RBA minutes reveal slightly surprising comfort around risks in the housing market: Westpac's Bill Evans

RBA minutes reveal slightly surprising comfort around risks in the housing market: Westpac's Bill Evans
RBA minutes reveal slightly surprising comfort around risks in the housing market: Westpac's Bill Evans

GUEST OBSERVER

The minutes of the September monetary policy meeting of the Reserve Bank Board provided few surprises.

Of most interest in these minutes is the expanded analysis of the Australian housing market. Media reports and some high frequency industry data had been suggesting that the markets in Sydney and Melbourne were lifting again.

The Bank’s analysis of these developments appears to be more downbeat than had been expected. House prices are described as having “declined at the national level and across most capital cities over the past year”. Inflation in the rental markets was described as “around historical lows” and the aggregate rental vacancy rate “had drifted higher and was close to its long run average”.

The Board also noted the recent lift in auction clearance rates in Sydney. It qualified that signal by noting that “the number of auctions had declined and remained lower than a year earlier”.

It also noted that in the private treaty market turnover had declined and that “the average number of days that a property was on the market had been on an upward trend”. Slowing housing credit growth was also noted. As has been the case with previous remarks from the Bank, a future oversupply in the high rise apartment market seems possible ( but not certain) with “a considerable volume of apartments scheduled to be completed over the next couple of years”.

Conditions in the labour market were assessed as little changed in recent times with the unemployment rate reasonably steady at 5.75 percent in the year. The outlook for the jobs market was noted as “consistent with only a slight change in the unemployment rate in coming months”.

Overall the data suggested that the economy had been growing around potential (2.75-3.00 percent) in the first half of the year.

One important new piece of information since the last Board meeting was the release of the capital expenditure survey. The Board noted that mining investment had continued to fall and investment intentions in that sector implied a further large decline in 2016-17, although the peak subtraction from GDP growth was still expected to have occurred in 2015-16.

Household consumption growth is expected to be around average. The Board pointed out that lower interest rates can be expected to boost consumption since borrowers benefitted more from low interest rates than had been costs to depositors. The concern has always been that borrowers used the improved cash flow to pay down debt rather than lift consumption.

Growth in Australia’s major trading partners continued to be assessed as “a little below its decade average”. In particular, the recent lift in bulk commodity prices was attributed more to a reduction in production by Chinese producers than a sustained lift in demand.

Conclusion

We have been somewhat surprised at the more downbeat tone used around the housing market. Nevertheless this sentiment is not consistent with any imminent decision to adjust rates. The next inflation report will print on October 26 but it is considered to be highly unlikely that it would precipitate any policy response. Our current forecast is for a 0.5 percent underlying print for the quarter further signalling that inflation remains at or near the bottom of the 2-3 percent target zone but there are no grounds for concern, as we saw in April, that inflation was tumbling.

In that regard the Bank has released the Statement on the Conduct of Monetary Policy which sets out the new Governor’s agreement with the Government. We have been writing consistently on the appropriateness of widening the target band from 2-3 percent to 1-3 percent however we were never at all confident that the Bank and the Government would make such a profound change. The agreement that has been adopted is “an appropriate goal is to keep consumer price inflation between 2 and 3 percent on average over time.” This “over time” concept replaces “over the cycle” and appears to provide the Bank with more flexibility for inflation to remain at or below the bottom of the band for an extended period.

It suggests that under this agreement there will be less urgency to push inflation back to within the 2-3 percent medium term goal. The new Governor has also adopted a more explicit recognition that included in his objectives “financial stability”. The most likely channel through which interest rates can affect financial stability is via the housing market. We welcome the recognition of the importance of fostering financial stability when formulating a policy response.

On balance this new agreement reduces the urgency to cut rates further even in the face of another inflation shock.

While no one gives any chance to a policy move on October 4 there is still plenty of anticipation that the Bank will cut rates at its following Board meeting on November 1. We do not think that there is any evidence in the themes set out in these minutes or the recent Statement on the Conduct of Monetary Policy that would lead to a move in November. We remain comfortable with our view that the overnight cash rate will remain steady for the next few years.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of Westpac 

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