Gold News

Blue Skies, Plain Sailing

But keep an eye on those mean-reverting commodities prices...
 
FOR 1,000 days in a row, writes Dan Denning in The Daily Reckoning Australia, the S&P 500 has traded without a 10% correction.
 
That's the fifth-longest streak for the index since 1928, according to Bespoke Investment Group. And to the extent that Aussie stocks follow the US lead, it's a good sign.
 
But you can't take more profit out of a business than it generates in earnings. Businesses operate in the real economy. And in the real economy, Australia ran a $1.9 billion trade deficit in May. That is most definitely not a good sign.
 
Analysts expected a 'small' deficit of around $200 million. What they got was a 6% drop in the value of 'non rural' goods like coal, iron ore and gold, and a 5% drop in total exports. The real culprit was iron ore, which hit a 20-month low during the June quarter.
 
Keep an eye on those mean-reverting commodities prices!
 
 
Now, maybe everything will be fine in the September quarter. Maybe commodity prices will stabilise at a higher equilibrium. And maybe the increase in export volumes from the production phase of the commodity boom will lead to a resumption of trade surpluses and good times.
 
Yes, good times.
 
Buy maybe not. Consider the following: exports accounted for 80% of GDP growth in the March quarter. If exports fell in the June quarter, what's going to make up for their contribution to GDP growth? Government spending? Business investment? Consumer spending?
 
I've said before that nothing is going to replace the jobs-producing, income-increasing, national-wealth-boosting effects of the resources boom. The first quarter GDP data gave everyone a false sense of security because of the huge increase in export volumes.
 
But now the economic truth is being laid bare: Australia's boom was dependent on a huge price rise in few keycommodities to a single customer. That's why the first quarter numbers were 'as good as it gets,' according to Ben Jarman from J.P.Morgan. And that's why this a 'precarious prosperity,' according to Andrew Charlton in an article published in Quarterly Essay.
 
Sorry to rain on the parade, especially when stock markets are making new highs. But there are some serious economic, military, and even psychological weaknesses in Australia that are going to make the next recession a doozy. The time to prepare for that is now.
 
Australia's economy and stock market are more vulnerable than widely believed. Two quick notes on that today, both of which are about Australia's largest shares being 'repriced' for less growth and higher debt costs. In both cases, it's negative for share prices. And since we're talking about six of the biggest stocks on the market, by capitalisation, it's also negative for benchmark indices and any investments linked to them (like STW, the S&P ETF linked to the ASX/200).
 
First, Standard and Poor's warned this week that the credit ratings of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton could be negatively impacted by falling iron ore prices. If earnings are negatively impacted by lower ore prices, the outstanding debt at both companies could be negative for share prices.
 
S&P analyst May Zhong wrote that:
"Mining companies with large iron ore exposures, but which are unable to cut costs and are saddled with debt, will face a severe deterioration in earnings and credit metrics if iron ore stagnates at this price threshold through 2015...As such, they will have less flexibility at the current ratings to undertake debt-funded growth or capital-management initiatives."
Practically speaking, shareholders might receive less cash back from the companies in the form of dividends. If you're generating less free cash flow, and your cost of debt is going up, you're not in a position to buy back as many shares (which boosts shareholder value) or return 'excess cash' to shareholders.
 
It also makes future growth more expensive to finance if the companies have to sell more equity (which also results in dilution for shareholders).
 
The capital structure of the big miners hasn't been an issue for the last five years. They've been generating tonnes of cash. And interest rates have kept borrowing costs low. But even though interest expenses are tax deductible, a lower credit rating and/or higher rates could mean the miners will no longer be valued as stable, blue chip stocks with safe, predictable growth. If they're valued more like cyclical mining stocks, expect a lot more volatility and much lower price/earnings multiples.
 
The banks face a similar issue but for a different reason. The Commonwealth Bank has already paid out $54 million in compensation to customers who lost money thanks to bad or fraudulent financial planning advice from its representatives. The chairman of the Senate committee that looked into the issue, Senator Mark Bishop, reckons it could rise to $250 million once all 400,000 financial planning customers during the period in question (seven years ago) have their cases reviewed.
 
Last week, CBA CEO Ian Narev said the amount of compensation was not 'material' in the sense that it would negatively impact the bank's operations or profits. But Credit Suisse analysts said it does indeed highlight 'operational risk' at Australian banks, namely that they may have to hold higher capital on the balance sheet in reserve against further compensation claims.
 
Now the big four banks made a combined profit of over $27 billion in the last fiscal year. They're probably not too worried yet, even if they end up paying several hundred million Dollars out in compensation for bad financial planning advice. But if the net result of the Senate inquiry is that banks have to hold more capital in reserve, that too affects their ability to grow. And if they can't grow as fast, their shares could be re-rated to reflect lower growth and higher 'operational risk'.
 
We'll see how both events play out. But just remember, access to cheap finance has boosted company profits and share market returns since 2009. Six of Australia's biggest stocks are priced for high growth and low interest rates. If we get lower growth and higher interest rates, those stocks will be 're-rated' lower and the index will decline.
 
That might seem like a remote possibility when the All Ordinaries have climbed back over 5,500. But don't discount it too much.

Best-selling author of The Bull Hunter (Wiley & Sons) and formerly analyzing equities and publishing investment ideas from Baltimore, Paris, London and then Melbourne, Dan Denning is now co-author of The Bill Bonner Letter from Bonner & Partners.

See our full archive of Dan Denning articles
 

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