Leading economist warns of ‘mini domestic financial crisis’ as bank values plummet
Yes, it is another economist warning about impending doom.
- Economist Paul Dale fears the banking royal commission could help trigger a vicious cycle that weakens the economy
- Critics reject Mr Dales' concerns, citing a GDP numbers and claiming unemployment is more likely to drop than increase
- The banking royal commission resumes in a week
Before you turn away though, this leading economist insists his arguments are valid.
Independent economic research house Capital Economics is now saying there's a credible risk of an economic scenario no one wants to see — an Australian financial crisis.
The backdrop to that kind of scenario is already in place.
Take the stock market, for example.
It's easy to get lost in the day-to-day movements of the stock market.
Stand back a bit though and you can see that the market values of Australia's major banks have plummeted between 35 and 45 per cent since their highs of 2015.
"This is one of those situations where I can't keep quiet about it," said Capital Economics chief economist Paul Dale.
"I need to warn our clients."
In 2016, the Australian Financial Review judged Mr Dales to be Australia's economist of the year, saying that "he made all the right calls in a market that most chief economists found hard to read", so his views on the economy are worth noting.
The values of Australia's major banking stocks have plummeted in years and Paul Dales warns there could be worse to come.
"I think in the worst case scenario you have what you might call a mini domestic financial crisis."
He describes this "mini financial crisis" as being contained within Australia but capable of producing a "pretty dire scenario".
"It would be due to a kind of vicious circle developing in the economy where something triggers falling house prices that weaken the economy."
"That means that some households lose their jobs, they can't pay their mortgages, which weakens the banking sector, which prompts the banks to tighten lending conditions, which kick-starts the circle again."
Banking royal commission ill-timed, Dales says
A falling property market is key to Mr Dales's forecast.
He argues simply that the banking royal commission has come at precisely the wrong time, because recent falls in the housing market would morph into much greater falls given tighter lending conditions.
"The most likely trigger on the horizon is the royal commission.
"[The royal commission] is designed to weed out [bad practices] in the financial sector in the long run, and put the health of the financial system on a surer footing.
"But, inadvertently, it could actually prompt banks to withdraw credit at the exact same time the housing market's really vulnerable, thereby creating that vicious circle of weakening housing market, weakening economy, weakening banking sector."
Mr Dales claims we're already seeing signs of this.
"I think there are some very very tentative signs of it."
"Housing finance commitments are starting to decline … Anecdotally there are reports that some banks are making more stringent checks on their loans."
But Mr Dales said what has already happened was less important than what could happen next.
"Unfortunately we just don't know, it's unprecedented, we don't really know what kind of credit conditions we'll see in a year's time.
"Perhaps it might be the case that not a lot changes but I think we have to acknowledge the risks that something significant could happen."
Will a financial crisis hit Australia?
It is important to point out that Capital Economics is not saying a financial crisis is likely.
However the forecasting firm does argue that the risks of a property market correction, a stock market plunge and a broad economic recession have increased enough to warrant a serious warning to its clients.
Indeed Mr Dales puts the likelihood of an Australian recession in the next five years at 20 per cent.
The ABC put that to another of Australia's top economists, and received this response:
"Well if you back an economist into a corner, and ask them about the probability of recession, the default answer is always 'probably 20 per cent'," Commonwealth Bank chief economist Michael Blythe said.
Critics reject Dales' concerns
Of course the Commonwealth Bank, as Australia's biggest lender, and most prominent force on the stock exchange, is right in the thick of this debate.
Mr Blythe rejects Mr Dales' views.
"The reality is that the pessimists on the Australian economy have been wrong for the past 27 years.
"Now don't get me wrong, all good times come to an end eventually, but to trigger this kind of financial crisis scenario, you do need a trigger.
"The usual triggers here are high interest rates and/or rising unemployment — well we've just heard the governor of the Reserve Bank again stress that rate rises are a long way off.
"And as we saw our GDP numbers last week … the economy's motoring along quite nicely now, and certainly at a fast enough rate that unemployment's more likely to go down than up."
The ABC asked Mr Blythe if he could give any indication as to whether the Commonwealth Bank will continue to tighten its lending standards.
In response, he told us: "The point I'd make is that the Australian banks have been tightening lending standards for at least three years now."
"So, in a sense, further tightening would just be a continuation of current trends.
"If you think about the last three years, the Australian banks have continued to lend at a pretty solid pace.
"It's hard to see any dramatic kind of slowdown in credit growth.
"You know, some of these views about tighter lending standards and credit crunches look to be overdone I think."
And there's another prominent voice defending Australia's economic prospects.
Concern over highly-indebted households reduced spending
The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, says it is the prospect of highly-indebted households pulling right back on their spending that's keeping him up at night.
And any suggestion, he laments, of a financial crisis doesn't help that one bit.
"I wouldn't necessarily want to say that it's attention-seeking, but it's certainly headline-grabbing," Mr Willox said.
"Those sort of calls don't do anything at all to improve consumer confidence, or consumer sentiment.
"All it does is probably worry people unnecessarily."
Mr Dales, though, certainly is not a lone voice in his warnings of a future financial crisis.
Former investment banker, and author, Satyajit Das, recently wrote that "no one can predict how bad the next financial crisis will be."
He added that, "what's certain, is that a lack of liquidity will make the fallout much worse," concluding that "if they don't start preparing now, investors are going to be dangerously exposed".
Mr Dales said at the very least he hoped his warnings would generate more discussion about the future of Australia's economy, banking sector, and financial markets.
"If they disagree with the evidence, well, at least they're in a firmer position — having thought about it — and disagreed with it, and then they can respond as well," Mr Dales said.
The banking royal commission resumes in just over a week.
Mr Dales says it is worth keeping a very close eye on the reaction from the banks.
Much value has already been wiped off the banking sector, but the fear is that, right now, another major hit to the banks — from the property market, for example — could lead to much wider consequences for the economy.
No one wants to see that.