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Co-founder & CEO of AllenWargent property buyer's agents, offices in Brisbane (Riverside) & Sydney (Martin Place), and CEO of WargentAdvisory (providing subscription analysis, reports & services to institutional clients).
4 x finance/investment author - 'Get a Financial Grip: a simple plan for financial freedom’ (2012) rated Top 10 finance books by Money Magazine & Dymocks.
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Pretty interesting looking at the UK property market headlines today, which include "caution", "worse on the way", "Brexit house price hit", "house prices defy uncertainty only because there are too few homes for sale", "cloudy outlook", and so on.
But then there was also "Another blow to Project FEAR as house prices rise again".
And indeed, so they did.
Nationwide reported that the average UK house price rose by +5.6 per cent year-on-year in August from a year earlier (increasing from +5.2 per cent in July).
The average price hit an all-time high of £206,145.
With the MPC cutting interest rates to 0.25 per cent after years of inaction, and the Bank of England electing to purchase another £60 billion of UK government bonds - applying further downward pressure to interest rates - the cost of fixed rate mortgages keeps on getting cheaper.
That said, the outlook for the UK economy is uncertain after Brexit, with several indicators suggesting a slowdown.
Couldn't think what to blog about today - creative juices aren't flowing at all, perhaps I need black coffee - so thought that for something different I'd take a look at Australia's oft-discussed government debt, and a few forecasts from the Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM).
The unemployment rate in Australia has declined from 6.3 per cent to 5.7 per cent since the beginning of 2015, taking the trend unemployment rate to its lowest level in 34 months at 5.71 per cent.
The supporting figures, however, show that we are absolutely miles away from full employment, with oodles of part time work and under-employment around.
Indeed, tomorrow's capex report will likely show that the collapse of business investment in the mining sector has spilled over adversely into associated parts of the services and manufacturing sectors (since some of these businesses naturally provided inputs into the resources investment boom - warehousing, transport, equipment manufacture, and so on).
In effect, via the unwinding of mining capex resources regions will be experiencing the multiplier effect of the mining investment boom in reverse, sucking some mining-dependent regions in Western Australia and Queensland into a gravitational black hole. I think this has already happened, in truth, the data will just confirm it.
Anyway, that's tomorrow's news, but one senses the outlook for capital expenditure won't be all that great, and the recovery in all likelihood has a long way to run.
(huge h/t to whichever internet wag created the above graphic - it gets me every time...too funny).
Some Treasury forecasts...
As new resources projects come online, Treasury expects the Australian economy to keep growing at a solid clip, in part driven by increasing export volumes, particularly of LNG.
Treasury has maintained its positive forecasts for real GDP growth over the next few years, with economic growth to be aided by household consumption and net exports as the export volumes increase.
However, these forecasts somewhat optimistically assume that household consumption will continue to remain positive, with the terms of trade holding also up at a level above anything we saw prior to the start of the boom (rather questionable given the trend since 2012!). Coking coal prices are booming - up by more than 40 per cent in August - but the outlook for iron ore prices may be grim.
Tourism and education exports are also expected to be key contributors, a theme I've looked at quite a bit on this blog.
While the government is making noises about trimming dollars and cents from its budget expenditure, behind the scenes the government is expected to keep borrowing hard, in part for infrastructure projects.
There are now $397 billion of Treasury bond securities across 23 lines on issue - a dozen of which have more at least A$20 billion outstanding - but look how low some of those coupon rates are...
There are a further $30.6 billion of Treasury indexed bonds and $3.5 billion of Treasury notes, adding up to a total of $431.2 billion of government securities on issue.
Fortunately bond yields are so low that the government can borrow at around the lowest yields on record without adding unduly to the interest burden.
And government bonds on issue are expected to keep rising, with there having been strong inflows from Japan into Australia's debt securities over the last three years.
Gross issuance of Treasury Bonds is expected to be A$90 billion in 2016-17, up marginally from last year, with net issuance of $68.9 billion (and an additional $3 billion of net issuance in Treasury Notes).
That will take Australian government bonds on issue to well beyond 25 per cent of GDP (though Australia's net debt to GDP ratio is somewhat lower) - which is not really very high compared to other deficit countries - e.g. Japan, Canada, the United States, Greece, France, or the United Kingdom - but nevertheless moving in an unmistakeably northwards direction since the financial crisis took hold.
How you feel about that really depends upon your position. Some argue that it's borrowing from the future. Others maintain that it makes a lot of sense to borrow for infrastructure projects when bond yields and coupon rates are so low, and while mining investment is still in freefall.
"What a difference a day makes" in the words of Rod Stewart (and whoever it was that crooned it before him).
The July Building Approvals figures posted a strong rebound with nearly 21,000 dwellings approved in the month on a seasonally adjusted basis, spring-boarding back up from 18,863 in June to notch the highest monthly result since May 2015.
In fact, July's result was the second strongest month on record for building approvals in Australia.
It rarely pays to get too aroused by one month of data, but it was another crunching month for total multi-unit approvals, which increased to a seasonally adjusted 11,513 from 9,928 in June (the result was driven by new flats and apartments, not townhouses).
The recent results for attached approvals have to a certain extent mirrored those of housing finance and prices, which were initially clonked by tighter macroprudential regulations but have posted a fairly spirited resurgence since.
The trend in detached house approvals still looks to be fading.
Looking at the annualised figures, the strong monthly result arrested the downtrend in total private sector approvals for now, totaling just shy of 235,000, which is still exceptionally high in historical terms.
City by city
Cutting straight to the point, July's result was driven by a flurry of attached dwelling approvals in Greater Sydney (4,933), Melbourne (3,029), and Brisbane (1,614), leading to an uptick in the annual figures for all three of the most populous capitals.
The numbers do jump around a bit, and the enormous result for Sydney in July came off the back of a run of generally more benign numbers since the beginning of the year.
Melbourne continues to approve by far the greatest number of detached homes, with a downtrend looking set to become entrenched in most other capital cities.
Of the resources capitals, Perth is dropping rapidly, and so too is Darwin.
What's being approved? (glut)
If you travel around Australia a fair bit you probably don't need a chart to tell you that this cycle has been chracterised by a proliferation of tower blocks, and not only in the capital cities.
Well, we got more of the same in July!
We arguably need a greater market share of this dwelling type in the future, particularly in the denser suburbs of the capital cities, but not this much more...
A messy correction coming for the new apartment sector is locked and loaded, it's largely just a question of how long and how messy.
Breaking out the annual figures by dwelling type shows that more than 72,500 units in blocks of four or more storeys have been approved over the year to July - some way below the October peak of nearly 78,000, but still an abnormally bloated result.
In fact, more than 8,500 units were approved in 4+ storey tower blocks in the month of July alone.
Overall, a set of figures which rather contradicts the decline in new home sales yesterday, with a resurgence in new unit and apartment approvals in July.
Whether or not all of these approvals ever get to see the light of day is another matter.
Nevertheless the result was a significant 'beat' on expectations, even if it was once again too concentrated in the burgeoning tower block sector.
According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) the significant investor visa (SIV) programme is designed to be:
"...a pathway to provide for significant migrant investment into Australia under the Business Innovation and Investment visa programme".
From the inception of the SIV programme in November 2012 until 30 June 2015 there had been some 2,573 applications lodged, but only 879 visas actually granted.
There can necessarily be a lag between application lodgement and visas being granted. The service standard is 6 to 9 months for the Business Innovation and Investment category.
The latest available statistics from the DIBP showed that 495 of the outstanding applications lodged prior to 1 July 2015 have now been granted.
A further 20 applications lodged after 1 July 2015 have also been granted in the financial year to 31 May 2016.
This means that the May 2016 figures recorded a total of 515 SIVs issued for the 11 months for the financial year to date.
The geographically segmented figures show that high net worth applicants are overwhelmingly focused on Melbourne, and then Sydney...with daylight third.
This reflects that Melbourne and to a somewhat lesser extent Sydney have been the two key destinations and markets of interest for Chinese investors since around 2012.
Indeed, the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) Annual Report showed that real estate applications tripled in two years, driven overwhelmingly by a deluge of Chinese investors into Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland.
The DIBP statistics for the top five source countries correspondingly show that more than 90 per cent of applicants for SIVs have also been Chinese.
Since the commencement of the significant investor visa programme in 2012 there have now been a total of 1,397 SIVs granted, leading to just a shade under A$7 billion of investment in complying assets.
It's difficult to say what the expected take-up for the SIV ever really was, but fewer than 1,400 visas sounds suspiciously like a fizzer of an initiative to me (albeit the composition and destination of applicants says something of note about where capital invested in Australia is coming from and where it is headed to).
Previously SIV investors were opting to drop money into passive investments such as qualifying government bonds and residential real estate schemes - not really what Australia needs more of, tbh! - which led to a much-needed reassessment of the requirements for complying investments.
Unfortunately interest in SIVs has been dampened since, following consultation with stakeholders, the rules were amended to require a greater share of the $5 million required investment to hit up venture capital products (at least 10 per cent) and emerging companies (minimum 30 per cent), investments that are typically associated with a higher risk of loss, whether perceived or real.
The most timely available statistics for expressions of interest, invitations, and applications lodged suggest only a modest ongoing flow of interest in the SIV.
Requiring wealthy Chinese with A$5 million to invest in venture capital projects and emerging companies is a fabulous idea...on paper.
In reality, however, this may be too ambitious and result in the killing off of SIV applications given that wealthy foreigners are unlikely to be familiar with the products and ventures in question, and therefore remain understandably reluctant to commit.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see the rules amended again or relaxed to allow Chinese investors to provide project funding (not passive investment) for residential and commercial real estate developments, or for infrastructure projects.
A spectacular rally in coal prices has led to some equivalently spectacular price action on the share markets.
Whitehaven Coal (WHC) blazed from a low of 36 cents earlier in the year to above $2.00, before easing back for a Friday close of $1.84.
Civil and mining contractor NRW Holdings (NWH) has a number of key coal contracts - including with Middlemount and Rio Tinto - and has been more than 15-bagged from 4 cents to 62.5 cents.
In the year to 30 June 2016 NWH reported revenues of $288 million and EBITDA of $47.4 million.
Despite an order book swelling to $1 billion, the company did not announce a final dividend, instead opting to pursue a significant reduction in net debt, with a target of clearing all debt balances within 30 months.
With the outlook for resources sector stabilising and infrastructure taking off, the market recognises improved tender opportunities for service providing companies.
While iron ore has been a top performer in 2016 to date, a number of analysts, including from Westpac, expect that this strength will not last until the end of the year due to oversupply.
Coking coal on the other hand has rallied by nearly 25 per cent in August to be up by a tearaway 73 per cent since the middle of February.
The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) will release its Index of Commodity Prices for the month of August this week.
In July the index increased by 4.1 per cent since it is reported in monthly average terms.
However, if it was reported using spot prices for the bulk commodities, the index would have increased by 8.3 per cent in July, to actually be 3.5 per cent higher over the past year.
Given the likely downward pressure on iron ore prices, the outlook for coal, oil and LNG - and to some extent gold - will be crucial to the resources revenues and national income.
The Detailed Labour Force figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics today showed that Australia added just over 220,000 jobs over the year to July 2016, bringing total employment close to breaking through the 12 million barrier.
That's a good headline result, but with part time employment employment rather too dominant.
Sydney has the lowest unemployment rate of the main capital cities at 4.7 per cent, and is also home to the lowest sub-regional annual average unemployment rates, with its eastern suburbs clocking in at 2.7 per cent, and the northern beaches 2.8 percent for the year to July.
These figures underscore the ongoing strength of the New South Wales economy.
Annual average unemployment rates continue to trend down in Greater Melbourne (5.9 per cent) and Greater Brisbane (where the rolling annual figures show unemployment shaping all the way down from 6.3 per cent to just 5.6 per cent since 2014).
Greater Adelaide has been hovering at the highest annual average unemployment rate of 7.3 per cent.
Regional markets are experiencing mixed fortunes, with Townsville recording one of the highest annual average unemployment rates over the past year at 9.7 per cent.
Mandurah (10.6 per cent), Cairns (8.6 per cent) and Ipswich (8 per cent) represent some of the other regions where average unemployment rates have been too high for comfort over the past year.
On the other hand, some regional markets such as Geelong - which comfortably wins the most improved award - have fared very well over the past year, with more than 20,000 jobs added on a net basis, and a substantial decline in the annual average unemployment rate to just 5.4 per cent.
WorkSafe jobs would be part of this, but since labour force figures represent where people usually reside rather than where they actually work, it's likely that many of these 'new' jobs are based in Melbourne, with folks opting to commute from a cheaper location.
Where are the jobs?
Greater Sydney (+61,500) and Greater Melbourne (total employment +84,700) have continued to add the bulk of jobs over the past year, while parts of the regional New South Wales (+29,400) economy have fared reasonably well.
Excluding Geelong, however, regional Victoria is going backwards.
Total employment in Greater Brisbane (+30,800) continues to grow robustly, with inner city Brisbane having one of the lowest unemployment rates over the past year at just 3.7 per cent, but there's not much of note happening elsewhere.
Over the past year two in three jobs have been created in Sydney and Melbourne, and more than 80 per cent of employment growth has been seen in three most largest capital cities, being Greater Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.
Overall, the three most populous cities are accounting for such a high share of employment growth that unemployment rates are low in historical terms.
Moving around the country, however, it's clear that there is oodles of spare capacity as the resources sector comes off.
In the absence of significant inflationary pressures, Commsec is pencilling in another interest rate cut for November, while the cash rate futures implied yield curve doesn't bottom out until the fourth quarter of 2017.
Total Construction Work Done declined by a further 1.9 per cent in the June 2016 quarter to $47.8 billion, to be 7.9 per cent lower over the year.
The result was driven by another 5.1 per cent decline in engineering construction in the quarter - largely mining related - to leave this component down by 24.9 per cent year-on-year.
The building boom, on the other hand, continues apace.
Although there has been a solid increase in alterations and additions (major renovations) lately, record building activity through this cycle has been overwhelmingly been driven by "other residential" building, specifically units, apartments, and townhouses.
Mining cliff now 4 years old
Next month it will be fully four years since the so-termed "mining cliff" began.
Interestingly engineering construction work done increased in the June 2016 quarter in Queensland, where most of the retracement has already taken place, while activity has actually trended up strongly in New South Wales and Victoria over the past year.
I've long been warning that Western Australia would have to take its medicine sooner or later, and the reality check kicked in this quarter, with engineering construction crashing down to be some 48 per cent lower than one year ago.
These figures confirm what has no doubt been obvious on the ground for some time - that the local economy is doing it tough as it passes through this painful slowdown period.
Engineering construction work done has also fallen substantially in the Northern Territory over the last six quarters, including by a further 28 per cent over the past year, with only the massive Ichthys LNG project is holding this result aloft.
The good news is that the decline in engineering construction is now thought to be around 80 per cent complete, meaning that sooner or later this will stop being such a drag on the economy.
In fact, in New South Wales, Victoria, and now Queensland, it already has.
Record building boom continues
The building boom and its associated multiplier effect has largely benefited the largest capital cities.
New house building, while still increasing steadily in Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia, appears to have peaked for this cycle nationally.
On the other hand the value of construction work done on attached dwellings was still tracking at record levels in the June quarter.
Residential building activity was still running at full pelt through the second quarter of the year, pushing up building costs in cities such as Sydney.
The Housing Industry Association (HIA) announced today that it believes that new home building will now decline for the next three years, with annual commencements falling from a peak of over 232,500 dwellings to 166,500 in 2018/19, with some downside risks to the forecast.
The good news is that engineering construction will have already stopped falling significantly over the next 18 months.
Ichthys aside, most of the project-driven declines have now washed through the figures outside Western Australia.
Analysts expect to see moderate GDP growth in the second quarter of calendar year 2016 with net exports not making much of a contribution this time around.
On balance, though, the planned hand-off has been pulled off very well, with Australia now getting close to the bottom of its mining cliff.
Although resources regions have felt the pain, the largest capital cities have by and large pulled through relatively unscathed.
SQM Research reported that nationally vacancy rates were slightly higher at 2.5 per cent in July, and slightly higher than one year ago when vacancy rates were 2.4 per cent.
Over the past year vacancy rates have tightened in Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart...and even Darwin!
Vacancy rates have been fairly flat for most of the past year in Sydney.
In Brisbane, rising inner city apartment vacancy rates are pushing the city average higher, up to 2.9 per cent in July.
Meanwhile in Perth, vacancy rates have hit a fresh cyclical high of 5.2 per cent, up from 5.0 per cent in June.
Perth's property market is beginning to look increasingly attractive from a price-earnings ratio perspective, but the time for investors to jump in may not be yet (after all, a rental property ideally needs a tenant, and asking rents have declined too over the past 12 months).
To make a bit more sense of the trends, the figures have been smoothed on a 4mMA basis below
It appears that the Darwin market may have turned a corner, while Hobart and Canberra have tightened significantly.
Going forward, the volume of apartments under construction in Melbourne may result in vacancy rates rising again in the Victorian capital.
According to SQM's Managing Director, Louis Christopher:
"Melbourne may start to record higher vacancies next year under the weight of completed apartment developments; but for now Melbourne remains a landlord's market.
Sydney is unlikely to record such a surge in vacancies as we believe the city's population expansion is going to absorb much of the new stock."
An extraordinary turnaround story and set of numbers was reported by iron ore producer Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) this week, with reported statutory profit surging back in FY2016, and a profit after tax of US$985 million being reported.
This has been achieved in part through cost reduction, with iron ore prices remaining much lower than the levels seen in FY2014.
One slide of interest from the corporate presentation highlighted how 300 million Chinese are still expected to urbanise at a rate of around 16 million per annum, underpinning demand for Australia's iron ore and coal over the medium term.
Source: ASX (FMG)
Perhaps not surprisingly, FMG believes that iron ore demand and supply are fairly evenly matched.
Other analysis, including from Westpac, suggests that the iron ore market is oversupplied and that iron ore prices will surely fall later in 2016.
Coking coal on the other hand is in the midst of a spectacular rally, with prices up by more than 60 per cent since mid-February.
Perhaps the Reserve Bank's Index of Commodity Prices will be staging a further rebound in due course, having already jumped in July.
FMG has reduced its operating costs impressively, with its C1 operating costs slashed across 10 consecutive quarters to just US$14.31 per wet metric tonne in the June 2016 quarter, competing fiercely with BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto for the mantle of lowest cost producer in Australia.
The results were a beat across almost every metric, resulting in a substantial US$2.7 billion in free cashflows.
This has allowed the group to reduce its net debt significantly in FY2016 to below US$5.2 billion, including cash of US$1.6 billion.
Being a high leverage/high beta stock, the share price performance this year has been extraordinary, exploding from below $1.50 in January to touch above $5 earlier this week.
A great result for Fortescue, and those shareholders who stayed the course will very much enjoy the 12 cents per share final dividend.
The Reserve Bank's Commodity Price Index for August is due to be released next week.
Consumer confidence has ripped to its highest level in years.
And why not?
With the election out of the way with a majority result, low inflation, low interest rates, and strengthening auction clearance rates, consumer confidence was up by +3.6 per cent in the last week according to Roy Morgan Research.
Confidence has increased substantially over the past dozen weeks to sit miles above its quarter-century average.
Consumer confidence in Australia historically tends to lead housing finance and dwelling prices, so this is a big result.
ANZ reported that every one of the confidence sub-indices recorded strong gains, including notably the time to buy a major household item, which jumped by +5.1 per cent.
Household views on the 1-year economic outlook jumped by +5.4 per cent, and for the 5-year outlook by +4.8 per cent, to see both of these sub-indices above their long run averages.
If you've felt that there seem to be ever more cars clogging up Australia's capital cities...well, you'd be absolutely bang on, of course!
Not only is the population growing in a more concentrated fashion, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, the national vehicle fleet is growing at an even faster rate than the national population, increasing by +2.1 per cent in the year to January.
That's an absolute increase of 379,369 registered motor vehicles.
According to the ABS Motor Vehicle Census for 2016, the biggest increase in the number of vehicles was seen in New South Wales, putting pedal to the metal in accelerating at a thumping +127, 220.
Meanwhile the fastest percentage increase was seen in Victoria (+2.5 per cent), just ahead of NSW (+2.4 per cent), while Queensland (+2.2 per cent) was following pretty closely in the rear view mirror.
Over the last five years there has been a truly enormous increase in the number of registered vehicles in NSW (+596k), Victoria (+483k), and Queensland (+452k).
If you ever needed substantiation for why people will increasingly favour place over space in our capital cities, this could be the salient reason.
A separate report released this week showed that Australians spend an average of $22,000 per annum on transport, with Sydneysiders clubbed the hardest at a brutal $419 per week for a painful 16.8 per cent share of their income.
Small wonder that people want to live closer to the action.
Time for a scrappage scheme?
I haven't lived full time in the United Kingdom for more than a dozen years, but the changes I notice most when I visit - apart from the incredible surge in the number of Eastern European residents - mostly relate to transport, including congestion charges, park-and-ride schemes, designated bus lanes, and so on.
In particular, the vehicle scrappage scheme promoted in the 2009 UK budget was exceptionally successful in encouraging surplus older vehicles to be deregistered, and there are comparatively few old cars on Britain's roads these days.
Perhaps it's time for Australia to consider something similar, with the number of vehicles on the national register increasing by more than 2 million to 18.4 million over the past five years.
Tasmania now has an outlandish 885 registered motor vehicles per 1,000 of its population, a dubious record of sorts!
It was heartening to see that the number of leaded petrol vehicles continued to decline over the year from around 418,000 to 391,000.
And the increase in the number of diesel vehicles (+293,217 in the year to January 2016) is now far outpacing the growth in the petrol powered fleet (+114,337).
In fact, the number of diesel vehicles has expanded by nearly 60 per cent since 2011.
Yet the average age of a vehicle in Tasmania is now as high as 12.6 years, hinting at inefficiency.
Not too surprisingly, the youngest vehicle fleet is to be found in the Top End, where it sometimes feels as though practically every second person is driving a new Prado.
Sadly Australia's manufacturing industries have been a casualty of the high dollar through the mining boom, and there has been a significant decline in the number of homegrown vehicles on the road since the 2011 Census, with Holden (-7.3 per cent) and Ford (-18.4 per cent) models taking a big hit.
In their place have come more Toyota, Mazda, Hyundai, Nissan, and Subaru models.
The number of vehicles on the register continues to rise at a much faster pace than population growth, with particularly rampant expansion in the three most populous states.
Petrol retail prices now having declined to a 14-year low will do little to discourage car ownership, so perhaps it's time to look at other measures?
In the meantime, the ongoing clamour to live in inner-suburban locations continues apace.