The labour market will remain the key focus for policy. The two additional cuts that we anticipate in August and November are consistent with our more downbeat view on the labour market.
As expected, the Reserve Bank Board decided to lower the cash rate by 25bps to 1.25%. This action is very much in line with Westpac’s forecast first set out on February 21, although comes two months earlier than our original timeline. The basis for the RBA decision was “to support employment growth and provide greater confidence that inflation will be consistent with the medium-term target”. The major dynamic in that regard is to push harder on the unemployment rate to try to reach that point where wages growth lifts markedly.
The Governor has left open the prospect of further action, noting that “the Board will continue to monitor developments in the labour market closely and adjust monetary policy to support sustainable growth in the economy and the achievement of the inflation target over time”.
Regular readers will be aware that Westpac expects that there will be further cuts in this cycle in August and November. It is possible that the Board might choose to bring forward the cut we expect in August to July in the event of a particularly disappointing employment report on June 13. However, we expect that given the limited policy flexibility available, the prudent approach will be to await more information and provide a full explanation of the next cut at the August meeting. A further benefit will be to provide updated forecasts for inflation and growth in the August Statement on Monetary Policy.
However, the key point from our perspective is the clear message that more work needs to be done and only one more cut will be seen as insufficient.
The description of the labour market still has vestiges of the consistent upbeat message that has been a key aspect of the Governor’s Statements in the last few years. However, he is clearly disappointed that recent progress on unemployment appears to have stalled at a level which is clearly not consistent with a healthy acceleration in wages growth. It is interesting that despite the tick-up in the unemployment rate in April to 5.2% being attributable to a record participation rate, he chooses not to qualify the rise in the unemployment rate in that manner.
The commentary on inflation seems largely unchanged with current pressures being described as subdued, although a pick-up is anticipated and the 1.75% forecast for underlying inflation in 2019 remains intact. We expect that the June and September quarter inflation reports will make it untenable to maintain that forecast as well as the associated lift in 2020 to 2%, indicating the clear need for further policy responses.
A key area of uncertainty is the outlook for the housing market given the recent surprising political developments and this rate cut. In that regard, the Governor provides no real guidance, pointing to “conditions remain soft”. He does recognise that price declines have slowed and growth in housing credit has stabilised recently.
Superimposed on this caution around the domestic economy is recognition of the damage that the trade disputes are having on the global economy. While the RBA’s outlook for global growth “remains reasonable”, quite rightly, he emphasises downside risks, including weak international trade and soft investment intentions.
In February, Westpac surprised markets by forecasting two rate cuts in 2019. Recently we revised that forecast to anticipate three cuts. Today’s decision confirms the validity of those forecasts and goes some way to justifying our decision to increase the number of forecast cuts from two to three.
The labour market will remain the key focus for the policy profile, and the two additional cuts that we anticipate in August and November are consistent with our more downbeat view on the labour market.