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Topic One, March 2001

The 'Economic Clock' - Fact Or Fiction?


Timing In The Market

Deciding what to invest in is difficult at the best of times. There is a lot of information in the press about the possibility of a recession, or at least an economic slowdown.

If only there was a tool which regular people could use to understand the likely repercussions of a changing economy and how it might impact them.

There is - it's called an economic clock.

Economic Clock

It seems that the economy of most developed countries moves in a regular pattern, known as the boom and bust cycle. I know that I'd like to know what time it is now so that I could prepare for what's likely to occur in the near future. While the clock is not foolproof, it does demonstrate indicators to watch out for.


This article will be of interest to:

Business Owners who want to under stand more about how the economy works and how they might be affected at different stages of the cycle.

Private Investors who want some independent guidance on when is the right time to own stocks, property and fixed interest deposits.

Real Estate Investors who need to understand why property prices move in cycles and how the comment that real estate prices only ever increase is not true.

What Is The Economic Clock?

The economic clock, pictured above, demonstrates that as an economy moves through its economic cycle there is a time to buy certain types of investments and possible a time not to buy. Notice that I don't say 'sell', because one of the most important investment habits to develop is a long-term investment horizon.

The economic clock is not a signal about what to buy to quickly become wealthy. Rather, it identifies that the return a particular investment will generate depends on what time it is in the economic cycle.

For example, if it was two o'clock then neither share or property is likely to be the best investment option.

To understand the process of the economic clock, let's go through one full cycle.

The Six O'Clock Recession

Recessions mark the peak of a downward swing in an economic cycle.

A recession is defined as a period of two or more successive quarters of decreasing production. Production is usually measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), so in layman's terms, any two consecutive periods of negative GDP will constitute a recession.

Recessions are characterised by high unemployment, caused by employers shedding staff as production levels fall, cutting profitability and the need for labour.

With less employment comes a drop in the average weekly earnings and with fewer dollars to spend, consumers demand less, resulting in even lower consumption.

Historically Australia has entered a period of recession every seven to nine years with our last recession in 1990.

Recovery 'Till Midnight

A recovery from recession begins with increased government spending (known as fiscal policy) and control of interest rates (known as monetary policy).

More spending on government projects increases the demand on private sector businesses, which in turn look to employ more staff to cope with increased production needs. Lower interest rates prompt businesses to borrow and invest in capital projects.

Market analysts believe the beginning of the recovery phase is an excellent time to invest in the stockmarket. Companies which survived the recession will be efficient and well placed to obtain higher earnings from growth in target markets resulting in higher share prices and bigger profit distributions.

Share prices move through a period of gradual increases as the hour hands pass between six o'clock until about eleven o'clock when those who have missed out on the stockmarket gain start buying leading to more aggressive market highs. A frenzy begins which marks the beginning of the end of the recovery cycle, which peaks when the economy is booming.

Just before midnight a phenomenon known as 'the greater fool theory' begins. The greater fool theory suggests that no matter what price an investor pays for a share, someone (the greater fool), with less education and less understanding of the market, will buy it at a higher price. Eventually the price rises to a figure when the greatest fool buys because s/he cannot find anyone to buy it at a higher price. When the greatest fool buys the market has reached its peak and is set for a correction.

You know you are in the 'great fool' period when you hear that investors with little or no knowledge of the fundamentals of investing believe they can't lose.

Midnight Boom Before The Impending Correction

Just as the greatest fool has purchased articles appear in the media about how wonderful the stockmarket is and how the good times are never going to end. In recent times stockbrokers coined the term 'new economy' stocks only to see traditional economic theory pierce the hype and bring stock values down.

Well before the clock strikes midnight the wise investors have exited stocks and are looking for the next opportunity. They have left because they understand that there is likely to be a correction in the market, since share prices cannot be justified by traditional stock valuation methods, such as asset backing per share or earnings multiples.

As investors leave the market, supply (sales) become higher than demand (purchasers) triggering a sell off and a slump in share prices. Investors who were too slow (or greedy) are burned, particularly those that have leveraged (via margin lending facilities) and the panic begins as people scream 'sell'.

Property 'Till Three O'Clock

The smart investors that 'got out' at the top move into property with reliable 'bricks and mortar'.

Extra demand in property pushes demand above supply and results in higher prices.

This itself isn't a problem, except that the government sees the economy is overheating and looks to introduce measures to enable a 'soft landing' through increasing interest rates to flatten demand by consumers.

With higher interest rates comes less profit in real estate since most investors have leveraged their property purchases. Rises in interest rates continue until it is no longer viable for purchasers to continue investing in property and soon there are more sellers than buyers. Property prices, like share prices, correct.

There is trouble on the way.

Decline Back To Six O'Clock

Decline begins as business confidence begins to fall. Investors find little value in either stocks or property and with impending trouble on the horizon fixed interest securities become very popular again.

Lower business confidence means that new capital ventures are postponed.

Less spending and higher interest rates result in lower demand, which results in less production. With fewer sales there is a squeeze on earnings, resulting in profit downgrades; economic rationalisation becomes a hot topic in the boardrooms.

The economy slows to the point where productivity stalls and then declines. When this happens for two periods in a row, the economy is said to be in a recession.

Member Survey - What Time Does The Economic Clock Show?

Register your thoughts on what time the economic clock shows by selecting from the options below and clicking send.

6 O'Clock

7 O'Clock

8 O'Clock

9 O'Clock

10 O'Clock

11 O'Clock


1 O'Clock

2 O'Clock

3 O'Clock

4 O'Clock

5 O'Clock


Present Day Economic Indicators

Sadly, there is no tangible economic clock to determine what time it is. All we can do is look at a range of statistics and try to piece the economic jigsaw together and see what picture is presented.


World stockmarkets are off the boil, with most stocks declining on the back of a correction in April 2000 and profit downgrades. It seems the greatest fool theory was rampant with technology stocks before concerns about earnings and inflated shares prices signalled a market change.

I believe we are beyond midnight on the clock, especially when you factor in current concerns about a US economy slow down and whispers of the possible impending recession.

Traditionally this means that property is the place to now be investing.

Real Estate

In the September 2000 quarter, median house prices in every state of Australia declined. The somewhat shocking result was blamed on GST, higher interest rates and the Olympic games. This was the first time in a decade that prices in all capitals have fallen in the same quarter.

Interesting, very interesting.

A representative of the Real Estate Institute of Australia predicted such a result would not happen again. Yeah, sure.

Also of interest is the plummeting level of new dwelling approvals. The graph below (sourced from the Australian Bureau Of Statistics website) shows a cataclysmic drop.

New dwelling approvals

It seems the stock and the real estate markets went through a period of concurrent boom, rather than following the theory put forward by the economic clock. This has made the decision about where to invest even more confusing. Let's turn to the general state of the economy and see if any clues can be found.

Australian Economy

Remember that a recession is where GDP declines for two concurrent periods. We are clearly not in a recession at the moment, as illustrated by the table below (sourced from the Australian Bureau Of Statistics).

GDP Graph

GDP remains positive, although the trend seems to indicate a decline in growth rates beginning in September 1998.

At the moment unemployment is steady too, although the ABS trend estimate has risen marginally over the last three months to stand at 6.5% at the end of the December 2000 quarter.


The Prognosis

Business Owners

I strongly suggest business owners prepare a period of potential lower sales caused by lower consumer demand. If you are in retail you will have already noticed the shift in consumer spending.

Now is not the time to be financing expansion projects that will increase your production or sales capabilities. Instead I would reduce the level of non essential bridging finance (such as overheads, lines of credit and unsecured notes) in your business.

If you need to borrow later to ride out the storm then now is the time to prepare by reducing the impact of interest on your cashflow. Note at five o'clock money becomes 'tighter' or more difficult to borrow so it is also a good idea to build up cash reserves to provide a six month buffer.

Personal Investors & Real Estate Entrepreneurs

I'm taking a cash position in the market right now and not looking to purchase properties to the same extent as over the past eighteen months. I believe that a lot of fools are entering the market buoyed by the prospects of instant riches using creative techniques such as 'flips' and 'wraps'.

The deals still exist, but I'm being a lot more selective about what I buy and how I structure the deal. Now is not the time for beginners to get into stocks or property, the rush has ended.

I recommend you look at reducing levels of consumer debt and ensuring that you have a regular savings plan which locks away at least ten percent of your gross annual income.


I believe the current economic cycle, which began in 1990, has been confusing to interpret.

The climb out of recession was sluggish until a number of booms in the mid to late 1990's. Real estate was stagnant too until booms in the later part of the last decade too.

But what we can see quite clearly is business confidence declining, uncertainty with interest rates, GDP trending downwards and unemployment potentially rising. This suggests that now is a good time to be building cash reserves, reducing unnecessary debt and working hard to improve business efficiency.


There are opportunities in every market and the economic clock is a general indicator of use to the average investor. A key strength I want every Inner Circle member to acquire is the mindset that cash is king and to always maintaining a cash reserve to cover at least six months of operations/expenditure is a necessity.

Holding cash in fixed interest accounts, particularly given the analysis above, will enable savvy investors to acquire bargain investments and/or improve market positioning. It is certain that people will have overcapitalised at record low interest rates. As the cost of finance increases, such people will need to sell, which is an excellent opportunity for people who can use the bargaining power that comes from paying cash.

Other Articles / Sites Of Interest

1. Article by Tim Colebatch which appeared in 'The Age' on 24/01/2001:



2. Article by Josh Gordon, which appeared in 'The Age' on 24/01/2001:



3. Australian Bureau Of Statistics:




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