Bill Evans, Westpac Chief Economist | Property Observer| 21 February 2017
As expected, the minutes of the February monetary policy meeting of the Board of the Reserve Bank provided little additional insight to the Governor’s post-meeting statement and the February Statement on Monetary Policy.
The surprise 0.5 percent decline in real GDP in the September quarter attracted considerable discussion although it has largely been attributed to temporary factors including disruptions to coal supply for exports and bad weather which impacted residential construction. It is also noted that slower growth in consumption has been an aspect of growth trends in recent quarters.
However this weakness is not expected to have continued into the December quarter with growth in retail sales volumes having already been reported to have increased.
Nevertheless there is an emphasis on increased uncertainty around the outlook for consumption. On the one hand the minutes note the importance of households’ perceptions of their personal finances and job prospects. The assumption that the savings rate will continue to fall and support consumption growth has been discarded with growth in household income now representing a constraint to consumption growth.
On the other hand the minutes also point out that due to the strong lift in the terms of trade national income growth will be boosted providing some scope for upside risks to the forecasts.
The Board remains guardedly optimistic about an improvement in growth in non mining business investment with New South Wales and Victoria leading the way and a recent improvement in approvals for non residential investment also pointing to stronger investment. As we have seen in previous minutes the chasm between housing activity in the mining states and Sydney/Melbourne is emphasised clearly. Prospects for activity in Sydney and Melbourne remain solid with in particular investor housing approvals having risen in recent months.
Prospects for the labour market remain uncertain although the unemployment rate is still forecast to edge lower, albeit at a sufficiently modest pace for spare capacity to persist for some time.
The Board is relying upon a gradual return to the inflation target coming from a modest boost in labour cost pressures and an easing in competitive pressures on retail prices. Unlike in recent years there is no expectation that the earlier depreciation of the exchange rate will put any upward pressure on tradeables prices. That cycle is assessed to have run its course.
International conditions are assessed to have been more positive over recent months with GDP growth forecasts for our major trading partners having been revised up a little. Higher oil prices and rising inflation expectations were expected to flow through to higher core inflation in the advanced economies over time. As in previous minutes, uncertainty around China’s growth prospects, including imbalances in the financial sector, are an ongoing concern in the medium term. As with most commentators, uncertainty around the US is high with fiscal policy and deregulation potentially boosting activity although restrictive trade policies pose downside risks.
We see nothing in these minutes to change our view that the official cash rate will remain on hold throughout 2017 and 2018. Markets continue to anticipate rate hikes in 2018 while a considerable number of commentators are predicting rate cuts in 2017. The middle course seems a much more likely outcome particularly given our view that growth momentum can pick up in 2017 but slow markedly through 2018 posing risks for the labour market and economic activity.