Trader's thoughts - The long and short of it

SPI Futures are indicating a flat start for the ASX 200 this morning, in a 24-hours starved of meaningful news and data.

Market data Source: Bloomberg

News flow light thank to US holiday

SPI Futures are indicating a flat start for the ASX 200 this morning, in a 24-hours starved of meaningful news and data. US markets were closed for the Presidents’ Day holiday, meaning a crucial source of information was absent from the news flow. It was perhaps a positive thing for market-bulls: the vacuum left by US markets allowed for Asian and Europe equity indices to seize the improved sentiment flowing from Wall Street on Friday, following further progress in US-Sino trade negotiations. Commodities continued to climb, to multi-month highs according to the Bloomberg Commodity Index, led by a push higher in oil prices, as well as a renewed rally in gold, which edged to around $US1326 courtesy of a weaker US Dollar.

Australian markets in focus

The Asian session will similarly quiet today, before markets return to normal transmission this evening. Arguably, it’ll be a day with attention directed to developments in Australian markets: the key data releases pertain to the RBA and its Monetary Policy Minutes, and ASX heavy-weight BHP, which reports its earnings today. Both the Australian Dollar and ASX 200 will enjoy special focus this morning. The Aussie Dollar has pulled back below the 0.7150 handle after rallying beyond that mark on the back of trade-war optimism. The ASX 200 will be more interesting for observers: having leapt from the gates yesterday morning to break above 6100 resistance, the index once again failed to prove its bullish mettle, closing trade yesterday at 6089.

RBA Minutes headlines Asian trade

As alluded to, the highlight on the domestic calendar today, if not for the whole week, will be today’s release of the RBA’s Monetary Policy Minutes for their February meeting. In line with central bankers across the globe, the RBA has entered 2019 with a newly dovish approach to interest rates. Markets have thus far stood to attention: although leading the RBA (in some sense) in factoring the need for looser monetary policy conditions, the change in rhetoric from the RBA this year has further manifested in market pricing. Since the beginning of February, and certainly in the past week, interest rate markets have definitively shifted to pricing a rate cut as the most likely course for the RBA in 2019, over and above that of a “hike” or hold”.

Slower growth: here and abroad

The variables conspiring to bring-about this dynamic are naturally complex, but can be distilled into a single, broad explanation: both the domestic and global economies are entering a period of slower economic growth. Australia’s symbiosis with China and its economy is never lost on market participants; and with the trade-war exacerbating what seems to be a deep, existing cyclical slow-down in China, Australia’s economy is one of the first to exhibit signs of pain. However, issues unique to the domestic economy remain: though showing tentative evidence of settling now, Australia’s falling property market is an issue of ongoing concern, as are issues of uncomfortably high private debt levels, low wages growth and its impact on inflation, and the generally sluggish state of the Australian consumer.

The doomsayers argument

There will always be doomsayers in the world, so gloomy forecasts ought to be met with critical objectivity. It’s the way the RBA, however right or wrong they happen to be at any point in time, attempt to approach the world. Their “base-case” is very unlikely to be that the Australian economy is heading for some sort of catastrophic, recessionary set of circumstances. There are many in the punditry however, with cogent arguments as to why recession is a reasonable risk to consider. The position that the onerous burden of high household debt, in the face of tighter financial conditions, low wage growth and a “reverse wealth effect”, will accelerate the housing market’s collapse, and spark some housing-led recession is probably the most headline grabbing and generally evocative of these.

All this talk of Australia’s ’08 moment

Such a set of circumstances, it’s envisaged, would be Australia’s dose of the GFC it never received in ’08, when a booming China protected the Australian economy from the many ills of that disaster. There is unconscious obsession – probably brought about by the trauma of the event – to contrast any market event with those of ’08. In 2019 Australia, the parallels intuitively exist: just like the US in ‘08, household debt is high, house prices are falling courtesy of the stifling of a hitherto speculative euphoria in the market, and consumers have fewer means to keep consuming or protect themselves from a period of economic malaise. The prospect of less favourable financial and economic conditions could be what it takes to turn a garden-variety economic slow-down into something more serious.

Worst-case not the likely case; but still good to know

Once more: this crudely described series of events is what can be called, in financial market parlance, a “tail risk” – a low probability but very high impact event. It’s not what the RBA would be considering as their “base-case” for what lays ahead for the Australian economy in 2019; especially so, the doomsayers opinion won’t slip its way into today’s RBA minutes. Arguably, even it came close to becoming that way, at any stage, the PR-machine that is the RBA are unlikely to ever reveal, completely, a true pessimism about Australia’s economic health. Knowing the worst-case scenario market-participants is handy, though, if it can be done so objectively: it provides an intellectual tool to examine how close we are to coming to falling off the precipice we fear.


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