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Interest rates Australia: the outlook for 2019

This post was first published in In The Black on 8 March 2019 at https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2019/03/08/interest-rates-australia-outlook-2019

When the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) last changed interest rates Malcolm Turnbull was still prime minister, Donald Trump had yet to seize the White House, the UK had just voted for Brexit and house prices were booming.

During all the subsequent turbulence locally and abroad, the RBA cash rate has been a rare constant. In two and a half years it has not budged from a record-low 1.5 per cent.

However, markets and economists increasingly believe this period of policy stability is coming to an end, though views diverge sharply on whether the next move will be down or up.

The Reserve Bank recently indicated that it has shifted from a bias towards increasing interest rates to a more neutral stance. Governor Philip Lowe said in a recent speech that “over the past year, the next-move-is-up scenarios were more likely than the next-move-is-down scenarios. Today, the probabilities appear to be more evenly balanced.”

Unemployment falling

CommSec senior economist Ryan Felsman.

Some, such as CommSec senior economist Ryan Felsman (left) and ANZ’s co-head of Australian economics, Cherelle Murphy, think the time is coming when the RBA will be able to raise interest rates.

Despite weakening house prices, the employment rate was steady at 5.1 per cent in January, supported by strong participation in the labour force, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The trend ratio of employment to population rose to a 10-year high of 62.4 per cent.

Felsman says the central bank will look past the continued slide in house prices and unexpectedly soft growth in the September quarter to developments in employment.

“The labour market is the key indicator going forward as far as interest rates are concerned,” he says.

Demand for workers has been building – about 284,000 jobs were created in 2018 and the unemployment rate has dipped to 5 per cent – and Felsman expects this pressure to gradually force wages higher and enable households to increase their spending.

Eventually, he expects wages growth to reach 3.5 per cent, which would be consistent with an inflation rate of about 2.5 per cent – the mid-point of the Reserve Bank’s 2 to 3 per cent target band – “which the RBA has previously identified as a level they would like to get to before they lift interest rates”.

Interest rates to rise in November?

ANZ’s co-head of Australian economics, Cherelle Murphy.

 

Felsman thinks this point will most likely be reached in November, convincing the central bank to lift the cash rate to 1.75 per cent.

Murphy (right) shares Felsman’s upbeat outlook for the economy but foresees a more gradual improvement.

She does not expect the RBA to lift the cash rate until August next year, followed by another increase in November 2020 to take the cash rate to 2 per cent.

Murphy says national income is holding up. Businesses are being buoyed by good profits, encouraging them to invest and hire, and feeding more company taxes into government coffers.

Just as important, tighter credit conditions are working to cool the once-rampant property market without triggering widespread mortgage defaults.

While homeowners may see a peak-to-trough fall of 20 per cent in house values before the market stabilises, Murphy says the fact that mortgage rates are stable means few are being forced to sell.

“This helps explain why consumer confidence has not fallen in a hole, and instead has stayed at pretty high levels,” she says, along with the strong jobs growth.

Given the importance of private consumption for economic activity (accounting for almost 60 per cent of GDP), this is an important plus for growth.

Further interest rate cuts

AMP Capital Markets chief economist Shane Oliver.

 

AMP Capital Markets chief economist Shane Oliver (left) and Market Economics principal Stephen Koukoulas are much gloomier about the economic outlook and believe tepid growth, elevated global risks and inflation that is stubbornly below target will leave the Reserve Bank board with no choice but to cut official interest rates in 2019. Oliver tips the rate to drop to 1 per cent by the end of this year; Koukoulas reckons it will hit a record low 0.75 per cent.

Both forecasts are more aggressive than financial market estimates which, which nonetheless have fully priced in a rate cut to 1.25 per cent by the end of the year.

Concerns about growth, falling house prices, stagnant wages and soft household spending have been underlined by the release of figures showing underlying inflation has been below the RBA’s 2 to 3 per cent target range for most of the past four years.

China’s slowing economy

Internationally, China – Australia’s largest export market – has slowed. In the 12 months to the December quarter it expanded by 6.4 per cent, its weakest pace in almost three decades as consumers eased the pedal on major purchases such as cars. The unresolved US-China trade war has deepened concerns about Chinese growth.

Against this, the Chinese Government has pledged to support the economy and is expected to unveil tax cuts and relax bank cash reserve requirements.

Nonetheless, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the US economy to soften in the next two years as the effects of the Trump tax cuts fade, recent Federal Reserve rate hikes bear down on activity and the trade war with China rumbles on.

These developments are buffeting other economies. In Europe, the IMF expects Germany to be hit particularly hard. The euro zone’s largest economy is heavily reliant on exports to the US and China, and the Fund has sharply downgraded its growth prospects, forecasting it will expand by just 1.7 per cent this year.

Slowing European growth

Add to this mix the Brexit fiasco, and the IMF thinks the euro area as whole will struggle to grow by just 1.9 per cent in 2019 – and that is assuming Britain and the EU reach agreement on an orderly exit.

While these issues have been on the Reserve Bank board’s radar for some time, Oliver says the way they have evolved in the last few weeks will have it worried.

“I think they would be feeling more nervous about things than they were in December when they last met,” he says. “We have seen another round of volatility in markets, and a lot of the issues around that haven’t been resolved. Locally, the housing downturn has worsened, [and there are] more concerns about tight credit conditions.”

Despite this, Oliver does not expect the central bank to be in a rush to cut the cash rate and will instead want to see spending measures in the April Federal Budget and the promises made by both the major parties in the lead-up to the federal election before moving.

Amidst such uncertainty, the RBA and its counterparts around the world appear poised to act meeting to meeting, examining data in forensic detail for the faintest hints of how key aspects of the economy are faring.

As Felsman says, “Every policy meeting is now live.”

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Highest unemployment rate in 11 years doesn’t equal interest rate cut

A lift in the unemployment rate to 6 per cent – its highest point in almost 11 years – will surprise no-one.
In fact, the real surprise has probably been that it has taken this long.
In keeping with the trend of previous jobs reports, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has revealed that a further decline in full-time employment occurred in January, this time by 7100 positions, taking the number of Australians employed full-time to 7.95 million – the lowest number in almost two years.
The reason the unemployment rate has jumped to 6 per cent after spending the latter half of 2013 stubbornly stuck around 5.7 and 5.8 per cent is because, perversely, because the number of discouraged job seekers has stabilised.
The participation rate, the proportion of the working age population in the labour force (ie with a job or actively seeking employment), held steady last month at 64.5 per cent.
Amid all the high-profile announcements about factory closures (most notably and immediately, the SPC cannery in Shepparton), few people will be shocked by confirmation that the unemployment rate has increased.
The number of Australians who want to work but haven’t got a job now stands at 728,600 – a jump of almost 17,000 from last December.
But does this mean the Reserve Bank of Australia will put a rate cut back on its agenda?
That appears unlikely.
The central bank had anticipated that the unemployment rate would at some point reach above 6 per cent, so the fact that it has now done so will not be “new news”.
Additionally, inflation has turned out to be stronger than the RBA had anticipated, making it wary about adding further stimulus to the economy.
As noted in a previous post, RBA Governor Glenn Stevens was unusually explicit following the central bank’s February 4 Board meeting about the future course of interest rates.
Usually, like many central banks, the RBA shies away from being too definitive about the future of monetary policy, which is not unreasonable given the fluidity of global economic and financial conditions.
So when Mr Stevens said the most prudent course for the RBA was “a period of stability in interest rates”, it was a clear message to markets not to expect rate cuts – or hikes – any time soon.
An unemployment rate with a ‘6’ in front of it would not appear to change that message.

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No more rate cuts, but no rush to tighten yet

Interest rates look set to head higher, but the RBA’s “considerable uncertainty” about the pace of recovery in much of the economy means the first rate hike of the cycle could be delayed until well into 2014.

In a widely-anticipated decision, the RBA Board has decided to hold the cash rate at 2.5 per cent – meaning it will have been at this historically low level for six months by the time of the Board’s next meeting on February 4.

There is clear evidence that low interest rates are having an effect.

The property market is strengthening (house prices have risen, building approvals are up 23 per cent from a year ago), company profits are growing (up almost 9 per cent in 12 months), shares are rising (up 20 per cent in the year to date), and retail sales are increasing at a sustained solid clip (three consecutive monthly increases of 0.5 per cent or greater).

And the central bank thinks there is more of such news to come.

As RBA Governor Glenn Stevens put it today, “The full effects of these decisions [to ease monetary policy] are still coming through, and will be for a while yet”.

This is coupled with tentative signs that activity in the non-mining parts of the economy is picking up.

Official capital expenditure data showed manufacturers and other businesses were gradually increasing their investment, and the latest report from credit reporting firm Dun & Bradstreet showed 10 per cent of firms intend to hire extra staff in the first quarter of 2014.

If this is accurate, and businesses act on their hiring intentions, the unemployment rate may not rise much higher.

In further promising news, the official GDP numbers for the September quarter, due out tomorrow, may also be a bit stronger than many have been predicting.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics threw in a surprise today with its report that the trade surplus surged more than 50 per cent in three months to almost $9 billion, adding around 0.7 of a percentage point to activity in the September quarter.

The RBA’s known unknowns: the dollar and non-mining activity

But the persistently strong dollar and the sputtering recovery in economic activity outside the mining sector are the two greatest areas of uncertainty for the Reserve Bank.

Continuing recent efforts to talk the currency down, Stevens said the dollar (which was trading at just below US91 cents following the RBA announcement) was “still uncomfortably high”.

He almost didn’t need to add that the high exchange rate will have to come down in order for the economy to achieve “balanced” growth.

On this front, the Governor admitted that expectations for an acceleration in activity outside the mining sector were subject to “considerable uncertainty”.

Market Economics managing director Stephen Koukoulas is one of the few who for some time now have been predicting rates to rise in 2014 – he tips in the first three months of next year.

But the strong dollar could make it hesitate.

Koukoulas, for one, thinks there is much more the RBA needs to do much more to get the currency down – jawboning alone has had little effect.

If he is right, look for big sell-offs of the currency in coming days.

 

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A shortage of jobs, but no shortage of work

In contemporary Australia there might be a (relative) shortage of jobs, but it seems there is no shortage of work.
While the unemployment rate hovers just below 6 per cent (it held steady at 5.7 per cent last month according to the latest official labour force figures), just about anyone with a job will tell you that their work demands are rising relentlessly.
So what is going on?
The latest official employment figures are consistent with a trend that emerged in the middle of last year in which employment growth is slowing but hours worked is accelerating (see Reserve Bank of Australia chart of labour input growth below).

10bl-labinpu

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, aggregate hours worked increased marginally in both trend and seasonally adjusted terms last month, while employment and unemployment were flat (a net 1100 jobs were created, while an additional 9000 job seekers joined the labour market).

The increase in pressure on those still with a job has been accentuated by the inclination of employers to take on part-timers over full-time staff – in the 12 months to October, 53,000 full-time jobs were lost, while during the same period 145,000 part-time positions were added.

Business surveys and the latest job ads report from the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group suggest wary employers are reluctant to take on extra staff.  According to the ANZ, the number of job ads has bottomed in the last two months after falling for most of the year, while an Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry index of labour market conditions reached a four-year low of 43.6 points in the September quarter.

It is not hard to see why: though low interest rates have injected some vigour into the housing sector, the economy remains sluggish.

As RBA Governor Glenn Stevens observed earlier this week, the economy is still fumbling its way forward as the mining investment boom rapidly dissipates and other sources of growth are yet to establish themselves.

Couple this with the continued strength of the dollar and tepid global growth, and it is little wonder businesses are reluctant to take on extra staff.

Instead, as the data indicate, employers are choosing to use their existing workforce to cope with any increase in demand.

This is why those who have a job feel like they are working twice as hard, even as hundreds of thousands are banging on the door looking for employment.

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More oldies mean work is less and less a young person’s game

Interesting analysis from Matt Cowgill at the ACTU, which adds to the argument that, when it comes to explaining what is happening in the jobs market, IR laws are at best only a part of the story.

In its latest Economic Bulletin, the peak union body argues that the ageing of the population has accounted for much of the decline in the participation rate in recent years.

The reason? The preponderance of people aged 65 years or older in the general population has increased sharply as the Baby Boomer generation ages, and workforce participation among this age group is typically low.

Although their participation rate has picked up of late, it is not enough to outweigh the general decline in the proportion of workers that is going on because of population ageing.

Add in soft employment growth among the young (aged 15 to 24 years) and an increased preference for undertaking tertiary study.

A chart on p2 of the ACTU report that breaks down changes in the participation rate by age group highlights the fact that almost all the action is occurring among those at the very beginning and at the very end of their working lives. Between late 2010 and mid 2013, the participation rate among 15 to 19 year-olds fell 2.1 per cent, and among 20 to 24 year-olds it dropped 0.9 per cent. By contrast, among those 60 to 64 years it rose 1.3 per cent, and by 1.4 per cent among those 65 years and older. For the age groups in the middle, the variation in change was between minus 0.6 per cent and plus 0.2 per cent.

An interesting counter-point to the argument that blames changes to IR laws by the Gillard Government for the participation rate decline.

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