RBA remain optimistic but cash rate cuts ahead

RBA remain optimistic but cash rate cuts ahead
RBA remain optimistic but cash rate cuts ahead


As expected, the Reserve Bank Board decided to keep the cash rate unchanged at 0.75%.

It is noteworthy that the Board has also not adjusted its growth forecasts for 2020 and 2021 holding them at 2.75% and 3% respectively. The discussion around the two recent shocks to growth – bushfires and coronavirus – emphasises the likely temporary impact of both although the statement does appropriately point out that “it is too early to determine how long lasting the impact [of the coronavirus] will be”.

Further emphasising this tentative approach to coronavirus developments, the description around the world economy has changed: “global growth is expected to be a little stronger this year and next than it was last year.” That compares to the December statement which only referred to: “the outlook for the global economy remains reasonable” – a surprising modest lift in confidence around the world economy given the current recent market developments.

On the other hand the fall in the unemployment rate since the last Board meeting, from 5.3% to 5.1% has been taken on board and the new forecast for the unemployment rate in 2020 appears to be 5.1% down from 5.25% at the December Board meeting. For 2021 the expectation that the unemployment rate will fall slightly below 5% is maintained.

It is of some interest that the statement does not repeat the description “gentle turning point” although the arguments pointing to an improving growth outlook – the low level of interest rates; tax refunds; ongoing spending on infrastructure; a brighter outlook for resources – is now supplemented by a more confident outlook for the residential construction cycle where the statement points to an expected recovery later this year.

It is important that the sentiment in the December statement that “the Australian economy can sustain lower rates of unemployment and underemployment” has been repeated. This emphasises the desirability, from the Board’s perspective, of further falls in the unemployment rate.

The recent weakness in the Australian dollar is recognised with the AUD being described as “around its lowest level over recent times”. That compares with the previous description of “at the lower end of its range in recent times”. There may be some inconsistency in this observation given that if, as the growth forecasts imply, the economy bounces back from the short term shocks, a recovery in the AUD is almost certainly going to be an outcome.

In the final paragraph, the statement repeats the sentiment of the December statement emphasising: 1) the long and variable lags in the transmission of monetary policy; and 2) the Board is prepared to ease policy further if needed. The third point used in December, that “[the Board] continues to monitor developments, including in the labour market” has been modified to “The Board will continue to monitor developments carefully, including in the labour market”. Arguably this final difference can be interpreted as the Board being more uncertain about future developments and therefore wanting to emphasise its strong duty of care.


We have been surprised that the Board has retained its growth forecast for 2020 at 2.75% (around trend) given the weaker momentum which was apparent from the September quarter national accounts and developing questions around the global economy. It is also somewhat brave, given a range of leading indicators around the labour market, to assume that the recent surprise fall in the unemployment rate over the last two months, from 5.3% to 5.1%, will be sustained. Westpac’s forecast is for the unemployment rate to drift upwards over the first half of 2020.

The uncertainty around the coronavirus poses substantial risks to economic forecasts but certainly the impact of the virus over the course of the first quarter both globally and domestically has to be quite damaging. It seems unlikely that subsequent stimulus policies will be able to fully offset the short term damage done to confidence and activity implying a realistic downward revision to growth forecasts, both globally and domestically.

Westpac continues to expect that a combination of a more moderate growth outlook and an unexpected (by the RBA) deterioration in the labour market will require a further policy response. Our forecast is that the next rate cut will occur in April followed by a further cut in August.

BILL EVANS is the Chief Economist at Westpac

Rba Rate Decision Labour Force

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