It’s February, the kids are back at school and the nation is getting back to business. It’s still not business as usual, but with the vaccine rollout about to begin there is a growing sense of optimism.
There was a sense of relief on the global economic front in January as Joe Biden was sworn in as US President. Financial markets rallied on expectations of more US government financial stimulus and a stronger focus on containing the COVID-19 health crisis. There were also positive economic signs from our other major trading partner, China where a V-shaped recovery is underway. China’s economy grew by 2.3% in 2020, the best performance of any major economy even though it was China’s slowest growth since 1976.
In Australia, there also signs of a cautious economic recovery. Consumer confidence hit a 14-month high in January, due to our success in dealing with the pandemic and supporting jobs. The ANZ-Roy Morgan consumer confidence rating hit 111.2 points, just below its long-term average of 112.6. Unemployment fell from 6.8% to 6.6% in December, a time when businesses typically hire casual staff for the Christmas-summer holiday rush. Retail trade fell 4.2% in December but was still up 9.4% over the year. Inflation remains weak, with the consumer price index (CPI) up 0.9% in the December quarter and also up 0.9% in 2020 overall. The exception is house prices, up 3% in 2020. This was reflected in the value of new home loans which rose 5.6% in November due to record low interest rates and government policy initiatives. The Aussie dollar finished the month slightly lower at US76c.
Just as we were recovering from the long drought and the worst bushfires on record, the global coronavirus pandemic took hold and changed everything.
Suddenly, simple things we took for granted, like going to the office or celebrating special occasions, were put on hold. While life is still not back to normal, Australia is in better shape financially than many people expected at the height of the economic shutdown.
Take superannuation. Far from being a wipeout, the average superannuation growth fund is on track to finish 2020 with a positive return of 3 per cent.i But it’s been a wild ride along the way.
Australian Key Indices December 2020
Share Markets (% change) Jan – Dec 2020
Australia All Ordinaries
RBA cash rate
US S&P 500
Euro Stoxx 50
Japan Nikkei 225
* Year to September 30, 2020 Sources: RBA, Westpac Melbourne Institute, Trading Economics as at December 31
The big picture
Globally, the US presidential election and Joe Biden’s victory removed a major element of uncertainty overhanging global markets. As did the UK finally signing a post-Brexit agreement on trade and other matters with the European Union just before Christmas. However, trade tensions with China remain an ongoing concern.
The pandemic dragged an already sluggish global economy into recession, and we were not immune. In Australia, drought, bushfires, storms and the health crisis took their toll as we entered recession in for the first time in 28 years.
The economy contracted 7 per cent in the June quarter alone, the biggest fall since World War II, before rebounding in the September quarter. Even so, in the year to September our economy contracted 3.8 per cent.ii
Final figures for 2020 are not in yet but an annual fall of 2.8 per cent is forecast, putting us in a better position than most developed nations.iii This is due in part to Australia’s relative success at containing COVID-19, and massive financial support from Federal and State Governments and the Reserve Bank.
Interest rates lower for longer
After starting the year at 0.75 per cent, the official cash rate finished the year at an historic low of 0.1 per cent. The Reserve Bank has indicated it will keep the cash rate and 3-year government bond rate at this level for three years to encourage businesses to invest and individuals to spend.iv
It seems to be working. Consumer confidence bounced back to a decade high of 112 points in early December as Australia eased restrictions.v Business confidence also hit an almost three-year high in November, but unemployment remains at 6.8 per cent after peaking at 7.5 per cent.vi,vii
While low interest rates make life difficult for retirees and others who depend on income from bank deposits, they gave share and property markets a boost in 2020 as investors looked for higher returns than cash.
Shares rebound strongly
In February/March when the scale of the health and economic crisis became evident, sharemarkets plunged around 35 per cent. As borders and businesses closed and commodity prices collapsed, investors rushed for safe-haven investments such as bonds and gold.
But it soon became apparent that there were economic winners as well as losers, with global technology and health stocks the main beneficiaries.
By the end of 2020, US shares were up 16 per cent, with the tech-heavy Nasdaq index up 48 per cent.viii
Closer to home, Australian All Ordinaries index was up 0.7 per cent, or 3.6 per cent when dividends are included. Some of the best performers were small tech stocks, which helps explain why the ASX200, which is top heavy with banks, resources and property trusts, fell 1.5 per cent.
Elsewhere, European markets were mostly lower reflecting their poor handling of the pandemic. While China and Japan performed strongly, up 14 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
Commodities boost the Aussie dollar
China’s economic rebound was another factor in the Australian market’s favour, with iron ore prices jumping 70 per cent.ix
Rising iron ore prices and a weaker US dollar pushed the Aussie dollar up 10 per cent to close the year at US77c.x
Gold prices hit a record high in August against a backdrop of ballooning government debt worldwide, but prices eased as sharemarkets surged, finishing 25 per cent higher at US$1,898.ix
At the other end of the scale, oil was one of the biggest losers as economic activity and transport ground to a halt. Oil prices fell more than 20 per cent despite OPEC producers restricting supply.ix
Property surprises on the upside
Despite dire predictions of a property market collapse earlier in the year, residential property values rose 3 per cent in 2020 and 6.6 per cent when rental income is included.xi
Melbourne was the only city to record a price fall (down 1.3 per cent), with combined capital cities up 2 per cent.
The real action though was in regional areas where average prices lifted 6.9 per cent. While regional markets lagged over the past decade, 2020 saw more Australians embrace working from home and the possibility of living outside crowded cities.
As 2021 gets underway, Australia is inching back to a new normal on growing optimism about the global rollout of vaccines to contain the spread of the coronavirus and allow more movement of people and goods.
Our economy is forecast to grow by 5 per cent this year, but there are bound to be bumps along the way, with the potential for new waves of the virus and ongoing trade tensions with China.xii
In the meantime, the Federal Government and Reserve Bank stand ready to continue stimulus measures to support jobs and the economy.
After the year that was, a return to something close to normal can’t come quick enough.
Winter is here and we are almost to the end of another financial year. And what a year it’s been! With so many Australians impacted by fires, floods, drought and now COVID-19, let’s hope the new financial year sees a return to something like normality.
As May unfolded, hopes grew of economic re-opening. Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe told a Senate Committee on COVID-19 the economic downturn was less severe than feared due to Australia’s better than expected health outcomes and government stimulus and support. However, he stressed: “It’s very important we don’t withdraw fiscal stimulus too early”. Unemployment rose from 5.2% to 6.2% in April, but without JobKeeper support payments it would have been closer to 9.6%. The value of construction work fell 19% in the March quarter, 6.5% over the year, highlighting the need for government stimulus. New business investment in buildings and equipment also fell 6.1% in the year to March, although mining investment bucked the trend, up 4.2% in the March quarter. This was reflected in our record trade surplus of $77.5 billion in the year to April, despite a drop-off in imports and exports in April.
After a wave of panic buying in March, retail trade fell a record 17.9% in April, but consumer confidence is on the mend. The ANZ-Roy Morgan weekly consumer confidence index rose 8 weeks in a row to the end of May, up a total of 42% from recent lows to 92.7 points. As the global economy slowly re-opens and demand improves, iron ore prices rose 15% in May while crude oil was up 77%. Australian shares bounced back by around 5% in May, while the US market rose 3%. The Aussie dollar traded higher on our improved economic outlook, closing the month around US66.4c
The Morrison Government’s mind-bogglingly large support packages to get Australians through the COVID-19 shutdown have dominated headlines, and rightly so. Only months ago, the Australian economy was in relatively good shape and headed for a Budget surplus.
It’s not just the Government that has swung into action. Behind the scenes, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has also pulled out all stops to keep the economy moving.
RBA monetary policy is the yin to the Government’s fiscal policy yang. During the current crisis it’s designed to complement, and to some degree pay for Government spending which already exceeds $320 billion.
On March 19, RBA Governor Philip Lowe announced a package of monetary support policies to “support jobs, incomes and businesses”. These policies included maintaining the cash rate at 0.25 per cent, the creation of a $90 billion funding facility to support business lending, and the purchasing of government bonds.
Rates as low as they will go
Australia began 2020 with the official cash rate at what was an historic low of 0.75 per cent. This left little wiggle room for the RBA to provide further economic stimulus the traditional way, by pulling the interest rate lever.
After two rate cuts in March, the cash rate is currently at a new all-time low of 0.25 per cent. The RBA has promised to keep it there until “progress has been made towards full employment and it is confident that inflation will be sustainably within the 2-3 per cent target range”. With unemployment expected to hit double digits we could be waiting for some time, although inflation jumped to 2.2 per cent in March. i
Increased funding for SMEs
While low interest rates traditionally encourage individuals and businesses to borrow and spend, there’s less inclination to do either while the Coronavirus shutdown continues.
The prospect of some business failures and loan defaults is also a disincentive for the banks to lend. So the RBA has provided a three-year funding facility for the banks at a low fixed rate of 0.25 per cent to reduce their funding costs and encourage borrowers.
The banks will be able to access this funding if they increase lending to business, especially small and medium-sized businesses which have been especially hard hit by the shutdowns.
Bond buying bonanza
The cash rate is not the only interest rate the RBA monitors. In its March statement it also set a target for the yield on 3-year Australian Government bonds of around 0.25 per cent, in line with the cash rate.
This was a signal to the market that the central bank is serious about keeping rates lower for longer. At the time 3-year Government bond yields were around 0.85 per cent.
The RBA set out to achieve this target by buying Government bonds in the secondary market. This is a monetary policy lever it has never used before, known as quantitative easing.
If you haven’t heard of quantitative easing – QE for short – or you have but you can’t get your head around it, you’re not alone.
How does quantitative easing work?
QE is where central banks print money to buy government bonds. A government bond is a low risk investment product whereby investors lend money to the government for a set period at a predetermined rate of return which is referred to as the yield or interest rate.
When the RBA enters the secondary market to buy billions of dollars of government bonds, it effectively gives the Government a lot more cash to spend and this money flows through the economy.
The RBA’s bond buying also raises the price of bonds and lowers their yields, which in turn lowers funding costs for borrowers and allows them to cut interest rates on home loans and business loans. Coupled with low interest rates, banks are better off lending money than holding onto it.
To date, the RBA has spent more than $36 billion in bond purchases and 3-year Government bond yields have dropped to around 0.25 per cent.ii So, by spending huge quantities of cash the RBA eased monetary policy, which is a roundabout way of saying it used quantitative easing.
What does it mean for me?
The prospect of low interest rates for the next few years creates opportunities and dilemmas for borrowers and investors.
As banks pass on some or all the cuts in official interest rates to their home loan customers, first home buyers are well-placed to secure a good deal. Existing homeowners might also take the opportunity to refinance.
According to Canstar, by shifting from the average variable interest rate of 3.52 per cent to the lowest rate on offer of 2.39 per cent, a borrower on a 30-year, $400,000 loan could save more than $240 a month or more than $87,400 over the life of the loan.iii
Retirees and others seeking income from their investments are not so lucky, but there are some good rates on offer if you are prepared to shop around. The best 12-month term deposit rates and bonus savings account rates are as high as 2 per cent.iv, v
These are undoubtedly difficult times, but the decisions you make now could put you in a good position when markets recover. So give us a call to discuss your financial situation.
It’s September and spring is in the air. It’s time to shake off the winter cobwebs, get out into the garden or the great outdoors. It’s also a good time to plan your summer break.
August was a challenging month for investors. Global markets reacted negatively to an escalation in the US-China trade war and the looming no-deal Brexit. US economic growth slowed to an annual rate of 2 per cent in the June quarter, down from 3.1 per cent the previous quarter. China’s economy is also slowing – industrial production, retail sales and fixed asset investment all recorded lower growth in the year to July.
To stimulate the US economy, the US Federal Reserve cut rates by 25 basis points, the first cut since 2008. US short-term bond yields rose as did the US dollar, but shares fell around the globe. In the US, shares were down around 2 per cent for the month while Australian shares shed 3 per cent. The Hong Kong market fell more than 7 per cent as protests continued and UK shares fell 5 per cent on Brexit worries.
In Australia, most companies reported positive earnings for the 2019 financial year, but only a little over half managed to lift profits. One challenge is retail spending, up 0.2 per cent in the year to June, the weakest in 28 years. The NAB business confidence index rose in July, but the business conditions index fell to 2.4 points (the long-term average is 5.8 points).
On the bright side, Australia’s trade surplus hit a new record high of $49.9 billion in the year to June. The Australian dollar finished the month lower at around US67c, which should support our exporters.
It’s August and we are into the final month of an unusually balmy winter, after a record run of high temperatures for July in many states. Financial markets have also been running hot with new records set.
Global sharemarkets were riding high in July, fueled by higher than expected US growth, rising expectations that the US Fed would cut interest rates this month and hopes of further China-US trade talks.
On the flip side, global bond yields fell to record lows. Australian 10-year government bonds currently yield 1.21 per cent, down 1.45 per cent in 12 months.
The US S&P500 share index hit a new record high in July while Australia’s All Ordinaries Index and ASX200 finally broke through their 2007 record highs set before the GFC. Australian shares were also buoyed by the second cut in official interest rates in as many months, to a new low of 1 per cent. Rising iron ore prices (up 72 per cent in 12 months) and further falls in the Aussie dollar to below US69c also helped boost our export sector.
Australia’s trade surplus rose to a record high of $5.75 billion in May, including a record surplus with China. But in a worrying sign, China’s economic growth fell to an annual rate of 6.2 per cent in the June quarter, its weakest in 27 years.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) lowered its forecasts for global growth to 3.2 per cent in 2019. If accurate, this would be the slowest growth in 10 years. This is reflected in Australia’s inflation rate; the Consumer Price Index rose to an annual rate of 1.6% in the June quarter, better than the 1.3% reading in March but still stubbornly below the Reserve Banks 2-3 per cent target.