Reserve Bank hold suggests a more cautious assessment of the growth outlook: Westpac

Reserve Bank hold suggests a more cautious assessment of the growth outlook: Westpac
Reserve Bank hold suggests a more cautious assessment of the growth outlook: Westpac

Guest Observer

As expected, the Reserve Bank Board decided to leave the cash rate unchanged at 1.5%.

While we expected that result, we were not expecting any significant surprises in the Governor’s Statement.

We were wrong.

Readers will be aware that Westpac has been consistently critical of the RBA’s GDP growth forecasts for 2018 and 2019 of 3 ¼ per cent in both years.

We have consistently argued that the number will be more in line with 2.5%. In all recent statements, the Governor has noted “the Bank’s central forecast for the Australian economy is for GDP growth to pick up to average a bit over 3% over the next couple of years”. This is confirmed in the official forecasts from the February Statement on Monetary Policy of 3 ¼ per cent in 2018 and 2019.

In today’s statement, he notes “the Bank’s central forecast is for the Australian economy to grow faster in 2018 than it did in 2017”. Tomorrow, with the release of the December quarter national accounts,  the measure of GDP growth in 2017 will print. Consensus  expects  growth of 2.5%. Westpac expects 2.4%. On the reasonable assumption that the RBA has a similar estimate (forecast in February SoMP was 2.5%), the above statement can be interpreted as the Bank now feeling comfortable with growth being above 2.5%, which is a major qualification of the Bank’s previous growth outlook.

This change does not seem to be indicated by a change in rhetoric around the economy. Indeed, the Governor points out that growth in exports “is expected to recover from the temporary weakness at the end of 2017”. Arguably, we could interpret this observation as attributing the lift in growth in 2018 mainly to a pick-up in exports. While the Reserve Bank does not supply independent estimates of its forecasts for household consumption, we have always presumed that it is more optimistic for household spending in 2018 than in 2017.

Certainly, Treasury’s forecasts indicate an expected boost to consumer spending in 2018. The RBA continues to highlight the outlook for household consumption as a “continuing source of uncertainty”.

While this change in the attitude to growth appears to be somewhat more dovish, the Bank does show some more confidence about wages. The Governor points out that “the rate of wage growth appears to have troughed”. This is an upgrade from the wages commentary in previous statements. The facts are of course that annual wages growth lifted in the December quarter from 2.0% in the September quarter to 2.1%, also consistent with the Governor’s comment, “wage growth remains low”.

The commentary around housing has also changed somewhat. The two major markets, Sydney and Melbourne, are now singled out and described as “have slowed”.

There is no change in the commentary around inflation (“likely to remain low for some time”); the Australian dollar (“remains within the range it has been in over the past two years”); employment (“forward looking indicators continue to point to solid growth”); Terms of Trade (“expected to decline over the next few years”); and the global economy (“has strengthened over the past year”).

The recent volatility in the share market is recognised, although no implications for markets or the global economy are drawn.

Conclusion

The Reserve Bank appears to be less confident about the growth outlook. Nevertheless, we still believe that it expects to be raising interest rates beginning sometime in late 2018 and into 2019. That would be in line with current market pricing.

In contrast, Westpac is not surprised to see the Bank more cautious on the growth outlook and we continue to expect that the cash rate will remain on hold in 2018 and 2019.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of Westpac. 

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Rba Rate Decision Bill Evans

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