Tag Archives: RBA; interest rates; real estate

For interest rates, the only way is down

People might complain about mixed messages coming from the US Federal Reserve, but the same cannot be said about the Australia’s Reserve Bank at the moment.

The message from RBA Governor Glenn Stevens was about as unambiguous as a central banker can get: if there is to be a change in official interest rates in the next little while, the only direction will be down.

Mr Stevens highlighted the dovish sentiment currently prevailing at the central bank at the moment to the 2015 Economic and Social Outlook Conference in Melbourne today.

“Were a change to monetary policy to be required in the near term, it would almost certainly be an easing, not a tightening,” he said, adding that “an accommodative [monetary policy] stance will be appropriate for some time yet”.

But those hoping the RBA might be inclined to offset recent mortgage rate hikes by the big banks with a rate cut of its own are set to be disappointed.

Mr Stevens said that the recent increases had only partially reversed the decline in mortgage rates enjoyed by owner-occupiers this year, and those most affected were investors – a segment of the market policy makers will be happy to see cooled off a little.

Overall, the increases have been equivalent to half a 0.25 percentage point increase in the official cash, and have taken back just a quarter of the interest easing that has occurred since the start of the year, Mr Stevens said.

The RBA does not seem fussed by such a marginal tightening. The governor pointed out that “this increase is from the lowest rates that any current borrower will have ever seen”.

Change is happening

The central bank has also sought to bring some perspective to discussion about the country’s economic prospects, particularly the short-term growth path.

Mr Stevens said that the country had navigated the after-effects of the biggest terms of trade boom in 150 years reasonably well, managing to continue to grow despite the big plunge in mining-related investment.

Promisingly, he thought the country was about halfway through the decline, and the “headwinds” it was causing were currently about as intense as they were going to get.

The rebalancing of the economy away from resources-led growth toward other drivers of expansion, particularly burgeoning services activity, is, Mr Stevens said, well underway.

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Nothing to see here, move along

The Reserve Bank of Australia is dangling a prolonged period of record low interest rates in front of businesses and consumers as it tries to foster economic growth in the face of what is expected to be an austere Federal Budget.
The release of the National Commission of Audit report has amped up concerns, particularly among retailers and other businesses directly dependent on household spending, that a severe Budget will crunch spending and stall growth.
While the forthcoming Budget would undoubtedly have figured in the discussions of the RBA Board, Governor Glenn Stevens was content to repeat his observation from last month that “public spending is scheduled to be subdued”.
Instead, the central banker drew attention to developments in the labour market, and their implications for inflation and, hence, interest rates.
The surprise drop in the unemployment rate in March to 5.8 per cent had some speculating that the labour market was on the improve, raising the prospect that monetary policy might soon have to tighten.
But the RBA thinks this outlook is premature.
Mr Steven admitted that there were signs conditions in the labour market were improving, but cautioned “it will probably be some time yet before unemployment declines consistently”.
Budget cuts to the public service and Commonwealth spending (including welfare payments) are only likely to prolong the period of softness in the labour market.
While this is bad news for job seekers and those hoping to trade up to a better position, weak employment growth has had a silver lining.
As Mr Stevens explains, the slack labour market has helped keep a lid on wages, which in turn has limited the ability of retailers to jack up their prices.
The result is that the cost of domestically-priced goods and services (often the driver of inflation) has been contained, and the RBA Governor said “that should continue to be the case over the next one to two years, even with lower levels of the exchange rate”.
What that means is that the Reserve Bank does not see inflation breaching its 2 to 3 per cent target band in the next two years, giving it ample room to hold interest rates down for an extended period.
While it is unlikely that they will still be this low in early 2016, it could well be late this year or even early 2015 before the RBA feels compelled to begin edging them up – notwithstanding the surge in house prices in the major cities.

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Unemployment rate drop unlikely to trigger rate hike

As economists are often wont to say, the March labour market figures are decidedly ‘noisy’.
The unemployment rate is down (a 0.2 percentage point drop to 5.8 per cent), but so is the participation rate (also slipping 0.2 of a percentage point to 64.7 per cent.
So, jobseekers were more successful last month, but there were proportionately fewer of them.
In addition, the Australian Bureau of Statistics tell us, more than 22,000 full-time jobs were lost, offset by the addition of more than 40,000 part-time positions, to push the aggregate hours worked in the month up by eight million.
A review of recent jobs data shows these numbers have been volatile. Until last month, the unemployment rate seemed to be on an inexorable rise. After hovering around 5.7 to 5.8 per cent for most of the second half of 2013, it climbed in quick succession to 6.1 per cent by February.
Over the same period the participation rate slid down to a seven-year low of 64.5 per cent (in December 2013) before jumping to 64.9 in February and settling a little lower last month.
The trend measure, which is offered as a way to ‘see through’ the monthly volatility, says the unemployment rate held steady last month at 6 per cent, and the rate of increase has slowed and may be levelling off.
Looking at the labour market through the prism of demand for workers, the ANZ job ads series suggests more employers are looking to add staff, which would be a concrete vote of confidence that better times lie ahead.
Turning points in indicators of economic activity often seems to be characterised by a period of volatility before a definite direction asserts itself, much like a sail that momentarily flaps in the breeze as a ship changes tack.
Often such turning points only become really apparent with hindsight.
But other evidence suggests that jobless rate might not have much further to climb, bringing the prospect of an interest rate hike into sharper focus.
Retail sales are firming (strong monthly gains in December and January were consolidated in February), building approvals are up more than 23 per cent from a year earlier, and business conditions and confidence are improving.
But the recent appreciation in the exchange rate (the Australian dollar surged to US94.3 cents following the release of the jobs data) is a clear risk for the RBA, which has been keen to see the currency lose much of its altitude.
Today’s activity shows the currency markets are primed to exploit even the hint of an increase in the interest rate differential between Australia and the US, where confirmation by the Federal Reserve of a US$10 million cut in bond purchases under the quantitative easing program saw the greenback lose ground.
The stronger $A will also hamper the shift in the economy away from resources-led activity toward other sources of growth, possibly prolonging the nation’s lacklustre GDP performance.
A turn in the labour market, if that is what this proves to be, is unlikely by itself to convince the RBA Board to hike rates – particularly while wage inflation appears so tame.
A more probable prompt for a rate rise would be increasingly uncomfortable signs of heat in the housing market, particularly credit growth. So far, the warning signs on this front are amber, rather than flashing red.

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Solid build up behind job losses

Though the loss of more than 31,000 full-time jobs in December 2013 has, not surprisingly, grabbed most attention, the Reserve Bank of Australia is possibly more interested in another set of numbers that came out today.

In a sign that low interest rates are having the desired effect, building activity is strengthening, improving 1.6 per cent in the September 2013 quarter to be up 5.4 per cent from a year earlier, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In the residential sector, new houses accounted for the majority of improvement – activity there was up more than 5 per cent from the September quarter 2012. This is on top of a significant 3 per cent upward revision in ABS estimates of dwelling commencements in the June 2013 quarter.

The improvement has also been reflected in measures of the value of all building work done, which rose above $21 billion in the September quarter for the first time in about two years.

The activity figures match RBA lending data, which show housing credit grew by 5 per cent in the year to last October.

Taken together, the results are adding to the pretty strong signal to the central bank that, notwithstanding December’s weak jobs numbers, it does not need to cut interest rates any further.

Before the release of the labour force data, markets had priced in a minor 7 per cent chance that the official cash rate would be lowered to 2.25 per cent at the RBA Board’s 4 February meeting.

Knee-jerk reaction might have pushed those odds a little higher since but it seems unlikely the unemployment reading will have unsettled the RBA, which anticipated the jobs market would soften through much of the coming year.

Instead, the on-going recovery in building work will have it pondering how much longer it should hold interest rates down at current levels.

Though inflation remains subdued, and talk of housing bubbles is (once again) exceedingly premature, household spending is clearly gathering some momentum. Retail sales are up, as are building approvals and home construction. Sure, job insecurity will be a not-insignificant handbrake on consumption.

But in the push and pull of economic forces, growth seems to be gaining ground, and the RBA is likely to view the 2.5 per cent cash rate as increasingly inappropriate.

 

 

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