December RBA rate cut seems unlikely: Westpac's Bill Evans

December RBA rate cut seems unlikely: Westpac's Bill Evans
December RBA rate cut seems unlikely: Westpac's Bill Evans

GUEST OBSERVER

The Reserve Bank Board decided to leave the cash rate unchanged at 2%.

Following the print of the September quarter Consumer Price Index markets priced a probability of a rate cut at around 70%. With the clearer guidance from the US Federal Reserve that a Fed rate hike in December was a realistic prospect markets revised down that probability to around 50%.

In the last 24 hours that market probability drifted a little further down to around 40%.

It has always been our view that policy would be unchanged at this meeting. That was because the low inflation print allowed the Bank scope to cut if it so desired but that decision would be predicated on a substantial downward revision in the outlook for economic growth.

We could not see how that downward revision could be justified and therefore were prepared to look through the low CPI. In the event the Bank confirmed its somewhat more confident view around the growth outlook citing “business surveys suggest a gradual improvement in conditions over the past year” and “somewhat stronger growth in employment”; “prospects for an improvement in economic conditions had firmed a little over recent months”.

There was some risk that the very low (0.3%) quarterly print for the CPI in the December quarter may have led the Bank to question the prospect that inflation would remain within the target band of 2-3%. However in the Governor’s statement he confirms his view that inflation will remain within the target over the next one to two years, albeit a little lower than earlier expected.

This theme around inflation is confirmed in the all-important final paragraph where the Bank adopts an explicit, although moderate, easing bias. This bias is expressed with the words “the inflation outlook MAY afford scope for further easing of policy, should that be appropriate to lend support to demand”. This is a weaker easing bias than the terms that had been used around inflation in the past, e.g. “were demand conditions to weaken materially the inflation outlook WOULD provide scope for easier monetary policy” (April 2012). Further evidence that this is a softer bias comes with the first sentence in the closing paragraph where the Governor assesses that “prospects for an improvement in economic conditions had firmed a little over recent months”.

Commentary around housing and credit was also consistent with the “unchanged” decision. Overall conditions in the housing market are still described as “accommodative” and credit growth has increased a little in recent months. Dwelling prices in Melbourne and Sydney and reported to be continuing to rise albeit at a more moderate pace.

There is no change in the assessment of the prospects that the Fed will start increasing its policy rate – just being described as “in the period ahead” and global financial conditions continue to be “very accommodative”.

In previous statements the Governor has singled out weakening prospects in China but China does not rate a mention in this statement although recent falls in our terms of trade are noted.

There is no change in the commentary around the Australian dollar: “the Australian dollar is adjusting to significant declines in key commodity prices”.

Outlook

Over the last week or so market pricing for a full 25bp reduction in the cash rate by December reached almost 100%. Despite the Bank adopting an easing bias we do not consider it likely that the cash rate will be reduced at the December Board meeting. The data flow over the next few weeks will be concentrated on economic activity rather than any further news on inflation. It seems unlikely that, given the Bank’s somewhat more constructive view on the growth outlook such data would trigger a rate cut by December. Of most interest will be the impact on confidence from the increase in mortgage rates by the banks and that will be known with the release of the Westpac Consumer Sentiment survey on November 11.

Other important data events will be the employment report; the quarterly wage price index; housing-related activity and prices; and the capital expenditure survey. The all-important GDP report for the September quarter will not be available until after the December meeting. Furthermore, the December Board meeting will be held only two weeks before the next meeting of the Federal Reserve where a Fed rate hike can be realistically expected.

Markets continue to price 100% probability of a rate cut by February. That is a much more realistic assessment given more time will be available to assess growth momentum and most importantly the December quarter inflation report. It is our view and, apparently, the view of the RBA that the next report will see core inflation move back to the normal “trend” number of around 0.6%. In that event our assessment of the likely growth momentum in the economy will point to rates remaining on hold in February and thereafter.

Any change in that view will be largely driven by an assessment that growth prospects in the economy are likely to lose significant momentum through 2016. 

Bill Evans is chief economist of Westpac.

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