February cut also looks unlikely: Westpac's Bill Evans

February cut also looks unlikely: Westpac's Bill Evans
February cut also looks unlikely: Westpac's Bill Evans

GUEST OBSERVER

The Reserve Bank Board decided to leave the cash rate unchanged at 2.0%. This decision was widely anticipated coming as absolutely no surprise to markets.

The key policy conclusion: “Members also observed that the outlook for inflation may afford scope for further easing of policy, should that be appropriate to lend support to demand” was unchanged from the November meeting when this mild easing bias was first adopted in the wake of the much lower than expected print for underlying inflation in the September quarter.

The key international themes were retained. However in November the language used was “some further softening in conditions in the Asian region”. This was replaced by “some softening in conditions in the Asian region”. Arguably we could interpret this as indicating that the Bank has not observed any additional deterioration over and above what was expected a month ago. Australia’s terms of trade are still described as “falling” while the Bank not surprisingly continues to expect the Federal Reserve to start increasing its policy rate over the period ahead.

Growth in the domestic economy is still described as moderate but a gradual improvement in business surveys for the non-mining sector has been evident. This has been boosting employment growth and ensuring a stabilisation of the unemployment rate. Confidence around the labour market has been slightly boosted with November discussing “somewhat stronger growth in employment” and this statement referring to “stronger growth in employment”.

In the Statement on Monetary Policy the Bank confirmed the mid-point of its underlying inflation forecast for 2016 as 2.5%. However in the December statement it does confirm the November assessment that inflation will be consistent with the target over the next one to two years but qualifies that by suggesting that it will be “a little lower than earlier expected”.

Along with the observation that business surveys in non-mining are showing a gradual improvement this statement complements confidence around business by pointing out that “credit provided by intermediaries to business picking up”.

Since the last meeting the AUD has increased from USD0.715 to USD0.725 despite a fall in the iron ore price from USD49 to USD43 and a 5% fall in the Westpac’s overall commodity price index. With those contrasting changes there was some possibility that the commentary around the Australian dollar might be a little more urgent. However, with only one month’s data to go by, the Bank has decided to retain the sentiment around the Australian dollar as “the Australian dollar is adjusting to the significant declines in commodity prices”.

Outlook

Markets are currently attributing a 25% probability to a cut of 25bps in February. Of course this pricing has been scaled back from more than 100% over the last five weeks. Westpac still expects rates to be on hold in February. Developments that would be necessary to change our minds would be around the labour market; commodity prices; GDP growth; and confidence. However, we expect that such developments would take time to trigger a policy change and even though the February meeting is two months away we don’t expect sufficient developments in that regard.

The risks for lower rates should be much more focussed on May where the market gives a more than 50% probability of a cut. Our current forecasts do not justify that decision but of course those forecasts are being constantly reviewed.

Certainly if there is to be a move over the next six months it will be down rather than up.

Bill Evans is chief economist of Westpac.

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