MYEFO – There’s a Consumer-Shaped Hole in Our Budget

On first blush, the revised federal budget has improved according to the MYEFO (Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook) released by the Treasurer  today.  But consumers are the weak link, and wage growth and consumption a problem – no wonder there is now talk of tax cuts for consumers! In addition, more savings are forecast, including an extension of the waiting period for newly arrived migrants to access welfare benefits and a freeze on higher education funding.

The budget is, they say, on track to return to balance in 2020-21, and overall debt as share of GDP is set to fall further. The latest projected surplus of $10.2 billion in 2020-21 is an improvement of $2.7 billion compared to May’s Budget estimate.

At the 2017-18 Budget, gross debt was projected to be $725 billion in 2027-28. Gross debt is now projected to reach around $684 billion by 2027-28 — a fall of around $40 billion. But absolute debt is still rising!

The improvement is driven by a rise in company profits, and company tax take. Commodity prices helped also, although they remain a key uncertainty to the outlook for the terms of trade and nominal GDP, especially in relation to the Chinese economy.

They say the fall off in mining investment is easing, while non-mining business investment is predicted to rise (a little), but we think overall business investment remains an issue.

Real GDP is forecast to grow by 2.5% in 2017-18, lower than at budget time (2.75%). Beyond that, real GDP is forecast to grow at 3% in 2018 19, per the original budget.

The 2017-18 forecast is lower driven by anemic outcomes for wage growth and domestic prices.  More than 360,000 jobs at a rate of 1,000 jobs a day having been created in 2017.  Yet, wages are now forecast to remain lower for longer, with index growth of 2.25% in June 2018, 0.25% lower than at budget time, and 2.75% to June 2019. They admit wages growth is lower than expected, but they still hope lifting economic momentum will lift wages, eventually – despite the very high levels of underemployment, and structural changes in working patterns. This lower forecast for wages is expected to weigh on personal income tax receipts and slow household consumption.

Finally, the assumed Treasury yields are set quite low, for modeling purposes.  Rising rates in the USA and elsewhere may lift rates faster.



Safe as Houses? Not if You Live in Australia

An interesting perspective via a press release from online broker FXB Trading.

Whilst they are pushing their “hedge strategy” for Australian property, drawing parallels with the US crash of 2007; the key points they make are important and largely align with our view of the local property market.  If they are right, recent price falls are just the start!

According to Jonathan Tepper, one of the world’s experts in housing bubbles, Australia is experiencing the biggest property bubble in history. It has lasted 55 years and seen prices increase 6556% since 1961. “It is the only country we know of where middle-class houses are auctioned like paintings,” he observed recently.

When it crashes it’s likely to bring Australia’s economy crashing down with it, as it’s the only sector which has driven GDP growth of late. It’s one of those rare opportunities traders relish because the volatility in the market will be big and significantly increases the chance of being able to make a huge gain from an investment.

You can thank State and Federal governments for this opportunity. They have done everything they can to fuel the housing market in an effort to boost Australia’s economy and offset the decline in the value and volume of its chief exports iron ore and coal. The growth of the economy has provided governments with a source of tax revenue and proof to voters that their policies result in economic success.

The Australian media has also been complicit in the perpetuation of the property bubble. Objective reporting on property has disappeared because the Murdoch and Fairfax duopoly, which controls media output in the country, have been protecting their only major growth profit centres and Domain the country’s two largest real estate portals.

Headlines celebrating a 26-year-old train driver who services the debt on five million dollars worth of property with his salary and rental income have become commonplace, with hordes of others being similarly celebrated for their achievements.

The formula for success which has enabled individuals on modest incomes to gain ownership of seven figure property portfolios comes through the black magic of cross-collateralised residential mortgages, where Australian banks allow the unrealised capital gain of one property to secure financing to purchase another property.

This unrealised capital gain takes the place of a cash deposit. For instance, if the house bought a year ago for $350,000 is now valued at $450,000 the bank is willing to let the owner use that equity gain to finance the purchase of another property.

LF Economics describe this as a “classic mortgage ponzi finance model”. When the housing market falls, this unrealised capital gain becomes a loss, and the whole portfolio becomes undone. The similarities to underestimation of the probability of default correlation in Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs), which led to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC)in 2008, are striking.

However, unlike the US property situation there is no housing shortage in Australia. High housing prices in Australia have not come about because of the natural forces of supply and demand but by the banks’ willingness to lend. Credit from privatised and deregulated financial system has been the leading cause of the property bubble – as it was in the US – which has resulted in loans being granted to a very high percentage of the people who applied for one.

Loose credit was used to speculate on the property market, generating easy profits until the bubble peaked and then collapsed the financial sector in 2008 in the US. Following deregulation of Australia’s financial sector the amount of credit banks extended has increased dramatically. Mortgage debt has more than quadrupled from 19% of GDP in 1990 to 84% in 2012, which is a higher level than that of the US at its peak.

In many other parts of the world the GFC took the wind out of their real estate bubbles. From 2000 to 2008, driven to an extent by the First Home Buyer Grant, Australian house prices had already doubled. Rather than let the market as it was around the rest of the world during the GFC, the Australian Government doubled the bonus. Treasury notes recorded at the time reveal that it was launched to prevent the collapse of the housing market rather than make housing more affordable.

Already at the time of the GFC, Australian households were at 190% debt to net disposable income, 50% more indebted than American households, but the situation really got out of hand.

The government decided to further fuel the fire by “streamlining” the administrative requirements for the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) so that temporary residents could purchase real estate in Australia without having to report or gain approval.

In 2015-16 there were 40,149 residential real estate applications from foreigners valued at over $72 billion in the latest data by FIRB. This is up 320% by value from three years before. Most of these came from Chinese investors.

Many Chinese investors borrowed the money to buy these houses from Australian banks using fake statements of foreign income. According to the Australian Financial Review banks were being tricked with cheap photoshopped bank statements that can be obtained online.

UBS estimates that $500 billion worth of “not completely factually accurate” mortgages now sit on major bank balance sheets.

This injection of foreign investment has made Australian housing completely unaffordable for Australians. Urban planners say that a median house price to household income ratio of 4.1 to 5.0 is “seriously unaffordable” and 5.1 or over “severely unaffordable”.

At the end of July 2017 the median house price in Sydney was $1,178,417 with an average household income of $91,000. This makes the median house price to household income ratio for Sydney 13x, or over 2.6 times the threshold of “severely unaffordable”. Melbourne is 9.6x.

However, the CEOs of the Big Four banks in Australia think that these prices are “justified by the fundamentals”. More likely because the Big Four, who issue over 80% of the country’s residential mortgages, are more exposed as a percentage of loans than any other banks in the world.

How the fundamentals can be justified when the average person in Sydney can’t actually afford to buy the average house in Sydney, no matter how many decades they try to push the loan out is something only an Australian banker can explain.

In October this year Digital Finance Analytics estimated in a report that 910,000 households are now estimated to be in mortgage stress where net income does not cover ongoing costs. This has increased 50% in less than a year and now represents 29.2% of all households in Australia.

Despite record low interest rates, Australians are paying more of their income to pay off interest than they were when they were paying record mortgage rates back in 1989-90, which are over double what they are now.

The long period of prosperity and rising valuations of investments in Australia has led to increasing speculation using borrowed money which neither governments or banks did anything to quell.

The spiralling debt incurred in financing speculative investments has now resulted in cash flow problems for investors. The cash they generate is no longer sufficient to pay off the debt they took on to acquire them. Losses on such speculative assets prompt lenders to call in their loans. This is the point which results in a collapse of asset values.

Over-indebted investors are forced to sell even their less-speculative positions to repay their loans. However, at this point counterparties are hard to find to bid at the high asking prices previously quoted. This starts a major sell-off, leading to a sudden and precipitous collapse in market-clearing asset prices, a sharp drop in market liquidity, and a severe demand for cash.

FXB Trading’s experts have been monitoring Australia’s housing market and its economy for many months and are convinced it has now reached the point of no return and that a crash is imminent.

Global inequality is on the rise – but at vastly different rates across the world

From The Conversation.

Inequality is rising almost everywhere across the world – that’s the clear finding of the first ever World Inequality Report. In particular, it has grown fastest in Russia, India and China – places where this was long suspected but there was little accurate data to paint a reliable picture.

Until now, it was actually very difficult to compare inequality in different regions of the world because of sparse or inconsistent data, which lacked credibility. But, attempting to overcome this gap, the new World Inequality Report is built on data collection work carried out by more than a hundred researchers located across every continent and contributing to the World Wealth and Income Database.

Europe is the least unequal region of the world, having experienced a milder increase in inequality. At the bottom half of the table are Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil and India, with the Middle East as the most unequal region.

Since 1980, the report shows that there has been rising inequality occurring at different speeds in most parts of the world. This is measured by the top 10% share of income distribution – how much of the nation’s income the top 10% of earners hold.

Places where inequality has remained stable are those where it was already at very high levels. In line with this trend, we observe that the Middle East is perhaps the most unequal region, where the top 10% of income earners have consistently captured over 60% of the nation’s income.

Inequality is always a concern

Even in Europe, where it is less pronounced, equality always raises ethical concerns. For example, in Western Europe, many do not receive a real living wage, despite working hard, often in full-time employment. Plus, the data shows that the top 10% of earners in Europe as a whole still hold 37% of the total national income in 2016.

Rising income inequality should be focal to public debate because it is also a factor which motivates human behaviour. It affects how we consume, save and invest. For many, it determines whether one can access the credit market or a good school for our children

This, in turn, may affect economic growth, raising the question of whether it is economically efficient to have unequal societies.

Going into the details of what drives the rise in income inequality, the report shows that unequal ownership of national wealth is an important force. National wealth can be either publicly owned (for example, the value of schools, hospitals and public infrastructure) or privately owned (the value of private assets).

Since 1980, very large transfers of public to private wealth occurred in nearly all countries, whether rich or emerging. While national wealth has substantially increased, public wealth is now negative or close to zero in rich countries. In particular, the UK and the US are countries with the lowest levels of public capital.

Arguably, this limits the ability of governments to tackle inequality. Certainly, it has important implications for wealth inequality among citizens. It also indicates that national policies shaping ownership of capital have been a major factor contributing to the rise of inequality since 1980.

Inequality in the developing world

Resource rich economies are traditionally considered to be prone to conflict or more authoritarian in terms of how they are governed. What this new report tells us is that some resource rich economies, such as “oil economies”, are also extremely unequal. This was often suspected because natural resources are often concentrated in the hands of a minority. Until this report, however, there was no clear evidence.

The World Inequality Report appears to show us that the Middle East region may be even more unequal than Central and South America, which have long been held up as some of the most unequal places on Earth.

Another significant finding is that countries at similar stages of development have seen different patterns of rising inequality. This suggests that national policies and institutions can make the difference. The trajectories of three major emerging economies are illustrative. Russia has an abrupt increase, China a moderate pace and India a gradual one.

The comparison between Europe and the US provides an even more striking example – Western Europe remains the place with the lowest concentration of national income among the top 10% of earners.

Compared with the US, the divergence in inequality has been spectacular. While the top 1% income share was close to 10% in both regions in 1980, it rose only slightly to 12% in 2016 in Western Europe, while it shot up to 20% in the US. This might help explain the rise in populism. Those left behind grow impatient when they do not see any tangible improvement (or even a worsening) in their living conditions.

It is not just important to reduce inequality to make society more fair. Equal societies are associated with other important outcomes. As well as political and social stability, education, crime and financial stability may all suffer when inequality is high.

With this new data at our fingertips, we can now act to learn from the policies of more equal regions and implement them to reduce inequality across the world.

Author: Antonio Savoia, Lecturer in Development Economics, University of Manchester

Will APRA Loosen Lending Standards Next Year?

Interesting economic summary from Moody’s. They recognise the problem with household finances, and low income growth. They also suggest, mirroring the Reserve Bank NZ, that macroprudential policy might be loosened a little next year.

I have to say, given credit for housing is still running at three times income growth, and at very high debt levels, we are not convinced! I find it weird that there is a fixation among many on home price movements, yet the concentration and level of household debt (and the implications for the economy should rates rise), plays second fiddle.

Also, the NZ measures were significantly tighter, and the recent loosening only slight (and in the face of significant political measures introduced to tame the housing market). So we think lending controls should be tighter still in 2018.

It’s strange examining third quarter data when the fourth stanza has almost passed, but the Australian Bureau of Statistics isn’t known for timely national accounts data. Australia is the last major Asia-Pacific economy to release quarterly GDP numbers. Despite the tardiness, the national accounts gives valuable insight, especially on the investment front in the absence of a reliable monthly gauge.

Australia’s GDP growth hit 0.6% q/q in the September quarter following an upwardly revised 0.9% (previously reported as 0.8%) gain in the June stanza. Annual growth accelerated to 2.8% from the prior 1.8% gain. The annual growth figure is now hovering at potential, which we estimate is around 3%. However, momentum is overstated, given low base effects. In the September quarter of 2016, the Australian economy contracted by 0.5% q/q, only the fourth quarterly contraction in 25 years. This was driven by a sharp fall in investment alongside higher imports. During this period, annual growth slowed by 1.3 percentage point to 1.8%.

Private investment booms

Private investment was a bright spot in the third quarter because of a sharp rise in non-dwelling construction, which made the largest contribution to GDP growth at 0.9 percentage point.

Non-dwelling construction has often become a proxy for mining investment, and the third quarter gain is likely due to the installation of two liquefied natural gas platforms in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. LNG exports are expected to pick up late in the fourth quarter amid increased production capacity. The Wheatstone project began production earlier in October after a two-year construction phrase and
shipped its first export to Japan late in the month. Wheatstone is the sixth of eight projects included in a A$200 billion LNG construction boom that is now in its final stretch. Once the remaining two projects are finalized, Australia could topple Qatar as the world’s biggest LNG exporter. Australia has recently become the world’s second largest exporter of LNG.

Public investment didn’t score as well in the third quarter, declining by 7.5% q/q. This is mainly payback after a boost in the June quarter from the acquisition of the Royal Adelaide Hospital from the private sector.

The housing market has cooled in 2017, and price growth is expected to keep decelerating through 2018; this will keep downward pressure on dwelling investment. For instance, dwelling price growth in Sydney was 5% y/y in November, well down from its double-digit growth in 2016 and earlier in 2017.

This is the result of the lagged impact of earlier macroprudential action that has included higher borrowing costs for homebuyers, especially investors or those taking out interest-only loans. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority has also imposed limits on bank portfolio exposure to new mortgages.

Owner-occupied housing finance commitments tend to track house price growth and are a good gauge of the underlying pulse. Data released this week show October commitments rose just 0.3% m/m on a trend basis. Growth has slowed substantially from earlier in 2017.

An interesting tidbit we have observed in recent years: Housing regulation in New Zealand tends to lead Australia’s by at least a year. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand was on the front foot trying to cool certain heated housing pockets such as Auckland well before the Australian Prudential Regulation
Authority introduced housing-targeted measures, even though both economies were experiencing strong price growth in some areas. Just recently, the RBNZ announced it had eased some macroprudential measures in light of softer house price growth. Now that Australia’s housing market has cooled, APRA may follow suit with minor reversals in the next year.

Households missing in action

At first glance it was a relief that consumption made a positive contribution to GDP growth, but the details were less pleasing, as spending was concentrated on essential items while discretionary purchases suffered. We calculated that nondiscretionary items rose an average 0.6% over the quarter, and discretionary spending fell by 0.7%.

Of the nondiscretionary items, utility spending rose 1.4% q/q, food was up 1%, rent gained 0.6%, and insurance and financial services grew 1.3%. On the discretionary front, clothing spending fell 1% q/q, recreation and culture was down 0.6%, and spending at cafes and restaurants fell by 0.9%.

All told, softness in the consumer sector was largely masked by spending on nondiscretionary items. The monthly retail trade data do not capture nondiscretionary spending as thoroughly as the national accounts; over the third quarter retail volumes were up just 0.1% q/q.

We know from earlier testing that consumer sentiment does not have a causal relationship with retail spending, but incomes do. Sentiment is a symptom of weak income growth, rather than a forward indicator of spending behaviour. The Westpac consumer sentiment index fell to 99.7 in November, below the neutral 100 that indicates optimists equal pessimists. Overall, consumers have been downbeat through most of 2017, concerned about family finances and the economic outlook. At 2% y/y, income growth is hovering near a record low, so it’s little surprise households have pulled
back on discretionary purchases, while other costs such as utilities rose in the third quarter because of seasonal price hikes. The net household saving ratio rose to 3.2% in the third quarter, higher than the decade low of 3% in the June quarter, suggesting that consumers aren’t willing to keep dipping into their savings to fund discretionary purchases. It’s concerning that household consumption is weak, given that it constitutes 75% of GDP.

Businesses are faring better than consumers at the moment. This is reflected in soaring private investment, lofty gains in company profits, and strong employment growth, particularly full-time, through 2017. Unfortunately, this has not yet flowed through to stronger income growth, and there are likely several factors at play. The first is cyclical: Low productivity is mooted as a reason for benign wages in the developed world. More Australia-specific is that underemployment has been very high in
Australia and the correlation with income growth is around -0.88. Underemployment has started to edge lower as full-time positions outpace part-time, and our baseline scenario is for the tighter labour market to yield stronger income growth by mid-2018. Although Australia’s Phillips curve has flattened in the past decade, there is still a reasonable relationship between unemployment and income growth.

Some structural factors: The rise of the gig economy has contributed to the rise in casual employment. These positions are more flexible and more easily adapt to changing demand, but there’s no union representation, which can hurt wage bargaining. Also, as the positions are more flexible, there’s more acceptance that lower wages can be a consequence.

Another structural reason for low incomes could be the higher prevalence of offshoring roles. There’s no reliable industry- or economy-wide data measuring the extent of offshoring, but we know that it is an unrelenting phenomenon, given the disparity in operating costs between Australia and the developed world. Employers are not locally replacing jobs lost offshore, so they are not potentially driving up labour costs to secure the appropriate candidate.

All told, these structural factors suggest that national income growth is unlikely to enjoy a significant rebound but rather gradual and modest improvement in 2018.

How’s the fourth quarter tracking?

Our high-frequency GDP tracker suggests a 2.7% y/y expansion in the December quarter following the barrage of October activity data this week. Retail trade came in at a strong 0.5% m/m, although this was payback for sustained weakness through the third quarter, when retail turnover fell an average 0.3% m/m.

October foreign trade data weren’t inspiring, as merchandise exports fell by 2% m/m amid lower iron ore prices and, to a lesser extent, volumes. The iron ore spot price increased by 22% from its late-October slump to US$71.51 per metric tonne in early December. We expect this will enable iron ore export receipts to improve heading into 2018 as higher global prices are incorporated into contracts; usually the lag is short. It’s too early to determine whether volumes will be adversely affected by higher prices.

We maintain our view that monetary tightening is firmly off the table for at least another year as the central bank sits on the sidelines waiting for consumption to show meaningful signs of a pickup. Our expectation is that the Australian dollar will depreciate around an additional 3% against the U.S. dollar over the next six months, serving to encourage more  consumption onshore and lift export competitiveness and helping core inflation return to and creep through the central bank’s 2% to 3%
target range.

Digital Transformation IS Revolutionary

An excellent article from Mckinsey which makes the point that if Digital Transformation this isn’t on your agenda, then you’ve got the wrong agenda! Its not about new shiny tech things.  Rather, all value chains will be disrupted, it is revolutionary. The benefits are breathtaking.

Digital transformation is about sweeping change. It changes everything about how products are designed, manufactured, sold, delivered, and serviced—and it forces CEOs to rethink how companies execute, with new business processes, management practices, and information systems, as well as everything about the nature of customer relationships. I’m seeing leaders who get this. They’re all over it: they want to launch five transformation initiatives right now; they’re talking to me and every digital leader they know about where the technology threats are coming from; and they’re hiring the best people to advise them. Yet I’m shocked by—even fearful for—the many CEOs I know who seem to be asleep at the switch. They just don’t see the massive disruption headed their way from digital threats, seen or unseen, and they don’t seem to understand it will happen very quickly.

So when I see CEOs who may be experimenting here and there with AI or the cloud, I tell them that’s not enough. It’s not about shiny objects. Tinkering is insufficient. My advice is that they should be talking about this all the time, with their boards, in the C-suite—and mobilizing the entire company. The threat is existential. For boards, if this isn’t on your agenda, then you’ve got the wrong agenda. If your CEO isn’t talking about how to ensure the survival of the enterprise amid digital disruption, well, maybe you’ve got the wrong person in the job. This may sound extreme, but it’s not.

It’s increasingly clear that we’re entering a highly disruptive extinction event. Many enterprises that fail to transform themselves will disappear. But as in evolutionary speciation, many new and unanticipated enterprises will emerge, and existing ones will be transformed with new business models. The existential threat is exceeded only by the opportunity.

When Holding Cash Beats Paying Debt

From The US On The Economy Blog.

For families who are struggling financially, there are times when it is better to keep some cash on hand, even if they hold high-interest debt.

A recent In the Balance article highlights the importance of emergency savings to the financial stability of struggling households. It was authored by Emily Gallagher, a visiting scholar at the St. Louis Fed’s Center for Household Financial Stability, and Jorge Sabat, a research fellow at the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Struggle to Make Ends Meet

Many families continue to struggle to make ends meet, the authors said, noting a recent Federal Reserve survey that estimated that almost half of U.S. households could not easily handle an emergency expense of just $400.

Given this, they asked: “Should more families be encouraged to hold a liquidity buffer even if it means incurring more debt in the short-term?”

In explaining why it might make sense, for example, to keep $1,000 in a low-earning bank account while owing $2,000 on a high-interest-rate credit card, Gallagher and Sabat’s research suggests this type of cash buffer greatly reduces the risk that a family will:

  • Miss a rent, mortgage or recurring bill payment
  • Be unable to afford enough food to eat
  • Be forced to skip needed medical care within the next six months

Linking Balance Sheets and Financial Hardship

Gallagher and Sabat investigated which types of assets and liabilities predicted whether a household would experience financial hardship over a six-month period.

Their survey encompassed detailed financial and demographic results that covered two time-period observations for the same household: one at tax time, and the other six months after tax time.

“This feature of our data set is ideal for capturing the probability that a household that is currently financially stable falls into financial hardship in the near term,” the authors explained. “Furthermore, the survey samples only from low-to-middle income households, our population of interest for understanding the antecedents of financial hardship.”

They tracked families in the first survey who said they hadn’t recently experienced any of these four main types of financial hardship:

  • Delinquency on rent or mortgage payments
  • Delinquency on regular bills, such as utility bills
  • Skipped medical care
  • Food hardship (going without needed food)

Gallagher and Sabat also asked if the family had any balances in:

  • Liquid assets, such as checking and saving accounts, money market funds and prepaid cards
  • Other assets, including businesses, real estate, retirement or education savings accounts
  • High-interest debt, such as that from credit cards or payday loans
  • Other unsecured debt, such as student loans, unpaid bills and overdrafts
  • Secured debt, including mortgages or debts secured by businesses, farms or vehicles

Controlling for factors such as income and demographics, they then tracked whether the 5,000 families in the survey had suffered a financial shock that would affect the results.

Cash on Hand Matters Most

The authors found that having liquid assets or other assets always predicted lower risk of encountering hardship of any kind, while having debts generally increased the risk of hardship.

Liquid assets had the most predictive power, Gallagher and Sabat said. They noted that a $100 increase (from a mean of $6) was associated with a 4.6 percentage point reduction in a household’s probability of rent or mortgage delinquency.

Liquid assets also significantly reduced the likelihood of entering into more common forms of hardship. A $100 increase in liquidity was associated with declines in the rates of:

  • Regular bill delinquency (by 8.3 percentage points)
  • Skipped medical care (by 6.3 percentage points)
  • Food hardship (by 5.2 percent percentage points)

“These estimated effects are substantial relative to the probability of encountering each hardship,” they said.


“Our findings suggest that households should be encouraged to maintain at least a small buffer of liquid savings, even if the cash in that buffer is not being used to pay down high-interest debt,” Gallagher and Sabat concluded.

Unemployment Remained Steady In November 2017

The ABS released the November 2017 employment data today. Overall, the rates remained steady at 5.4% but in trend and seasonally adjusted terms.  But there are considerable differences across the states, and age groups. Female part-time work grew, while younger persons continued to struggle to find work.

Full-time employment grew by a further 15,000 persons in November, while part-time employment increased by 7,000 persons, underpinning a total increase in employment of 22,000 persons. Over the past year, trend employment increased by 3.1 per cent, which is above the average year-on-year growth over the past 20 years (1.9 per cent).

Trend underemployment rate decreased by 0.2 pts to 8.4% over the quarter and the underutilisation rate decreased by 0.3 pts to 13.8%; both quite high.

The unemployment rate was highest in WA at 6.2% and is still rising, while the lowest was in the ACT at 3.8% and falling.  The rate was 4.6% in NSW, 5.7% in VIC,  5.8% in QLD and SA. TAS was 5.9% and NT 4.6%; all in trend terms.

The ABS said that overall employment increased 22,200 to 12,380,100, unemployment decreased 2,900 to 707,300, the participation rate increased less than 0.1 pts to 65.4% and the monthly hours worked in all jobs increased 3.8 million hours (0.2%) to 1,734.4 million hours.

Using Credit Card Payments Data For The Public Good

Interesting post from the UK’s Office for National Statistics blog, which highlights the power of data analytics using anonymised  credit card payments data.

The intelligent use of data gathered by our leading financial institutions can result in faster, more detailed economic statistics.  Tom Smith describes how a joint event staged by ONS and Barclaycard illustrates the vast statistical potential of  anonymised  payments data.

“My job at the Data Science Campus brings many fascinating days as we work with organisations across government and the UK to unlock the power of data. One recent event particularly stands out.

Our experts from across ONS joined forces with analysts from one of the world’s biggest financial organisations to explore how commercial payments data could help tackle some of the UK’s biggest economic questions.

Following a successful knowledge sharing day at the ONS Data Science Campus, Barclaycard, which sees nearly half of the nation’s debit and credit card transactions, hosted a ‘hackathon’ at the state-of-the-art fintech innovation centre Rise. This brought together 50 economists, developers, data scientists and analysts to address three challenges:

  • How could payments data improve our understanding of regional economies?
  • Where could financial inclusion policies best be targeted?
  • How could we use payments data to create superfast economic indicators?

Over two days, the ONS and Barclaycard teams worked collaboratively – in some cases right through the night – to identify how the payments data could be used to improve our understanding of the economy. The traditional hackathon finish saw the teams ‘pitching’ their work to a panel of judges from across ONS and Barclaycard.

The winning team focused on building predictors and indicators that provide fine-detail information for trending economic changes. Even at this early stage of development, their work shows how bringing together card spending data and economic data held by ONS could improve the information available for policy & strategy decision makers to make timely economic decisions.

There is much work to be done to turn this demonstration into a working model. But one of the things that stood-out for the judges was the winning team’s roadmap for how to get there, including the development and data architecture needed for a successful prototype.

“We’re really excited to play a key role in helping to support a better understanding of UK economic trends and growth. The hackathon was a great event to harness the excitement and expertise created through our partnership with the ONS, and the winning teams have shown tangible evidence that payments data can indeed be used for public good.” – Jon Hussey, MD Data & Strategic Analytics, Barclaycard International

For the Data Science Campus, collaborations are all about knowledge exchange. They are an opportunity for us to access expertise in tools, technologies and approaches to data science from outside government, evaluate them in a safe environment, and share our learning across ONS and wider government.

It was inspiring to see the level of energy, drive and collaboration, and to pool ONS and Barclaycard skills into understanding how payments data can be used for public good. (And it is worth pointing out that no money changed hands and no personal data were involved. ONS is only interested in producing aggregate statistics and analysis.)

Our work with Barclaycard illustrates perfectly how the rich data held by partners outside government can improve our understanding of the UK’s economy. This is a key part of ONS’ Better Statistics, Better Decisions strategy, enabling ONS to deliver high quality statistics, develop and implement innovative methods, and build data science capability by tapping in to best practices wherever they may be.

New Home Sales Slide

According to the HIA, New Homes Sales Report – a survey of Australia’s largest home builders – there has been a fall in the number of new homes sold in 2017. New home sales were 6 per cent lower in the year to November 2017 than in the same period last year. Building approvals are also down over this time frame by 2.1 per cent for the year.

The HIA expects that the market will continue to cool as subdued wage pressures, lower economic growth and constraints on investors result in the new building activity transitioning back to more sustainable levels by the end of 2018.

This is a smaller down-turn than we anticipated and bodes well in terms of the likelihood of a modest and orderly reduction in new house building.

The story is not consistent across all of the states with Western Australia and Victoria providing the book ends on five very different stories.

In the middle of the year it looked like Western Australia had turned the corner after a significant decline in activity over three years, but the new financial year brought even lower results as more restrictive first home buyer policies were implemented.

At the other end of the market in Victoria, the expected slowdown in building activity has not yet materialised. Sales of new houses increased by 6.3% for the 12 months to November 2017 and approvals rose by a further 8.7 per cent in the three months to November compared with the same period in 2016.

Why the RBA is unlikely to cut interest rates

From Business Insider.

Australia’s housing market is cooling after years of rollicking price growth.

Annual price growth has halved since May, auction clearance rates sit at multi-year lows in Sydney and Melbourne and investor housing credit is declining, coinciding with tougher restrictions on interest-only lending from APRA, Australia’s banking regulator, introduced in March.

The slowdown in the housing market, coming on top of weakness in Australia’s household sector seen in Australia’s recent GDP report, has got many people questioning whether the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) should hike interest rates given the current set of circumstances, especially with inflationary pressures close to non-existent.

Rather than hiking interest rates, some have even floated the idea that the RBA may consider cutting interest rates given the sharp deceleration in the housing market.

George Tharenou and Carlos Cacho, Economists at UBS, played devils advocate on that front earlier this month, pointing to the chart below to show that when house prices weakened by a similar amount in the past, it has almost always resulted in the RBA cutting official interest rates.

The pair note that national price growth on a six-month annualised basis is currently running at just 0.7%, an important consideration given that over the past 30 years “when house prices over a 6-month period weakened towards flat or negative, the RBA cut within a few months in 7 of 9 cycles”.

While that’s not UBS’ official call, forecasting instead that the RBA will hike rates in late 2018 with the risks slanted towards a later move, it does pose the question as to whether the current weakness in the housing market will see history repeat.

To ANZ Bank’s Australian economics team, led by David Plank, the answer to that question is almost certainly no.

 “There has been quite a lot of focus on the current downturn in house price inflation, with some commentators pointing out that similar downturns in the past have been followed by RBA rate cuts,” the bank says.

“While this might be true, it ignores the key differences between this cycle and previous downturns.

“In particular, previous downturns in house prices followed a succession of RBA rate increases, which pushed mortgage rates sharply higher. Given that RBA tightening cycles typically impact a lot more across the economy than just house prices, we think it is difficult to argue that the slowdown in house price inflation was the primary reason for eventual rate cuts.

“We think a rising unemployment rate was far more important,” it says.

One look at the charts below adds credence to that view.

The first looks at the relationship between annual house price growth and mortgage rates. The latter, shown in orange, has been inverted and advanced by six months.

As opposed to what has been seen previously when house prices tended to decline following a series of interest rate hikes, in recent times, price growth has slowed despite mortgage rates remaining near the lowest levels on record, coinciding with tighter macroprudential restrictions on investor and interest-only lending from APRA.

“The current downturn in house prices has not come after a tightening cycle. Instead we think the most likely cause was the tightening in credit, though with a lag and interrupted by the impact of RBA rate cuts in 2016,” ANZ says.

In comparison, this next chart shows the relationship between the annual change in Australia’s unemployment rate to movements in the cash rate.

While not perfect by any stretch, when unemployment starts to lift, the RBA tends to cut the cash rate, and vice versus.

Australia’s unemployment rate has recently fallen to 5.4%, leaving it at the lowest level in close to five years, going someway to explaining why ANZ is forecasting that the RBA will lift the cash rate to 2% by the end of next year despite the slowdown in the housing market.

“In our view, a [housing] cycle driven by credit is likely to play out very differently from one driven by higher interest rates,” it says.

“Expecting the current housing cycle to play out like those caused by movements in interest rates, strikes us as likely to end in disappointment.”

Indeed, outside of the recent price deceleration caused by credit rather than mortgage rates, ANZ points to a variety of other housing market indicators that suggest there’s little need for the RBA to cut rates.

“The most recent data on auction clearance rates suggest some stability after a period of decline. If this broadly continues then we would expect house annual price inflation to stabilise in the low-to-mid single digits in 2018,” it says.

“Our forecasts have nationwide house price inflation slowing to zero in 2018, but this also includes the impact of the two RBA rate hikes we expect in 2018. If these don’t take place then we would expect less of a slowdown in housing inflation, probably to the low-to-mid single digits mentioned above.”

ANZ says recent strength in Australian building approvals data, supporting the view that credit cycles play out differently from rate hike cycles, provides further evidence why RBA rate cuts are not required on this occasion.

“In late 2016, when approvals were falling sharply, there were a number of dire predictions about what that would mean for housing construction and employment. But it has been clear for some time that the downturn in building approvals was shallower than in previous cycles,” it says.

“We think this is because this cycle was not triggered by higher interest rates. Instead, we think a more likely cause was the tightening in credit that began in 2015.”

According to the ABS, Australian building approvals rose by 0.9% to 19,074 in seasonally adjusted terms in October, leaving the increase on a year earlier at 18.4%. Private sector approvals for houses and other dwellings stood at 10,063 and 8,683, up 6.2% and 37.6% respectively from 12 months earlier.

Given the absence of weakness in other areas of the housing market, differing it from periods in the past when interest rates were cut, it helps explain why ANZ and the vast majority of forecasters believe that the next move in the cash rate will be higher, albeit not for many months.