A surprisingly confident view despite a weaker recent performance and near term outlook.

The Reserve Bank has released its quarterly Statement on Monetary Policy (SMP). The report rounds out a full week for RBA communication that has also included the Governor’s decision statement following the Board’s February policy meeting, a speech on “the year ahead” and this morning’s semi-annual testimony to Parliament. The key themes throughout have been: a surprisingly confident outlook, notwithstanding a weaker recent performance and near term outlook due to bushfires and the emerging coronavirus shock; relatedly, a more positive view on the housing outlook, most notably around construction; a continued preparedness to cut rates further, particularly if labour markets were to weaken; but with a little more weight in the ‘balance of risks’ assessment being placed on the potential for further rate cuts to drive a renewed increase in household debt.

The SMP provides the fullest account of the RBA’s assessment and risks to the outlook. The central message here is that despite some downward adjustments to near term estimates: “…the medium-term outlook for the Australian economy is broadly unchanged from three months ago.” The bank’s point forecasts have GDP growth of 2% for 2019, 2.7% for 2020 and 3% 2020 (December quarter on December quarter growth rates). That compares to 2.3%, 2.8% and 3.1% in the previous SMP released in November. The medium term ‘central case’ view is of a gradual return to ‘around trend’ this year and rising slightly above trend in 2021. Similarly, the unemployment rate is expected to hold in the 5-5¼% range near term before gradually declining heading into 2021.

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As we noted when these new forecasts were first revealed in the Governor’s statement following the Board meeting on Tuesday (see here), it is surprising that the RBA has retained its ‘around trend’ growth forecast for 2020 given the weaker momentum apparent in the September quarter national accounts; developing questions around the global economy; and the softer tone from a range of labour market lead indicators. Westpac’s forecast is considerably more downbeat, with growth now expected to come in at 1.9% this year, factoring in the impact of bushfires (more here) and a preliminary assessment of the impact from the coronavirus (more here). That in turn is expected to see the unemployment rate track higher, drawing a further easing response from the RBA with 25bp cuts forecast in April and August followed by quantitative easing measures.

Note that the RBA’s latest forecasts do include preliminary assessments of the impact of both bushfire and the coronavirus, although the high degree of uncertainty around the latter is stressed. It’s more detailed forecasts show a material downgrade to the first half of 2020 with annual growth of 1.9%yr over the year to June compared to a 2.6%yr forecast back in November. As the largely unchanged calendar year forecasts imply, this is largely offset by a rebound in the second half.

Key to the RBA’s more positive outlook are signs that last year’s policy easing is working to generate a lift in momentum – especially in the housing sector – and a view that this will continue as the ‘long and variable lags’ flow through to other sectors, consumer demand in particular. From the SMP: “The transmission of monetary policy is evident in established housing markets … It is too soon to see any response to this in household spending, but over time the drag on consumption growth from the earlier decline in housing prices and activity should wane.”

The global backdrop is also seen as more positive than a few months ago although here the messaging has been a little uneven. The emphasis in the Governor’s decision statement and speech was that “global growth is expected to be a little stronger this year and next than it was last year”. That jars slightly with the SMP commentary, which notes that “overall growth in Australia’s major trading partners is expected to be a little lower in 2020” – the difference possibly reflecting some late changes to allow for the emerging coronavirus shock.

On the bank’s more detailed forecasts, the 2020 outlook for business investment has been upgraded to 9.3% from 6.2% in November. The text suggests that this is around mining investment, “Growth (in mining investment) is expected to pick up noticeably over 2020 and 2021 as work commences on a number of sustaining and expansionary projects.” The RBA acknowledges that non-mining business investment was (1) weaker than expected in the September quarter, led by equipment spending; and (2) “the capex survey indicates equipment investment is likely to be weaker than previously expected over the remainder of 2019/20”. This had led to “the forecast for non-mining investment has been lowered over the next few quarters” Beyond that, “from late 2020, non-mining business investment growth is expected to increase modestly, in line with the broader pick-up in private demand”.

On household income, it is striking that real household disposable income growth for Dec 2020 has been downgraded to 1.4% from 2.3% previously. The figure for Dec 2019 is as before at 1.6%. The downgrade to consumer spending for Dec 2020 is more modest, 2.4% to 2.0% – suggesting in our minds downside risks given this weak income outlook. In the Overview of the Statement, consumption growth is expected to recover gradually, with “the low level of interest rates, a somewhat faster rate of income growth than in recent years and the recovery in household wealth are all expected to contribute to this turnaround”. The mix implies a significant decline in the household savings rate over the year.

On housing, “the trough in dwelling construction is expected to occur in the second half of 2020, before a recovery in residential construction gets underway through 2021”. The forecast profile for home building activity has been upgraded a little: with the Dec 2019 figure, to -9.8% from -11.3%; the Dec 2020 figure, to -1.9% from -2.6%; while for Dec 2021 the figure is unchanged at 9.2%.

Around the assessment of policy, the Bank clearly remains open to further policy easing. The board again considering the case for additional easing in February with the main concern being: “… the only gradual nature of the progress [towards the inflation target and full employment]” and “ongoing uncertainties” (i.e. around household balance sheet adjustments and from the near terms shocks from bushfires and the coronavirus). More specifically, the Bank is prepared to ease further “if the unemployment rate were to be moving materially higher and there was no further progress being made towards the inflation target.”

However, there has been a notable shift in the way the Board is assessing the case for further easing, which came more to the fore in the Governor’s speech, Parliamentary testimony and in the SMP than in Tuesday’s decision statement. Whereas back in late November the RBA Governor indicated that he was not particularly worried about the resurgence in house prices, the February SMP now explicitly notes that in considering the case for further policy easing “… a balance needs to be struck between the benefits of lower interest rates and the risks associated with having interest rates at very low levels.”, namely that lower rates could “encourage more borrowing by households eager to buy residential property at a time when housing debt is already quite high and there is already a strong upswing in housing prices in place. … [which] could increase the risk of problems down the track.”

Conclusion

Westpac continues to expect that a combination of a more moderate growth outlook and a deterioration in the labour market will require a further policy response. However, the RBA’s surprisingly confident forecasts and uncertainty around what the bank views as temporary shocks impacting near term casts doubt over how they will respond. The case for further policy accommodation will become clear to the RBA as its overly-optimistic expectations are not met. Currently we have April pencilled in for the next cut but recognise that the Governor may need more time to be convinced that further action will be required.

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