Is there a case for a February interest rate hike?

The rate hike hares are running following evidence that shoppers are spending more freely and building approvals are back to levels last seen almost three years ago.

In a sign that the stimulus from low interest rates is sustaining an improvement in consumer outlook despite the soft employment market and federal budget gloom, retail sales rose 0.7 per cent in November to be up 4.6 per cent from a year earlier, while building approvals remained at their healthiest level in years, despite a small retreat from the previous two months.

The solid readings have led at least one prominent economist to predict the Reserve Bank of Australia will soon have to begin raising interest rates in order to ward off the risk of a surge in inflation.

Market Economics managing director Stephen Koukoulas said today the economy “is on fire”, and that the Reserve Bank Board should lift its cash rate when it returns for its first monetary policy meeting of the year on February 4.

The latest readings on the economy follow the release of figures last week showing the nation’s trade deficit narrowed significantly in the second half of 2013, a trend that is expected to continue as the completion of major resource infrastructure projects boosts the nation’s export capacity.

After reaching above $1.5 billion in mid-2013, the deficit had shrunk to little more than $110 million in November, and anecdotal evidence indicates there was strong growth in iron ore export volumes last month.

Adding to the picture, a Dun & Bradstreet survey released earlier this week indicated that business is becoming increasingly upbeat about its investment and employment intentions.

But worries about the health of the jobs market remain.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, monthly job vacancies have been in a sustained decline since reaching a peak of almost 190,000 in early 2011. In November last year, the ABS reported, there were barely 140,000.

In its mid-year update on the economy, Treasury was downbeat on the labour market, predicting the jobless rate would rise to 6.25 per cent next financial year as the economy grew at below-trend rate.

But, as Kouloulas points out, the jobs market is a lagging indicator of economic activity, and the latest economic data suggest Treasury may have been too pessimistic.

For instance, between August and December it cut forecast dwelling investment growth from 5 to 3 per cent, though as it itself admitted, “finance commitments for new dwellings are now 12.4 per cent higher than a year ago and building approvals have improved noticeably from their trough in early 2012. Higher house prices could initiate a stronger investment response”.

The risk for the RBA is that, if it misreads the situation, a rate hike in the next month or so might puncture nascent optimism and slow or stall (at least temporarily) the recovery in non-mining sectors of the economy.

The risk is heightened by the Federal Government’s tub-thumping on the state of the Commonwealth Budget and looming threat of significant cuts in public sector spending.

In addition, raising rates could help reinflate the Australian dollar, something the RBA would be keen to avoid (one of this blog’s correspondents, @MrMacroMan, said that an RBA official speaking in New York overnight was “very clear on AUD risk and rates on hold”).

Yet, if analysts like Koukoulas are correct and the economy is taking off, an official interest rate of 2.5 per cent would obviously be inappropriate, and could sow the seeds of dangerous price pressures down the track.

As RBA Governor Glenn Stevens might say, the decision may come down to which is the path of last regret.

Fortunately for it, more evidence about the strength of activity is due to be released before the 4 February meeting, including finance and employment figures, as well as construction activity numbers.

In the meantime, markets are likely to be busily recalculating the odds of a rate move at next month’s meeting.

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