Tag Archives: australia

Park the Debt Truck!

About two months ago, I tried to bring some perspective to concerns about growing government debt in Australia. Last week the opposition has rolled out the “debt truck” to add to the hysteria about growing government debt, so I feel compelled to return to the subject for another attempt.

Last time I looked at net debt data going back to 1970. The data came from a chart in the Treasury paper “A history of public debt in Australia”. The paper also shows a history of gross debt and although I prefer to use net debt, the gross debt data goes back further, all the way to 1911 and so gives a longer historical perspective. As usual, I have posted the data on Swivel.

The alarmists like to trade in dollar figures, pointing to forecasts that gross government debt will peak in 2014 at $315 billion, which will be an all-time record. Of course, that ignores the effects of inflation, so it makes far more sense to look at the debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Expressed this way, the 2014 forecast amounts to an expected 21% of GDP (while net debt will be 14%).  As is evident in the charts below, this is about the same as in the years following the recession of the early 1990s and it is nowhere near levels in the more distant past. Immediately after World War II, gross debt reached an enormous 125% of GDP.

History of Government Debt

Figure 1 – Australian Government Debt (1911-2008)

If you are wondering about the shaded bands in these charts, they indicate periods of Labor Governments. The opposition is fond of saying that debt falls under Coalition governments and rises under Labor governments. Looking at the data, it is certainly true that government debt fell through both the Menzies and the Howard years (a pairing that would, I am sure, warm the cockles of our previous prime minister’s heart). Beyond that, the link is not so clear cut. What seems more apparent is that government debt fell during good economic times and rose during bad economic times and, moreover, the Coalition have not had a monopoly on good economic times nor Labor on bad. This pattern should not be the least bit surprising. When the economy booms, tax receipts rise and unemployment falls, reducing the cost of welfare payments and when it falters, the opposite occurs. As a result, the government tends to run fiscal surpluses in the good times, paying down their debt, and deficits in the bad times, increasing debt once more.

Recent History of Government DebtFigure 2 – Australian Government Debt (1960-2008)

What the debt demonisers fail to realise is that this counter-cyclical pattern of government spending is a good thing. The increase in welfare spending in troubled economic times helps boost economic activity, softening the impact of a slowdown, which is why welfare spending is often referred to as an “automatic stabiliser”. In more extreme downturns, such as the one we currently face, the government can supplement the automatic stabilisers with additional stimulus spending.

More importantly, government debt is very different from personal or business debt and is not something to be afraid of. In Australia, we have a currency that is not tied to other currencies, nor to gold or any other commodities. It is “fiat money”, effectively under the control of the government. Furthermore, all of the government’s debt is denominated in Australian dollars. This means that the government can, in fact, never run out of money, unlike individuals or businesses. So, any comparison between government debt and household debt is meaningless. Of course, in practice, governments should control their spending. If they kept increasing spending when the economy was strengthening, there would come a point where this spending would become inflationary. But this is a very different kind of constraint than I face on my spending! To dig deeper into the implications of fiat currency, monetary theory Bill Mitchell has a lot of material on the subject on his blog. A good place to start is his post on gold standard myths.

So, there is no substance to the fear that the opposition is trying to excite with their debt truck. Government debt is not what we should be worrying about. What is more concerning is private debt. Since individuals cannot issue new currency to repay their loans, excessive household debt can be a real concern. And, the chart below shows that there is something to be worried about. While the Coalition may be very proud of the record of government debt reduction during the Howard years, they should not be so happy about what happened to household debt under their watch (and you thought I was being easy on Howard before!). Instead of focusing on the possibility that government debt may reach 14% of GDP by 2014, perhaps the opposition’s debt truck should drive around the country alerting everyone to the fact that household debt is already over 100% of GDP.

Govt and Household Debt

Figure 3 – Household and Government Debt (1976-2008)

Of course, there are some commentators, such as Steve Keen, who are rightly concerned about the excessive levels of household debt. It is very likely that Australia and many other developed countries around the world will experience an extended period of private sector “deleveraging” (debt reduction). As long as consumers are saving rather than spending, this will translate to far lower economic growth than we have been used to in recent years.

To this point, I agree with Keen. Where I disagree is the extent to which this deleveraging will result in massive declines in Australian property prices. But that is a topic for another post, the long awaited sequel to my recent post on property prices.

UPDATE: for a Nobel Prize-winning perspective, here is Paul Krugman arguing that government deficits saved the world.

Australian Property Prices

Property prices have always been a popular topic of conversation in Sydney, but the subject has become more contentious since the onslaught of the Global Financial Crisis. Views on prospects for Australian property prices range from the bleakly pessimistic to the wildly optimistic. Iconoclastic economist Dr Steve Keen is one of the more prominent pessimists and expects a fall in property prices of as much as 40%. At the other extreme, research firm BIS Shrapnel recently released forecasts that prices in capital cities will rise by almost 20% over the next three years. Of course, both sides have their critics. Macquarie Bank economist Rory Robertson is so convinced that Keen is wrong that he has offered a wager in which the loser will have to walk to the top of Mount Kosciusko wearing a t-shirt saying “I was hopelessly wrong on home prices! Ask me how”. Meanwhile, many dismiss the optimists as mere shills intent on talking up the market in the interests of their clients.

Faced with a debate like this, the only recourse for the Stubborn Mule is to look at the data. Fortunately, I have been able to get my hands on a rich set of data (and ideas) from University of New South Wales economist Dr Nigel Stapledon*. Stapledon has painstakingly assembled data on Australian property prices back to the 1880s and rental data back to the 1960s. This data underpins a detailed comparison of the Australian and US property markets in Stapledon’s forthcoming paper  “Housing and the Global Financial Crisis: US versus Australia” in The Economic and Labour Relations Review, Sydney. By comparison, the House Price Indexes published by Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) commence in 1989.

A first glance at Stapledon’s index of Sydney property prices does indeed appear to show a meteoric trajectory that would inflame the passions of the pessimists.

Sydney House Price Index

Sydney House Price Index

Of course, asset prices tend to exhibit exponential growth, so it is far better to look at historical prices on a logarithmic scale. This reveals a striking trend. The growth of Sydney property prices has been remarkably consistent at around 9% per annum over the last 50 years.

Sydney House Price Index (log scale)

Sydney Property Prices (log scale)

Prices for Australia overall show a similar trend, with average prices over the six major capital cities growing at an average of 8.6% per annum since 1955.

Six Capital Cities

Australian Property Prices

What these charts do not take into account is the effect of inflation. Indeed, inflation varied significantly over the last 50 years, so adjusting for the effect of inflation shows that the trend in Sydney house prices has not been so stable. Booms such as those from 1987-1989 and 1997-2003 are made very clear in the chart below. But it is also evident that  prices have failed to keep up with inflation over the last few years. Nevertheless, over the last 50 years, Sydney house prices have appreciated an average of 3.1% over inflation and that is before taking rental income into account.

Sydney House Price Index (inflation adjusted)

Sydney Prices (inflation adjusted)

One difficulty with long-run property price data is that fact that observations are typically based on median house prices, which does not take into account changes in the quality of houses. The median house in 2009 may be “better” than the median house in 1955 and changes in price may reflect this change in quality as well as price appreciation. Stapledon has attempted to take this into account by constructing an index for Australian house prices (six capital cities) that is adjusted for both inflation and standardised to “constant quality”. The trend in real prices, adjusted for quality over the period 1955-2009 has been an increase of 2.1% per annum over inflation. This compares to an increase of 2.7% per annum over inflation without adjusting for quality. So, at a national level, quality changes overstate the trend growth rate by 0.7%. While Stapledon has not constructed a quality-adjusted index for Sydney, assuming that the national trend applied would lead to the conclusion that Sydney house prices have a trend growth rate of 2.4% over inflation.

Six Capital Cities (quality adjusted)Australian Prices (quality and inflation adjusted)

Interesting though this historical exploration may be, the question we would like answered is where prices may head in the future.

One approach to the problem is to assume that growth in property values in real terms may change in the short term, but over the long term will revert to a long term trend. Enthusiasts of trend following may see some significance in the fact that Australian prices still appear to be above the longer run trend, while Sydney prices have already fallen below trend. Of course, depending on the time period used to determine the trend, very different conclusions may be reached. If I were to base the trend on the full history from the 1880s, the last 50 years would appear to be well above trend.

Another popular approach is to consider housing affordability. This approach either looks at ratios of house prices to income or ratios of housing servicing costs (whether interest or rent) to income. The assumption is that these ratios should be stable over time and if increases in house prices result in reduced affordability this indicates the prices can be expected to fall in the future. Stapledon is critical of this approach, arguing that:

while income is expected to be a major influence on prices, there is no theoretical reason for any fixed relationship between prices and income or between rents and income

Over time, people may change their priorities and place a greater or lesser importance on housing and, as a result, be prepared to spend a larger or smaller proportion of their income on housing. Stapledon argues that a better approach is to examine rental yield, which is the ratio of rents to prices. Since the property prices can be expected to keep pace with inflation (and, in fact, outpace inflation), rental yields should be comparable to real yields (i.e. yields over and above inflation) on other asset classes. The easiest real yields to observe are those of inflation-linked Government bonds.  The Reserve Bank of Australia publishes historical data for inflation-linked real yields back to the late 1980s. The chart below compares these Government bond real yields to Stapledon’s history of rental yields. While the correlation is not perfect, both rental yields and real yields show a downward trend from the late 1980s/early 1990s which has only recently begun to reverse. Since rents have not fallen over this period, this provides an explanation for the strong growth in property prices over that period.

Rental Yields

Australian Rents and Inflation-Linked Bonds

So what could this approach tell us about property prices? Rental yields have already risen further than bond real yields, but certainly could go higher. What this means for prices does also depend on where rents themselves may be headed. The chart below shows the contribution of rents to consumer price inflation as published by the ABS. While the rate of growth in rents has slowed, history would suggest that rents are unlikely to go backwards. A cautious, but not overly pessimistic forecast could see rental increases falling to an annualised rate of 1% while rental yields could climb back to 4%. The combined effect would be a fall of 12%. Since prices have already fallen by 7% over the year to the end of March 2009, this would amount to a fall of almost 20%.

Rent CPI

Rent Inflation (Quarterly)

This is certainly a significant drop, but still half the fall that Keen expects to see.  For prices to fall by 40%, even assuming rents remain unchanged rather than growing by 1%, it would be necessary for real yields to rise to 5.8%, which exceeds the record level since 1960 of 5.4%. On this basis, I find it hard to be as pessimistic as Keen. Indeed, the latest data from RP Data-Rismark International suggests that prices are once again on the rise. The next ABS release is a little over a month away, so it will be interesting to see whether they see the same recovery.

The relationship between rental yields and real yields is an interesting one, but ultimately does not provide definitive predictions, but rather an indication of a range of outcomes that would be precedented historically. Of course, as Nassim Taleb has emphasised, unprecedented “black swans” can occur so history does not allow us to rule out more extreme events. Furthermore, nothing here addresses the question why prices in the US have fallen so dramatically and yet Australian prices could suffer far milder falls. That is the primary focus of Stapledon’s paper and is a topic I may return to in a future post, but this one is long enough already!

UPDATE: In this post I noted that the historical data shows a marked shift in behaviour from the mid-1950s without providing any explanation as to the cause of this shift. Needless to say this is a subject Stapledon has given some serious consideration, and I will quote from his doctorate, “Long term housing prices in Australia and some economic perspectives”:

From a longer term view, a key observation is the clear shift in direction in house prices and rents from circa the mid 1950s. House prices, in particular, jumped significantly, best illustrated by the rise in the price to income ratio from about one: one to about 4:1 in the 2000s. Looking at demand and supply variables…indicates that this shift in direction cannot be adequately explained in terms of the demand variables of income and household growth. Supply side factors appear to be more crucial and there is a substantial literature emerging in the US emphasising the importance of supply side variables and specifically the propensity to regulate to constrain supply. The evidence presented in this thesis of the lift in the cost of fringe land in the major urban areas provides prima facie evidence that supply factors have been a significant factor explaining the upward trajectory in house prices in Australia since the mid 1950s.

* I would like to thank Dr Stapledon for generously making his data available to me.

UPDATE: finally, I have published the post on why I don’t think Australia’s property market will experience the same fate as the US market.


Restaurant Hall of Shame

Last week the New South Wales Food Authority began publishing details of penalty notices issued to food outlets around the state. Their media release included examples of the sorts of tasteful details included in the reports:

  • – KFC in Victoria Street, Taree fined $660 for having an accumulation of dirt and grease in the shop.
  • – A noodle takeaway in Teramby Road, Nelson Bay received two fines for $330 each for having a dirty shop.
  • – An outlet in Great Western Highway, Marrangaroo (Lithgow) fined $330 for not maintaining a required standard of cleanliness.
  • – A noodle shop in Salamander Bay fined $660 for having evidence of cockroach activity in the shop.

The data stretches back to November 2007 and consists to date of 1038 penalty notices. Data sets like these are a delight to data-miners like myself and so I plan to define a data-scraping tool along the lines of the one I developed to capture Grocery Choice data (speaking of which, it is probably time for an update on grocery prices on the Mule). In the meantime, I have my hands on details of 1000 of the 1038 and have conducted some intial exploration of the data.

First there is the suburb hall of shame. The table below shows the 15 worst suburbs ranked by number of penalty notices. The inner West Sydney suburb of Ashfield has the ignominious award of first place, with 33 penalty notices. These include a number of repeat offences, including five notices for the Eaton Chinese Restaurant for offences including storing food in the rear yard and failing to provide hand-washing facilities. See them all here (note that this search includes a few Summer Hill restuarants).

Having recently moved to Petersham, I was gratified to see that neither Petersham nor Leichhardt have yet blotted their copybooks burnt their toast*. The Mayor of Newtown should be pleased to see that Newtown has only one penalty notice for the Tandoori Grill.

Rank Suburb Penalty Notices
1 Ashfield 33
2 St Mary’s 31
3 Penrith 29
=4 Castle Hill 27
=4 Sydney 27
6 Auburn 18
=7 Burwood 17
=7 Randwick 17
=8 Chatswood 16
=8 Fairfield 16
=8 Katoomba 16
9 Kogarah 15
10 Brookvale 14
11 Taree 13
12 Baulkham Hills 12

It is also interesting to see the outlets that have incurred the most infringements. Domino’s Pizza has been served with 14 notices across Castle Hill, Five Dock, Katoomba, Merrylands, St Mary’s (five notices there!) and Ballina, while the Asian fast food outlet Hokka Hokka has received 11 notices across Brookvale, Castle Hill, Chatswood, North Sydney, Sydney and Warriewood. Other offenders, all with 8 notices, are Zisti & Co in Alexandria, Top Choice BBQ Restaurant in Burwood and Blue Sky Chinese Restaurant in Springwood.

This is a subject that the Mule will certainly have to revisit. In the meantime, I will leave you with the penalty notice for Zhen Zhen Van Loi Hot Bread in Ballina, which is the inspiration for the picture above:

A person must not sell food that is unsuitable – A loaf of bread sold contained a cockroach.

Photo credit: kronicred on flickr (Creative Commons)

* The choice of language is an attempt to appease commenters who hate clichés.

Oil Prices on the Rise?

Prompted by an article entitled “Bust and Boom” in the current issue of The Economist, I have decided it is time to dust off a Stubborn Mule staple: the petrol price model. As The Economist notes, following last year’s precipitous fall, oil prices have been climing again over the last few months. The West Texas Intermediate oil price per barrel (bbl) has almost doubled in US dollar terms and, despite a stronger Australian dollar, the price in Austalian dollars is not far behind.


West Texas Intermediate Oil Prices

Rising oil prices may seem odd in a world economy still under the influence of the Global Financial Crisis (aka the GFC), but The Economist points the finger at the collapse in investment in oil exploration and development of new fields. This raises the fear that, while oil inventories are currently in record excess, once these inventories are drained, digging up more oil is getting harder and, consequently more expensive.

So where does this leave Sydney motorists? The simple regression model I have used before is still showing a tight relationship between wholesale oil prices (in this case refined Singapore 97 oil prices) and prices at the bowser. If The Economist’s fears are justified, petrol prices will be reaching $1.30/L very soon and will be headed north from there.Updated Petrol Model

Data source: Bloomberg and the Australian Automobile Association.

Shoots Are Greener in Australia?

The phrase de jour (or du mois in fact) in financial markets is “green shoots”. Optimists, world equity markets included, are seeing tentative signs of improvement in the world economy. Google trends saw a blip in searches for the phrase green shoots back in January when UK Government minister Baroness Vadera used the phrase and was lampooned for what was perceived as premature optimism. Moving forward a few months and searches have surged again, but this time consensus seems to be far more supportive of a positive outlook.

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How Big Are Australian Banks?

There is no doubt that the big four Australian banks have navigated the global financial crisis better than many banks around the world, particularly in the US and UK. However, there seems to be a pervasive tendency in Australia to overstate the success of the Australian banks.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Duffy wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that

There are only 15 banks in the world which now have a AAA credit rating. The four major Australian banks are among them.

It would be nice if it was true. However, no Australian bank has a AAA rating, they are all in the AA band.  There are a few Government-owned or guaranteed banks around the world with a AAA and the only privately-owned bank with a AAA rating these days is the Dutch Rabobank.

More recently, Kerry O’Brien was interviewing the astute Morgan Stanley analyst Gerard Minack when he made the comment

Given that the big four banks in Australia are now in the top 12 around the world, what risk still applies to Australian banks as this scenario that you’ve described unfolds?

Gerard blinked for a moment before moving on, so I suspect he knew that Kerry did not have his facts straight here. By my reckoning (with a bit of assistance from Bloomberg),now that Westpac has taken over St George, it just scrapes in at number 12. ANZ, however, is all the way down at number 33 and the other two are somewhere in between. If I have missed any of the major world banks in my calculations, that would only push Australian banks further down.

The chart below shows data I have uploaded to Swivel giving the market capitalization for 40 of the biggest banks in the world in billions of US dollars. Figures are in thousands of millions (i.e. billions) of US dollars. While management of the big four Australian banks should be pleased with how they are faring, there is no need to blow their trumpets to the point of ignoring the facts.

One final point: it is interesting to note that the three biggest banks in the world today are Chinese banks.

Market Capitalization by Bank

For those who read my earlier Amazing Shrinking Banks post, you may notice that I have added a few more banks, including the large Chinese banks.

Australian Prices Heading South

Yesterday’s quarterly inflation release, which showed prices falling by 0.3% over the December quarter across Australia, cemented expectations of a 1% cut in interest rates in February. How things have changed! My very first Stubborn Mule post back in May 2008 examined the inflationary pressures that had so concerned the Reserve Bank and led them to keep interest rates high well into the financial crisis. In that post I used a heatmap to dig down into the drivers of inflation, and a quick comparison of the latest December inflation rate with inflation six months earlier gives a very clear illustration of where prices are falling.

CPI Dec 08 (qoq)

Austalian Quarterly Inflation – Dec 2008
(click to enlarge)

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End of the Age of the Gatekeepers

Homer & Bart 2Mark Pesce describes himself as “an inventor, writer, theorist, very minor TV personality” (he’s a regular on the ABC’s New Inventors). He is also a major personality in Australian twitter circles. Yesterday Pesce penned an excellent opinion piece connecting two recent Australian court cases. In one a judge ruled that tasteless sexual depictions of Simpsons cartoon characters should be considered child pornography. In the other case, a man was found guilty of distributing child-abuse materials. What he had actually done was pass on a link to a video of a man swinging a baby. He had nothing to do with the creation of the video, but simply shared a link to a video that thousands around the world had already seen.

Now each of these cases in isolation may well be legitimate interpretations of Australian law, but taken together the implications are rather ridiculous. As Pesce observes:

[It] means that viewing a clip of The Simpsons on YouTube will soon be as illegal as watching it on television. In particular, videos showing the various times Homer has strangled Bart – which exist – would be very illegal, the equivalent of the most severe child abuse materials. And God help you if you should flip a link of that video to one of your friends. That’d be “distributing” child-abuse materials, because, where we are now, distribution has expanded to include link-sharing.

Another Australian twitter luminary, Stilgherrian, is fond of seeking out modern day inheritors of King Canute (not Stil’s preferred spelling) who try to turn back the tide. So it seems that Australian courts are joining the RIAA, television stations and the Australian Government in vying for the Canute mantle and attempting to put Pandora’s internet back in the box. They should face reality and give up. As Pesce says, we have reached the end of the age of the gatekeepers.

Australia and the Global Financial Crisis

Over the last few months I have written a lot about the global financial crisis. My posts have focused on specific events as news has broken, ranging from a programming bug by Moody’s to the enormous US bailout plan and Government guarantees from Ireland to Australia. Here I will instead take a broader perspective and provide an overview of how the crisis has unfolded and, more specifically, how Australia came to be caught up in the mess.

A year ago, many commentators were extolling the idea that Australia’s economy had “de-coupled” from the United States and Europe, and would continue to be powered by the rapid growth of China and other developing nations. Concerns about inflation meant that interest rates were rising and many felt Australia would escape the incipient economic slowdown in the developing world. Events have instead unfolded differently. The Federal Government has taken the extraordinary step of guaranteeing deposits held in all Australian banks, building societies and credit unions and the Reserve Bank of Australia has delivered an unexpected 1% cut in interest rates, citing heightened instability in financial markets and deteriorating prospects for global growth. This was an extraordinary turnaround. It is, of course, the result of Australia becoming ensnared in the global financial crisis that began in mid-2007 and has intensified ever since. But how and why did Australia get caught up in a mess that started with falling property prices in the US?

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Australian Bank Guarantee on Wholesale Debt

In a post earlier this week, I wrote

The Government was right to step in with the guarantee and it has doubtless provided some stability for a financial system that remains jittery, but the sooner the details are sorted out, the better.

The main outstanding question I was referring to was how the guarantee would apply to wholesale debt. Uncertainty on this point has been creating significant concern for investors in cash management trust and other managed funds. The amount of money moved from these funds to bank deposits may be over $1 billion.

Finally today, the Government announced the wholesale guarantee fee, which will also apply to retail deposits over $1 million. While there had been speculation that the fee would vary based on the time to maturity of each security, the Government has instead opted for a fixed fee. The fee varies with the credit rating of the bank taking up the guarantee.

Credit Rating Debt Issues Up to 60 Months
AA 0.70%
A 1.00%
BBB and Unrated 1.50%

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