Investors dazed and confused

05:23, Jun 21 2013

You might not have noticed, but for all the talk of gloom and doom, Australian iron ore exporters have had a pay rise of about 12 per cent over the past two months and local gold bugs are only suffering half as much as their American cousins.

And then there's China, back in the headlines with yet another alleged crisis, but this time because the economists running the place are trying to fix past policy mistakes and deliver a stronger and more sustainable economy. And the economic data coming out of Beijing continues to remain consistent with the goal of about 7.5 per cent growth, the shadow banking squeeze notwithstanding.

While the markets roil, it is bemusing that so much panic and pain is being caused by two fundamentally sound policy moves: the US Federal Reserve's entirely reasonable hope of being able to give the printing presses a rest as the American economy strengthens and Beijing's attempt to rein in the shadow banking system's excesses.

Ben Bernanke is promising to do what Alan Greenspan didn't - responsibly take away the punch bowl as the economic party gets under way. The two key effects are halting the debasement of the greenback and pricking the bond market bubble, pushing up yields and lowering prices. Whether that bond bubble deflates or bursts is rather important, but the odds are with deflating rather than an explosion.

Restoring confidence in the greenback signals time for gold's big rally and, somewhat similarly, a diminishing of the Australian dollar's appeal as a safe haven in tandem with the gap between Australian and US bond yields shrinking.

For those of us who've always thought gold was bubble, it's been a matter of when, not if, it would pop. It's not really over until Bernanke makes good on stopping the printing presses. The US fiscal deficit is shrinking rather quicker than anyone might have guessed and the unemployment rate is falling. There are plenty of quibbles to be had with both those factors, but it's travelling in the right direction, as the RBA board minutes have noted.


Gold speculators are assuming the best for the US economy and that the Fed boss will keep his word - so holding gold as protection against a falling greenback no longer makes sense. Actually, it hasn't for two years.

Gold had five fantastic years, rallying from about $US500 in 2006 to a peak of nearly $US1900 in 2011 - but now it's below $US1300 with no yield to protect from the appeal of higher interest rates. Goodnight Gary Glitter.

The pain for Australian gold bugs has been softened by our falling dollar. Gold has dived by 23 per cent in US dollar terms this year, but is only off by 14 per cent in Australian dollars.

And that's just what a weaker Aussie is meant to do for us - soften the impact of lower commodity prices and keep the money rolling in. Iron ore prices have continued to hold up this week while other commodities faltered - the benchmark around $120 US dollars. And that means unhedged iron ore miners have had about a 12 per cent price rise in Australian dollar terms on spot cargos in the past two months. Nice.

Where will the Aussie settle? No-one knows but everyone's guessing, including some opinions that it could stabilise and even recover a bit. As usual, most forecasts remain just extrapolations of the most recent trend, but it's worth remembering that despite the Aussie's slide, foreign central banks continue to oversubscribe to commonwealth bond tenders. The safe haven isn't dead yet.

And that's despite the speculation about what the Bank of China is up to.

Dire warnings from credit ratings agency Fitch received plenty of attention this week. I wonder though if most people read all the story - while suggesting China's shadow banking system is in all sorts of trouble, Fitch still thinks the government can handle any banking crisis.

Beijing knows it needs to fix the financial system mistakes that caused the explosion of the shadow banking system - but they also are pledged to deliver economic growth of about 7.5 per cent this year. It's a tricky monetary squeeze they're putting on, yet for all the negative reporting of various purchasing managers indices, the economic data continues to be consistent with that growth target.

Beijing has the firepower to prevent an Oriental Lehman moment - and it really does want stable, sustainable growth. At this stage of the game, the cadres aren't into destroying the village to save the village.

As usual, volatile markets and fear create opportunities - solid companies with healthy yields become cheaper and the panic overlooks stocks that actually stand to gain from some of the global changes.

Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor.

Sydney Morning Herald