The RBA Board has singled out the February Board meeting as important for a reassessment of the economic outlook.

The minutes of the December monetary policy meeting of the Reserve Bank Board have made it clear that the Board will be reassessing the economic outlook next February. Whilst it seems reasonable at the end of the year to note that a review will occur at the beginning of the next year, this has not been specifically noted in December minutes in previous years.

Further evidence of the importance of this signal is that the minutes note “economic growth and the unemployment rate remain broadly consistent with the forecasts, but members agreed that it will be concerning if there were a deterioration in the outlook”.

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These two observations from the minutes strongly point to the unusual importance of the data flow over the next two months.

The Board has already noted that since the November economic forecasts were finalised “The Capex survey ( showed) … non-mining investment in 2019/20 was expected to be weaker than previously envisaged”.

We were not surprised that the Board did not repeat the comment in the November minutes that “a case could be made to ease monetary policy at this meeting”. Although that language strengthens the signal that the Board is open to cutting rates further, it loses its impact if repeated for every meeting.

The Board also resolved their views on the impact of lower rates on confidence. The November minutes noted that “they recognised the negative effects of lower interest rates on savers and confidence and… that a further reduction in interest rates could have a different effect on confidence than in the past”. However, in these minutes, the Board resolved that: “the impact of these effects [negative confidence] was unlikely to outweigh the stimulus to the economy of lower interest rates”.

Concerns about weak wages growth remain central to the Board: “it was noted that the current rate of wages growth was not consistent with inflation being sustainably within the target range… nor was it consistent with consumption growth returning to trend”. It was also observed that private sector wages growth “had levelled out in recent quarters, following its gentle upward trend of the previous couple of years”.

Last month, the RBA complimented its standard stated benefits of lower rates — the exchange rate and household and business cash flow — with the boost to house prices lifting wealth and expenditure on household goods. That theme is repeated, although while higher house prices are a benefit in the near-term, it “could be become a source of concern if borrowing were to run too quickly ahead of income growth”. Note that the emphasis is on the risk of higher debt rather than actual house prices, and given the current trend for borrowers to lift repayments to contain debt levels, it is unlikely that the Board will become concerned with rising house prices for some time yet.

With the unemployment rate being such an important source of attention for the Board, it is notable that “employment intentions among the Bank’s liaison contacts had generally been moderate”. Westpac expects that the unemployment rate will drift higher to around 5.6% in the June quarter from the current 5.3%.

On the international front, there is an improved outlook with the noting that “some of the downside risks had receded”, although the Board remains quite cautious around the outlook for China.

Conclusion

These minutes strengthen our conviction that the Board would be comfortable easing rates further at the February meeting. The flow of economic data over the next six weeks will be critical to that decision, particularly the labour market ; retail sales and confidence.

Given our forecasts, Westpac is comfortable with our current view that the RBA will reduce the cash rate from 0.75% to 0.50% at the February Board meeting.

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