European growth contracts, US inflation hits a 17-year-high and pending sales of American homes falls to a 10 year low: so many things to fret about so what do the market punters do? Go for gold in the US where they still reckon growth won’t drop as much as it will elsewhere.

If we were handing out gold medals for contradictory signals, last night would be a prime contender: all those factors on the one day, and not a care in sight about them.

So, the US dollar rose to a five and a half month high against the euro, and is still rising today in Asia, the Aussie dollar fell under 87 US cents for the second time this week and looks like heading lower during the day and who knows where the local stockmarket will end up as oil, copper and gold all fall sharply, but grains continue to rebound.

US consumer price inflation rose at an annual rate of a higher than expected 5.6% after a 5.1% rate in June. Inflation rose 0.8% in July from June (when it rose 1.1% over May). Core inflation rose 0.3% in July compared to a forecast of 0.3%. Normally figures like these would have the market down, bonds up and the US dollar looking a bit confused as punters speculated that the Fed would be forced to raise rates to haul in runaway inflation.

According to the National Association of US Realtors (real estate agents) the median price for US homes was down 7.6% in the June quarter of this year, compared with the same period of 2007. Prices in some parts of California, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada down 20% to 35% in the same time. Pending house sales are at their lowest in a decade and the overhang continues to build.

Easing oil, petrol and food prices were supposed to have sent inflation lower in July: it sort of did, but not by enough. The expectation is that this month will see a lower rate, hopefully. But these are not normal times: the slump in Europe was too much of a drawcard for punters.

Europe moved into a real slowdown in the June quarter, with growth contracting by 0.2%, Germany’s economy contracted by 0.5%. France slowed as well, with the economy falling a surprising 0.3% in the quarter.

Growth is still up for the first half after the March quarter saw growth of 0.7%, but the size and speed of the slump was surprising, and emphasised why commodity prices are weakening, along with the euro.
Despite these concerns about growth, inflation is still high around the world, but recession, rising unemployment and falling demand are expected to bring it under control.

The big difficulty in all this thinking is that no one is worrying about earnings growth next year because the big story is that there won’t be any. Our biggest residential property group, Stockland, yesterday indicated that it saw the 2009 financial year and beyond as problematic: it forecast a 1% growth in distributions in 2009 and said it was looking for growth to resume in 2010 and beyond.

David Jones claimed to see the slump coming and has cut stock levels and ordering to accommodate the slump which it warns could give several quarters of low to negative sales growth. “We expect Like For Like sales growth in FY09 and FY10 to be 0% — 1% per annum and include two to three quarters of flat to negative growth. We now expect these two to three consecutive quarters of flat to negative LFL growth to be the first three quarters of FY09.”

So from now until the end of March next year, DJs is not expecting any growth, but is confident profits will be up 5%-10%.

But the most interesting comments came from the CEO of Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, which reported higher earnings in the latest quarter and 15% rise in international sales. Despite improvement outside the US, Lee Scott, the CEO, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying he saw signs the slowdown in the US was moving across the world.

“It started in North America and spread to Europe; the economic difficulties are now showing up in some of the developing countries as well,” he said. “People are eating more sandwiches in Puerto Rico, and relying more on private-label products in the UK. Customers in many areas are buying cheaper cuts of meat for dinner, and, similar to the US, people in other countries are eliminating vacations and entertaining more at home.”

It’s likely all those investors chasing protection in the US will be just as hurt as they would have been if they had stayed invested in Europe and other markets. US banks borrowed more from the Fed in the week to last Wednesday: up to $US17.7 billion a day from $US17.37 billion. That’s not a sign of a safe haven economy.

Peter Fray

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