Economic Update – February 2020
by Infocus Author
Within this month’s update, we share with you a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.
Good start to year for markets.
– US trade deals signed
– Stronger China data
– Better than expected Australian data.
We hope you find this month’s Economic Update as informative as always. If you have any feedback or would like to discuss any aspect of this report, please contact our team.
The Big Picture
We expressed strong reasons for being optimistic about equities in 2020 at the start of this year. The ASX 200 and the S&P then raced ahead in January so much so that our overpricing signals came close to calling the need for a slight correction!
Coronavirus jumped out of the shadows towards the end of January and that was enough to check the markets’ strides. The ASX 200 still gained 4.7% in January while the S&P 500 finished the month slightly down.
At this point, not enough seems to be known about the virus to be able to make a meaningful economic assessment. However, there are good signals that China and the rest of the world are cooperating in finding a solution. Put in the context of other recent medical alarms such as SARS and Ebola, there is no sign yet that markets might not soon start to recover.
Of course, we had the added problem of major bushfires at home to contend with. Even so, our market climbed just about as much in January as in an average full year!
The Phase 1 trade deal was signed as expected on January 15th so that put the stoush between China and the US on the back burner. Brexit seems to be going smoothly – certainly far better than most claimed it would be in the three-year run-up since the referendum.
The Trump impeachment trial started with all of the fanfare of a three-ringed circus coming to town. Few expect a conviction and an exit for Trump. The issue is what impact there will be on Trump and Biden in the run-up to the November elections.
By and large the relevant global macro-economic data in January have been quite favourable. China’s key monthly indicators were stronger than expected. Its economic growth came in as expected at 6.1%.
While some point to a falling growth rate in China, it is prudent to place this change in growth in context. China’s economy has doubled since 2011 while our economy is only up around 20%. That means that the value added for China from an Australian perspective is massive at 6.1% p.a. compared to 8% p.a. or so a decade ago!
The US Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) kept rates on hold in January as expected. However, they did downgrade the word they have been using to describe their labour market from “strong” to “moderate”.
The latest nonfarm payrolls figure came in a little under expectations at 145,000 new jobs for the month of December against the predicted 165,000. The unemployment rate stayed at 3.5% (a fifty-year low) but the growth in wages dropped from 3.1% p.a. to 2.9% p.a.
We have found it hard to be any more positive about the Australian economy than “stuck in a rut” (but not dying). The latest jobs data were, in fact, a little encouraging. The unemployment rate dropped a notch to 5.1% and jobs growth was moderately strong. Indeed, the rate of increase in full-time employment has been (gently) accelerating.
Even our inflation rate hinted at some signs of life. The headline figure of 1.8% and the RBA’s preferred “trimmed mean” number of 1.6% are not far off the 2% to 3% band that the RBA targets.
Importantly, the IMF believes that global growth in 2020 will be 3.4% against 2.9% for 2019. That is, most indicators suggest that the “bottom” is behind us. Cyclical growth can start again!
The upcoming reporting season in Australia will shape the year to come. The US season, already underway, has had some standout successes but also some big failures. Our interpretation of broker-based forecasts of earnings growth in Australia (underpinned by company guidance) has strengthened to level around 5%, enough to support the view that the ‘endless summer’ looks set to continue, the caveat being that the Coronavirus outbreak is quickly contained.
There were big gains in most sectors of the ASX 200 in January other than resources. Even Financials posted modest growth.
The January gain for the broader index of 5% is around the long-term average for a full year. We have the market modestly overpriced but the fundamentals have been improving steadily since November.
Importantly the ASX 200 has already climbed above the highest end-of-year forecast we have seen in the media. With the February reporting season just getting underway, we will see if the January surge was misguided or if the commentators will be forced to upgrade their forecasts.
Of course, the full impact of the Coronavirus has not yet fully worked through. When it is difficult to estimate the economic impact of such a health problem, markets often over-correct presenting buying opportunities.
We see no new major downside to the market in the near future but we do expect growth to moderate. The ‘endless summer’ in the markets will one day end but based on our forecasts we do not see sufficient justification to rotate away from equities at this point.
The S&P 500 did not fare as well as the ASX 200 during January but new all-time highs were reached in January in both markets. The S&P 500 gave up all of its January gains on the last day of the month – and then a little more.
The December quarter 2019 US reporting season is well underway with the likes of JP Morgan and Amazon spectacularly beating expectations – so much so that the Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, reportedly added $11bn to his personal wealth on the day of that announcement. Amazon went on to rally the next day while the broader market was being hit by the Coronavirus.
Of course, there were misses too but our take of the season so far is that there is, on balance, support for this rally.