Watch out, it’s October …

No-one seems to understand why, but this time of year is often tumultuous. (Particularly in the financial world. 1929. 1987. 2008.) This year is looking pretty interesting too.

So called “geo-political risk” has risen sharply.

Gaza and Ukraine have settled down for now. Lots of fighting, MH17 shot down, many deaths, lots of destruction, but nothing resolved. These trouble spots will surely flare again, because if you go to the root causes (who should live where in the Jordan Valley, and NATO’s relentless advance to Russia’s doorstep), nothing’s changed.

Attention has now turned to Iraq and Syria. Looks to me like the current tactics and behaviour of the West has about zero chance of resolving anything, and a good chance of making things a lot worse. The IS warriors look to be a nasty bunch, but really no worse than an endless list of ugly groups and regimes. (Who remembers Pol Pot or Idi Amin, just for example?). Bombs will not resolve centuries old enmities, or productively occupy idle young men.

In Hong Kong, the predominantly young (… it’s always the young ones!) have come out bravely and in large numbers to protest for what appears to be a quite small step in their governance. Despite the current lull, a long, on-going, serious challenge for the mandarins in Beijing lies ahead: how to govern a youthful, educated, connected, and rising Chinese middle class?

The list of failed states seems to increase by the month. Libya. Next a few in west Africa?

And, the ebola virus has now escaped west Africa to the US and Europe. Back in Sierra Leone, 121 died in one day this week. This could get really nasty.

Economic performance has turned down just about everywhere …

President Obama is out on the stump for the mid-term elections coming next month, arguing that US economy is recovering. He’s quoting all sorts of numbers about new jobs, and crowing because unemployment has dropped below 6%.

Poor guy, he’s tried really hard, but it’s a delusion.

We all know that economies must under-perform if households don’t/can’t spend. US households are still up their necks in debt (student loans, car loans, mortgages, credit cards). The US Bureau of Census has just announced that real household income has now fallen back to where it was 20 years ago. And the percentage of the population in the US workforce is not even close to recovering the ground lost in 2008 …

employment to population

 

In Europe, the motor is sputtering just at the time when things should be getting to work. All the major economies, Germany, France and Italy are in recession, or all but. Germany is the manufacturing heartland, but factory orders in August fell 5.7% … oops.

Over in Japan things are going from bad to worse. Abenomics has failed. The economy is going backward again, and fast: down 7% in the second quarter and probably barely positive in the third quarter just finished.

It’s always hard to work out what’s really going on in China, but except for the odd spot of (probably made up) positive news, it’s all looks bad. China’s recent growth has been built on a massive bubble of debt used to finance infrastructure and housing. Now the housing bubble is deflating. The iron ore price has tanked. Worse is coming.

Australia is muddling along. But the miners are taking a battering, the Government is squeezing and unemployment rising.

… but the party is rolling on in the financial markets … or is it?

Wall Street has retreated a little from it’s top, but is still very high by any standard. It has been propelled by freshly printed money (about $3.5 trillion); huge buybacks of shares (dividends and share buybacks have recently been consuming more than 90% of corporate cash – so not much productive investment going on there); and frothy valuations of tech related stocks. One of my favourites is the Facebook purchase of Whats App at $22 billion. Whats App has 500 million subscribers, no advertising, and just the potential to earn $1 per subscriber per year. Value 44+ times revenue? … Hmmm, not sure about that!

October will be interesting …

…and if you got the time check this out

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Are you scared yet?

Our leaders (of both political hues) seem to be on a mission to make us feel scared. It’s a centuries old political ruse: raise popularity and power by appearing to save the populous from what they are scared of. But first you have to find/create/invent the target.

Think about it. What is the very low, real probability that your standard of life, personally, will be affected by the entry of an ill-intentioned asylum seeker, or a by terrorist attack?

Now compare that with the high probability that you will be affected, one way or another, over the coming few years by one, or perhaps all of: the effects of climate change; the scarcity of cheap fluid energy and fuel; mis-allocations in the use of land and water; the bursting of the gigantic credit bubble that is still blowing up all over the world; the rise of the unemployed, un-engaged, idle, aggravated young (not just in the Middle East, but most recently in Hong Kong … where next?); the inevitable busting of the China boom (Bloomberg has just reported that Q3 land sales in China have fallen almost 50% year on year); falling asset prices (perhaps even your own house).

These are the things that will affect us all. Aren’t these the things our leaders should be focused on?

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Australia’s place in the world

It’s hard to comprehend how fortunate we are to live on this remote island continent, Australia.

  • No-one is inclined to just move in and build “settlements” on our land.
  • No-one can build a tunnel under our border or fire cheap rockets over it.
  • We have absolutely no experience of “different” people living just the other side of a line drawn for reasons only understood by a bunch of now dead, obscure colonialists or politicians.
  • We don’t have to live in the midst of ethnic, religious or cultural enmities that have persisted for centuries.
  • We don’t have tens of thousands of desperate North Africans pouring across a narrow sea, or homeless and destitute children pouring over the fence from Central America.
  • We are a long way from the source of frightening disease.
  • We don’t have to patrol our remote rocky islands with ships and planes or skirmish with neighbours to defend them.
  • We don’t have to live in pollution created by others.
  • We don’t have to rely on others for access to precious fresh water and food.
  • We don’t have millions upon millions of (predominantly young) unemployed, under occupied and resentful citizens.
  • We are the 12th biggest economy in the world, supporting a modest population.

So how should we handle this extraordinary good fortune, while lacking the real understanding that comes from standing in others’ shoes?

Is it right, for instance, to:

  • Drastically reduce foreign aid so we can spend more money on ourselves?
  • Ignore the risks to the planet (particularly many of our Pacific Island neighbours) of changing climate because of our contrary, short term economic self interest?
  • Pick Japan as a better friend than China?
  • Put up a stop sign on the North West Shelf?
  • Put on a sheriff’s badge and throw our weight around in Indonesia or Ukraine?
  • Tell Mr Putin he’s an irresponsible bad guy?
  • Threaten anyone else we unilaterally decide is a bad guy?
  • Try to make the G20 the G19?

Or should we be learners (not preachers), diplomats (not warriors), mediators (not partisans), realists (not idealists)?

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Bombs away …

Last week the Pakistani air force was bombing it’s own people in the northern province of Wazirstan. Well over 100,000 people fled.

The Iraqi “government” has started bombing its own Sunni people in the north with a few helicopters, and plans to up the ante with some second hand Russian jets. Accuracy probably won’t be great!

The Israeli Government has decided the best way to punish the apparent murderers of three of their citizens is to summarily declare all of Hamas guilty, and rain bombs down on the Gaza strip.

The Syrian government has been bombing it’s own country for several years.

Now the new regime in Ukraine is bombing Ukrainian people in the East of its own country.

Might there be something wrong with this plan??

But then again, in response to the “re-interpretation” of their constitution by the Japanese Diet:

“Australia has welcomed Japan’s announcement to allow it’s military to fight overseas, saying it will enable Japan to further contribute to international peace and stability.” … ABC News 

I must have missed the memo … When did bombs and fighting “contribute to international peace and stability”?

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Monetary policy is broken

There’s been a lot in the media recently about ballooning housing prices and debt – and not just in Australia.

The IMF has recently warned that Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and others, face the possibility of major economic disruption because of high house prices, and the debt incurred by households to pay those prices. High house prices flow into the whole cost structure of an economy and make it less competitive with economies with much lower house prices (like the USA).

Debt works when accumulated savings pass through the banking system to borrowers who have a continuing prospect of sufficient future income flow to pay the back the interest and principal on the loan. Debt fails when the future income falls short and repayments can’t be met. The risks are: future income falls short of expectations (like losing a job); interest rates rise; or the principal borrowed in the first place is just too damned high. This last risk is the issue with high Australian house prices.

When debt fails, some one must lose: there’s no avoiding it. Could be a bank, savers, the borrower, or maybe all of them. These losses hurt people badly. If there are lots of them, the economy and even the whole fabric of society can be threatened. (There are plenty of examples of huge debt failures related to housing and debt through history – Japan 1989 for example. Many in 2008 – Spain, Ireland, USA – where it might take a whole generation to recover.)

Managing the money supply and interest rates are the key elements of monetary policy. The theory is that if policy makers (in Australia the Reserve Bank) adjust these, they can stimulate or dampen market activity and borrowing to smooth the bumps in economic activity. Good in theory.

One result is that a key mechanism for boosting or dampening house prices is an adjustment to interest rates (by making it more or less expensive to borrow and hence afford a house). Hence, in Australia, because of our obsession with house ownership, there is an almost manic focus on the next RBA move up or down on interest rates.

But this traditional monetary policy tool is broken.

Before we look at why, let’s look at just how big the debt is.

Australian households owe about $1.8 trillion. 75% of that is housing debt. This is about 1.8 times household disposable income (the flow required to repay the debt). In the USA this ratio is 1.1 and in the UK 1.5. So we are huge borrowers relative to our disposable income. (And the magnitude is about twice all business debt, and huge compared to the much talked about Australian Government debt of only $350 billion.)

So here’s why current monetary policy is broken …

In Australia the RBA sets a cash rate that then becomes a major determinant of market interest rates for all lending – for housing and personal loans and for business.

In an effort to help stimulate business and the economy, the RBA has driven the cash rate to all time lows. At 2.5% there is still scant evidence for this being the sought after stimulus to business. So business argues (selfishly but in some ways with justification) for even lower rates to stimulate the real economy. Retailers and manufacturers are on this theme all the time. But does a percent here or there really change a business decision to invest? It never has for me.

Furthermore, because rates are even lower overseas (near zero), some of the huge volume of hot money that floats around the world, has floated into Australia in search of higher interest earnings on cash. This drives up the $A exchange rate. That, in turn, makes Australian exports less competitive, and causes businesses that compete with imports (like car manufacturing) to struggle. To stem that money flow to drop the exchange rate, interest rates would have to go down.

But … because 2.5% is seen to be very low, and mortgages more “affordable”, households have been piling on new debt and bidding up house prices. So, to cool the housing market interest rates should go up.

Down? Up? The RBA can’t have it both ways, and is caught with a huge policy dilemma.

The solution is to drop interest rates further to stimulate business, and use other tools (lending rules, bank regulations, taxes) to cool the overheated housing market.

Already Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand, and probably others have done just this, when faced with similar economic policy issues. This week the Bank of England has joined that club.

The BoE is set to impose a tight limit on banks lending more than 4.5 times the household income available to support a mortgage. That’s pretty tough. Think how that would work here: $560,000 house (typical in my town); 80% mortgage of $450,000; would require reliable household disposable income of $100,000 (not typical in my town).

Hmmm …

In Australia we now have a Parliamentary Committee looking at foreign investment in housing which is only a small part of the problem. Nevertheless they seem to be talking about stamp duties, taxes, and specific restrictions to try to cut off some demand.

Watch for the RBA to move this way too!

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Propaganda that stokes fear controls the masses

“the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” … Franklin D Roosevelt (1933 Inaugural Address)

Fear is created by propaganda. Fear paralyses. Fear controls the masses.

Fear is the principle weapon of the terrorist. It allows small numbers to make large numbers do what they want them to do. Okay, we all “know” that.

Fear is also a weapon of the state. In the extreme, dictators (like Stalin, Pol Pot, the North Korean Kims) use fear to totally control their minions and their people. But even in benign democracies fear controls our behaviour to some degree: we don’t want to get caught drink driving, or evading tax, do we?

So what’s the role for the media in this?

In some countries, state run media is all important (China, North Korea): it’s a tool for ensuring the message aligns with the state’s desire to control the people. In other countries, restrictions and constraints on the media have much the same effect. (The recent trial of Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt is a recent example: woe betide the journalist who supports opposition to the state.)

In countries like these we know that the media delivers state propaganda, or that reports are sanitised so as not to offend the state. We react to the stories accordingly.

But how do we react where the media is “free”? Like in the US or the UK or Australia.

In Australia, we have radio shock jocks like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, and “news”papers like the Australian, that unashamedly peddle opinions dressed up as news. It’s designed to create fear: fear of asylum seekers, fear of trade unions, fear of bikie gangs, fear of lefties … fear of the state.

And fear controls. For who and for what? In these cases it is predominantly for the benefit of right wing governments, because they’re more friendly towards the elites they are, or represent. It’s willful, biased propaganda. Some see through it, many don’t.

But these guys are mere amateurs compared with Fox News in the US.

Yesterday my attention was drawn via RT to a rant on Fox by a presenter called Jeanine Pirro. Ever heard of her? No, neither had I …

It was on Iraq. After referring to Iran as the “devil” and ISIS as “savages”, she offers her solution. “… air strikes … bomb them. Bomb them, keep bombing them, bomb them again, … and again.

Straight from the Cheney, Rumsfeld, neo-con playbook! … Sure, that’ll work!

That’s serious propaganda. It’s fear mongering in the extreme.

Of course, Mr Murdoch’s Fox “News” has the reputation of being right of centre, but this rant is something else … see for yourself here … (about 5 mins). Note the none too subtle words “justice” and “judge” appearing on the screen throughout.

And there are people that believe this stuff!! … and so they fear those “dreadful people in the middle east”, every last one of them.

And who benefits? … Certainly not Iraqis, nor Syrians … nor in the end, the average American, who lives in a world surrounded by fear, by 300+ million guns, by the TSA, by police and thousands of SWAT teams increasingly armed with military hardware.

Looks like Eisenhower was right when leaving office he warned about

“… a formidable union of defense contractors and the armed forces … we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.

… but Ike’s warning was not heeded, and we haven’t been on the correct guard.

There’s also an interesting riposte to Pirro from that intriguing celebrity, Russell Brand. Have a look here. Don’t fooled by the long hair, the tattoos and the funny accent: he’s an articulate, deep thinker, tuned in to the young and the underprivileged.

In principle, of course, we should defend Fox’s right to say what they say. But that does place a huge challenge on those that disagree with Fox’s constant violent propaganda. Shouting back, louder, isn’t the answer. The answer must lie in persuading those that decide to put people like Pirro in front of the camera to ponder the wisdom of John F Kennedy:

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

100 years ago today, an act of violence in Sarajevo and the subsequent propaganda, the hubris of the elites, and the failure of diplomacy, plunged Europe and much of the world into tit for tat violence that became World War I. Traces of that legacy are still playing out in Iraq right now …

 

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US GDP downer pushed the market up!

About an hour after my last post, the US Department of Commerce released it’s final revision of data for US GDP for the first quarter of 2014 … a staggering -2.9%.

Bloggers, twitterers and columnists went into overdrive:

“This is the worst non-recessionary quarter of growth in 60 years!!!” … ZeroHedge

“A Recovery in Need of a Recovery … the worst quarter since the last recession ended five years ago” … New York Times

And what did Wall Street do in the face of this shocking economic news, you ask?

It went up! … here’s the S&P 500 for the day. Note the timing of the announcement and the timing of the market open (courtesy of ZeroHedge):

25 june

 

Why? … because the speculators believe the news will lead to more money being printed by the Fed to feed the already pretty fully blown up bubble stock market.

This is one mighty liquidity bubble … different to the tech bubble of 1999, and the sub-prime mortgage bubble of 2007, but heading towards the same (or worse) catastrophic end.

You know what happens when you just blow and blow and blow into a balloon: first, your cheeks hurt as the back pressure builds, and then …

At the beginning of Q1 2014 the consensus forecast growth for the US economy was +3% according to Reuters. (Hmmm … that was a bit of a miss …) And while the US economy was going through this shocking quarter, the S&P did this:

S&P Q1

 

… not much really … a few nerves in February (when the weather got really bad) … but then quietly pushing on 130 points to be 40 past where it started. And as we saw yesterday, it has since moved on further up to 1950+

Economic fundamentals just are not relevant to the market any more …

… until of course it all comes crashing down, and the “too big to fail” bankers and their ilk set out to socialise their losses by begging for Government bail-outs …

… then we’ll all feel the economic impact, for sure!

 

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