RBA Statement on Monetary Policy consistent with rates on hold in 2016: Westpac's Bill Evans

RBA Statement on Monetary Policy consistent with rates on hold in 2016: Westpac's Bill Evans
RBA Statement on Monetary Policy consistent with rates on hold in 2016: Westpac's Bill Evans

GUET OBSERVER

In its November Statement on Monetary Policy (SoMP), the Reserve Bank maintained its key forecast that growth in the economy would be 3.00% in the year to December 2016.

We believe this is 0.25% above where the Bank currently estimates trend growth. Therefore, at this stage, the Bank expects there will be no need to cut rates further in 2016. If it had for instance decided to cut rates in November, or was signalling an intention to cut at the December board meeting, it is likely to have forecast growth in 2016 at 2.50% – 0.25% below trend.

The growth forecast for the year to December 2015 has been lowered to 2.25% from 2.50% in the August SoMP. This largely reflects the soft 0.2% of Q2, but also indicates that the Bank is expecting growth in the final two quarters of 2015 to average around 0.60% (slightly below trend, unchanged from the August view). It has lowered its forecast for growth to the year ending December 2017, from 3.75% to 3.50%. Importantly, that is not a downgrade on the outlook for domestic demand, but simply reflects a revision to the expected contribution to net exports from LNG.

Overall, the Bank’s growth forecasts are little changed since the August SoMP.

There were also changes to the inflation outlook. Underlying inflation to December 2015 has been lowered from 2.50% to 2.00%. With 1.30% coming in the first half of 2015, and the surprisingly low 0.3% read of the September quarter, the implied assumption is for another low number in the December quarter – around 0.40–0.50%.

Underlying inflation through the year ended June 2016 is also forecast at 2.00%, indicating an expectation that these measures will resume a “normal pace” of around 0.60% per quarter in the first half of 2016. Consistent with that view, underlying inflation is expected to print 2.50% in the year to December 2016 – back to the middle of the target range. That forecast is maintained for the year to December 2017.

The discussion around inflation highlights that the lagged effect of the fall in the Australian dollar is expected to add around 0.50% to underlying inflation in both 2016 and 2017. That means the drag on inflation from domestic factors, particularly weak wages growth, is expected to be sustained in 2016 and 2017.

Assumptions

In February this year, the Bank adopted a new assumption around the interest rates being used to drive their forecasts. That assumption was to move away from “rates unchanged” to “rates to move broadly in line with market pricing”, although that is qualified with “does not represent a commitment by the Board to any particular path or policy”.

In August for instance, market pricing implied a 40% probability of a rate cut by November, rising to a 60% probability of a cut by February. Today’s market pricing is more aggressive, with a 75% probability of a cut by February, and a 100% probability of a cut by May. Clearly the Bank is in an awkward position and probably values stability in communications rather than changing its model unexpectedly.

With growth forecast at 3.00% next year, we expect that, even with a no rate change forecast, the growth forecast in 2016 would still have been at or above trend, and therefore this assumption does not imply that the rate cut is necessary to achieve at or above trend growth.

It is also important that the assumptions around bank interest rates are noted. The assumption here is that banks will increase interest rates on variable rate mortgages by up to 20bps. This assumption implies that no further increases by the banks are considered likely.

Other assumptions around the AUD and oil prices are broadly the same as in the August SoMP. The AUD is forecast to remains steady at USD0.72 (USD0.74 in August). And the oil price at USD52 per barrel, compared to USD53 per barrel in August.

Commentary

Because the Bank does not consistently provide forecasts for the unemployment rate, the commentary around the labour market is always important. In that regard, the Bank notes “employment growth is expected to be a bit stronger than had been forecast earlier”. Leading indicators around the business surveys, job advertisements and vacancies are pointing to an uptrend in employment. On the other hand, there is no marked upgrading of the outlook for the unemployment rate. In August, the Bank expected it to remain steady and to decline gradually in 2016 H2 and 2017. However, this lift in employment growth is expected to be offset by a more than expected increase in labour supply, due to the increase in the participation rate – overall, a marginally more positive assessment of the labour market since August, and significantly more positive than seen in May, when the Bank expected that the unemployment rate would continue to rise.

The Household Sector

The key to the expected lift in growth between 2015 (2.25%) and 2016 (3.00%) is the view on household consumption. The Bank expects household consumption growth to be a bit above average in 2016 (that is broadly 3.00%+ compared to 2.00–2.50% in 2015). That is expected to be driven by the stronger employment growth and falls in the savings rate, although it is recognised that weak wages growth will continue to weigh on income growth. From our perspective, this is a key assumption. Evidence that

the household sector is not gaining momentum will be the key trigger for the bank to revise down its growth outlook.

Housing

Views on house prices remain cautious, with risks that excess demand could continue to pressure prices, particularly in Sydney. The forecasts also indicate that the Bank expects residential investment to add to growth in 2016 given the strong pipeline – a forecast that we do not share.

Business Investment

The Bank continues to forecast an overall fall in business investment, with the downturn in mining investment swamping improving non-mining investment. The commentary on non-mining investment is more upbeat than we have seen in recent SoMP’s. For example, in August, the Bank further revised down its forecasts for non-mining investment. Whereas, in this SoMP, it notes that “the preconditions for a pick-up in investment are in place”.

The Outlook

We continue to expect that rates will remain on hold over the course of 2016. The Bank’s forecasts in this statement are consistent with it expecting that to be the outcome as well. However, the fact that it is using a “rate cut profile” for its forecasts and appears to expect that the December quarter underlying inflation print will be a soft circa 0.40–0.50% signals that the risks to our outlook are to the downside.

The key appears to be an ongoing improvement in employment growth which will boost consumer confidence and lift the pace of household spending. Our forecasts for household spending and GDP growth are slightly more modest than indicated in the SoMP, but are still consistent with steady rates. Surprises for the Bank might always be a further substantial deterioration in the terms of trade, associated with a weaker than expected world environment which would threaten incomes, and the all important profile for household spending and employment.

The really key events in the lead up to the February Board meeting will be the Q3 national accounts, printing on December 2, and the December quarter inflation report printing on January 27. Further, any major shocks to the global economy which significantly lower our terms of trade will also be very important.

As discussed however, the Bank will need to assess all of these factors as pointing to a downward revision to growth in 2016, from its current 3.00% to a below trend 2.50%, to trigger lower rates.

Bill Evans is chief economist of Westpac.

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Interest Rates

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