The RBA cuts its forecasts for growth and inflation to barely acceptable levels despite assuming two rate cuts as per market pricing. Westpac confirms its forecast for rate cuts in August and November.

The Reserve Bank’s May Statement on Monetary Policy (SMP) shows substantial reductions in the growth and inflation forecasts. GDP growth (to one decimal point) is now forecast at 2.6% for 2019 and 2.7% for 2020. That compares with 3.0% and 2.7% in the February Statement on Monetary Policy. The main explanations for the growth reductions for 2019 are consumption (2% down from 2.5%) and dwelling investment (–6.7% down from –4.5%).

As revealed in the Governor’s decision statement following the May Board meeting, the underlying inflation forecasts (trimmed mean) have been reduced from 2.0% for 2019 in the February SMP to 1.75% in May and the 2020 forecast reduced from 2.25% to 2.0%.

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The forecast for the unemployment rate has been slightly increased, with the 5% unemployment rate still expected to hold through 2019 but the fall to 4.75% pushed back from December 2020 to June 2021.

It is very important to note that these forecasts are based on market pricing for the profile for the RBA cash rate and the current spot AUD. In February, markets had one cut priced-in for February 2020, whereas in May, one full cut is priced-in for August 2019 and a second priced-in for May 2020. The AUD trade weighted index is 2% lower than in February.

Consequently, despite a significantly lower cash rate profile, the growth and inflation forecasts have been lowered. These current forecasts are what we should call absolute ‘bare-essentials’ – growth slightly below trend (trend at 2.75%) and inflation only holding at the bottom of the 2–3% target band out to the end of the forecast horizon. It seems clear therefore that the RBA now believes that it needs to cut rates to barely achieve an acceptable outcome.

The timing of market pricing is slightly more cautious than Westpac’s forecasts (announced on February 21) of cash rate cuts in August and November 2019.

The reasonable issue therefore arises as to whether these cuts should not occur immediately. In that regard, we need to point to the lingering theme which the RBA has promoted for most of 2019. That theme relates to the “tension” between the labour market data and economic growth as depicted through the national accounts and partial indicators particularly around retail sales and the housing market.

In the introduction to this SMP, the RBA notes “in contrast to the signal coming from the national accounts, a number of labour market indicators remain positive. Employment growth was strong in the March quarter… the vacancy rate remains high and there are ongoing reports of skilled shortages”. However, the RBA’s own forecasts do not envisage the unemployment rate falling further until 2021, even with the rate cuts embedded in the forecasts.

Consequently, there remains a suspicion that their labour market forecasts might prove to be pessimistic and, if so, the favourable dynamics that would be associated with a much stronger labour market could be expected to develop. Those dynamics would be associated with faster wages growth, faster employment growth, faster growth in household incomes, faster consumption growth; a narrowing in the output gap, and therefore a more favourable profile for inflation. Given that the Bank must realise that it is nearing the floor of the cash rate a time to assess this prospect is reasonable.

The issue therefore becomes one of what data around the labour market will be required for the RBA to delay its rate cuts. That theme is fully emphasised in the final sentence in the introduction to the May SMP, “the Board will be paying close attention to developments in the labour market at its upcoming meetings”.

It has been Westpac’s view for some time that the unemployment rate has already bottomed out at 4.9% and we expect that it will gradually drift up through the second half of 2019 to around 5.4%. We expect that trend to become clearly apparent by the June employment report (released in late July), making the first cut an obvious decision for the August meeting. There is always a risk that such a trend could emerge more quickly, but, given the volatility of the monthly employment reports, and the “strong employment growth in the March quarter”, we would be surprised if the RBA was prepared to abandon that hope at an earlier Board meeting.

We are not surprised that the RBA has now adopted our own view of the consumer with its big reduction in forecast consumer spending growth to 2% in 2019 now broadly in line with our own. The RBA is also moving towards our forecast for the contraction for dwelling investment in 2019 of 9%, having now forecast -6.7% from -4.5%, and an overall reduction in the GNE forecast from 2.6% to 1.9% (Westpac’s forecast is 1.6%).

Conclusion

Today’s SMP emphasises that the RBA thinks it’s highly likely that it will need to follow market pricing with two rate cuts. Westpac concurs with the market’s August timing for the first cut but expects that the second cut will occur in November – well before the timing implied by market pricing of a full cut by May 2020.

The risk remains that the RBA may choose to move earlier than August, although given the strong first quarter for employment growth and the notorious volatility of the monthly employment reports, it seems likely that a prudent central bank would wait until August for its first move – when of course it will be able to fully explain the move and support it with its revised forecasts in the next Statement on Monetary Policy.

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