July RBA cut was primarily for the labour market: Westpac's Bill Evans

July RBA cut was primarily for the labour market: Westpac's Bill Evans
July RBA cut was primarily for the labour market: Westpac's Bill Evans

EXPERT OBSERVER

The RBA cut the cash rate to 1% and signalled that they will continue to adjust monetary policy if needed.

As we expected, the Reserve Bank Board lowered the cash rate by 25bps to 1.00% at its July meeting. The motivation for this move is very much focussed on the labour market as was clearly indicated by the Governor’s recent speech.

In the decision statement, he pointed out that employment growth has been strong, the labour force participation rate is at a record level, the vacancy rate remains high, and there are reports of skill shortages in some areas. On face value, this would not be consistent with a concern about the labour market. But the Governor is now clearly focussing on spare capacity in the labour market, and that is measured by the unemployment rate, the underemployment rate, and wages growth. He believes that the Australian economy should be making more progress in reducing spare capacity and therefore a lower cash rate is consistent with that belief.

As we highlighted in our report last week, it seems likely that the RBA growth and inflation forecasts for 2020 that will be released in the August Statement on Monetary Policy, which will follow the August Board meeting, will be unchanged from the May forecasts of 2.75% for GDP growth and 2% for underlying inflation. This further emphasises the importance of the labour market in driving the policy response in June and July.

The critical final paragraph in the Governor’s Decision Statement leaves open the possibility of further stimulus. He notes that the Board “will continue to monitor developments in the labour market closely and adjust monetary policy if needed”. However, the degree of urgency that was certainly detected in the Governor’s recent speech and the June Board minutes appears to have eased. Consequently we remain comfortable with our view that there will be no follow up move in August.

Readers will be aware that Westpac was the first forecaster in the Bloomberg survey to call the cash rate below 1% (May 24). We predicted a final cash rate move to 0.75% by November, but highlighted that there were downside risks to 0.75%. Last week, we also noted that with the likely decision to cut in July, these downside risks had intensified. For now, we remain comfortable with our forecast that the next rate cut will occur in November, by which time the growth, inflation and labour market environment will not have improved sufficiently to satisfy the RBA. Indeed, by the November Statement on Monetary Policy, we expect that the RBA will have to lower its growth and inflation forecasts and raise its unemployment forecast for 2020, requiring a further policy response.

Critical issues between now and November will be evidence around the path of the unemployment rate, and the impact of this recent movement in the cash rate on financial conditions and the profile of the Australian dollar. The task of lowering the Australian dollar has recently been impacted by headwinds associated with general rate cuts by other major central banks around the world. However, without the RBA cuts, the Australian dollar may well have unhelpfully lifted.

As we noted last week, the intense focus on the labour market - where monthly updates are available - changes the historic pattern of policy adjustments. This has been exemplified in the June and July movements, and means that every month, certainly out to the end of 2019, will be live for policy. Issues that will also provide the RBA with reasons for caution will be around fiscal policy developments, particularly implications for household disposable income; the response of the housing market to the two rate cuts; and whether the consumer responds to tax cuts and lower rates with a robust spending appetite over the course of the second half of 2019.

Conclusion

When Westpac originally forecast two rate cuts in 2019 back in February, markets were only positioned for one cut by March 2020 and most major forecasters were still calling rates higher or on hold. We are therefore pleased to see that the forecast has proved to be correct. We were also the first forecaster to nominate a terminal cash rate lower than 1% (May 24), and that outlook has now been embraced by the market and most other forecasters. However with policy now in play at every Board meeting between now and the end of the year, uncertainties around specific timing are inevitable.

Our current view of one more cut this year by November has downside risks for potentially two, and developments over the next few months will determine that outcome. If the RBA were to lower the cash rate to 0.5% and still be dissatisfied with the excess spare capacity in the labour market then we expect that they will consider putting pressure on governments to loosen fiscal policy, as well as exploring other alternative policies that the RBA itself can embrace.

BILL EVANS is the Chief Economist at Westpac

Tags: 
Rba Rate Decision Labour Market

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