Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham

Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham
Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham

GEUST OBSERVER

Keeping inflation on target is proving to be a challenge for many central banks. Most of the major central banks have had inflation well below their targets in recent years.

The RBA may now be having a similar problem. Headline CPI inflation has now been below the RBA’s 2-3% target band for six quarters, which is the longest period of sub-target inflation since 1999. More worrisome, the underlying measures of inflation, which abstract from temporary factors, are also well below the target band. The RBA’s preferred measures of underlying inflation were around 1.5% y-o-y in Q1.

Given the low global inflation story, it is tempting to suggest that Australia is now just succumbing to forces that are beyond local control. This possibility cannot be completed dismissed. However, at this stage, the evidence suggests otherwise. Firstly, the significant slowdown in inflation has been largely in non-tradable (domestically produced) inflation. This includes education and housing rents, which had much weaker prices growth in Q1. The factors driving this weakness are local rather than global. Tradable inflation, which is largely imported goods and services, was broadly in line with the level implied by the AUD and import prices in Q1.

Secondly, although local growth has been solid, it has still been below trend over the past three years. Below-trend growth has meant that spare capacity has built up, which is weighing on domestic inflation. For example, although the unemployment rate has fallen (it was 5.7% in April), it is still above the full employment level (5- 5.25%). As a result, wages growth is at its slowest rate in at least two decades. 

Finally, the rebalancing of growth from mining to the services sectors is proving to be disinflationary. This partly reflects that wages tend to be lower in the services sectors
than in mining-related areas. 

Our models suggest that underlying inflation will remain below the RBA’s target band over the next year, but then lift back into the band as the labour market tightens and wages growth gradually rises. This is a stronger profile than the RBA is forecasting for underlying inflation, with the RBA forecasting a particularly weak inflation outlook.

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Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham

Domestic price pressures are weak, despite solid GDP growth

Given low global inflation, it is tempting to suggest that Australia is now just succumbing to the global story. Of course, to some degree, this is true. Indeed, the significant fall in global commodity prices has been a major driver of the dynamics in Australia’s economy in recent years and, to this extent, the global story is clearly having a big influence.

However, at a proximate level, it was not the low global inflation story that drove the significant recent downside surprise in Q1 CPI inflation, and thus triggered the recent RBA cut. Tradable inflation (mostly imported goods) was roughly in line with what was expected, given movements in the AUD and in imported prices. The big surprise in the Q1 CPI numbers was the lower-than expected domestic price pressures. Non-tradable (domestic) inflation fell to its lowest rate in at least 17 years, running at 1.7% y-o-y in Q1 (Chart 1). The broad-based nature of the weakness in price pressures saw the RBA’s preferred measures of underlying inflation – the trimmed mean and weighted median – fall to an average rate of 1.55% y-o-y (Chart 2).

Weaker domestic inflation has arrived, despite solid GDP growth (Chart 3). Importantly, however, it is worth keeping in mind that GDP has been below trend for the past three years, on average, which has seen a build-up in spare capacity, with the unemployment rate still well above the full employment level (Chart 4). There has been growth, but not quite enough of it.

The solid GDP growth numbers have also been heavily driven by exports of commodities and services. Domestic demand has been modest, even after stripping out the decline in mining investment (Chart 5). Weaker domestic demand has weighed on domestic wages and prices.

The rebalancing of growth from mining investment to the housing and services sectors has also put downward pressure on wages growth and thereby on inflation. Jobs in the mining and associated industries are being replaced by generally lower paid work in the services sectors, which has contributed to weaker wage outcomes. The latest numbers show that wages growth has weakened to its slowest pace in at least two decades (Chart 6). For more on this composition effect see Downunder Digest: Looking for signs of rising wages, 15 April 2016.

At a component level there are also clear signs that much of the weakness in inflation has been due to domestic factors. Two key components of CPI that surprised to the downside over the past year have been housing and education (Chart 7). On housing, the weakness has reflected sluggish growth in rents.

Part of the story is that rents have fallen in Perth, where the end of the mining boom has weighed on demand, while there has also been a significant boost to supply of rental properties, particularly apartments (Chart 8). Growth in rents is likely to have been held back in other capitals by a ramp-up in investor housing putting more rental properties onto the market.

Education has been weaker due to a surprisingly sharp fall in tertiary education fees.

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Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham

What the inflation models are saying

To take a more formal approach to understanding the recent inflation dynamics we estimate two workhorse inflation models – a mark-up model and an expectations-augmented Phillips curve model – both based on the RBA’s own approach to modelling inflation. The Phillips curve model that shows inflation as the result of past and present measures of spare capacity in the economy, proxied by the unemployment rate and output gap (reduced spare capacity leads to higher inflation). The mark-up model sees inflation driven by current and lagged unit labour costs and import prices (this assumes firms set prices as a mark-up over costs). For more on the models see: Downunder Digest: Australia’s low inflation outlook, 19 November 2015.

To start with, it is worth pointing out that these models were surprised significantly to the downside by the weakness of the Q1 CPI result (Chart 9). This could reflect a range of possibilities. It could be telling us that there was a statistical distortion in the Q1 CPI numbers that exaggerated the weakness (that is, the models are more right). On the other hand, it could be telling us that our model is mis-specified (the data are right). Interestingly, a look at the model residuals suggests that the forecasts ‘miss’ was not out of the ordinary (as Chart 10 shows, the model predicts a much smoother path for underlying inflation than is apparent in the actual numbers).

One thing is very clear: the models do not predict a repeat of the very low Q1 underlying inflation print, with underlying inflation expected to be around 0.4-0.5% q-o-q in Q2. Using our central forecasts as inputs to the models, underlying inflation is projected to run at around 0.4- 0.5% per quarter over the rest of 2016 and all of 2017. This would see the trimmed mean running at 1.6-1.7% y-o-y for the rest of 2016, and getting back to around 2.0% in mid-2017.

The RBA is now forecasting inflation to be low

Following the downside surprise to the Q1 CPI numbers the RBA significantly lowered its own forecasts for underlying inflation. The RBA has taken around 50bp out of its underlying inflation forecast over 2016 and around 25bp of the forecast in 2017 and into 2018 (Charts 11 and 12). The RBA now expects underlying inflation to be below the 2-3% target band until mid-2018. This is a significant change in the RBA’s view and seems to be a larger adjustment than just carrying forward the direct impact of the Q1 forecast miss. Our own models have a slightly stronger outlook for inflation, with underlying inflation getting back to 2% a year earlier than the RBA’s central forecast.

We see a part of the RBA’s approach as tactical. Firstly, the RBA will be hoping not to get further downside surprises to its current inflation forecast as this could undermine the credibility of the inflation-targeting regime. Secondly, the much lower inflation forecast helps to bolster the RBA’s easing bias, which in turn may help to put additional downward pressure on the AUD. A lower AUD is clearly desirable for supporting growth but also for lifting inflation.

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Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham

What this could mean for policy

If our view is the right one, stronger domestic growth, which drives a further improvement in the labour market, should lead to a pick-up in wages growth and inflation. In this story, the main driver of recent weaker-than-expected inflation has been an extended period of below-trend GDP growth and the effect of the transition from mining to services sector-led growth. In short, the recent disinflation can be largely explained as a cyclical phenomenon, rather than a structural one.

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Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham

If this is the case, the appropriate policy prescription is looser policy. As the RBA has a mandate to maintain price stability, it seems likely that the central bank will need to cut the cash rate further. If our models are correct though, domestic inflation is nearing its trough. As a result, we see the RBA cutting once more, to 1.50% in August, and holding steady at that level in subsequent quarters. Looser fiscal policy would also be helpful, albeit not expected.

There are, of course, risks around this outlook. The first is to growth itself. Weaker-thanexpected growth could continue to weigh on wages and inflation, forcing the RBA to cut further.

Another risk is that more of the recent weakness in wages and inflation is structural and perhaps a global phenomenon. This could reflect the impact of globalisation, technology or the flow on effect of a long period of weak growth in the developed world in recent years that has left considerable excess capacity in a range of economies.

 Click to enlarge

Property 101: Explaining Australia’s low inflation with HSBC's Paul Bloxham

Paul Bloxham is chief economist (ANZ) for HSBC . Daniel Smith is economist. They can be contacted here.

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Inflation

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