Reserve Bank's noticeable forecast change: Bill Evans

Reserve Bank's noticeable forecast change: Bill Evans
Reserve Bank's noticeable forecast change: Bill Evans

GUEST OBSERVER

The Reserve Bank has made some notable changes to its forecasts in its August Statement on Monetary Policy.

It has retained its forecast for GDP growth in 2015 at a below trend 2.5% but lowered its forecast for growth in 2016 from 3.25% to 3.0%.

It has retained its forecast for growth through to June 2017 at 3.5% and has added an even more optimistic forecast for 2017 of 3.75%.

The lower growth forecast in 2016 can be attributed to a weaker outlook for non-mining investment; lower forecast population growth; and a lower terms of trade (adjusted by 4% from the May Statement).

Significant attention is given in the Statement to the lower forecast for population growth. Annual population growth is forecast at 1.5% over the years to end 2017 – 0.25% below previous forecasts.

That forecast has implications for both demand and supply in the economy. On the demand side both investment and consumption can be expected to be somewhat weaker while growth in supply will also be lower.

Because of weaker supply growth the Bank has been able to adjust its forecast for unemployment despite weaker demand. In May the Bank forecast “unemployment will probably rise further to peak at 6.5% in mid - 2016 and remain elevated for longer”. It is now forecasting that “the unemployment rate is expected to remain little changed from recent levels for some time". Readers should note that this report was finalised on August 6 the day the unemployment rate was announced to have lifted from 6.1% to 6.349%. It is reasonable that the Bank has chosen to look through the monthly volatility of the employment reports and today’s Statement can be read as the Bank formally revising down its peak unemployment rate forecast from 6.5% to around 6%.

In taking 0.25% from its population growth forecast the Bank is effectively revising down its estimate of “trend” or” potential” growth. If, say, it now sees growth in productive capacity at nearer 2.75% than 3% then a lower demand forecast should NOT be interpreted as a signal that policy needs to be adjusted. Demand growth is now seen to be sufficient to stabilise unemployment and therefore rate cuts are seen to be less necessary despite the softer demand.

This discussion neatly overlooks that a central bank should not necessarily be comfortable with unemployment stabilising at above 6% when full employment is generally accepted in Australia to be below 5%.

However this point is covered in the 2017 forecast that growth will reach a stunning 3.75% - well above the assumed “potential” growth of 2.75% (using the lower population growth forecast) and consistent with a solid fall in the unemployment rate. With the drag from the contracting mining investment still set to be running at the current or even more intense pace and the lift from housing investment likely to be easing by then such a growth forecast in 2017 puts a lot of faith in a desired boost to consumer spending and associated non mining investment.

Fortunately the forecast is not based on some expected boost in the terms of trade. Although the Bank does not release point estimates of its terms of trade forecasts Graph 6.2 in the Statement indicates a reasonable assumption that the terms of trade will stabilise in 2016 and 2017.

The Bank’s recent forecasting record highlights downside risks to that forecast. Consider its growth forecasts back in November last year, 3% for 2015 and 3.5% for 2016. Those numbers now stand at 2.5% and 3% respectively.

Overall, however, taking these growth forecasts at face value indicates no pressing need for the Bank to deliver any further policy easing.

While we expected the Bank to lower its growth forecast for 2016 we did not expect it to revise up its very confident underlying inflation forecast for 2016. Recall that in May it revised down its underlying inflation forecast from 2.5% to 2.25%. That represented the first time since 2009 ( aftermath of the GFC) that the Bank had forecast underlying inflation, one year out, below the mid-point of the target range.

The reason given in the text for revising back up the inflation forecast was that the exchange rate assumption for the forecasts had fallen from USD 0.80 to USD 0.74 – a 7.5% fall in the AUD or a 5% fall in the TWI.

It would also be a factor that with the unemployment rate now not expected to rise the degree of spare capacity in labour market would be seen to have lessened imparting a more modest disinflationary pressure.

Other underlying assumptions behind the forecasts are also of interest. The oil price is assumed to be 25% lower than the price used in the May forecasts while the interest rate forecast assumed, ”that the cash rate moves broadly in line with market pricing”. The caveat that “this assumption does not represent a commitment by the Board to any particular path for policy” was noted, as was the case in both February and May.

In February market pricing assumed a 100% probability of a rate cut by May and a cut was duly delivered in May .In May market pricing assumed a 40% probability of a cut by August and no cut was delivered. Current market pricing is in line with May with around a 40% probability assumed by November.

The precedent from May does not provide much encouragement for those folks expecting a November move. It would have been much more interesting if the market pricing of recent weeks had prevailed where the probability of a November cut ranged between 60% and 80%.

Conclusion

Readers will be aware that Westpac expects that we are at the bottom of the cash rate cycle with the next move up not expected until well into 2017. The Bank’s forecasts are certainly in line with those views given its expectations of a 3.75% growth year in 2017. The forecasts for 2016, at 3%, with a stabilising unemployment rate, at around 6%, would be consistent with steady rates in 2015 and 2016.

If, however, it became clear by the second half of 2016 that a 3.75% year was in the offing in 2017 then that rate hike might be delivered earlier than our current timing. However we are much more doubtful about that prospect than appears to be the view of the Bank. Our current view is that 2017 is more likely to be nearer the bottom of the Bank’s 3-4.5% confidence band.

BILL EVANS is chief economist of Westpac.

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Reserve Bank Forecast

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