Blog

Thu, 27 Sep 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Yahoo 7 Finance web site at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/government-debt-record-high-heres-good-news-013049695.html 

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Government debt is at a record high

In May 2014, then Treasurer Joe Hockey announced that the budget deficit for 2017-18 would narrow to just $2.8 billion. The projections in that budget indicated a return to surplus in 2018-19.

Fast forward a little over four years and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Finance Minster Mathias Cormann confirmed that the budget deficit for 2017-18 came in at $10.1 billion, nearly four times the estimate presented in the first Coalition government budget. Progress on repairing the budget has clearly been slow and marginal under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments, despite some of the strongest global economic conditions in a decade.
Policy actions of the Coalition over the five years it has been in office have actually damaged the budget balance with a raft of extra spending, and the quest for a return to surplus has been driven by a strong global economy, not local policy changes.

While the budget deficit was the smallest in a decade, the narrower deficit was based on unexpected riches flowing from surprisingly buoyant prices for iron ore and coal which have seen tax collection rise to levels also not seen in a decade.

This is not to sniff at the good fortune of the current government. It is always great news when the prices of our main commodity exports are strong. It adds to Australia’s national income, adds to government tax revenue and should always been welcome.

But it is important to realise it is simple luck rather than good economic management.

Fri, 21 Sep 2018  |  

While Martin North from DFA rejected my generous offer to have a wager based on his call for a 40 to 45 per cent fall in house prices, Tony Locantro, an Investment Manager with Alto Capital in Perth has decided to take up the offer on the same terms that I offered Mr North.

Specifically, we are wagering $15,000 to $2,500 that Sydney or Melbourne or national wide house prices will or will not fall by more than 35 per cent from their peak at any stage before and up to the December quarter 2021.

The measure will be based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics Residential Property Price Indexes, Eight Capital Cities, Catalogue No. 6416.0.

This means that if, at any stage 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 or the eight capital cities, Tony has to give me $2,500.

Who knows, it might be the start of a wonderful friendship. We have added a nice informal touch – when the cash is handed over, the winner will buy a dinner with a nice bottle of red to console the loser.

I will be providing regular updates as the numbers roll out.

Thu, 20 Sep 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Yahoo 7 Finance website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/trump-boosts-us-stocks-borrowed-government-money-011637215.html 

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Trump boosts US stocks with BORROWED government money

US stock prices continue to trade at near record highs and a lot of the recent rise has a lot to do with the policies of President Donald Trump.

The surge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average has been phenomenal. Since the November 2016 Presidential election, the Dow Jones is up around 50 per cent despite a few hiccups at the start of 2018 as the US Federal Reserve hiked interest rates and the threats of a US trade war turned into a reality.

The rise in US stocks, whilst impressive, is built on all the wrong things. ‘Wrong’, that is, in terms of sustainability.

As President, Donald Trump has delivered a range of tax cuts that have a total cost to the budget of around US$1.5 trillion. This one-off, impossible to replicate policy like any other policy that dumps cash into the economy has underpinned stronger economic growth and a temporary lift company profits. The tax changes has seen US companies engage in a record level of stock buy-backs which by design, has been a powerful driver behind rising share prices.

The problem with the Trump tax cuts is that every cent of the US$1.5 trillion has been funded with money borrowed by the government.

Such is the destruction to the US budget, that the US Congressional Budget Office is now estimating the US budget deficit to average a staggering 4.8 per cent of GDP in every year in the decade from 2018 to 2028. When Trump became President, the budget deficit had narrowed to just 2.5 per cent of GDP.

Wed, 19 Sep 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Business Insider website at this link: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/government-debt-stephen-koukoulas-2018-9 

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Everyone stopped talking about government debt, but here's why it still matters

Having been a headline issue for many years, government debt no longer gets the media or political focus that is used to.

At one level, this is odd, because the level of gross and net government debt have continued to rise unrelentingly in recent years, with gross debt at a record high and net debt touching a peace-time high.

The lack of focus on government debt probably reflects the fall from grace of the chief debt fear-mongers Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Barnaby Joyce who were vocal advocates of the “debt and deficit disaster” that Australia was allegedly confronting five years ago. 

The fact that the Coalition government has demonstrably failed in its policy approach to the issue is also likely to be a factor why it has dropped off the list of popular political topics. It could also reflect the fact the belated realisation that Australia level of debt and deficit are, and always have been, low and manageable.

So low is Australia’s government debt, even today, that the three major sovereign credit ratings agencies have assigned a triple-A rating even though the path to a balanced budget and debt stabilisation has been slow and unconvincing.
This is not to say that the level of government debt is not an issue. It still is.

And just because it is not a constraint on the economy or a meaningful concern to markets, it doesn’t mean policy makers should take their eye off managing government debt, especially at the moment when the economy is growing and the global economy is giving Australia a helping hand.

Sensible and pragmatic economists are usually pragmatic about debt and deficit. Pragmatic in a sense that a move to debt and deficit are good policy when the economy is weak and debt reduction and surplus are good policy when the economy is growing strongly. Suffice to say it will be important to ensure that the path to small, but growing, budget surpluses over the next few years is kept, but only if the economy continues to grow at a reasonable pace.

Tue, 18 Sep 2018  |  

 The ABS residential price series confirmed further broadly based price falls in the June quarter.

It will no doubt get the hysterical house price forecasters very excited.

It also allows me to give an update on the offer I made to Martin North from DFA about his heroic forecast that house prices would drop by between 40 and 45 per cent over the next few years. The letter to Martin and the offer are reproduced below.

Suffice to day, house price falls are continuing. And from the peak level:

  • Sydney: down 3.9 per cent (peak June qtr 2017)
  • Melbourne: down 1.4 per cent (peak Dec qtr 2017)
  • 8 cities: down 1.4 per cent (peak Dec qtr 2017)

 

We are, unsurprisingly to sober analysts, a long, long, long way from the 40-45 per cent Martin is forecasting a long way from the 35 per cent I offered to wager Martin at 6 to 1; and still a long way from the 22.5 per cent fall, in any of those markets, I offered Martin at 2 to 1.

The offer is still open to Martin for a couple of weeks, if he wishes to reconsider.

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Mon, 17 Sep 2018  |  

My open letter and offer to DFA’s Martin North – Skin in the game on house prices

I have sent this to Martin North, founding Principal, Digital Financial Analytics.

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Dear Martin

Congratulations on your cameo on the TV program 60 Minutes. It was gripping viewing and a quite fantastic story.

I note with a huge amount of interest your forecast for property prices to fall by “40 to 45 per cent”.

It is a big call and certainly grabbed the attention of many in the public.

I note also that on your blog, you suggest the quote which included that forecast was not given the context you attached to it, namely, you rated it “only a 20 per cent chance” and that the 40 to 45 per cent price fall would be “over 3 years or so”.

That context is important.

Over the many years I have been making forecasts for the economy and markets and seeing others do the same, I find that forecasts without any skin in the game are often compromised. It is easy to construct a headline grabbing forecast for a significant move in markets, including house prices for example, but when they fade into oblivion, there are no implications for the forecaster. Forecasts really only has validity if the forecaster has an interest in the forecast being correct.

In other words, would the forecaster really make that forecast if they put their money where their mouth is?

Wed, 29 Aug 2018  |  

This article first appeared on The Wire website, for FIIG, at this link: https://thewire.fiig.com.au/article/commentary/opinion/2018/08/21/three-downside-risks-to-the-aud 

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Three downside risks to the AUD

A certain calm in currency markets, including for the Australian dollar, was briefly punctured in early August when the Turkish lira collapse spread to other emerging markets and sparked a jump in the US dollar.

Since early 2015, the AUD has traded over 90% of the time in a 71-78 cent range against the US dollar. The moves outside this range have been marginal and short lived.  It was and still is rare for the AUD to be so steady, for so long. A bevy of factors that normally impact its value have had minimal lasting impact or have been offset by news elsewhere. Even the Turkey and emerging markets disruptions appear short lived with the Aussie dollar bouncing back in recent days.

That said, for reasons other than the global turmoil, we are probably starting to see the early stages of a realignment of the AUD which will have important implications for other markets and investors. In recent months, the AUD has been trading in an even narrower range around 72 to 76 cents, with the data flow and run of events having little lasting impact.

Any upbeat news is offset by downbeat news, meaning the net effect is inconsequential.  Think of the following events: US interest rate hikes, commodity price falls, clear weakness unfolding in the Chinese economy, the emerging markets ructions and the changing outlook for Australian interest rates are all big news, but have not been enough to see the AUD break out of its range.

Wed, 29 Aug 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Yahoo 7 Finance web page at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/political-fallout-new-morrison-government-232153917.html 

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The political fallout of a new Morrison government

The revamping of the government’s leadership team and the elevation of Scott Morrison to Prime Minister and Josh Frydenberg to Treasurer opens the door for some much needed revamping of the economic policy agenda. Ironically, Morrison has left Frydenberg a number of awkward policy issues that will need to be addressed.

One that is clearly having a political effect and hurting the government is the health, or lack thereof, of the labour market. Wages growth is hovering around a record low, barely keeping up with inflation. This weakness in wages is a major constraint on consumer spending, which is also being impact by a sharp fall in the growth of savings and record household debt.

The fact that the unemployment rate has been entrenched well above 5 per cent right through the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison period of government is a policy failure. The economy is simply not strong enough to generate the number of jobs needed to deliver a material lowering in unemployment and with that, a lift in wages.

If Frydenberg can deliver policies that help engineer a stronger economy and a lowering in the unemployment rate, he will have done something Treasurers Hockey and Morrison could not. This is where some meaningful fiscal policy changes and reforms to labour laws (industrial relations) would be welcome.

Wed, 15 Aug 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Yahoo 7 Finance web site at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/heres-need-get-ready-early-2019-budget-010743625.html 

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Get ready for a February budget

 An early budget is the likely scenario given the Federal election is set to be held in May 2019. The budget, which in modern times is usually delivered by the government on the second Tuesday in May, cannot be handed down during the election campaign which will be running hot if Prime Minister Turnbull sticks to his word and holds the election in May.

To allow the government to deliver its budget before the election is called, the most likely time for it will be in the period from mid-February through to early March.

With the constraint of the election timing, this timeframe for the budget would allow the government to ramp up its economic rhetoric and no doubt engage in a bit of a voter friendly strategy in an effort to gain some political momentum into the election campaign. This timing also means that soon after voters return to work and the real world after the summer holidays, they will be bombarded with budget news which, if the government is smart, will be portrayed as ‘good news’ and ‘vote for us’ as it struggles to remain competitive with the Labor Party.

Mon, 06 Aug 2018  |  

This article first appeared on the Yahoo 7 website at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/way-pay-stuff-fixing-budget-024912997.html 

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How the way you pay for stuff is fixing the budget

 Over the past few weeks, I have tried a little experiment with a few on my favourite small business retailers who, for what will be obvious reasons, will remain nameless.

For a range of smallish transactions of say $10 to $20, I deliberately made a bit of a fuss about paying with cash, rather than tapping with my card. Almost without exception, the proprietor, with a wink and nod, appreciated the use of cash, and passed a quick comment to the effect that “unfortunately, cash is rare these days”. I also noticed on a number of occasions the transaction was not rung up on the cash register, with the notes tucked into the cash drawer with no one other than me and the shop keeper aware of the transaction.

This got me thinking about an issue which has had me a little puzzled – the sharp improvement in the government’s budget position on the back of unexpectedly strong tax receipts. This extra tax revenue for the government appears to be an odd development given the sluggishness in the economy and consumer spending, and the ongoing weakness in inflation and wages, which over many decades have proven to be the driver of tax collections.

Rather than an unexpected pick-up in economic activity driving the revenue surge, it appears that technology, the decline in the use of cash and the greater use of cards accounts for the extra tax take.

THE LATEST FROM THE KOUK

The misplaced objective of the government of delivering a surplus, come hell or high water, has gone up in smoke

Tue, 07 Jan 2020

This article first appeared on the Yahoo Finance web site at this link: https://au.finance.yahoo.com/news/the-governments-test-in-2020-220310427.html   

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The misplaced objective of the government of delivering a surplus, come hell or high water, has gone up in smoke

For many people, the cost of the fires is immeasurable. 

Or irrelevant. 

They have lost loved ones, precious possessions, businesses and dreams and for these people, what lies ahead is bleak.

Life has changed forever.

As the fires continue to ravage through huge tracts of land, destroying yet more houses, more property, incinerating livestock herds, hundreds of millions of wildlife, birds and burning millions of hectares of forests, it is important to think about the plans for what lies ahead.

The rebuilding task will be huge.

Several thousands of houses, commercial buildings and infrastructure will require billions of dollars and thousands of workers to rebuild. Then there are the furniture and fittings for these buildings – carpets, fridges, washing machines, clothes, lounges, dining tables, TVs and the like will be purchased to restock.

Then there are the thousands of cars and other machinery and equipment that will need to be replaced. 

What's ahead for the Australian economy and markets in 2020

Thu, 02 Jan 2020

What's ahead for the Australian economy and markets in 2020

Happy New Year!

2020 will be a year where Australia’s annual GDP will exceed $2 trillion, our population will get very close to 26 million people and we will clock up 29 years with no recession.

It is also a year where the economy will be a dominant issue for policy makers, will drive what happens to interest rates, will help drive investment returns and will feed into the well-being of the Australian community. 

2020 kicks off with relatively good news in terms of economic growth, even though the labour market is likely to remain weak, with wages growth struggling to lift and inflation remaining below the RBA’s 2 to 3 per cent target. The Reserve Bank may have one more interest rate cut in its kit bag, but by year end, the market is likely to price in interest rate increases, albeit modestly.

The ASX, which had a great 2019 is set to be flatten out, in part driven by the change in the interest rate outlook, but it should get a boost from better news on housing and household spending.

In terms of the specifics, I have broken down the 2020 outlook into a range of categories and given a broad explanation on the issues underpinning the themes outlined.

GDP Growth

It’s a positive outlook. A pick-up in GDP growth from the current 1.7 per cent annual rate is unfolding, with the only real issue is the extent of the acceleration.