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How property-hungry Aussies see the global economy

Three hundred and fifty people cram into Brisbane Sofitel's Ballroom Le Grand on a stormy Friday afternoon.

I ask ex-journalist Kathy Mac Dermott, the Queensland executive director of the Property Council of Australia, if it's a barometer of improving fortunes that so many people are attending its $A135-a-head lunch.

The drawcard isn't a boozy Friday lunch, she says, but rather the insights of today's speaker, macro-economist Dr Doug McTaggart.

His speech is an annual PCA event and one its most-heavily attended.

"People are very keen to hear his predictions – he always assesses what he did the year before, so it's a barometer of the regard we have for him."

That morning's Courier Mail newspaper reported bearish property stalwart Kevin Seymour was eyeing opportunities for his $A20 million windfall from selling his 15% stake of listed Queensland development company Watpac.

A week later, a joint Property Council-ANZ survey shows property industry confidence hitting an 18-month high, led by the big states, including Queensland.

A speaker at the PCA lunch says there is optimism because "we're sick of being pessimistic".

Dr McTaggart's job is to read the global tea leaves and put them in an Australian context.

LM investigation
NBR ONLINE attended the lunch as part of its exclusive international investigation into LM Investment Management's mortgage funds.

Based on the Gold Coast, LM lent investors' money to fund Australian property developments, much of it in Queensland.

Many of the funds were frozen in 2009, including the First Mortgage Income Fund and feeder fund Currency Protected Australian Income Fund, favoured by hundreds of Kiwi investors.

LM Investment Management and LM Administration have gone into voluntary administration, leaving investors worried about potential returns.

Already the administrators have lowered the First Mortgage unit price from A59 cents to A55 cents.

The state of the Australian property market is a big factor in returns to anxious LM investors.

Recession bites
Perhaps it's a sign of the times that Dr McTaggart – whose CV is peppered with high-profile public and private roles, including 14 years as chief executive of institutional investment manager QIC – warms up his lunchtime audience by touting the services of his corporate advisory firm Galibier Partners.

"Times are tough," he says, to healthy laughter from his understanding property industry crowd.

A year ago Dr McTaggart concluded the United States economy was not going to fall over and the world would "muddle along".

"To be frank, the bulk of today's talk is not much change."

There has been some improvement in the last year, he says, no major disasters other than financial markets getting the jitters over prospect of the US fiscal cliff or the banking bailout in Cyprus. The fears are "always overblown", he says.

"There isn't much that is truly uncertain in the world today that we don't already know about."

Considering the deep trough brought on by the GFC was four years ago, if economic cycle theories hold, he says the world should be at the end of the softening or contraction phase of the business cycle.

"And I think we are. The challenge is that while we came out of a very deep recession we didn't have a huge bounce that we came to expect.

"You could see global growth slowly softening for the rest of this year and picking up again in 2014."

Loose monetary policies
He says the biggest, long-term global economic risk is the use of measures like quantatitive easing to monetise debt to try and sustain or breathe life into economies.

"I think what it's doing is breathing life into asset markets because the private sector real economy is motoring along at its own speed anyway."

In early 2000s, US Federal Reserve kept interest rates too low for too long, which bred liquidity, multiplying into a free era of credit which crashed onto the rocks of the GFC.

He says near-zero cash rates in the US, UK and eurozone means those regions are bumping out credit and building up liabilities to their central banks and creating liquidity at levels never-before seen.

"There is a liquidity pool building up that is going to have to be dealt with in the future."

There is some comfort the increased liquidity has not yet fed into inflation, he says, with dampening factors including high unemployment, subdued consumer spending and extreme pressure on business margins.

Yet consumers are starting to look for yield for their vast piles of savings, so looser spending is inevitable, he says.

"When that happens some tough decisions are coming."

Misplaced fear
Goldman Sachs Asset Management's global insurance survey of chief investment officers, published earlier this month, suggests the European debt crisis is the No 1 threat to investment portfolios over the next 12 months.

"I think that is a misplaced fear," Dr McTaggart says.

"We're going to get turbulence out of financial markets in Europe but it's not going to bring the world undone – and Germany has its hands on that lever, well and truly."

His main concern is slow US economic growth and consumer confidence in general. "We tend to forget that economies are for consumers."

Dr McTaggart says Australia is coming off the mining boom, its labour market is weak and foreign direct and portfolio investment is keeping the currency high.

Housing remains soft and a rise in building approvals, by value, has been led by commercial building. Residential building is yet to recover.

The Australian economy, including Queensland's, is being kicked along by $A200 billion of liquefied natural gas projects under construction or recently completed.

GDP growth figures show Australia tracking ahead of the US, Canada and the United Kingdom.

"To be fair to the federal government, you look at that chart and you think, Australia is actually doing OK. Why is everyone unhappy?"

Belt tightening
After four lean years, Queensland property developers are getting hints of emerging from the other side.

But PCA's Ms Mac Dermott says business is still slow and even experienced developers are cautious in the subdued climate.

How did LM hit the wall?

She says the Gold Coast – the home of LM's flagship Maddison Estate project – was perhaps hit hardest by the global financial crisis because there were many major projects being finished at that time.

The Gold Coast booms are longer and stronger than most, she says, because it is caught by property cycles and when a downturn kicks in it is dramatic.

Queensland has shown a resurgence in confidence in the property sector over the last two quarters.

The state government's planning reform seems to be helping, she says. But the recovery still has a long way to go.

While sales volumes are improving, price growth is yet to follow.

"People are seeing early signs – they're seeing it slightly in residential. It's all very slight and it's all very early days."

dwilliams@nbr.co.nz

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