RBA on hold, unchanged rhetoric on AUD: Westpac's Bill Evans

RBA on hold, unchanged rhetoric on AUD: Westpac's Bill Evans
RBA on hold, unchanged rhetoric on AUD: Westpac's Bill Evans

GUEST OBSERVER

The Reserve Bank Board meets next week on April 5. We expect that the Board will decide to hold rates steady.

It remains our long held view that the RBA will keep rates on hold for the remainder of 2016.

Steady rates will come as no surprise to markets with the probability of a move that is priced into the curve running at just around 5 percent.

We have consistently argued that any move from here, at these low rate levels, is only likely to occur at the February, May, August, and November meetings. Those meetings precede the quarterly Statement on Monetary Policy when the Bank can release revised forecasts which are likely to be used to justify any move.

Market probabilities for the next “live” month, May, are only around 25 percent. A complication for the meeting in May is that it will now coincide with the release of the Federal Budget rather than precede the Budget by one week.

The market based probability of a cut by June has moved to 40 percent with a 100 percent probability of a cut priced in for December.

The most important market development since the last Board meeting on March 1 has been the surge in the Australian dollar. The currency has jumped from USD0.715 to USD 0.765, a 7 percent appreciation against the USD.

The Reserve Bank puts its emphasis on the Trade Weighted Index (TWI) where the movement has been from 61.3 to 64.2 (an increase of 4.7 percent).

Supporting the lift in the TWI has been a rise in Australia’s export commodity prices. Westpac ‘s Index of Commodity Export prices (including Iron Ore and Coal – WCFI) has lifted from 155 to 166 (up 7 percent) since the Board meeting in March. The spot iron ore price has surprised by increasing to US$54/t, up from $50 at the end of February and bouncing off the December low of $38 - despite plentiful supply and weak demand.

By far the most important issue around the announcement at 2:30pm next Tuesday will be whether the Governor decides to strengthen his commentary around the Australian dollar. Since August last year the commentary has been along the lines of the March Statement “the exchange rate has been adjusting to the evolving economic outlook”.

Recall that back in July last year he stated, “Further depreciation seems both likely and necessary…”. At that time the AUD was at USD 0.745 and the TWI at 62.5. Westpac’s broad commodity price Index stood at 176.

However by August he had adopted the benign, “The exchange rate has been adjusting to the significant declines in key commodity prices”.

By that time the AUD had stabilised at USD 0.74 and the TWI had settled at 62.0. Westpac’s Commodity Price Index had also held at 171.

Given there was little change between July and August the decision to soften the language in August implies that consideration must have been given to softening the language around the AUD at the July meeting. The Bank was probably looking for some sign of stability before changing the message.

Using strong language around the AUD had, arguably, proved to be a successful strategy in the period from March 2014 (when the Governor first referred to the AUD as being high by historical standards) until August 2015 when he adopted the “adjusting” commentary. Over that period the AUD had fallen from USD 0.895 to USD 0.74 (down 17 percent) while the TWI had fallen from 68.7 to 62.0 (down 11 percent).

Certainly other factors also assisted – Westpac’s Commodity Price Index fell from 304 to 171 (down 44 percent) while the Governor cut the overnight cash rate from 2.5 percent to 2.0 percent in the latter stages of that period.

Consider two points – the RBA would have assessed the “talk down” strategy as having been successful (although the AUD was little changed until November 2014 when markets started to detect a possible rate cut) and the precedent from July 2015 (TWI at 62.5; commodities at 176) compared with today (TWI at 64.2 and commodities at 166).

Those two points indicate that the Governor will certainly discuss reintroducing the strategy of “talking down” the AUD. That would imply changing the language around the AUD from “adjusting to the evolving economic outlook” to something like “a lower AUD seems both likely and necessary”.

Such a change in strategy around the AUD commentary would be very significant.

Most importantly it would alert markets that the Bank was uncomfortable with recent developments in the AUD and may be prepared to use interest rates to achieve its objective. (Arguably, the lesson from 2014, where there was little impact on AUD until markets started anticipating lower rates, points to that conclusion). Changing that commentary would certainly see markets increasing rate cut probabilities in the face of any further appreciation in the AUD.

But we also need to remember that central banks are inherently conservative institutions. We expect that, like ourselves, the RBA will be sceptical about the recent “recovery” in commodity prices and, more importantly, like ourselves, still expects the Federal Reserve to raise rates in June.

Buying some time before changing the strategy seems like the most prudent approach in the current circumstances. After all, the boost in the AUD has occurred suddenly in the space of just one month and a prudent patient approach seems the more likely policy outcome at this stage.

Accordingly, we do not expect to see any significant changes in the Governor’s Statement next week.

Bill Evans is chief economist of Westpac.

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