RBA approach backed up by wages and confidence data: Westpac's Bill Evans

RBA approach backed up by wages and confidence data: Westpac's Bill Evans
RBA approach backed up by wages and confidence data: Westpac's Bill Evans

EXPERT OBSERVATION

The minutes of the May monetary policy meeting of the Reserve Bank Board repeated the assertion that first appeared in the April minutes. That is that “members agreed that it was more likely that the next move in the cash rate would be up rather than down”. This observation is contingent on the economy evolving in the way the Bank currently expects which is “a gradual pick-up in inflation as spare capacity in the economy is absorbed and wages growth gradually picks up”. Nevertheless the Board observed that spare capacity in the labour market would remain for some time.

Using this terminology might create challenges for the Bank in the future. If the term is ever deleted from the minutes, markets are likely to take that as a sign that the Bank’s policy stance has changed.

Note the “bold” move from the new Governor of the RBNZ (Adrian Orr). He lowered his growth and inflation forecasts and stated, “the Official Cash Rate (OCR) will remain at 1.75 percent for some time to come. The direction of our next move is equally balanced, up or down”.

The Reserve Bank of Australia however did not lower its growth or inflation forecasts in its recent Statement on Monetary Policy but did make a subtle change in the rhetoric of the minutes, “it would be appropriate to hold the cash rate steady and for the Reserve Bank to be a source of stability and confidence”.

That implies a 'badge of honour' to have steady rates, rather than a stance that needs to be justified in a world where other central banks are tightening policy. Perhaps the lead from the RBNZ, who have recognised the risks around the current environment, has had some impact on their thinking.

The clear positive development for the economy has been the strong boost to non-mining business investment particularly non-residential construction and government public works. The Bank is justified in expecting that this strong momentum will be sustained although in our view at a decreasing pace. We expect that non-residential construction which added 0.6 percentage points to GDP growth in 2017 will gradually reduce its contribution to GDP growth to 0.33 percentage points in 2018 and 0.19 in 2019. Equally we also see government public works spending will also grow but at a slowing pace contributing 0.4 percentage points in 2017, 0.31 in 2018 and 0.23 in 2019.

There remains the concern that wage pressures may take some time to emerge. Indeed Deputy Governor Debelle highlighted a key risk to the Bank’s outlook in his speech on May 15. He nominated that risk as being that the level of the unemployment rate needed to spark wage and inflation pressures might be lower than the Bank’s current unemployment forecast. Note that this is a fairly cautious 5.25% (from current 5.6%) by June 2019 and remaining there through to the end of the forecast period by June 2020.

In fact this forecast represents a downgrade of the unemployment outlook. In the February Statement on Monetary Policy the forecast was for the unemployment rate to fall to 5.25% by June 2018 – a full year earlier than the current forecast. In that sense the Bank has actually downgraded an aspect of its growth outlook. This presumably reflects the slowdown in jobs growth we have seen in 2018 with the four month annualised pace slowing to 1.3% from overall growth in 2017 of 3.4%.

These cautious forecasts of the unemployment rate must indicate that the Bank is aware of the risk that the labour market does not tighten sufficiently to boost wages and other incomes. In fact general estimates of the so-called full employment rate (NAIRU) have been around 5% for Australia. In other countries, their traditional NAIRU estimates have been downgraded in the aftermath of the GFC.

Certainly there is still no sign of any lift in wage pressures. The March quarter wages report printed on May 16.

Total hourly wages ex bonuses rose by 0.5% in Q1 compared to a median of market expectations (and Westpac’s) of 0.6%. This is the second quarter of a disappointing wage print, Q4 WPI rose 0.6% compared to a median expectation of 0.7%. The Q4 print was also revised down to 0.5% from 0.6% as it was originally reported. These modest wage outcomes leave annual private sector wages growth “stuck” at 1.9% despite the 3.3% increase for the minimum wage as determined by the Fair Work Commission.

The Board discusses this prospect when it talks about the wage price index not picking up as quickly as in the past when business surveys identified some shortage of suitable labour. The Board discussion moved to international evidence which shows similar inertia in wages and they discussed possible reasons including competitive pressures from globalisation and technological change. We would add: low productivity growth; falling unionisation; high household debt which constrains job mobility and lack of pricing power generally in the economy. As one employer noted “Why should I grant a pay rise if I cannot compensate with a price rise"?

There may be some source of embarrassment in the minutes in that it is noted that “recent data on retail” suggested that momentum had continued in early 2018. Since the Board meeting, the retail sales report showed that real retail sales had grown by a very modest 0.2% in the March quarter.

This downbeat take on the consumer was further supported by the Westpac Melbourne Institute Index of Consumer Sentiment. The May Report showed a further modest deterioration.

This followed the well-received Commonwealth Budget which included personal tax cuts; savings largely explained by tighter scrutiny of the black economy (few specific losers) and an improved fiscal position. The modest 0.6% fall came as a surprise. It was underpinned by a 6.5% fall in the sub Index (household finances compared to a year ago) and although the Budget boosted confidence in the near term economic outlook, it failed to spark interest in respondents’ assessments of their finances.

In the minutes, there was a more detailed discussion on the outlook for housing. In particular, the Board notes that “a further tightening in lending standards in Australia, particularly in the context of the current high level of public scrutiny of Banks, was possible which would affect household borrowing and spending”. The recent release (since the Board meeting) of housing finance data showing that new lending to investors was now down 26% over the year (and 30% from the peak) is certainly consistent with those concerns.

That clearly signals a slowing in credit growth and the Deputy Governor, in his speech, acknowledges that likelihood. The issues are not only around reduced confidence amongst investors but an impact on the amount of funds an individual can borrow. Deputy Governor Debelle postulates that such a tightening has implications for house prices more than consumption. We do not think that argument is strong. For example note the significant impact on household finances in the Consumer Sentiment survey partly reflecting weaker housing – it is risky to assume little wealth effect when prices fall just because it seems to be muted when prices rise.

The Deputy Governor does address the issue of the implication for a fragile housing market if the RBA raises rates. He notes that an environment where rates are rising would “highly likely to be one where wages and household incomes are growing faster than currently, improving the ability of households to afford higher mortgage payments.” That is a reasonable argument and does demonstrate that the Bank is mindful of the impact of increasing rates on a fragile housing market.

Westpac continues to expect that the Bank’s policy of “stability and confidence” (rates on hold) will be maintained throughout 2018 and 2019.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of Westpac.

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