Urs Wietlisbach is one of the three founders of Swiss private equity firm, Partners Group, which has grown to manage more than US$130 billion. James Weir interviewed Urs on the outlook for private equity and whether higher interest rates changes the outlook for returns. Watch until the end to get Urs’s view on the prospects for the Global Value Fund as it prepares to sell more than 20 mature assets.
In June of last year, Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve Chair, admitted, “We now understand better how little we understand about inflation.”
That alarming, but at least honest observation from the world’s most powerful central banker, comes despite the Fed employing more than 400 Ph.D. economists who enjoy access to the world’s most up to date data.
What is truly disconcerting though, is that governments around the world have happily passed on responsibility for managing inflation, and usually unemployment as well, to central banks via the control of monetary policy. But they essentially have only one tool to do that: interest rates.
Passing on that responsibility to central banks rests on some long-standing beliefs around monetary policy that sound fine in theory but lack real world evidence to back them up.
For example, the presumption that raising or lowering interest rates can control inflation. During the 2010’s, central banks around the world were concerned about deflation, that is, inflation being too low, so the biggest central banks in the world cut interest rates to never before seen levels.
The United States had effectively zero interest rates between 2010 and 2016, yet inflation averaged only 1.6 per cent per year over that period. Over those same seven years interest rates in the Euro Area averaged about half a per cent but inflation was -0.1 per cent, and in Japan rates were stuck at zero yet inflation averaged only 0.2 per cent.
Likewise, if high interest rates are supposed to cure inflation, how is it that Argentina can have an interest rate of 78 per cent yet inflation is 102 per cent? Defenders of orthodox monetary policy would say Argentina’s long been a basket case, but that’s the point, its interest rate has been above 40 per cent for the past five years but it has failed to control inflation.
Another shibboleth of monetary policy is the so-called Phillips Curve, which asserts that inflation and unemployment are inversely related. That’s why the Reserve Bank and the Fed regularly talk about the 50-year low unemployment levels and the inflationary risk from the price-wage spiral. The theory is that low unemployment causes such high demand for workers that they will flex their bargaining power and drive up wages, so raising inflation.
That may have been an issue 50-plus years ago when more than 60 per cent of the workforce belonged to a union, but with now only 9 per cent of Australia’s private sector in a union, things have changed. Wage increases have been below the CPI for the past nine consecutive quarters in Australia, see chart 1, and real average hourly earnings in the US declined by 1.3 per cent over the year to February, meaning it has been a deflationary influence in both countries.
Chart 1: Australian wages growth has lagged the CPI for the past 9 consecutive quarters
In fact, Quay Global Investors analysed the US inflation and unemployment data between 1985-2020 and found there was no meaningful relationship – see chart 2.
Chart 2: there has been no meaningful relationship between inflation and unemployment in the US over the past 40 years
However, there have now been five different analyses covering the US, UK and Australia, that have each found corporate profiteering accounts for the majority of inflationary pressures in each country. That is reflected in US corporate profit margins hitting a 70-year high last year. One of those studies dubbed the phenomena “excuseflation”, because companies were using the first bout of inflation in years as cover to raise prices as much as they felt the market would bear.
Yet central banks continue to focus on consumers and households, with no mention of the role played by companies. By contrast, at the start of the pandemic the Japanese government made it clear to companies they would be watching for opportunistic price gouging, resulting in an inflation rate that peaked at about half the rest of the developed world, despite importing almost all their food and energy.
Also, monetary policy is frequently, and correctly, referred to as a blunt instrument because it can only work indirectly, by encouraging or discouraging people and businesses to borrow money and it can take ages to have any effect. The usual expression is that it operates “with long and variable lags.” However, all the central banks continue to say they will be “guided by the data”, but that data, be it the CPI, unemployment or industrial data, is all backward looking. There is an obvious logical mismatch.
Another logical mismatch is expecting that raising interest rates, which can only influence demand driven inflation, will do any good against supply driven inflation. For example, the floods last year contributed to double digit food inflation. Obviously, families have to eat, so raising interest rates is entirely non-sensical as a way to counter those inflationary effects.
The very clear problem is that by sticking dogmatically to those underlying economic theories, without accounting for the lack of real world evidence to back them up, central banks risk pushing economies into recession. Central bankers are muscling up trying to show they can be as tough as Paul Volcker, who was credited with stopping the inflationary episode of the 1970s-80s, but there are compelling arguments to suggest he gets way too much credit. They insist the pain of inflation, which by their own admission they don’t fully understand, is worse than the pain of people losing their jobs or their houses.
Interest rates can definitely play a role, after all, if central banks push interest rates high enough they will inevitably force a recession, which will certainly have deflationary consequences, but it’s ridiculous to argue that’s the only way to address the problem.
There are no easy solutions to controlling something as mysterious as inflation in a modern, complex economy, however, acknowledging the critical role fiscal policy plays would be a start. Professor Isabella Weber of the University of Massachusetts, who specialises in inflation, argues governments should explore strategic price controls, which have been extremely effective in the past, such as during war times.
However, until the dogmas of orthodox economic policy are left behind, smart investors need to remember to base their investment decisions on what they think will happen, not what should happen.
Spoiler alert: Australian banks are safe and what’s happened in the US and with Credit Suisse over the past week does not represent a threat to your bank deposits nor to the Australian economy in general.
Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was the sixteenth largest bank in the US, with $209 billion in assets, and collapsed last week largely due to poor management.
With the explosion in venture capital investing over the pre-COVD period, SVB had experienced incredible growth by banking standards: deposits had quadrupled in five years. However, it had a massive concentration of depositors, 93% were corporate compared to a median of only 34% in the US’s 10 largest banks, and most were venture capital-backed businesses with relatively large deposits. This left the bank vulnerable to an old-fashioned run on its deposits.
In an effort to make a bit of extra money, SVB had invested a lot of those deposits into US government bonds, which are super safe, but some were long dated, out to a few years. If they had have invested in 3-month bonds, there wouldn’t have been a problem, but the bank chased the higher yield of 3 and 5-year bonds. This left the bank vulnerable to a rise in interest rates, which reduces the value of bonds. Given SVB’s CEO sat on the board of the San Francisco Fed, which had been warning of ongoing rate hikes, you can see how poor management was.
With venture capital investors slowing their rate of handing out money since last year, some of those depositors were forced to draw on their deposits to run their companies and fund basic working capital.
SVB was forced to sell some of its government bonds and take a loss on them, which was reported to the market and they unsuccessfully tried to tap shareholders for $2.25 billion in new equity. This caused some of the venture capitalists to worry that if more and more depositors started wanting their money back, SVB wouldn’t be able to meet the demand, so they jumped on Twitter or sent text messages telling their investee companies (the depositors) to get their money out ASAP. This caused that old fashioned bank run to snowball, and at one point SVB had copped $42 billion worth of withdrawals in six hours.
By Thursday of last week, it was lights out for SVB. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporate (FDIC) moved in that day, stayed all night assessing the state of withdrawal requests, and announced it had taken control of the bank by Friday. That’s the day all hell broke loose for US banking shares, with the regional bank index falling some 16%. By Sunday night the Federal Reserve announced all depositors would be made good, but equity investors will lose their money, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to work: depositors have faith a bank will look after their money, while investors take on the risk of a company screwing up.
In summary, the SVB situation was idiosyncratic, i.e. a situation peculiar to that bank. There have since been two other smaller US banks closed down by the FDIC, mainly because they had excessive amounts of deposits tied up in crypto assets. Certainly, it wouldn’t have happened if the Fed had not been raising rates, but there’s a popular expression on Wall Street that the Fed keeps raising until something breaks.
It’s worth bearing in mind, the US banking industry is structured very differently to ours. There are literally hundreds of small banks, a legacy of the Great Depression era. Since 2001, there have been 563 banks go belly up in the US, with about 500 of those as a result of the GFC. If Australia’s banking system was able to withstand that, it will be fine with what’s happening now.
Credit Suisse has been a mess for years, with a string of scandals and poor investments going back over decades, which culminated in a growing number of clients taking their money and business elsewhere by the end of last year. The bank’s CEO tried to woo back customers, but last week the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the US (equivalent to ASIC here), queried the bank’s annual report. Combined with the SVB situation, panic started to set in.
Then on Wednesday, CS’s biggest shareholder, the Saudi National Bank, said it wasn’t going to be able to invest any more into the bank because it was hitting regulatory limits. That caused CS’s share price to plunge, and they asked the Swiss central bank to issue a statement of support, which it did.
However, other banks around the world started worrying about counterparty risk, in other words, looking at contracts where CS was on the other side, and trying to buy protection. Pretty soon, the cost of that protection skyrocketed, implying a high likelihood of default.
A you can imagine, a lot of investors started having flashbacks to the death of Lehman Brothers in 2009, and worrying what threats CS poses to the global banking system. However, CS has substantial liquid assets it can call on as well as access to central bank lending facilities. The CEO has said it has sufficient cash-like liquid assets to pay back half its deposit liabilities and loans from other banks.
Subsequently, the Swiss National Bank has said CS “meets the higher capital and liquidity requirements applicable to systemically important banks” and it stands ready to provide CS with liquidity. CS has announced it will borrow SFR50 billion to meet any liquidity demands from depositors and buy back a bunch of debt that was trading way below its issue price.
Is this the start of another GFC?
No, it’s a very different situation. However, stress levels in financial markets have certainly risen which is being reflected in bond market dislocation, which will result in higher funding costs for banks. It depends on how markets and central banks respond to a crisis, and so far, the US Fed and the Swiss National Bank have done very well.
How will it affect Australian banks?
In 2016, the Australian bank regulator, APRA, announced it wanted Australian banks to have “the strongest balance sheets in the world”. At the time the banks pushed back, but lost, and now their balance sheets are indeed very strong.
Their funding costs may rise a bit, and access to capital markets may be restricted while markets are unsettled, but there is no risk of any bank failures in this country.
As for depositors, the federal government already guarantees deposits up to $250,000 and we’ve seen the US regulator increase that to pretty much no limit for the SVB depositors.
A silver lining?
It is entirely possible this will cause central banks around the world to pause their interest rate rises while markets are in turmoil.
The correlation between lending approvals and property prices has long been established as providing a 4-6 month ‘crystal ball’ into future property prices. The relationship can be clearly seen in the following chart which plots each data series over the past 20 years.
Property prices declining
Let’s first establish where the property market currently sits.
CoreLogic’s national Home Value Index (HVI) fell for the sixth consecutive month, as values across the nation retreated a further -1.2% in October. Annual declines are currently isolated to Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart yet there is some evidence the rate of decline is now gathering pace in the other capital cities, especially Brisbane.
It was not only the capital cities which experienced the pullback. CoreLogic’s Regional Market Update showed residential property values in six of the twenty-five most popular lifestyle markets recorded falls of 6% or more last quarter. This included Richmond-Tweed (-11.7%), Southern Highlands and Shoalhaven (-7.1%), Sunshine Coast (-7.1%), Gold Coast (-6.4%), Illawarra (-6.1%) and Newcastle and Lake Macquarie (-6.0%).
From September 2020 to April 2022, national house values rose 32.5%, while unit values rose by a milder 16.1% over the same period. Since peaking in April, house values are now reversing at a more rapid rate, falling -5.3%, while values across the medium to high-density sector have declined by a more moderate -3.0%.
How does borrowing capacity affect overall lending?
The amount a bank will lend a prospective borrower is largely determined by two factors; interest rates and credit policy. In 2019, in response to the pandemic, The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) quickly cut its official interest rate to 0.1%. At the same time the banking regulator, APRA, removed the minimum 7.25% interest rate required to be used when banks assess the serviceability of a loan. In a short space of time borrowers had access to much higher levels of debt and overall lending accelerated to all-time highs.
Since May, the RBA has raised the official interest rate by 2.75%. To put this in perspective, a joint household with disposable income of $150,000 and expenses in line with the Household Expenditure Measure (HEM) has had their borrowing capacity lowered by 20-25%. To further add to the tightening, the buffer used for the assessment of a loan has been increased from 2.5 to 3.0% above the offered rate.
What does the current lending data tell us?
Whilst borrowing capacity is not an exclusive influence on overall lending, The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ September Lending Indicator’s report show that the value of new borrower loan commitments has fallen 18.5% over the first three quarters of this year, with owner-occupier loans contributing most to the decline. These falls are notably more than that seen in property prices over the same period.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Lending Indicators September 2022
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Lending Indicators September 2022
During September 2022, in seasonally adjusted terms for owner-occupier housing loan commitments, largest falls were recorded in the Northern Territory (25.2%), Queensland (13.8%) and Western Australia (13.2%) further reinforcing that the softening is now spreading outside of the two largest markets of Sydney and Melbourne.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Lending Indicators September 2022
Investor lending also saw declines, however not to the degree of owner-occupied commitments. Tasmania led the way with a 26.6% decline followed by the ACT (12.2%) and Western Australia (8.7%). This goes some way to explaining the more modest declines in units versus house values across the nation.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Lending Indicators September 2022
Crash or correction?
With overall property values now 6% lower than their peak and an aggressive interest rate tightening cycle, many commentators warn that a housing market crash is imminent.
For a property market to “crash” a large number of owners are forced to sell into a falling market, with limited buyers, as they can no longer afford to make their mortgage repayments. The rate of delinquency loans, or loans in arrears for more than 30+ days, is a key metric in predicting a crash.
The latest data released by Fitch Ratings, show mortgages that are 30 and 90 days in arrears were down by 0.07% to 0.82% and 0.04% to 0.4% respectively for the 3 months to June 30 – the lowest level since tracking began in 2002. As more recent data is released, delinquency rates will be something to watch as the aggressive tightening cycle further filters through to the broader economy.
What will 2023 bring?
The value of new lending will be largely dependent on where the RBA take interest rates over the next year, however, if lending continues to act as a precursor for property, we can expect house prices will continue to ease at least throughout the first half of 2023.
If you’d like to discuss your specific circumstances, or simply interested in what lending options are available, please do get in touch.
In June 2022, in seasonally adjusted terms, the value of lender to lender refinancing for owner-occupier housing rose 9.7% to a new record high of $12.7 billion. It was 24.6% higher compared to the year before. With rising variable rates and the maturity of historically low fixed rates being meaningful contributors to household affordability, more Australians are assessing their current loan to ensure they are not paying more than they need to. So, what do you need to consider before refinancing your own loan?
The benefits of refinancing
1. Getting a better interest rate
The first task before refinancing is to contact your current lender and request the best rate they can offer. Most lenders have a ‘retention rate’ aimed at keeping your business but is generally not as competitive as rates designed to attract new borrowers. From there, you can accurately compare the rates on offer elsewhere and it may well be that your current lender is still the best place for you.
It’s important to note that the rates widely advertised are generally available to a limited niche of borrower types and may not necessarily be applicable to your personal circumstances and objectives. A good mortgage broker will be able to help find the most appropriate loan and rate.
2. Reducing your minimum monthly repayments
Borrowers often solely associate a reduced rate with reducing their monthly repayments yet in many cases extending the term of the loan, usually back to 30 years, contributes to most of the reduction. It is important to recognize that the loan will therefore take longer to pay down without making extra payments in addition to the minimum. Alternatively, you can choose a shorter loan term if you feel you are comfortably able to afford the extra repayments.
3. Consolidating your debt
Often, for example, credit card, automotive finance or ATO debt is charged at a much higher interest rate than that of your home loan. Refinancing provides an opportunity to consolidate this debt into one cost-effective monthly repayment.
4. Accessing the equity in your property
If you have available equity and can service the additional repayments, refinancing can provide an opportune time to borrow additional funds for non-structural home renovations, to go on a holiday or even provide the deposit to purchase a new investment property.
5. Other circumstantial benefits
This can include benefits such as removing a guarantor or changing lenders after fixing past credit issues.
The cost of refinancing
Refinancing follows a similar application process to that of a new home loan so therefore will require an investment of time and effort. You must provide the lender, or your mortgage broker, with a number of supporting documents to enable the assessment of your application. Once approved, you are required to discharge your current mortgage and update items such as your building insurance policy to reflect the new lender’s details. Lastly, you will need to set up and familiarise yourself with a new online access and update any existing direct debits. A good mortgage broker can help you with the specifics and timing of these administrative tasks.
The benefits of a reduced rate can often be absorbed by the costs of refinancing. These fees may include, but are not limited to the following:
- Loan application fee: Charge for applying with a new lender.
- Settlement fee: The new lender may charge a fee to cover the legal costs of issuing your new mortgage.
- Discharge fee: A discharge fee of around $150 to $400 is usually charged by the current lender in order to release you from the mortgage.
- Break costs: This may be applicable if you are on a fixed rate and wish to refinance before the term expires. The fee is calculated based on the set borrowing costs of the lender as well as factors such as time to maturity. It’s important to gain a break cost estimate before deciding to refinance.
- Government fees to register and transfer the property: The applicable state’s Land Titles Office will charge a fee to update the registration of your mortgage on the property title record.
- Ongoing fees depending on the lender, and loan, you choose: These charges could include monthly account keeping fees, annual package fees or even fees for accessing your additional repayments.
- Lenders Mortgage Insurance (LMI): A one-off fee only applies if you borrow more than 80% of the value of your property.
Is it worth it?
The ultimate decision on whether to refinance clearly comes down to your personal circumstances. If you are refinancing for a better rate it’s imperative to consider the potential interest saved in relation to the cost of refinancing. This is largely influenced by the reduction in rate and the size of your loan. Let’s consider an example in the following table:
|Maximum interest saved per annum
|Cost of refinancing
|$150,000 * 0.3% = $450
|$1,000,000 * 0.3% = $3,000
Clearly, the second example makes financial sense however the benefits of refinancing a $150,000 loan will not be realised for 2-3 years. In this case, other factors need to be considered such as whether you intend to pay down the loan ahead of time or if you’re refinancing for other objectives than simply a better rate.
Lenders looking to attract new customers often offer financial incentives to refinance in the form of cash-back offers. These range from between $1,500 and $5,000 and are cash payments made directly to the borrower to assist with the cost of refinancing. In the above $150,000 example, a lender with the same terms, however offering a $1,500 cash back, could significantly influence your decision.
Each cashback offer has specific and varying qualifying criteria and it’s important to ensure you meet eligibility. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a good mortgage broker will be familiar with the current offers and eligibility to help you with a cost-benefit analysis.