Economic update : the state of the economy and the markets leading up to the Federal Budget

The budget is coming.  With just two weeks to go it looks like, the Government will deliver a budget with a strong long term outlook and an amount of short-term pain including the introduction of a debt levy. Not surprising really given the state of the domestic economy and the sheer number of baby boomers that will leave the workforce in coming years.  

Over the last three months, our economy has behaved with relative stability.

The last quarter, and in particular, the last month has seen the Australian dollar rise adding more pressure to rebalance the domestic economy. On the flip side, housing prices have continued to rise over the quarter combined with an increasing level of building approvals showing confidence is certainly in place.

Interest rates have remained unchanged throughout the quarter at 2.50% and RBA Governor, Glenn Stevens has commented that further rate cuts are unlikely in the short term. The board appear more comfortable with the global outlook and are predicting a reasonable pick-up this year. In Australia, the housing market has rallied in recent months and household spending has continued to increase, encouraged by our historically low interest rates.

In international markets, the US and Euro Regions have shown improvements in recent months. The US Federal Reserve made the announcement in March to reduce asset purchases by a further $10 billion a month to $55 billion. Following on from this announcement, US 3-year and 10-year Government Bond Yields rose by 0.07% and 0.32% respectively.

Overall International Bonds outperformed global equities in March, with the Barclays Global Aggregate (Hedged) $A Index increasing by 0.31%. Treasury stocks and corporate bonds gained by 0.35% and 0.36% respectively for the month.

Australian equities posted modest gains in March, with the ASX 300 rising 0.21% for the month. Commodity prices declined by 2.0% for the month in terms of Australian dollar terms, largely coming from the fall of iron ore, coking coal and steaming coal. On a market capitalisation basis, large company stocks performed better than smaller companies. The S&P / ASX 50 Leaders Index increased by 0.33% in March, while the S&P/ASX Small Ordinaries Index posted a loss of 1.16%.

On a sector basis, Financials (ex-Property) was the best performing and gained 2.92% in March. All the big four banks also recorded another round of strong gains in March. Materials and Healthcare were the weakest sectors declining by -2.89% and -2.07% respectively.

While residential dwelling investments continue to expand, commercial properties (office buildings and large shopping centre investments) declined over the month. The Australian Listed Property Market posted a loss of -1.58%.

In international equities, the Fed’s further decision to taper and indication that quantitative easing could end earlier (possibly within the next 6 months) has resulted in a more optimistic growth outlook. The MSCI North America (Local Currency) Index posted a small return of 0.68% in March.

The best performing region was India with 4.75% over the month due to political optimism. Japan was one of the worst performers losing -7.51% in the first quarter of 2014 due to the sudden 3% sales tax threatening to endanger their recovery.

China lost -1.74% and Europe reversed its previous months strong position and lost -0.65% in March.

Global resources performed poorly in the month with the FTSE Gold Mines Index and HSBC Global Mining Index declining by -11.14% and -5.42% respectively.

Over the coming three months we expect, if there are no sudden changes to the global environment….

1. A Federal Budget that takes some positive steps to reduce the deficit, cutting welfare payments to those not working and incentivising mothers into the workforce; and

2. A stable interest rate environment that is supportive of business and consumer confidence.

Green Shoots

The Federal Election has come and gone, leaving the result most business owners and investors were expecting but will the confidence instilled by a more stable Government bring the green shoots Australia needs?

In the week leading up to the election when our Nation’s fate looked sealed firmly in blue tape, the consumer confidence number started to climb, rising by 4.7% in September from August and sitting at 110.6, above the 100 level where optimists outnumber pessimists.

The business confidence numbers also strengthened significantly in this period, with the index rising in August to its highest point since May 2011.  The consecutive cuts in the cash rate may have helped, but seemingly more important were the anticipated political changes.

Nationally, housing is also providing a badly needed sign of life in our economy, with six consecutive weeks of 80%+ auction clearances in Sydney at the time of writing, and Melbourne achieving their highest rate since 2010, at 76% .

Equities, which were struggling under the weight of the Syrian crisis and the end to quantitative easing in the US in August, seem to have lifted their tone with the news that Russia and America plan to do everything they can to avoid full blown conflict.

Could these be the green shoots of Spring in our economy that so many are looking for to invest?

Over the coming three months we are looking for three shifts in the market:

We expect the USA will continue down the forewarned path of reducing its quantitative easing, bringing to fruition something the market already expects.  This could cause some market instability around announcements.

We see the continued weakness in commodity prices and Asian markets driving a gradual and painful weakness across the mining economy in Australia and a continued flow through to other sectors.

And the handbrake coming off Australian business confidence, as the Liberal Government starts to make their policy changes.

One big hope we all have is that the recent reduction in the $A dollar will act as a natural stimulus improving investment and export growth that stimulates our business economy.