RBA minutes indicate future policy will be data dependent: Bill Evans

RBA minutes indicate future policy will be data dependent: Bill Evans
RBA minutes indicate future policy will be data dependent: Bill Evans

GUEST OBSERVER

The minutes of the monetary policy meeting of the Reserve Bank Board provided no real surprises from the perspective of the policy outlook.

Consistent with the Governor’s statement which was released shortly after the July Board meeting the Board still points out that the Australian dollar had provided less assistance to the economy than would normally be expected and “further depreciation seemed both likely and necessary”.

The outlook for policy remains data dependent with the Board concluding that “information to be received over the period ahead on economic and financial conditions would continue to inform the Board’s assessment of the outlook and hence whether the current stance of policy remained appropriate”.

There was no real enthusiasm about the outlook for growth. Indeed, it was noted that: “early indications were that the strength in the March quarter had not carried through to the June quarter”. Investment intentions remain subdued despite non-mining business profits having increased over the past year and surveys of business conditions improving over recent months.

Of most interest was the discussion around the labour market. Recall that a key policy guideline for the Bank has been that if the economy grows below trend (generally assessed as 3%) then the unemployment rate can be expected to edge up. Over the last year or so, growth in the economy has been stuck around a sub-trend 2.5%yr yet the unemployment rate has remained steady. The Bank attributes that to slowing population growth (1.4% for the 2014 year compared to a peak 1.8% in 2012). It is argued that easing population growth is consistent with below average growth in output and a steady unemployment rate. That may mean that the Bank is reassessing its assessment of trend growth at 3-3.25%. However, the Board is not satisfied with the current level of unemployment arguing that spare capacity remains and that wages growth remains historically low (lowest year end outcomes since the early 1990s) and that unit labour costs have been little changed over four years. Such developments indicated that inflationary pressures were well contained and likely to remain so.

The discussion around housing provided no new insights. The outlook for dwelling investment remains strong while house prices continue to grow rapidly in Sydney and to a lesser extent Melbourne. At this stage there was no evidence that the regulators’ greater scrutiny of investor housing was affecting growth.

Consumption spending continues to disappoint although it has been growing at a faster pace than household income. We were surprised to note that the Banks’ liaison suggested that retail sales were likely to be flat in June, despite the expected lift from the generous tax concessions provided to small business in the Budget.

On the international front there was a slightly more positive take on the Chinese property market: “Chinese property markets had improved somewhat and residential property prices had risen for the first time in a year”. Overall growth in Australia’s major trading partners appeared to have been around average in the June quarter.

Westpac expects that the first tightening by the US Federal Reserve will occur in September. The minutes point out that market pricing suggests a later date although they also highlight commentary from Fed officials that suggests it could be a little sooner. This is far from definitive but it is not unreasonable to conclude from this commentary that the Board is also expecting an earlier move.

The Bank now provides helpful analysis of the impact of mortgage offset accounts on overall household debt. The Board points out that despite this adjustment the household debt to income ratio had increased over the year although there was no apparent discomfort with that observation.

The outlook

From my perspective the most significant insight from these minutes is the reconciliation of below trend growth and steady unemployment. On the one hand that may signal that any decision from the Bank to lower its growth forecast for 2016 below 3% (previously accepted trend) may not necessarily signal a need to cut rates if trend growth is in fact now lower due to weaker population growth. On the other hand the Board makes it clear that it is still uncomfortable with the level of the unemployment rate. Stability in that rate at a rate of growth below previously accepted trend is not enough to argue against further stimulus while spare capacity operates in the labour market.

Markets are giving only a limited chance to a rate cut in August but still persist with around a 70% chance of a move by November. We still believe that there will be insufficient evidence on the growth outlook in 2016 by then and, given a clear apparent high degree of uncertainty from the Bank, would not see the first window for a cut coming before early 2016.

From our perspective evidence around activity momentum in the second half of 2015 will not be apparent until the first half of 2016 and therefore any policy adjustment would need to wait until then.

We are currently looking for some modest improvement in growth in 2016 back towards around 3%, a level that would likely maintain steady rates. Accordingly we maintain our call that rates will remain on hold over the course of 2015 and 2016.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of Westpac.

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Policy Reserve Bank

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