for assets – has distorted the markets leaving what can only be called zombie companies.

The PKO money came out of the government to shore up the asset values of shares and property which is to say, they socialised the debts. The Japanese government under Ryutaro Hashimoto argued that this was necessary to stop a disorderly exit, which is to say, it allowed some investors to keep their bubble profits to pay off the bubble debts instead of getting wiped out. You wonder how those parties got to enjoy such favourable treatment, but then if you see how entwined Japanese heavy industry, banking and the old MITI was in its day, it was one of those things that people acknowledged tacitly without putting up a big fight. After all, what happens to Japan should Mistubishi or Sumitomo should fail? The option cost of bailing out those companies essentially ate the future of Japan.  And that’s just Japan. The GFC has exposed the same problem in advanced economies across Europe and North America as well as Australia and New Zealand.

The point of all this is to say, private sector debt has a way of becoming public sector debt, and “too big to fail” essentially eats the future. A few things are very clear from the property bubble in Australia is that the private sector debt is bigger than it has ever been, and should it get called in, it would wipe out our four major banks (BASEL II and III notwithstanding). Because those banks are still in the TBTF category, the government will socialise those losses by bailing them out, and then we’ll see our future spending go up in smoke to preserve the inflated prices everybody paid for their houses.

The finer point of all this is, if you don’t think there’s a housing bubble, then that’s one problem. If you do thing that there is a housing bubble but think it’s just a matter of the market correcting itself, then you’ll be in for a surprise.

Ross Garnaut Says There Is a Bubble – But So What? Cut Rates

This one‘s related but really interesting. Ross Garnaut thinks there is indeed a bubble going on in the housing market, and that the Reserve Bank of Australia is keeping a close eye on it. Basically, Garnaut is saying the rest of the economy outside of housing could do with the lowering of rates. The rates being as they are keeps the Australian Dollar too high, and makes Australia’s economy less  competitive. The only thing keeping the rates where they are, is this deep concern that there is a housing bubble going on, so the rates need to sit at as high a place a possible given the parameters. Instead Garnaut is saying if the RBA cuts rates, then the rest of economy would be able to compete and grow, and the housing bubble should be dealt with specific measures. He also says governments should stop favouring housing for the purposes of capital adequacy.

“It is ludicrous to be worried about lending risks in the housing sector on the one hand while at the same time requiring banks to put more capital aside when they are lending to BHP,” he said.

“And there are several reasons to do something about negative gearing. There are budget reasons, and reasons to do with keeping within reach the old Australian dream of widespread home ownership.

“It would also contribute to putting a lid on the housing bubble so we could reduce interest rates and the exchange rate as required by the rest of the Australian economy.

“But the problems can’t be solved by the Reserve Bank alone. It requires co-ordination of prudential regulation, monetary policy and fiscal policy.”

It’s an interesting idea that evokes the old definition of inflation. Inflation, is essentially too much money chasing too few assets. This explains exactly why housing bubbles happen. Given that housing is given a privileged position in measuring capital adequacy, banks are better off lending out mortgages than lending out business loans for capital expenditure. The money headed to mortgages become much easier money by dint of a definitions for capital adqaucy. This devalues businesses against property ownership, even though property ownership in of itself – especially home ownership – can’t contribute to the economy in the way that a productive business can. Things like negative gearing simply make it worse. So all the money goes into the property market but of course the overall supply side of the property market itself can only grow at a certain rate. As more money gushes into the property market, it can do nothing but create a condition where the prices of homes inflates. Too much money chasing too few assets.

Is China Finally Wobbling (Just A Little bit?)

It’s been like five and a half years since the market bottom following the Lehmann Shock which triggered the GFC. Since then the world has looked on… make that Australia… Australia has looked on to China to keep its economy afloat. China in turn obliged by doing massive stimulus spending, which resulted in it sustaining its 7%+ annual GDP growth rate. There are some who think China has been inflating its GDP figures for years to get more investment, and think there is a 30%discrepancy between what China’s real size as an economy is and what the stated size is. That would explain the vast lack of growth in consumer spending that China has so needed to move from an export-driven economy to a consumer driven economy.

China subsequently pushed all levels of government to take on debt and give stimulus to the market and that has resulted in a massive ballooning of debt in China to fund this 7+% growth. Since the GFC, year after year, economists, investors, traders ad analysts of all persuasions have pointed at China and said it is unsustainable. Somehow China never imploded or popped or collapsed. All those ghost cities built in the middle of nowhere with speculation money? No problem. All that re-hypothecated collateral minerals that went missing? No problem. All those companies that started going sour and failed to pay their bonds? Government intervention has saved the day. If you had bet on China to unravel in the last few years, you would have lost money on all those bets.  It would’ve been hard losses to take too, because rationally speaking, China had every reason to come unstuck. The proof was in the pudding, and the pudding’s been magic so far.

Now, there are signs the magic pudding isn’t going to hold up. I don’t know how China is going to kick the can down the road next time, but they may yet have a way of doing so. After all, one of the interesting aspects of the great recession has been the way things just keep going on in spite of the numbers. If China can’t kick the can down the road, this is going to be it for the 23 long years of economic growth in Australia. The cracks are already showing up in commodity prices. Iron ore – the biggest corollary to the health of Chinese industry has sunk to a five year low. This is going to hit our export figures. Falling commodity prices should bring the value of Australian Dollar down. Things are about to get very bumpy.

I can report to you that the money-go-around in Sydney has stopped to a snail’s pace. There are a lot of companies sitting on unpaid bills, the companies themselves waiting to receive payment to pay those bills. I have to say it hasn’t been this slow since August 2007, which was exactly the peak of the market before the GFC. I’d start selling shares this month if I had any to sell.

 

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