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Economic Update - February 2nd, 2016

Economic Update – February 2016

by Infocus Author

The Big Picture

The hope many of us felt for markets on New Year’s Eve dissipated in the first week. But January ended so strongly here, Wall Street and elsewhere. So what is going on?

It was largely an accidental coincidence of several things that separately may have had little impact. The economic questions were around China (its stock market, currency and economic growth); US economic growth; oil prices; and interest rate expectations. Each of those is worthy of much consideration but, on top of those issues a number of other events muddied the waters: North Korea’s nuclear testing; IS terrorism; Iran’s sanctions being cleared; Saudi Arabia and Iran over executions; and attacks on the embassy in Tehran.

And the elephant in the room was the length and stability of the multi-year bull-run on Wall Street. Some were expecting a correction just because they hadn’t had one for ages. With that sentiment, markets can easily overshoot when innocuous missiles are thrown at markets. Well they’ve now had that correction so we can move on!

Let’s start with China. Growth has been questioned in some quarters but China just announced not only a strong month for iron ore imports, but a record! RIO backed this up with Q4 iron ore shipments up 11%. Treasury Wines share price went through the roof when it reported its increased exports to China.

China growth will hopefully continue to fall gradually as they move from a government-funded infrastructure economy to more of a capitalist economy like ours. All developed countries have been through periods like China is now experiencing.

Of course their stock market being closed twice in one week because of sharp price movements didn’t help the uninitiated – but the explanation was so simple. The market was closed the first day ‘circuit breaker’ rules were introduced for the first time ever. Everyone admits that the rules were too sensitive and caused the market falls rather than helping market stability. Those rules were quickly shelved.

And the China currency? They are moving from being pegged to the US dollar to a system referencing a basket of the currencies of its major trading partners. The problem here was China not communicating its strategy well enough, rather than doing something people shouldn’t like.

US economic growth just came in at 2.4% for 2015 and +0.7% for Q4. Their unemployment rate is 5.0% which is just a tenth above what the Federal Reserve (Fed) considers full employment to be. Calls for a recession any time soon seem to be the results of underemployed analysts trying to establish a profile for themselves.

And oil? The real experts acknowledge that a sustainable price for oil is around $50 – $60 / barrel. Any higher and shale oil in the US will be back on stream; any lower and countries go bankrupt. But OPEC has been playing games with the US over shale oil and speculators have been exacerbating the situation.

When Brent oil got down to $26 in late January, some were calling for $10 of Brent oil – a fall of around a further  60%. In a few days Brent jumped up over +30%!

But the Fed has been caught out on interest rate hikes. They predicted four hikes during 2016 at their last press conference but markets are pricing in none or one. There is no rush.

For those of you coming back from a good long summer holiday – welcome back – you didn’t miss anything important on the markets – just froth and over-reaction!

Asset Classes

Australian Equities

The ASX 200 was down  5.5% in January after being up +2.5% in December. But this turbulence was not like that last August. Back then the market fell on statistics like the VIX fear index were, which was much worse than that in January. Resource stocks and Financials bore the brunt of the negativity in January but no sector improved by more than +1.0%.

Importantly, our indicators of potential long-run capital gains improved over the month. We have the market under-priced by about  6% so there could be some strong gains sometime soon.

Reporting season by listed companies is about to start. Since a number of downgrades have been reported in resources and retail stocks, much of the bad news is behind us.

Foreign Equities

Our market, although down, performed well compared with many of the big overseas markets. The world index was down  7.8%.

China’s “Shanghai Composite” index continued to lose ground as the heavy gearing encouraged by the government in late 2014 and in 2015 was unwound.

The China regulator brought in ‘circuit breakers’ that closed the market for 15 minutes if the index fell by  5% and closed it for the rest of the day if the index fell by  7%. These limits were far too tight for a volatile index like the Composite. The more stable US market only gets closed for the day if its index falls  20%.

Arguably, the introduction of the circuit breakers for the first time ever in January caused the shutdown on day one and the next. When the breakers were removed the market settled down.

Bonds and Interest Rates

Japan spiced up the cash market at the end of January by flagging negative interest rates, more monetary stimulus and a prediction of 2% inflation in two years after decades of deflation.

The Fed suggested last December that it might hike rates four times in 2016 (March, June, September and December) but the market doesn’t believe them. It seems more like one or none. There is no need to rush increases and the last thing anyone would want is for the Fed to hike rates and then be forced to reverse the decision in an untimely fashion.

At home the RBA did not meet in January. The odds of a cut this year are falling but one cut is still possible. Inflation did pop up a bit in the last read so the RBA might want to wait a few months to assess the situation before acting.

Other Assets

Iron ore and oil prices seemed to have stabilised – at least for the moment. There is talk of co-operation between Russia and OPEC over supply limits but, apparently, enacting such a move would be difficult for technical reasons. With Iran being allowed to export oil again after nuclear-related sanctions, there is downward pressure on oil prices. Brent oil was up +15% on the month!

Iron ore prices have been above and below $40 / tonne during January. Vale, the big Brazilian miner, is reportedly having difficulties with pricing and that might help Australian miners.

A number of other commodity prices bounced back at the end of January. Was January just the month we had to have to shake out the cobwebs?

Regional Analysis

Australia

Our jobs data remained strong – against market expectations. It is now over a year since unemployment peaked at 6.3%. Jobs growth continues to be solid.

We are fast approaching the budget and the government is, as is usual, airing some options to test market sentiment. Some are questioning our AAA rating. As we have been writing since the May 2014 budget, we do have a serious problem to tackle. We are not currently in trouble but we will be if we do not start doing the right thing soon.

China

China’s GDP growth for 2015 came in at +6.9% just short of the target +7%. China has announced that its target growth rate is now 6.5% to 7.0%. Its trade data were much, much better than expected.

The China Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) for manufacturing at 49.4 shows that the industry expects continuing strong growth but at a slightly lower rate (as the PMI is below 50). The PMI for services at 53.5 shows continuing expected strong growth but at a more rapid rate.

U.S.A.

Following the December rate hike – the first in nearly a decade, US jobs data came in particularly strongly. Unemployment is only 5.0% compared with the Fed’s estimate of full employment being 4.9%.

The latest GDP growth data did come in a bit softer than the quarter before but more or less on expectations.

The Presidential election, set for November, is hotting up. The usual smear campaigns are starting on both sides.

Europe

Sweden is considering sending a significant number of refugees back and others are seeking to claim expenses for settlement back from the ‘asylum seekers’.

Angela Merkel – the German leader – has suffered in popularity following her desire to take in an almost unlimited inflow, and has had her previously massive support cut to about 40%. She has now stated she expects most to return home when the troubles end. With the huge death toll in Damascus from bombings overnight, that end doesn’t like coming any time soon.

The ECB is still on the case regarding monetary policy. Europe is healing – but slowly.

Rest of the World

Japan lost its Treasurer in a scandal but that hasn’t stopped the policy machine from seeking new ways of supporting the economy.

New Zealand kept its rate on hold but it is considering further cuts.

Russia is hurting and is seemingly trying to gain support in oil prices. But, apparently, the nature of the frozen terrain in Siberia means that if they do cut back supply from there, it will be lost forever. As a result, this month’s meeting between OPEC and Russia is limited in what it might achieve – but, perhaps, talking is a useful start.

Nigeria has just sought a $US3.5bn international loan to support its budget while oil prices for its major export are depressed.

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