RBA says downturn less severe than first appeared: CommSec's Ryan Feldman

Staff reporterMay 27, 20200 min read


The Reserve Bank Governor provided a cautiously optimistic overview of the Aussie economy and a reasonably upbeat assessment of the Reserve Bank’s response to the pandemic crisis. In his opening statement to the Select Committee on COVID-19 today, he said “The evidence so far is that our mid-March package is working as expected and it is helping build the necessary bridge to the recovery.” Dr Lowe also stressed, “With the national health outcomes better than earlier feared, it is possible that the economic downturn will not be severe as earlier thought. Much depends on how quickly confidence can be restored.”

On interest rates: Governor Lowe remained cautious about the road to recovery and signalled that record low interest rates and unconventional monetary policy support would remain in place “for a few years.” He stressed, “But even as the recovery gets under way, there will still be a shadow cast by the pandemic. As a country, we will need to turn our minds as to how to move out of this shadow. A reform agenda that makes Australia a great place for businesses to expand, invest, innovate and hire people would certainly help. For its part, the RBA will maintain its expansionary settings until progress is being made towards full employment and we are confident that inflation will be sustainably within the 2–3 per cent target band.”

On fiscal policy and JobKeeper: In the lengthy cross examination by Senators that followed, Dr. Lowe emphasised that, “It’s very important we don’t withdraw fiscal stimulus too early” and “fiscal policy will have to play a more important role” in the future. In reference to the government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy program, Dr. Lowe said that the Reserve Bank used a much more granular approach to its labour market forecasts and assumptions, “We started the forecasting process [in March] at the number of hours worked.” No assumptions on the number of people on JobKeeper or JobSeeker were considered. And he noted “JobKeeper has kept the connection between workers and firms. The recovery would be more difficult without JobKeeper.” He also expected to see some form of JobKeeper retained for specific industries, such as tourism with international borders unlikely to be re-opened before year end.

On the labour market: Dr. Lowe reiterated the importance of developments in the labour market: “My main focus has very much been on hours worked. I’m expecting to see a decline in May but not of the magnitude of April. The labour force has a lot of definitional issues.” The Governor had previously forecast that hours worked in the economy could fall by 20 per cent. But he now believes that the decline may be closer to 15 per cent and wants to see a “reasonable increase in hours worked in July and August.” And when prodded on his views on the fabled “full employment” number, Dr. Lowe proffered “In February I would have said 4.5 per cent. We were making progress. We know from previous sharp economic downturns that there is scarring in the labour market. It is quite possible that the estimate of full employment rises back up to 5 per cent.”

On monetary support for the economy and negative interest rates: The Governor also said that the Reserve Bank remains “focused on keeping funding costs low across the country” and “keeping interest rates low for bank borrowers. Central banks work through lending not spending.” When prodded on unconventional monetary policy Dr Lowe said, “I think negative interest rates are extraordinary unlikely here. The reason that people are sceptical is the cost to the financial system as it impairs profitability and the ability to lend. Negative interest rates don’t work.” If required, “we could purchase more bonds”, but “as things stand at the moment we don’t see need to do more” as the banks “have a lot of liquidity”. And “we’ve bought $50 billion worth of government bonds that will eventually mature.”

On reforms and infrastructure spending: "The economy has become less dynamic", said, Dr. Lowe and “a reform agenda to encourage investment, hiring would help…regulation is a barrier to entrepreneurship”. On infrastructure spending the Governor said, “Surely there are plenty of good infrastructure projects with a risk adjusted return for Australian society of better than 1.5 per cent.”

On government debt: “The level of public debt, while rising in Australia, is still low. There is strong demand for debt and the government has the capability to issue more debt.”

On the global economy: “There are a lot of domestic ramifications from a weak global economy.”

On recent economic data and forecasts: “We’re tracking between the baseline and the upside forecast scenarios. The recent data has been better than expected but I still a lot of challenges ahead. Even in an upside scenario it’s still a pretty depressing scenario. On policy moves he notes in hindsight and with reference to JobKeeper revisions “We would have done the same thing.”

APRA Chair remarks to the Board of International Banking Federation

APRA Chair Wayne Byers provided an online speech, “Going the distance: APRA’s approach to the COVID-19 fight.”

On pandemic preparation: “In Australia, we have had prudential guidance on pandemic planning for financial institutions in place for many years, and it has certainly proved its worth in recent months.”

On solvency pressures: “Measures to backstop liquidity have worked well and bought us time, but solvency pressures are mounting as credit risks come to the fore.”

On financial services disruption: “Thankfully, firms’ plans have stood up well and (along with a great deal of reactive work behind the scenes) the level of disruption to financial services has thus far been minimal.”

On financial system health: “We were fortunate that Australia went into 2020 with a banking system in generally good health. We had been working for some years to position our largest banks in the top quartile of international peers from a capital adequacy perspective, and fortuitously they had achieved that positioning before the crisis struck. On an internationally comparable basis, our largest banks are operating with CET1 ratios in the order of 15-16 per cent, and capital within the broader banking system is at a historical high – and about twice the level heading into the 2008 crisis. Funding and liquidity positions were also stronger, and asset quality was good, reflecting a lot of supervisory attention in recent years.”

On the road ahead: “This crisis will almost certainly precipitate enduring change in the way society operates. The idea that we’ll employ some temporary measures and then everything will ‘go back to normal’ is therefore a dangerously naïve one on which to base our decisions. Flexibility and agility will be important – we have a long battle ahead.”

On the regulatory and supervisory landscape: “First, financial and operational resilience – the core of prudential supervision – will be the primary area of focus in the foreseeable future… Second, the post-2008 reforms will be properly tested, and inevitably we will find areas they can be improved…. Third, transparency will become even more important.”

What are the implications for interest rates and investors?

The Reserve Bank Governor’s more optimistic tone was somewhat reassuring today. He seemed satisfied that the Bank had done all it could to help cushion the economic blow from the pandemic, but appears prepared to do more (buy more bonds) if the recovery fails to gather momentum as the economy is re-opened.

Of course, the Governor remains focused on developments in Australia’s labour market. The Bank’s assessment of the economy is predicated on the number of hours worked by Australians. The Governor emphasised that “What I’m focused on is people getting their jobs and income. Mortgage repayments are entirely manageable if you’ve got a job and income.” But "The shape and timing of that recovery depends not only on when restrictions are lifted, but also on the confidence that Australians have about their own health and their finances,"

Improving jobs data from the Bureau of Statistics, SEEK and Indeed – albeit off very low levels – provides unemployed Aussies with some hope and lifts confidence.

But a lot of uncertainty will remain, thus impacting consumer behaviour, until a potential virus vaccine is found. In the meantime, government policymakers would be well advised to retain the large fiscal and welfare support necessary for Australian workers and businesses to survive and operate through these challenging times until the economy finds a firmer footing.

RYAN FELMSAN Senior Economist, CommSec

Staff reporter

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