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Economic Update March 2024




Summary


In this month’s update, we provide a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.


Content


In this month’s update, we provide a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.

Key points:


- US inflation ticks up a little but downward trend remains intact, rate cuts further deferred- Australian inflation close to being back in the RBA target range- Australian cost-of-living crisis not yet improving

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 the team.


The Big Picture


Only one month ago, the bond market ascribed a 50% chance to a US Federal Reserve (Fed) interest rate cut in March and an 85% chance of two or more interest rate cuts by June. By the end of February, the chance of a rate cut in March was almost zero while only one cut is still deemed likely by June.


In essence, the market has come back closer to the Fed’s way of thinking as espoused at its December meeting. It now appears that three interest rate cuts in 2024 are more likely, rather than the six or even seven the market had toyed with as late as January this year.


The changes in the market’s expectations are due to updated inflation data and recent Fed commentary. Inflation data are ‘noisy’ (prone to short-term volatility) and are also impacted by such things as changes in the oil price. US Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation data in January and early February were not quite as good (low) as expected but they were not bad or even poor. The Fed’s comments have leant towards their trying to avoid cutting interest rates too soon for fear of a resurgence of inflation that might then force the Fed to revert to a tightening bias from its current neutral or ‘on hold’ stance.


The Fed is important to Australia, not only in terms of the US being a major economic power, but also due to its apparent influence on our central bank, the RBA, which seems likely to wait for the Fed to move before it does. The RBA governor and the committee are new this year and they seem to be still feeling their way a bit.


We see the case for cutting sooner rather than later as being different in the two countries.


The US economic data to date have been much stronger than many had anticipated. Perhaps this is due to savings and government spending (fiscal) policies as having fought against the central bank ‘monetary’ policy in the tightening cycle. However, there are some cracks appearing in the data. US retail sales in value terms only rose by +0.6% over the last 12 months so, with inflation running at +3.1%, inflation-adjusted retail sales (i.e. volume) are going backwards at -2.5% p.a.

US jobs data largely look strong but, as a Bloomberg reporter noted in February, labour market data should be viewed with a ‘dollop’ of salt (rather than the proverbial pinch). Collecting meaningful data is difficult at the best of times. The pandemic has a lot to answer for; the ‘gig’ economy adds new challenges; and the response-rates to data collecting agencies around the world have been tested in recent times.


Here in Australia, massive immigration flows have masked the true state of the economy. When GDP growth is measured in per capita terms, growth in four of the last six quarters has been negative and, even without correcting for population growth, inflation-adjusted retail sales have also been negative in four of the last six quarters. We think that is more than enough evidence to call the Australian economy as, in recession.


On top of the observed aggregate data, we know that mortgage rates have increased rapidly in recent times and any relief from holding fixed-rate mortgages taken during the pandemic has largely dissipated as the ‘mortgage cliff’ rolled over. Contrast the US system that largely depends on mortgagees holding very long-term fixed rates – up to 30 years i.e. the negative cashflow effect of Australian fixed rate borrowers moving from fixed-mortgage rates of circa 2.0% to circa 6.0% as their low fixed-rate terms ended and they began paying the no much higher variable or new fixed rates, did not occur in the US as their mortgages are largely 30-year fixed rate loans.


While the US CPI inflation data released in mid-February was an improvement over the previous month, the data missed market forecasts. The Fed prefers the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) measure because it does not depend on a fixed basket of goods. Rather, the weights in the PCE measure adjust to consumer preferences over time.


The latest PCE inflation read at the end of February was +0.3% for the month of January and +2.4% over the last 12 months. The core variant, that strips out volatile energy and food components, was +0.4% for the month and +2.8% for the year.


The latest wage data in the US, adjusted for inflation ran at +1.4% over the year. While this number might be a little above historical comfort levels, it is necessary for workers to play catch-up in recovering the substantial losses made in the early part of the inflation cycle. We do not see any material evidence for a wage price spiral. Measured inflation expectations in the US have been quite stable at a little above +2%.


Inflation-adjusted wages in Australia have fallen substantially since the onset of the pandemic. However, that fall has since been arrested and there is some evidence of catch-up starting to emerge. If and when inflation falls sustainably back to the 2% to 3% RBA target-band, that does not mean prices return to pre-pandemic levels. Only deflation (negative values of inflation) can restore prices to previous levels or wage increases above inflation for a sustained time are needed to restore cost of living standards.


The latest monthly Australian CPI data for January were released at the end of February. The coverage of this index is around 70% of the quarterly index and that 70% is skewed towards goods rather than services.


The headline rate was +3.4% for the year and +4.1% for the core variant that strips out certain volatile goods like food, energy and vacation travel. We also produce regular in-house measures that better keep track of recent changes in trends. Our latest headline rate was +3.0% and the core was +2.3%. Both were within the RBA target range. We update these estimates every month. Neither variant has been above the target range for the last three, monthly updates.

Australia labour force data posted a second poor monthly reading in a row. Only 500 net new jobs were created following a loss of 65,100 in the prior month. The unemployment rate rose to 4.1% from 3.9%.


Around the world, many countries are suffering relatively poor economic times. Britain and Japan both slipped into recession using the popular ‘two negative quarters of economic growth’ definition. Interestingly, both of their major stock market indexes posted strong gains following these data releases. This type of behaviour underpins our view that our market does not necessarily have to perform poorly if further economic weakness becomes apparent. Markets are based on expectations while most economic data is a view in the rear-vision mirror.


After about a year of Ukraine holding its own against Russia, a lack of decision-making in the US Congress has led to a disruption in military supplies. Probably as a result, a major Ukrainian city fell to Russian forces during February. There has not been much impact of this conflict on economies in the rest of the word. But, without renewed support from the US in particular, that could change.


The Israel-Palestine conflict shows little sign of abating. The human suffering has reportedly been immense. There seems little chance of a resolution any time soon. The Israel GDP fell 20% in the December quarter compared to an expected fall of ‘only’ 10%.


Bond markets have stabilised and Wall Street has powered on following healthy report cards from the AI-chip designer NVIDIA and some others from the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’ mega tech stocks.

The S&P 500 reached record highs in February as did the ASX 200. Even the Nikkei posted an all-time high that had stood since 1989!


The investing outlook will largely depend on how central banks report conditions and prospects, as much the actual data themselves. But conditions can change rapidly. If they do, we expect heightened equity-market volatility but longer-run prospects seem average to above average for investors in the nearer term.


Asset Classes


Australian Equities


The ASX 200 made a new all-time high in February but finished the month almost flat. The performances of the sectors were polarised. Energy, Materials and Telcos all fell more than -5% over the month. Consumer Discretionary gained more than +5% and IT gained nearly +20%!


Companies reporting earnings in February produced a mixed bag of results and, as a result, the broker forecasts collected by LSEG that we analyse show a slight weaking in earnings expectations for the next 12 months. However, that expectation is still just above the historical average.


International Equities The London FTSE was flat in February but all of the other major indexes we follow gained around +4% or more. The S&P 500 was up +5.2%.


A lot of the impetus in Wall Street appears to have come from the big beat of the AI-chip designer, NVIDIA, earnings and prospects. This behaviour gives us some faith in the continuance of the Magnificent Seven rally that started a year ago – although one or two of the ‘seven’ seem to have fallen away from the peloton somewhat.


Our analysis of the LSEG broker forecasts reveal that forward expectations have held up through the US reporting season.


Bonds and Interest Rates


After 1 February Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) meeting, in which rates were kept in hold at 5.25% to 5.5%, Fed Chair, Jerome Powell stated that they were ‘confident inflation is coming down’ but that ‘they are not confident enough to start cutting’ yet.


The CME Fedwatch tool is pricing in about a 2% chance of a 0.25% interest rate cut at the March meeting. There is a modest chance of a rate cut priced in by the May meeting but there is over a 60% chance of a cut at the June meeting of the FOMC. The median expected number of interest rate cuts by the end of the year is three, but four rate cuts have a broadly similar probability.


Official US inflation data have been steadily improving but the gains are sluggish arguably because of the manner in which the shelter component of the price index is calculated. Currently shelter inflation stands at +6% and its weight in the CPI is around one third. Most commentators believe that the true measure for shelter is more like +3%. Therefore, we expect a big correction of 1% point or more in the CPI when the measure catches up with reality.


The RBA kept rates ‘on hold’. In the first media conference in the new RBA board setting, the governor may have embarrassed the board by trying to walk away from the three cuts in 2024 contained in the notes. She said that these three cuts were not forecasts or expectations but ‘assumptions’ as though this was a new category in policy making. It would be illogical to use anything but expectations for assumptions unless the Board wanted to convey outcomes under clearly differentiated assumptions such as base, best case and worst case.


Australian inflation data measured over the trailing 12-months is still above the RBA target range of 2.0% to 3.0% but it is well within that range when a shorter time period is used. We think there is little to no evidence of wage inflation becoming a problem if rates are cut and the data measuring demand point to a struggling economy for the average Australian. However, very strong immigration flows mask the extent of this economic weakness in the aggregate data.

We believe that the RBA will try to wait for the Fed to cut interest rates first before it takes its own corrective action. Therefore, we see the overhang of tight monetary policy causing even further hardship. Market expectations data support no cuts in the near term.


If we are correct in our analysis of the true state of the Australian economy and its likely course in the short-run, the RBA might be forced to do bigger cuts of say 50 bps when it does start easing policy.

Japan’s inflation rate has pulled back sufficiently for some to suggest that it may at last be able to start returning its benchmark rate to above 0% for the first time since 2016!


Other Assets


The price of oil recovered even more ground in February resulting in Brent ending the month at $US84 per barrel (Brent Crude price). This level is far from the $US95 that caused such problems with our inflation at the end of the September quarter. That oil price spike was caused by the onset of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The price of iron ore again fell around 10% but, at $US117 per tonne, it is still well above the $US100 level that it came close to in the second half of 2023.


The prices of copper and gold were largely flat over February.


The Australian dollar – against the US dollar – depreciated by -0.8%.


Regional Review


Australia


Australian retail sales (in volume terms) rose +0.3% in the December quarter and fell -1.0% over 2023. Volume sales fell in four of the last six quarters. When population growth is taken into account, sales volumes fell by around -3.5% in 2023. This measure emphasises the extent of the very real cost-of-living crisis.


With the latest household savings ratio at 1.1% (compared to around 4% to 6% in normal times), growth for the December quarter – to be released in the first week of March – will slow appreciably from the +0.2% for the September quarter (+2.1% for the year) – or households will have been forced into no saving – or even dis-saving. A rate cut by the RBA, if passed on to mortgage holders would alleviate some of this burden in future quarters.

The labour force data were again very weak. Only 500 jobs were created in January but there was a switch of around 10,000 jobs from part-time to full-time. We previously reported that data for December were particularly grim but we attributed some of that apparent weakness to inappropriate statistical procedures designed to remove predictable seasonal patterns.


The unemployment rate is less susceptible to these adjustments as it is the ratio of two quantities, so adjusted. The latest unemployment rate is 4.1%, up from 3.9% the month before and 3.5% in June 2023. That makes the average unemployment rate equal to 4.0% for the last three months which is 0.5% above the low over the previous 12 months. A gap of that size is the basis of the Sahm-rule (named after the Fed member who devised the indicator) to predict a forthcoming recession.


The wage price index came in at +4.2% growth for 2023 which is above the +3.1% CPI inflation index over the same period. This 1.1% premium does not show wage demand is problematic. On average, wage growth should exceed price growth as workers are rewarded for productivity gains.

The current inflation-adjusted wage (or real wage) is 7% below its mid-2020 level. Workers are only able to buy 7% less in volume terms and there is the cumulative impact of this real wage-cut over time.


China 


China’s economic data continue to be weak but not so much as to jeopardise our exports of iron ore and other commodities from Australia. The latest official Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for manufacturing was a slight beat at 49.1 but below the 50-level that separates contraction from expansion in expectations.


China did move in February to cut a key interest rate and it seems to be pursuing an expansionary policy, albeit more slowly and carefully than in recent times.


China must deal with the problems of debt levels in its property sector while only stimulating the non-property sectors.


US


US CPI headline inflation came in at +0.3% for January against an expected +0.2% and +3.1% for the year against an expected +2.9%. Core inflation was +0.4% for the month against an expected 0.3% and 3.9% for the year against an expected 3.7%. The actual data were quite good compared to recent history but economists had reduced their forecasts quite sharply. Thus, the outcomes were considered poor (higher inflation being bad) and the chance of an interest rate cut was deferred further.


Our rolling quarterly estimates (annualised) were +2.8% p.a. and +4.0% p.a. for the headline and core CPI variants, respectively. Both were higher than in the prior month.


However, the real issue is how the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) calculates a key component – shelter. Bloomberg reported that the BLS sent out an email to some clients about the problems with this component and then retracted it causing ‘confusion’. It has been suggested that this data problem might take five months to work through the system.

The Fed’s preferred PCE inflation data painted an even better picture. The monthly headline rate was +0.3% while for the year it was +2.4%. It’s getting very close to the target 2%! The core monthly read was +0.4% and for the year it was +2.8%. Given the problems we are experiencing with the shelter component of the CPI data, we are relying more heavily on the PCE measure at this time in our analysis.


US jobs grew by an unexpected and very large 353,000 in January. The expected range was 120,000 to 300,000 showing the high degree of uncertainty in the labour market data. Past data were also revised sharply. The unemployment rate remains at a healthy level of 3.7%.


Retail sales came in at -0.8% for January (expected -0.3%) following a revised +0.4% for December. The annual figure was +0.6% which was well below inflation at +3.1%. In real terms, the consumer is not as strong as some would have us believe.


The December quarter GDP estimate was revised down slightly from +3.3% to +3.2%.


Europe


Rest of the World


Israel’s December quarter GDP growth plunged by -20% compared to an expected fall of -10%. With so many Israelis mobilised to enter the conflict in Gaza, it might take some time for the situation to get back to normal in both a human and an economic sense.


Russia has taken advantage of a disruption in US aid to take over a large Ukrainian city in their ongoing conflict.

Japan entered a ‘technical recession’ but there seem to be two favourable outcomes. Inflation has dropped leading to a possible return to normal monetary policy settings (rather than the -0.1% base rate that has been in place since 2016). Secondly, after 35 years, the Nikkei share price index reached a new all-time high.

We acknowledge the significant contribution of Dr Ron Bewley and Woodhall Investment Research Pty Ltd in the preparation of this report.

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