Australia: Running Out of Luck (Unless you own gold?)

September 06th, by

In 1964 the Australian Donald Horne, social critic, wrote a book titled ‘The Lucky Country’ a statement of irony about his beloved home – Australia. He felt that where other countries had earned their prosperity through ingenuity and productivity advancements, Australia’s was largely derived from its abundance of rich natural resources and was run by a second-rate people who were lucky to have a society derived from the British. However, with time Australians have taken on the more optimistic interpretation that their luck has been earned.

 

The RBA Governor, Glenn Stevens, recently addressed an audience of business leaders with this same title to Horne’s book – The Lucky Country. In his speech he tackles head on the concerns of a minority of observers who harbour concerns about the foundations of recent economic performance and question the basis for confidence about Australia’s future.

 

He stated – “there are several themes to these doubts, but the common element is that our recent relative success owes a certain amount to things that will not continue – to luck – and that our luck may be about to turn.”

 

Well, we are one of those minorities who express some doubts about the sustainability of Australia’s perceived prosperity and we definitely believe they will run out of luck. Our partner company Variant Perception, who provide the macro analytics for our insights into global economic trends, helped to flag similar warning signs that we expressed about the UK, in our Eyes Wide Shut I and II series. Indeed Australia exhibits some similar economic characteristics to her fellow Commonwealth member. But we want to focus on Australia herself and present a synopsis of VP’s concerns for the land down under.

 

Australia: The Unlucky Country

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia has been described as the lucky country, but it is running out of luck and has a terrible combination of fundamental factors. In fact, Australia reminds us in many ways of the housing bubbles in the UK, Spain and Ireland. In each case, the country experienced a banking crisis.

 

Australian growth has been dependent on two huge bubbles: a domestic housing market that is one of the most overvalued in the world and a reliance on the Chinese fixed asset investment craze. Despite extraordinary commodity exports, Australia has run current account deficits and has a terrible international investment position. A substantially weaker currency in Australia is inevitable given fundamental factors. Over sized banks dependent on external financing, a bursting housing bubble and a slowing Chinese economy are all fundamental factors which are likely to weigh on the currency. As we explain, a weaker currency can either come in the form of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) reducing interest rates or a balance of payment-like crisis in which foreigners pull funding from the banking sector. In both cases, the RBA would likely have to expand domestic liquidity substantially to prop up the banking system.

 

Please visit Variant Perception’s website for the full version of the report.

 

Australia is a classic case of the Dutch Disease. The Dutch Disease denotes the loss of competitiveness in the tradable manufacturing and industrial sector as a result of a resource/commodity boom which leads to an overvalued real exchange rate. In Australia, the mining sector has crowded out almost all other sectors of the economy and also funnelled credit and liquidity into a housing bubble in the real estate sector.

 

Australia net external debt levels resemble those seen in the European periphery; the currency is fundamentally vulnerable. Australia has been running a persistent current account deficit since 1980 and the country’s negative net international investment position is one of the largest in the world. On this background, the strong currency makes no sense and fundamentally the currency is very vulnerable to capital flight from the banking system.

 

Australian banks and corporates rely heavily on foreign funding; the RBA will have to provide liquidity through LTROs. Structural global deleveraging and stop-go flows add volatility for Australian banks. As the housing market continues to correct, it may be difficult for Australian banks to fund themselves. Lowering interest rates will hurt the margins of the banks, and the RBA will likely be forced into domestic liquidity operations to prop up its banks.

 

Two options to weaken the currency, lower rates or a balance of a payments crisis. The Australian currency will weaken in one or two ways. Either the RBA gradually reduces interest rates to accommodate a structurally slowing economy and a relative end to the mining boom or the economy will suffer from a balance of payment crisis as external financing dries up due to the decline in the terms of trade exposing the negative current account.

 

Australia’s commodity sector is tied to a structurally slowing Chinese economy. The commodity sector remains a force to be reckoned with in Australia and will remain cyclically tied to China. Still, the Chinese economy is structurally slowing down and this will impact the growth rate of mining and resource related activities in China. Australia is likely sitting on significant overcapacity in the mining sector which will be difficult to transfer to other sectors.

 

The Australian consumer is overlevered, but demographics are relatively positive going forward. The correction in the Australian housing market is far from over and the Australian households remain overlevered. Yet, the savings rate has already increased substantially and in the long run demographics look far more robust than in eg Europe.

 

Stay long government bonds in Australia on convergence towards low interest rates in the rest of the OECD. Whether it be as a result of the RBA gradually cutting rates to reflect slower growth or because foreigners start bidding up Australian bonds due to carry, yields are going down in Australia. We continue to like being long government bonds in Australia.

 

Our long-term technical buy signal on Australian equities is in effect, but avoid miners and banks. We currently have a long term technical buy signal in effect on Australian equities as a result of the recent sharp sell-off. This is usually followed by good returns over the next 6 months or so. Although the market cap on the ASX 200 strongly favours overweight in mining and financials (market weight), we would avoid these two sectors and buy into defensives (consumer staples and health care) as well as industrials.

 

Industrials and manufacturing will outperform on lower interest rates and a weaker currency. The gradual end to Dutch Disease will eventually lead to outperformance of the industrial sector. In the long run, our view is that the Australian equity market cap will re-weight away from mining and financials towards industrials and eventually consumer and retail.

 

Buy CDS on big four Australian banks. Australian banks remain the weakest link in Australia’s economy, and they are too big to fail. We like buying CDS on Australian large cap banks as an outright trade or as a hedge against the long-term technical buy signal on Australian equities mentioned above.

 

At Hinde we recently posted our call for a gold break-out at KWN and our own blog here, ‘Gold poised for upside breakout of current range’. Nothing ambiguous about this market call.  I was interviewed at KWN, on Friday 17th August, where I discussed  the prevailing market dynamics.

 

However, I mentioned our best investment expression right now (beyond  VP’s view to buy bank CDS in Australia, or GBPAUD FX, was to buy gold in Aussie terms, ie an Australian dollar holder should sell Aussie to buy gold (XAU)).

 

 

Better still we would encourage potential clients to invest in our fund as our bullion fund returned +7.00% (an outperformance of +2.7% to gold) in August whilst employing  a small over allocation to a 100% ownership of bullion using ‘cheap’ leverage to benefit from an explosive precious metals move. We believe this market has much much further to run.

 

I also had discussed that silver was likely to lead the way with the reasons cited in my KWN blog. We felt the gold silver ratio would come in quickly from 59 to 51, which is where it stands now today.  To take advantage of the move we envisaged, we were able to risk only 0.1% of our assets under management over a one month horizon to earn a 10 to 1 pay out on our silver positions. This came in and we take a modest amount of cheer for this in a tough year for the precious metals sector (to date) although we are quietly confident of a continuation of performance.

 

What now? Our trend system is now into the 1st leg of a 3 to 4 leg move that will see gold at a minimum provide a 10 to 12% return with a possible pause before what we believe is an all in 20 to 25% rally this year, no doubt interspersed with mini-corrections.

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