The Best and Worst of the Australian Economy


Is ‘confidence’ the missing ingredient in getting Australia’s economy back on the road to recovery? That’s the question I’ll attempt to answer in today’s Daily Reckoning. Plus, I’ll look at two stocks that show you the divergent paths the Aussie economy is on right now.

But first…is the oil price on the way back down?

Overnight, West Texas Crude fell more than 3% and is back under US$50 a barrel. As you can see from the chart below, over the past month oil rallied nearly US$10 a barrel. It took prices back up to the 50-day moving average (blue line).

But this looks like an area of resistance. There’s a good chance that oil will now retest its late January low of around US$45. After such a big decline from mid-2014, at the very least, oil has a lot of work to do before it can start moving higher in a sustainable manner.

That’s why trying to pick the bottom after such large sell-offs is always fraught with danger. The rallies tend to be short and sharp…and most of the gains are lost when the downtrend reasserts itself.

So if you’re a buyer of oil and energy stocks here, understand this is a long term bet. Hindsight will probably prove you correct. But in the meantime, you’ll look like a fool while oil goes nowhere and the rest of the market moves higher.

At least that is the lesson from gold’s sell-off in mid-2013. While the very sharp falls brought gold close to its lows, here we are nearly two years later and the gold price, at least in US dollar terms, is still struggling.

But in Aussie dollar terms, it’s a different story. As an Aussie investor, it’s a difference you need to take notice of. Most of the analysis about gold centres on gold priced in US dollars.

If you’re investing in Aussie gold companies though, you need to focus on gold priced in Aussie dollars, because that’s how these companies earn and derive their profits.

So while US dollar gold continues to languish around $1,200 an ounce, Aussie dollar gold is a healthy $1,540 an ounce. At this price, local producers should start to generate strong profit growth.

That’s why I think it’s an important time to start looking at the sector again. If I’m right, you’re going to see big gains in the years ahead. The biggest gains will be reserved for those getting onto the trend early.

Last week, I recorded a brief presentation outlining the case for gold and some favoured stocks in the sector. You can check it out here.

But the market isn’t really interested in gold companies. They are flying under the radar right now. Which is why now is such an exciting time to take a look.

Two companies reported profit results yesterday that tell a tale of two economies. For engineering contractor, UGL, it is the worst of times.

UGL reported a writedown of around $280 million for a half year loss of over $120 million. This related to cost blow-outs at an LNG plant it is building in Darwin as well as other provisions based on the general slowdown in the commodities sector.

Underlying profit fell 40% to $29.3 million. It’s tough times for companies exposed to the resource sector.

UGL’s share price has declined more than 50% over the past few months, and that’s after taking into account the sale of its property management business, which netted shareholders around $500 million.

But after disbursing the sales proceeds, now the company can’t afford to pay a dividend. It could be a while before its reinstated. In this market, failure to pay a dividend due to cash constraints is like having corporate leprosy.

UGL’s share price is in a solid downtrend so I’d be steering clear of it for a while.

Meanwhile, over in property land, it’s the best of times. Yesterday, global property developer Lend Lease announced a 25% increase in first half profit to $315.6 million.

The solid result was largely due to the strong performance of the Aussie division, which saw a 33% increase in operating profits. And that was due to the strength in the residential property market. From the press release:

Strong residential trading conditions saw the Property Development business deliver profit of $132.6 million. Residential settlements increased 18 per cent from the prior corresponding period, apartment pre sales increased 195 per cent including sales for The Yards at Brisbane Showgrounds, 888 and 889 Collins Street in Melbourne and at Darling Square in Sydney.’

Lend Lease is one of the largest land bankers in the country. That is, it owns a huge amount of vacant land zoned for residential development. It can choose to hold back from developing this land when times aren’t so good, or it can make hay with it…like now.

The problem with this approach to land management is that it exacerbates the supply issues that Australia faces. A common refrain is that Australia has limited supply of land for residential property.

That’s not exactly true. We have a limited supply of land because land banking companies restrict it. They only release it in numbers when the profit margins are fat.

When people aren’t willing to pay big prices, the land sits idle, accruing gains while the land banker’s wait. Heads they win, tails you lose.

Lend Lease is in a strong uptrend, but it’s not exactly cheap. I’d be holding if I owned it but wouldn’t be buying at these levels.

The moral of the story? Resource related work is tough going right now…property related business is good. Very good.

Yet property transactions, construction and the associated money shuffling that facilitates all of this is not enough to give our economy the boost it needs to get over the resource downturn.

Some say it’s just a matter of confidence. Get the confidence and animal spirits back and we’ll be economic world-beaters again. I say that is utter bollocks.

I’ve run out of time to make the case for why that is, but I’ll revisit it in Thursday’s Daily Reckoning. Until then…

Greg Canavan,
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

Join The Daily Reckoning on Google+

Greg Canavan
Greg Canavan is the Managing Editor of The Daily Reckoning and is the foremost authority for retail investors on value investing in Australia. He is a former head of Australasian Research for an Australian asset-management group and has been a regular guest on CNBC, Sky Business’s The Perrett Report and Lateline Business. Greg is also the editor of Crisis & Opportunity, an investment publication designed to help investors profit from companies and stocks that are undervalued on the market. To follow Greg's financial world view more closely you can subscribe to The Daily Reckoning for free here. If you’re already a Daily Reckoning subscriber, then we recommend you also join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Daily Reckoning emails. For more on Greg go here.

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of

Letters will be edited for clarity, punctuation, spelling and length. Abusive or off-topic comments will not be posted. We will not post all comments.
If you would prefer to email the editor, you can do so by sending an email to