Westpac now expects the Reserve Bank to cut the cash rate by 25bps in both August and November this year.
We have revised down our GDP growth forecasts for 2019 and 2020 from 2.6% to 2.2%. With the slower growth profile we now expect to see the unemployment rate lift to 5.5% by late 2019. That makes a strong case for official rate cuts to cushion the downturn and, in turn, meet the RBA’s medium term objectives.
The Reserve Bank recently revised down its growth forecasts for 2019 and 2020 from 3.25% and 3.0% to 3.0% and 2.75% respectively. It also cut its estimate for 2018 from 3.5% to 2.75%.
Momentum in 2018 slowed dramatically through the year. The annualised growth rate in the first half was 4% whereas in the second half we estimate that the pace slowed to 1.5%.
Moving from a 1.5% pace to a 3% pace in 2019 seems to be a very large stretch.
Westpac’s growth forecast in 2019 and 2020 has been a much weaker 2.6% in each year but even that number now appears too high.
Our new forecast for GDP growth in 2019 and 2020 is 2.2%.
In particular, we have been expecting only a modest impact on consumer spending from the likely negative wealth effect associated with falling house prices in Sydney and Melbourne.
Our growth forecasts have assumed a lift in the savings rate across 2019 from 2.4% to 2.9%. That would be consistent with consumption growth of 2.4%. Note that we expect momentum in consumption growth in the second half of 2018 to be closer to 1.5%.
A more reasonable assessment of the lift in the savings rate in 2019 is from 2.4% to 3.5% with a lift towards 5.0% expected in 2020. Those savings rates imply consumer spending growth around 2%.
That lift assumes that house prices in Sydney and Melbourne will continue to fall through 2019. Our estimates of the need to restore affordability and the impact of tighter lending standards on prices point to falls of around 5%-10% in Sydney and Melbourne over the course of 2019 complemented by softness in other markets.
Absent any policy response from the RBA we expect that further falls will be necessary in 2020 before stability in these markets will be achieved.
These headwinds for the housing market and activity are also apparent in developments around credit. In the second half of 2018 new lending for housing fell by 14.9% with both investors (-15.5%) and owner occupiers (-14.7%) being affected. This is a sharper correction than we had anticipated. These falls are a combination of both demand (concerns around falling prices and stretched affordability) and supply (new regulations and caution from some lenders in a falling market).
We expect these falls, albeit at a much slower pace, to continue through 2019 representing a negative feedback loop to prices.
That negative wealth effect is therefore likely to persist through 2020 with a further extension of the soft profile for consumer spending.
Other important dynamics will be around the sharp downturn in residential housing construction. We have revised down our forecast for residential housing construction in 2019 to –10% from –7% and –5% in 2020 from –3%. We also envisage a weaker profile for business equipment investment as businesses adjust their plans to a softening growth environment.
Overall we have revised down our GDP growth rates in 2019 and 2020 from 2.6% in both years to 2.2% respectively.
Consumer spending; residential housing construction and equipment investment are all key to the outlook for jobs growth.
With reasonable estimates for the participation rate our weaker jobs growth profile has the unemployment rate lifting to 5.5% in the second half of 2019 and further by end 2020.
Our process for forecasting monetary policy has always been to assume that the economy will evolve as we expect and then to anticipate the policy response once the authorities react to the new reality.
The decision by the Reserve Bank Board to accept the possibility that interest rates could fall further, despite the current record low levels, is profoundly important.
We can now be confident that if our growth profile does evolve the Reserve Bank will be prepared to act. Prior to this more balanced approach to rates it was reasonable to assume that it was most reluctant to lower rates. The view seemed to be that the adjustment in the housing market was a necessary development with limited spill over effects on the rest of the economy.
Lowering rates, as we last saw in 2016, would only disrupt that adjustment while the rest of the economy was not in need of further stimulus.
The approach now seems to be that the spill over effects to the rest of the economy are real and the “adjustment” process may be more substantial than earlier anticipated. Certainly the collapse in new lending and sharp falls in house prices would be attracting considerable attention.
Note that the current view of the Reserve Bank is GDP growth of 3% in 2019; and 2.75% in 2020. That profile is, in their view, consistent with a gradual fall in the unemployment rate from 5.0% to 4.75% by end 2020.
The rise in the unemployment rate which we envisage through 2019 will not be severe since unit labour costs are contained and labour enjoys a relative cost advantage over capital. However it will be contrary to the Reserve Bank’s expectations and prompt a significant revision to the 4.75% forecast for 2020.
When might this decision be taken?
The forces around a slowing economy, falling house prices, and weak consumer spending are already apparent. However the current forecasts do not indicate that the Bank expects these conditions to persist.
Recognition of this persistence is likely to take some time, but not too much time. Our preferred estimate would be the August Board meeting. A full explanation of the reasons behind the decision can be set out in the August Statement on Monetary Policy.
That timing will also allow two more inflation prints to confirm that the further widening of the output gap, as growth remains stuck well below trend, is constraining inflation with little likelihood of achieving the current forecast of 2.25% inflation in 2020.
A second cut at the November Board meeting is likely to follow.
Unlike the response of the markets in 2016 to two rate cuts we do not expect that these two cuts will immediately stabilise housing markets. However there will be sufficient progress for the Reserve Bank to resume its cautious stance.
Adjustments will also be accommodated by the Australian dollar, possibly in lieu of even lower rates.
Partially offsetting our weaker profile for the AUD will be more “patience” on the part of the Federal Reserve with the federal funds rate. Following my trip to the US over the last few weeks where I met with a number of officials and market participants it is clear that even if the Federal Reserve decides that higher rates will be necessary it will take considerable time to make the case.
Accordingly we have eliminated our forecast for hikes in the federal funds rate in June and September leaving one more hike in December to recognise the need to finally settle on the neutral rate setting.
The net impact of these forecast changes is for a further 25bp deterioration in the overnight cash rate differential. That puts downside risks to our current target of USD 0.68 for the AUD in the second half of 2019 particularly if the expected cuts from the Reserve Bank are ineffective in settling markets.
The Risks to This Rate Outlook
Housing markets may stabilise more quickly than we anticipate and the extended negative wealth effect may not materialise.
The labour market may hold up more strongly than we expect. ( note the January Employment Report showing 39,000 new jobs). Certainly evidence from other countries points to unusually strong labour markets despite other less constructive developments in these countries. A relative improvement in the cost of labour may hold up labour markets despite soft demand conditions. Unit labour costs in Australia have been flat for many years.
We may be overestimating the appetite of the RBA to respond to the environment we are describing.
Wages growth may lift more quickly than we expect, boosting household incomes and supporting spending despite a negative wealth effect. That lift may be supplemented by unexpected increases in the terms of trade as China boosts its own growth through housing and infrastructure. On the other hand while this is a perfectly reasonable scenario, there is still likely to be little flow through from higher commodity prices to household incomes as mining companies remain cautious. Mining wages continue to languish highlighting the limited effect a strong terms of trade has on the broader economy.
There is mixed evidence around wealth effects in other countries although the scale of the adjustment in house prices in Sydney and Melbourne is too large to downplay.
Since the last rate cut in August 2016 Westpac has consistently held the line that the RBA cash rate would remain on hold for the foreseeable future (a standard 2-3 year window). That has been despite markets, the RBA and most economists expecting higher rates.
To an extent this view was influenced by the perception that the Bank welcomed the adjustment in the housing markets and saw insignificant spill over effects to the rest of the economy.
The recent change of rhetoric from the Bank on that issue is important. Our revised growth, inflation and unemployment forecasts now make a convincing case for lower rates.