The Experts

David Bassanese
+ About David Bassanese

David Bassanese is one of Australia’s leading economic and financial market analysts, who has authored several investment books and works in a number of advisory roles.

David is Chief Economist at BetaShares, which involves providing economic and investment portfolio advice to both retail and institutional investors. David is also an economic advisor to the National Institute for Economic and Industry Research.

Prior to these roles, David was Economics Commentator with The Australian Financial Review, where is regular “Bassanese” column appeared three times per week, as well as monthly in Smart Investor Magazine.

David’s analysis and commentaries cover local and international economic trends, interest rates, the exchange rate, and share market analysis.

Prior to becoming a Fairfax business columnist in 2003, David spent several years in financial markets as a senior economist and interest rate strategist at Bankers Trust and Macquarie Bank. David started his career at the Federal Treasury in Canberra, after which he spent several years as a research economist at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France.

David has authored two e-books: The Australian ETF Guide: cheap and easy investment strategies using exchange traded funds (ETFs), and The Australian Investor’s Guide to Asset Allocation.

David has a first class honours degree in Economics from the University of Adelaide, and a Master in Public Policy from the J.F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Fear not over-indebted households - there's safety in numbers

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

By David Bassanese

Fear not over-indebted Australian households – having debt has its problems, but also its advantages.  

Rightly or wrongly, Australian households are finding this out right now given the Reserve Bank’s caution about lifting interest rates anytime soon.  

There’s safety in numbers - big numbers. 

Indeed, it was John Paul Getty who once quipped that if you owe the bank a $100 that’s your problem, but if you owe the bank $100 million then it’s the bank’s problem. 

Famed Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond lived by the same motto, figuring he had great bargaining power over the banks given he tended to owe them a lot of money. And even the great Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan were granted protection during the global financial crisis, because the sheer size of their operations and debt levels meant they were simply too big to fail.

In this sense, the Australian household sector is also too big to fail – and the RBA knows it. 

Indeed, consumer spending accounts for around 50 to 60% of economic growth and so were households to suddenly decide to close their wallets and focus on paying down debt it would send the economy into a spin, and make paying down those debts all the harder.

Thanks to low interest rates and the current housing boom across the east coast of Australia, the ratio of household-debt-to-disposable income has ratcheted up since 2012 from around 170% to 190%. By global standards, this ratio is relatively high – at least compared to larger economies such as the United States, Germany and Japan. But it’s not too far out of line with debt levels in Canada, New Zealand and several Scandinavian countries.  

Either way, the debt load - along with weak growth in wages and perceived employment vulnerability - has left consumers with new found caution. Consumer confidence remains decidedly less upbeat than business confidence and overall household spending in the past year or so has been patchy. 

The good news for indebted households – though not for those reliant on interest income – is that their debt vulnerability has not gone unnoticed at the RBA. 

In the minutes to its July policy meeting released this week, for example, the RBA Board noted that “the high level of debt on household balance sheets raised the possibility that consumption growth could be lower than forecast”. What’s more, it was also noted that “the need to balance the risks associated with high household debt in a low-inflation environment” was also influencing the Bank’s decision to leave interest rates on hold – even though a range of economic indicators had improved of late.

It’s been this vulnerability that has also encouraged the RBA – along with the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) - to introduce a new range of so-called “macro-prudential” controls to better target the problem areas of speculative property borrowing without hurting everyone with a mortgage. The net effect has been that interest rates faced by property investors, and especially the vast bulk of those with interest-only loans, have increased by around 40 basis points so far this year – almost two full RBA rate rises. Meanwhile, the mortgage rate for existing owner occupiers with traditional principal and interest loans have hardly changed. 

Although the housing markets in both Sydney and Melbourne remain hotter than officials ideally desire, it’s fair to say the introduction of better targeted policy measures has been a welcome innovation and has left policy-makers with far greater flexibility to manage both inflation and financial stability.

Accordingly, until such time as inflation rises more strongly and/or the economy gets a greater head of steam, don’t expect the RBA to use the blunt instrument of official interest rates changes to tackle lingering strength in our hot Sydney and Melbourne property markets. If push comes to shove, it seems more likely that APRA will impose even tough restrictions on investor lending, possibly even quarantined to activity in our hottest cities.   

As I said earlier, many households have high levels of debt – but there’s safety in numbers. 

| More


Should we consider more drastic measures for a lower dollar?

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

By David Bassanese

The bad news for the Australian economy and local corporate earnings is that the Australian dollar remains strong - even though the Reserve Bank has done what it can to douse speculation that it was contemplating a hike in interest rates sometime soon.

That may mean we might need to eventually consider more drastic measures to keep the $A competitive – such as some form of tax on hot money flows into the country. After all, we have already party re-regulated the financial sector through new “macro-prudential” controls, which have given policy makers extra flexibility to manage the housing sector without resorting to across-the-board interest rates changes. Some new tools might also be needed to deal with the $A.

As I predicted in my last Switzer Daily column, both Deputy RBA Governor Guy Debelle and Governor Phil Lowe went out of their way in recent weeks to explain that recent references to the “neutral” RBA cash rate now being around 3.5% were not meant to indicate the RBA thought rates remained too low (at 1.5%) and needed to be lifted quickly.  

Near-term rate hike expectations have eased accordingly. Yet, the Australian dollar remains stubbornly close to US80c. As the RBA noted in its post-meeting statement this week, however, a large factor behind the $A’s apparent strength is broad-based weakness in the US dollar. Since the start of the year, for example, the $A is up around 10% against the US dollar, but it’s down slightly against the Euro and up only 5% against the Japanese yen.

The US dollar globally remains unloved – due to both diminished hopes of US fiscal stimulus from the increasingly dysfunctional Trump Presidency, but also because expectations of monetary tightening in other economies (notably Europe, but not Japan) have lifted relative to those in the United States.

All this leaves the RBA in a desperate bind. It can’t cut interest rates to help lower the $A as this would only add fuel to the speculative fire still heating up Sydney and Melbourne house prices. And it is now even less likely to consider a “shot across the bows” lift in rates to prick the bubble in speculative sentiment in these hot markets, lest this send the $A catapulting even higher and crush business confidence in the process. 

Policy makers are tackling these twin problems through other instruments. Macro-prudential controls – such as demanding banks cut back on home lending – are trying to dampen hot house prices, and APRA may need to do more in the weeks ahead if there’s not greater evidence of a cooling in the property mania.

As for the $A, the only other instrument available at this stage is RBA “jawboning.” In its policy statement this week, the RBA did acknowledge that a higher Australian dollar posed downside risks to the economy, but the jawboning was not particularly strong, which does seem a little surprising and disappointing.

That said, I also sense the RBA is cautious about trying to jawbone too much, as it fears this might have only a temporary effect, if any at all. Failed jawboning might expose that the Emperor has few clothes. 

Complicating matters further, to a degree a somewhat firmer $A also seems justified, given the continued strength in iron ore prices – which in part, seems fundamentally based given the ongoing strength in Chinese steel production, but also part speculative as iron ore futures have become a plaything for Chinese retail investors.  However, the relative contribution of fundamentals and speculation to short-term moves in the iron ore price is difficult to untangle, which also makes it unclear how much of the $A’s broad strength seems justified and is likely to last.

What to do? We can hope that the US dollar begins to strengthen again – and that is certainly possible if US inflation does rebound and the Fed reaffirms its tightening bias. Who knows, even Donald Trump might finally focus on tax cuts and infrastructure spending and succeed in getting a fiscal stimulus package through the Congress (but I won’t hold my breath). Iron ore prices might also fall back if China eases back on stimulus and/or speculative fervour wanes.

But a growing risk is that the $A could remain uncomfortably high for a while – especially if the Fed goes soft on raising US rates.  

How concerned the RBA becomes will ultimately depend what effect this begins to have on the economy – in particular, whether it leads to a collapse in the currently high levels of business sentiment. 

If all this comes to pass, it’ll mean Australia is once again on the losing end of the global currency wars. If a hot housing market stops us from cutting rates to deal with the strong $A, that may mean other instruments might need to be considered.  

It’s a possibly radical thought – but so was re-imposition of bank lending restrictions only a few years ago.   

| More


Is the soaring Aussie dollar just an overreaction to recent events?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

By David Bassanese

The Australian dollar is a sell at current levels, and currency-unhedged global stocks are now even more enticing for local investors. 

A few factors have conspired over the past week to push the Australian dollar to the top end of its multi-year range. Indeed, the $A now looks tantalisingly close to touching US80c, and economists – as usual in times of market excitement - are outbidding each other to predict just how far can it go. 

But to my mind, the $A’s move seems an overreaction to recent events and traders are also underplaying how dismayed the Reserve Bank is likely to be over its recent strength – making it even less likely it will hike local interest rates anytime soon. 

The first overreaction seems to have been to recent commentary from the US Federal Reserve chair, Janet Yellen. In her testimony last week, she suggested that America’s so called “neutral” interest rate is “currently quite low by historical standards” and so “the federal funds rate would not have to rise all that much further to get to a neutral stance”. The neutral rate is usually defined as that which would neither overly stimulate, or hurt the economy.  

That said, Yellen also indicated that she expected the neutral rate to rise in coming years as the economy improved, meaning “additional gradual rate hikes are likely to be appropriate over the next few years.” In other words, the neutral rate – at least on this definition - is not fixed in stone and can move in line with developments in the economy. Indeed, the Fed’s medium-term fed funds projections still has it settling at around 3% over the next few years, compared with only around 1 to 1.25% today.

Frankly, Yellen’s decision to discuss the neutral rate in this way was clumsy and seems to have more confused than informed the market. 

What also excited the market, however, was Yellen’s acknowledgement that inflation has surprised on the downside in recent months, and hint that if this persisted – which she does not expect - it could affect the Fed’s desire to lift interest rates going forward. 

This is a potentially more serious threat to the outlook for higher US interest rates – as there is indeed a good chance, I think, that US inflation will hold stubbornly below the Fed’s preferred 2% target. History alone suggests as much. 

But the risk for the Fed, in this case, will be a potentially explosive further upward move in equity prices and decline in bond yields – which would create the risk of creating destabilising financial bubbles down the track. I think provided the economy keeps churning out good employment growth – as I expect - the Fed will still be of a view to continue tightening gradually, even if US consumer price inflation hovers somewhere between 1.5% and 2%. 

That means a rate hike in December still seems more likely than not, and moves to start running down the Fed’s huge accumulated bond holdings by September.

Meanwhile, adding to the local confusion were the minutes from the Reserve Bank’s June policy meeting released yesterday. In the minutes, the RBA felt the need to discuss our own neutral interest rate, and suggested it was now somewhat lower than before the financial crisis – around 3% rather than 5%. One interpretation of this statement would have been – as alluded to in America by Yellen – is that interest rates don’t need to rise as much to get to neutral. But the local market took instead took this as a hint that the RBA was keen to raise rates as they were still well below neutral. Again, I think this an overreaction. 

What’s more, I’d note that the RBA’s June policy meeting – to which the minutes referred – came before Yellen’s dovish speech last week and the strong bounce in the $A. I think the RBA would be even more reticent to hint at higher local interest rates now, and I suspect it might reveal a more dovish tone in important speeches by Deputy Governor Debelle on Friday and Governor Lowe next week.

All that said, if the Fed does decide to go on hold due to persistently low inflation, it’s very hard to see the RBA hiking rates anytime soon – and it could still cut rates – given the obvious upward pressures on the $A otherwise.

All that points in the direction of the $A holding its recent range, even if the Fed turns a lot more dovish. The same can’t be said for equities or bond yields, however, which would both shoot up and down respectively.   

| More


Don’t expect RBA to join policy tightening bandwagon

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Reserve Bank of Australia this week pointedly refused to join the chorus of other central banks who have decided over the past week or so to flag the possibility of policy tightening later this year. The RBA’s refusal to join the hawkish bandwagon was a surprise to many market traders – so much so that the $A dropped and bond yields fell following the RBA’s post-meeting policy statement.

Yet the RBA’s reluctance to follow the new global trend should be no surprise. After all, the shift in global growth dynamism in recent years – from China’s smoke stack industries to America’s Silicon Valley - is not overly conducive to Australia’s growth prospects. Iron-ore prices have seen their best days, and the growth of America’s tech giants is more a threat than saviour of Australia’s ailing media and retail stocks – not to mention their landlords in the listed property sector.

Australian economic growth and corporate earnings are likely to underperform global peers for some time. Accordingly, the RBA should and likely will lag the moves of other central banks – not only in the United States but also the United Kingdom, Canada and even Europe – to withdraw the emergency levels of policy stimulus that have more or less been in place in their economies since the financial crisis almost a decade ago. 

The great hope of the RBA is that the gradual re-normalisation of monetary policy settings in other parts of the world will help (finally) drag down the $A to more competitive levels. As I’ve long argued, with the mining boom over and the housing construction boom reaching a peak, only a notably weaker $A – barring major new fiscal stimulus from either the Federal or State Governments – will provide the next leg of growth impetus that the economy will desperately need over the next year or two. 

Indeed, the RBA suddenly appears a little less bullish on the economic outlook than it seemed only a month ago. In the past two post-meeting policy statements, the RBA clung to its confident prediction that economic growth would accelerate to “a little above 3%” over the next couple of years.  That confidence went missing in action in this week’s statement following the July policy meeting. The only comment the RBA could muster was that the economy “is expected to strengthen gradually”. 

What’s changed? I suspect the RBA is becoming a little less confident that wages growth is likely to pick up anytime soon – despite recent declines in the unemployment rate and reasonable job gains. Indeed, the international evidence increasingly suggests that wage growth is failing to accelerate in either the United States, Europe or Japan despite apparent growing labour market tightness. Concern over wages is apparent from the fact RBA Governor Phil Lowe, in a recent speech, amazingly seemed to cajole workers into exercising their apparent enhanced bargaining power and demand more from their employers.

Of course, the RBA’s concern is not with wage growth per se, but rather the risks that continued weak household incomes pose to consumer spending – which still accounts for just over half of all economic growth in the country. The weakness in consumer spending over the past two quarters has likely already undermined the RBA’s bullish growth expectations for this year, though there has been a feisty rebound in monthly retail sales (which are notoriously volatile) over the past couple of months. 

What’s more, the longer wages growth stay low, the more likely that inflation expectations will ratchet down (from around 2 to 2.5% to something less), which in turn will make it all the more harder for the RBA to achieve its 2 to 3% inflation target over the medium term.

All up, don’t expect the RBA to join the bandwagon of other central bank’s that are now trying to prepare their own financial markets for an eventual tightening in policy over the next six months or so. Although our official interest rates are at below-average levels, they remain ridiculously low in many other parts of the world – especially in Europe and Japan. What’s more, many other centrals banks took it upon themselves to buy up billions in their own government’s debt so as to force down bond yields also. 

Policy re-normalisation is much more pressing in these countries now that economic growth has improved and deflation fears have passed almost a decade on from the financial crisis. 

| More


Is Moody's bank downgrade cause for shock and alarm?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

By David Bassanese

Just when investors thought it was safe to wade back into the banks, Moody’s this week saw fit to act on its lingering “negative credit watch” and marginally downgrade their long-term bank credit ratings.

To be specific, Moody’s dropped the banks' long-term rating a notch from Aa2 to Aa3. Is this a cause for shock and alarm? 

Not really, in my view. Australia’s major banks remain among the most profitable and well-capitalised on the planet, and – thanks to the recent bank levy – are now more explicitly than ever protected by an effective government guarantee against insolvency.  

In fact, since the financial crisis, banks have increased their capital buffers and reduced their reliance on short-term offshore funding – so much so that their return on equity has accordingly taken a modest hit.

What’s more, Moody’s action only appears to have brought their bank ratings more into line with other credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor's and Fitch, which cut bank ratings some time ago.

And reading through Moody’s statement, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. While concerned about recent strong house prices gains in Sydney and Melbourne, Moody’s shares my assessment that a “sharp housing downturn” remains unlikely. It also notes that – at current interest rates at least - mortgage affordability remains good for most borrowers.

The banks effectively face guilt by association. Moody’s is red-hot on concerns about high household debt, weak incomes growth, and the risk of a major decline in consumer spending reverberating through the economy if interest rates were required to rise quickly and/or the unemployment rate leapt higher. In a sense, high household debt has increased the vulnerability of the household sector – and by consequence the economy – to unexpected shocks.

That said, while we should never discount the risk of a serious shock sending consumer spending south, it’s still hard to envisage a scenario which would generate such a worst-case scenario. After all, with inflation and incomes growth so weak – both here and globally – the risk of rapid interest rates increases remains remote. And any negative demand shock to the economy would likely be quickly met by sharply lower interest rates and a bigger fiscal boost from the Federal Government.

Let’s also not forgot that the vast bulk of household debt is still held by older and higher-income households that seem most able to pay it back. And, a big chunk of the debt reflects investment properties, which remains an important investment vehicle of choice for many households thanks to the quirks of the tax system.

Of course, it’s true that household debt as a share of household income has ratcheted higher in recent years – after having levelled out at around 170% for a while following the last greater property boom earlier last decade. However, it’s also true that interest rates have dropped to historically low levels, such that debt servicing costs still remains well below previous peaks.

When interest rates eventually rise again, this higher level of debt will be reflected in a rise in debt servicing costs. But all else constant, that only means the RBA will not likely need to raise interest rates by as much during the next cycle to get a desired slowing in consumer spending. Indeed, due to lower inflation and weaker trend economic growth, it seems likely that interest rates in coming years will average somewhat less than what they averaged prior to the financial crisis.

Somewhat perversely, banks are now being criticised for having increased their exposure to home lending in recent years, precisely because the regulator’s capital rules construed this as a less risky form of activity compared to say corporate lending or financial market trading. 

For good or bad, compared to their global peers, our banks now have relatively simple business models based on home lending funded largely by local deposits. As we don’t really have a housing bubble waiting to burst, banks still seem well equipped to deal with the next evitable down leg in the cycle. 

| More


Can America's economic expansion continue?

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

By David Bassanese

For America’s economic expansion – and hence the global bull market in stocks – to continue, the world’s leading economy will sooner or later need to produce something that has eluded it since the financial crisis: decent productivity growth on the back of labour-saving business investment.

The good news is that, given America’s ingenuity, I suspect this will be a natural outcome of growing labour shortages, which will give the expansion a second wind without overly stoking inflation.  

The bad news is that it could also mean the next equity market bust, when it comes, could reflect a valuation bubble. 

So far at least, America’s long economic expansion has been top heavy, with jobs growth rather than productivity growth – such that the unemployment rate has now dropped to a very low 4.3%.  

Non-farm business sector: Real output per hour of all persons 


Judging by business surveys, however, labour shortages across the economy are intensifying. Indeed, some of the slowing in employment growth in recent months likely reflects growing labour scarcity. Ordinarily, labour market tightness should result in higher wage growth – and hence higher inflation – which causes the Federal Reserve to more aggressively jack up interest rates and bring the economic expansion and Wall Street’s bull market to a shuddering halt. 

That might still be an outcome – but there’s little evidence of it yet. Indeed, last week’s May payrolls report revealed that average hourly earnings remained fairly benign, with annual growth steady at only around 2.5%. Due to the lack of pricing power it seems, few companies are able to attract the workers they need simply by jacking up wage rates.  

Another scenario is that America’s expansion simply exhausts itself – a victim of its own success. Unable to raises prices to pay higher wages and attract needed workers, corporate America’s might simply lower their ambitions. Given low US productivity growth and population ageing, only around 100,000 jobs a month going forward would be needed to keep the unemployment rate steady. That would represent a marked slowing in the pace of employment growth compared to what has been enjoyed in recent years, and could risk continued gains in corporate profits. And, given the way multipliers work through an economy, a modest scaling back in ambitions could result in a more serious slowdown. 

Neither rising inflation nor reduced corporate ambitions are desirable – and thankfully I don’t think likely outcomes. Given global competition and new technologies, it is hard to see corporate pricing power rise to an extent that America develops a serious wage and price inflation problem. But nor do I think American business will simply roll over and close up shop. Rather, given necessity is usually the mother of invention, it would not surprise me to see more labour-saving productive investment and/or “re-engineering” of business processes.  

Indeed, there are some suggestions that recent persistent low inflation and weak productivity growth already reflect such labour saving innovations in the services sector – only our old fashioned manufacturing-based means of measuring economic growth can’t properly capture it. If so, it could be that a further step-up in business labour saving innovation in fact results in lower inflation – which effectively continues to support economic growth by boosting the real incomes of workers. 

In Japan, for example, inflation remains very low even though the economy has been running ahead of potential and the unemployment rate is also very low. As for the Bank of Japan, such a development in the United States would leave the Fed in a quandary over whether to continue lifting interest rates or not. 

All up, either way America’s long economic expansion will end at some stage. It is said that expansions (and equity bull markets) rarely die of old age – rather higher inflation or a bursting asset bubble close the party down. Absent a decent rise in inflation, I suspect it will be an eventual asset bubble, likely in the tech sector again and helped by central banks wrongly fighting productivity-induced low inflation - that leads to the next global bust.  

The party could again eventually end in tears, but there seems a little more dancing to be had before then.

| More


Downbeat consumers are the main economic risk

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

By David Bassanese

It seems not a day goes by these days without another alarmist headline in our major financial press warning of a Sydney or Melbourne house price collapse and the possible threat to the financial stability of the banking sector.

To my mind, however, the main risk to the Australian economy at present is not the direct threat to house prices or the banks, but rather, what these ongoing warnings are doing to the psyche of Australian consumers.

As it stands, measures of consumer confidence have already taken a tumble in recent months. The Westpac/Melbourne Institute index of consumer confidence dropped 1.1% in May, to be at a below average level, as consumers seemed to find little to cheer about in the Federal Budget.

That’s despite the big spending promises of Treasurer Scott Morrison with regard to health, education and infrastructure. If confirmed in the June confidence report, the lack of a budget bounce will be a big disappointment to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Source: Westpac Economics, Melbourne Institute

Why are consumers so downbeat? You only need to look at their expectations with regard to the housing sector. According to the Westpac report, the ‘time to buy a dwelling” index slumped by 6.5% in May, to be at its lowest point since 2008 - when house prices were already weak and the Reserve Bank was pushing up interest rates prior to the financial crisis.

Ominously, for both the RBA’s and the Government's bullish forecasts for economic growth this year, retail sales have slowed to a crawl. Sales dropped 0.1% in March after a 0.2% decline in February. Annual growth is barely beating inflation, and is at its weakness pace in four years.

Not only are several high profile global hedge funds still banging the drum insisting local house prices are grossly overvalued and the banks are financially vulnerable, we got local analysts and headline seeking media outlets jumping on the bandwagon.  

Against this background, we’ve also already got banks raising mortgage rates without the RBA lifting a finger, and being cajoled by APRA to effectively cut back investor lending. The latest Federal Budget also cut back some important investor housing depreciation tax incentives and tightened up on foreign property purchases.  

All up, there is a lot of pressure being brought to bear on the housing market, and I’d be surprised if we don’t see a deeper cracks appearing in the strong markets of Sydney and Melbourne sometime soon.

Of course, a timely moderation in these hot markets is welcome. But I fear we may be imposing too many country-wide constraints too quickly in what is still a largely State-level problem.  

What’s more, I continue to maintain fears of a major housing crash in such a supply-constrained and booming city such as Sydney – much less the rest of the country - are way overblown. And while there are no doubt pockets of mortgage stress scattered across the country, barring a major surge in inflation, interest rates and unemployment (i.e. a 1970s style stagflationary environment), any likely rise in mortgage defaults won’t be material enough to give our major banks anything other than a glancing blow.   

Meanwhile, the greater concern is the toll all this unrelenting outpouring of dire warnings will have on the most important sector of the economy – namely household spending. Given weak income growth and high unemployment, households are already under a lot of pressure – and we’re at risk of adding yet another straw to an already vulnerable back.

In this regard, it’s worth recalling what RBA Governor, Phil Lowe, indicated in a recent speech. According to Lowe, “traditional financial stability concern[s]” regarding the banks “is not what lies behind the Reserve Bank's recent focus on household debt and housing prices in Australia.”

Rather, “the issue we have focused on is the possibility of future sharp cuts in household spending because of stretched balance sheets.”  

Ironically, that has left the RBA a delicate balancing act. One the one hand, it has tried to warn households not to ramp up debt a lot further out of fear of weaker consumer spending later. But in doing so – together with the unrelenting barrage of negativity from other quarters -  the RBA increasingly faces the risk of bringing on the severe curtailment of consumer spending that it was trying to avoid in the first place.

We are at risk of talking ourselves into a more serious than required downturn.

| More


Forget the rhetoric - how does the Budget fare on policy?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

By David Bassanese

At face value, the latest Turnbull Federal Budget represents a breathtakingly shameless shift in political principal – toward the centre - in a bid by the Prime Minister to finally call the bluff of right-wing rivals in his own party and co-opt the policies of his left-wing rivals over in the Labor Opposition.

After all, having once declared Australia did not have a revenue problem, Treasurer Scott Morrison has now announced new tax measures amounting to $20 billion over the four-year forward estimates.

He has also embraced the big spending packages in health and education it once derided and Labor had championed.

So much for the politics, but what about the public policy merits of the Budget? To my mind, they are not that bad, though the idealist in me would have preferred a more fairer and efficient targeting of the extra money being thrown into health and education.  

Cutting through all the rhetoric, however, it’s worth noting there was effectively no new net recurrent spending announced in the Budget. The Government has effectively raised $20 billion in new taxes over the next four years – through the higher Medicare levy and the new slug on banks – plus gained a fortuitous $8 billion reduction in net-spending over this period due to “parameter changes” such as through lower-than-expected spending on disability payments and private health insurance rebates. 

This $28 billion in turn, has allowed the Government to effectively give up on expecting the extra net $14 billion in “zombie” saving measures long stalled in the Senate, plus reduce expected Budget deficits over the next four years by $11 billion – even while also having to reduce expected revenues by $3 billion due to an expected shift in the composition of national income growth from more highly taxed wage income to lower taxed mining sector profits.  

Seen this way, all the new spending on health and education is fully funded by cuts elsewhere – such as slugging universities, reduced family tax benefits and (of course) yet another purge of alleged welfare cheats. Note also, seen in this way, it’s simply not true the increase in the Medicare levy is being used to fully fund the NDIS – as should be apparent from the fact the Budget was still projected to return to surplus with the NDIS even before this Budget.

Contrary to some wild claims, moreover, it’s also not true the Budget is puffed up by wildly optimistic forecasts. The Government’s growth forecasts are not materially different from those in the mid-year review last December, and in fact, a touch conservative compared to those released by the Reserve Bank last week. As for the “technical assumption” of above-trend growth in the following 5-year projection period – so as to reduce lingering spare capacity in the labour market – this has been assumed for several Budget rounds now. That’s as good a guess as any and is nothing new. 

All up, the net improvement in the Budget outlook - despite some new spending and conservative economic forecasts - suggests the AAA credit rating should not be put at risk. 

As for specific recurrent measures, I’d regard the housing affordability package as useful at the margin (such as encouraging the supply of cheaper rental properties) - but most other token measures - such as small saving incentives for first home buyers - won’t materially affect housing costs either way for most Australians. 

Last but not least is the Government’s extra $14 billion for new infrastructure projects over the next few years – such as the second Sydney airport and Brisbane-Melbourne Inland rail line - and its new focus on distinguishing capital versus recurrent spending. As I’ve long advocated such an approach, there are few complaints from me, especially if it allows the Government to take a more creative and pro-active approach in getting worthwhile infrastructure projects off the ground.

Through various means, the Government is now helping to generate around $75 billion in road and rail projects over the next decade, and is responsible for around $50 billion in capital spending at the State and Federal level next financial year.  

Indeed, with the mining boom over and the housing boom soon to end, public infrastructure might be an important growth support in the next few years, especially if the Australian dollar remains uncomfortably high. Of course, the usual provisos apply – in that we can only hope these projects pass rigorous cost-benefit tests and are not just directed at marginal electorates. 

| More


Australia has 3 distinct housing challenges

Thursday, April 27, 2017

By David Bassanese

A lot has been written about the Australian property market in recent months, but depending on where you live, the headlines are likely to have been entirely different. Indeed, Australia has in fact three distinct housing challenges in different parts of the country and no single policy instrument – from changes to interest rates or taxation policies – can hope to fix them all.

The good news for Australian investors in general, however, is that the disparate challenges facing the housing sector are, in some senses, offsetting – some states are very weak, while others are very strong. Collectively, that means the national housing sector is neither an overheated bubble destined to crash, or is already so cyclically depressed it is undercutting employment growth and household wealth.  

In further good news - for investors in bank stocks at least - the challenges in the housing sector, while tough for certain regions and households, don’t appear to pose undue financial stability risks for our major banks due to their high regional diversification.

So what are these problems, and why are banks so well placed?

1. Post-mining boom cyclical correction

The first and earliest problem is the deep post-mining boom cyclical correction being felt in our once booming mining regions, especially in cities such as Perth. Both house and apartment prices in Perth got ridiculously expensive during the boom and also led to a building glut. The consequence is now falling property prices and abandoned projects.  

Sadly, the solution for Perth is straight forward – the market just needs to continue doing its job of clearing excess supply and inflated prices though price cuts and the mothballing of more late-to-the-party construction projects. The high debt position of vulnerable households and investors facing either unemployment and/or negative home equity is also being resolved – through foreclosures and some increase in bank loan write-offs. If there’s any good news in Perth, it’s that – according to the minutes of the latest Reserve Bank policy meeting, “there were signs that [Perth property] prices may be stabilising.” 

2. Hot property markets: Sydney and Melbourne

At the opposite end of the cyclical spectrum are the hot property markets of Sydney and Melbourne – which have been the main beneficiaries of the post-mining boom re-direction of national economy activity. Whether we have yet reached a bubble psychology among property buyers in these cities is still debatable – especially as measure of home loan affordability, thanks to low interest rates, remains far from extreme. 

Either way, the gradual tightening in lending standards and higher interest rates faced by investors and those seeking interest-only loans could well start to correct buyer enthusiasm in these cities in the coming months. If not, regulators may well need to consider more regionally-specific buyer restraints (as tested in New Zealand and Canada) which is a better targeted response than a nation-wide lift in interest rates or a crack down on negative gearing.

3. Inner-city high rise apartment developments

The third issue is the surge in inner-city high rise apartment development in Melbourne, and to a greater degree, Brisbane. Brisbane apartment prices have already started to fall and declines may well be ahead for Melbourne as an influx of new supply hits the market. Helping Melbourne at least, however, is that population growth has been relatively strong and rental vacancy rates remains quite low. Either way, as in Perth, the market will likely deal with these supply excesses though price declines, some foreclosures, and mothballed developments. That said, RBA analysis suggests only around 2% of outstanding bank housing loans cover the inner-city Melbourne and Brisbane markets - so barring a huge spike in default rates, bank losses are likely to be relatively well contained.

As for the hysteria over national household debt in general, it’s also worth noting (based admittedly old 2014 data) around 75% of households had a debt-to-income ratio of less than 200%, with 30% of households having no household debt whatsoever. And most of the nation’s highly indebted households tend to have the highest level of income and wealth. 

All up, the regionally diverse nature of Australia’s housing challenges, and the regionally diversified operations of our major banks, suggest a major national housing boom or bust – or systemic risk to our banks - is likely to be avoided for the foreseeable future. Of course, that’s not to deny certain region and certain households won’t face challenges – for which more targeted policy responses are required. 

| More


How will the Budget tackle housing affordability?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

By David Bassanese

Under pressure to be seen to be doing something, it now seems likely that the upcoming Federal Budget will contain a detailed range of measures to deal with Australia’s alleged “housing affordability crisis”.

Of course, not wanting to be seen to follow Labor Party policy, Treasurer Scott Morrison will likely eschew significant changes to the capital gains tax regime or negative gearing.

To my mind, that’s just as well - as I seriously doubt these long entrenched tax measures have contributed much to the escalation in prices in the hot markets of Sydney and Melbourne in the past few years.

If tax and investors were the only problem, property prices would be taking off across the country – and they clearly aren’t.

That said, that’s not to deny the fact that there are some simmering problems in the housing sector. But in dealing with these problems, we need to ensure we don’t make matters worse rather than better. 

The first rule of public policy should be: do no harm.

In that regard, as most sensible economists have been quick to point out, anything that merely enables households – especially budding first home buyers – to simply bid more at property auctions is a cruel con on those that the Federal Government purports it most wants to help. In supply-constrained markets such as Sydney especially, all demand side subsidies would do is enslave buyers within even larger debts at the expense of the lucky pre-existing owners that would sell into an even stronger market. 

For Scott Morrison, one clear test will be whether he avoids the temptation to allow first home buyers to dip into their superannuation to save a deposit on a home.

Although some on this backbench are clamouring for such a policy, it is simply horribly flawed in design - and opens up a potential pandora’s box of politically popular pet projects that we could next waste superannuation on. 

If the Government truly wants to tinker with superannuation in the name of housing affordability, a far better policy would be to reconsider the ability of self managed super funds to borrow with abandon and splash out on investment properties.

The newly installed loophole over recent years that has allowed SMSFs to borrow to fund property acquisitions – providing the loans are non-recourse – has arguably had a greater effect in boosting investor demand for property in recent years than the much longer standing capital gains and negative gearing provisions.  

Aiding and abetting this unhealthy development is the fact that encouraging SMSFs to buy properties does not constitute “financial advice”, enabling a cottage industry to develop among property spruikers and accountants.

The result is a multitude of small and insufficiently diversified property-based SMSFs around the country, all partly subsidised by the generous superannuation concessions provided by tax payers.

Other housing related measures rumoured to be in the budget seem more sensible – like encouraging greater social housing, and taxing newly built properties left vacant by foreign investors.

As regards foreign purchasers, I’d also like to see a much tougher crackdown on illegal purchases of established properties by those that purport to be residents but really aren’t. What we don’t want to see is local property prices inflated by global money laundering and/or the simple desire of rich people in risky countries to park their money in safe havens like Australia.

Allowing pensioners to sell their homes without risking their pensions might also free up some under-utilised properties for sale, but we could then be left with an even more uncomfortable policy whereby some with millions in freely available non-housing assets are still claiming social welfare. All this raises the vexed issue of whether the generous exemptions for the family home in the pension assets test still make a lot of sense.

A final point to note is that the allure of property, given the capital gains tax concessions and negative gearing benefits, has only been enhanced in recent years as fiscal drag pushes more Australians into higher marginal tax brackets. It’s symptomatic of the fact the whole tax system is creaking under the strains of gross distortions and root and branch reform is desperately needed.

Sadly, however, we seem destined to get more tinkering around the edges – whereby new distortions are introduced to counter some of the unintended consequences of older distortions. 

The only ones smiling through all of this is the nation’s tax accountants – as greater complexity and loopholes keeps them in high demand.

| More



Banks lift mortgage rates without widespread criticism. Why?

The case for making some people worse off

RBA wary of bubbly property markets

Positive signs for economy: forget rate cuts in 2017?

Is Australia starting to enjoy the Trump bump?

Bond yields and China: the market's trump card?

Let’s get fiscal: Will Trump over-inflate the US economy?

What budget crisis?

Is Trump-style stimulus what the economy needs?

Why negative gearing is not the problem

How far can bond yields rise?

How spooked should we be about a house price correction?

Should the RBA cut rates if inflation drops?

3 ways the Government can kick-start the economy

Are the odds against a Melbourne Cup rate cut?

Earnings rebound expected in FY17, but watch this space!

Are apartment prices set to plummet?

Will the RBA cut rates again? These are possible triggers

Why Janet Yellen should raise rates

Global banks to respond to Brexit blues

Brexit is small beer to Australia

Another rate cut on the horizon

Will China’s debt mountain come crashing down?

Should we be crying or cheering about China and the US?

Rejoice in the RBA!

Budget’s cautious economic outlook

Turnbull’s much needed economic reform plan

How high can the Aussie dollar rise?

Can improving business conditions be sustained?

Global standards needed to shut down tax havens

Buyer beware in Australia’s rising housing market

“Jawboning” the $A

Will the RBA be dragged into the new currency wars?

Can the US share market rebound continue?

Is Australia facing a mortgage crisis?

Courageous stance on tax reform needed

US economy still has momentum

RBA sees green shoots in employment results

The link between oil prices and equity prices

Central bank actions misplaced

Reasons for the current market pullback

As Shanghai sneezes, the world is now catching a cold

A big downside risk for markets

The era of diminished expectations

How safe are our banks?

The case for a flat 15% tax rate

Fed actions have global implications

Energy, retail shares lead US stocks

Outlook for rates - clear as mud?

September quarter CPI great news for the economy

Savers to foot the bill for making banks safer

What to expect from tax reform

Are we boiling a frog?

Fortune favours the brave

Mortgage affordability is not that bad after all

What Turnbull needs to put on his to-do list

Global economy doing just fine thank you very much

Expect US rate rise this month

Share market gyrations no cause for concern

A flexible labour market – just what we need

Is the RBA a con artist?

Housing problems not as great as some assume

How to boost economic growth

Spotlight on the RBA's statement

Some good news for Australian jobs

Was the euro really worth the effort?

We need to spend it like Beckham

High prices for Sydney property or just regression to the mean?

A Greek tragedy - the final act?

Too much lazy analysis on house prices

We need more rate cuts

Don't kill our property boom!

Could another rate cut be on the cards?

Global bond rout not all bad

Unlisted property - a yield alternative

The Budget needs to drop the stinginess and focus on the present

Between a rock and a hard place

How to win a $1 million bet - Warren Buffett style

What is fair value for the Australian dollar?

Spotlight on Chinese property sector

Get rid of the GST and save $50 billion

Is it time to axe the GST?

A golden opportunity gone

Why you need to be careful of property

Could the market go to 7600?

Never fear the Grexit

5 lessons to learn from the RBA

A false start for rate cut expectations

There's still hope for global growth

The interest rate bias that dare not speak its name

What will happen to the market in 2015?

It's time to spend and stimulate

Long term looks good for Aussie equities

The case for a rate cut at home

Good omens for Chinese stocks

Time to buy Japanese equities

Rejoice in rate stability

Global currency war

Day of reckoning

Is the worst yet to come?