What’s next for interest rates?
I thought they had bottomed and was planning to lock in a portion of our loans on fixed rates at the current low rates a week or so ago. Maybe I’m lucky I didn’t as now there is evidence they may fall further or at least they will remain low a little longer than anticipated.
One reason I say this is that over the years, every time I lock in on fixed rates, despite getting the best advice from experts in this field, I’ve usually got it wrong.
So maybe the fact that I was planning to lock in was a sign that rates will fall further ( a bit like washing my car is a sure way to know it’s going to rain.)
But more importantly…
Last week 2 bits of news suggested rates are unlikey to rise any time soon:
- The RBA’s lower forecasts of economic growth
- Rising unemployment levels
But rather than listening to my thoughts…
Here’s what Bill Evans, chief economist of Westpac had to say in his analysis of the RBA’s Statement of Monetary Policy …
We were surprised to see that the Reserve Bank lowered its growth forecast for both 2014 and 2015 from 2.75% and 3.25% respectively to 2.5% and 3%.
The Bank qualifies that downgrade by noting that “the differences are well within usual ranges of uncertainty for the forecasts”.
However a closer look at the indicated profile suggests the following:
1. Growth in the final three quarters of 2014 is now forecast to average 0.5% per quarter.
Under the old growth profile it seemed more likely that the Bank was expecting a solid lift in momentum in the final quarter of 2014 in the order of 0.75% compared to the implied 0.5% in the new forecast..
2. The growth rate for 2015 has been lowered from 3.25% to 3%. It appears that the profile in the first half of 2015 at around 0.75% per quarter has been retained from the May statement.
However, an implied lift in momentum in the second half of 2015 to an average of around 0.85% has been lowered to 0.75% (the same growth pace as the first half).
3. As expected, the growth range forecast for 2016 is kept at 2.75-4.25%. That implies a lift in the quarterly pace from 0.75% to 0.9%.
The two key observations which provide additional background behind this shift are:
1. “Relative to three months ago when near term prospects for non-mining activity appeared to be improving the recent softness in some indicators has increased the uncertainty around the strength and timing of the pick-up in consumption and non-mining investment”;
2. On the labour market, the May Statement on Monetary Policy indicated that the unemployment rate was likely to begin declining consistently from mid 2015. In this report that is not expected to occur until 2016.
The changed growth forecast includes several ‘tweaks’ with a softer near term outlook for consumption and non residential construction, a further expansion in dwelling investment later in the forecast period, and some shifts in the profile of resource exports.
Interestingly, the Overview asserts that “the outlook for domestic growth is not materially different from that presented in the May Statement”.
That may be understating things – certainly the change vis a vis the Bank’s February Statement on Monetary Policy (when GDP growth was forecast to run at a clearly above trend 3.5%) is looking more material.
The Bank has also changed its forecast for inflation although importantly, this looks to be solely due to the repeal of the carbon tax rather than the changed growth view.
Broadly speaking the Bank expects that the removal of the tax will reduce headline inflation by 0.75ppts over the year to June 2015.
About half of that will directly affect electricity and gas prices and is unlikely to figure in underlying inflation whereas the other half reflects indirect effects on prices of other goods and services.
Accordingly the Bank has reduced its forecast for underlying inflation from 2.5% in the year to December 2014 to 2.25% and from 2.75% to 2.25% for the year to June 2015.
It has raised its forecast for the year to December 2015 reflecting the fact that the previous legislation had entailed a move to a floating price for carbon in mid 2015.
The bottom line is that there does not appear to be any change in the underlying inflation forecasts that are being driven by the lower growth outlook.
The important observations around these forecasts are the following
1. The Bank expects the current soft patch for growth that is apparent in the June quarter to extend through the whole of 2014.
2. Whereas in May it expected growth momentum through 2015 to lift in the second half relative to the first half it now expects that momentum to remain steady.
3. In lowering the growth forecast for 2015 from 3.25% (“at or above trend ) to 3% (at or below trend) it provides some flexibility to cut rates over the second half of 2014.
That is because any central bank that is predicting below trend growth in the year in which a policy change can be expected to have an effect, i.e. policy in 2014 will affect 2015, allows itself the flexibility to cut rates if it deems necessary.
The key to that decision appears to be in the following comment: “there is some evidence that momentum in consumption growth has waned somewhat although at this stage it is unclear whether this reflects temporary sentiment effects or a more lasting reassessment of economic conditions by households”.
It is our view that if the Bank concluded the latter, and given its revised forecasts, it may decide to cut rates.
However, we expect that it is being overly conservative. To believe that the final three quarters of 2014 will average growth of 2% (annualised) seems to be assuming an overly pessimistic outlook for the consumer.
We believe that through 2014 consumer spending will gather momentum at a faster pace than is currently implied by the Bank. When it recognises that trend it is likely to upgrade its forecasts for 2014 and restore its above trend forecast for 2015. That will preclude any perceived need for lower rates.
Signals around consumer sentiment, retail sales, housing finance, house prices and dwelling construction activity all point to a more upbeat assessment of the economy than contained in the Bank’s forecast.
Whilst the above analysis provides a scenario that might lead to a policy shift down the track, there is no evidence in the broader discussion in the August Statement on Monetary Policy to suggest any shift is imminent.
The key sentence that “on present indications, the most prudent course is likely to be a period of stability in interest rates” is retained unchanged from the Governor’s decision statement earlier this month.
There is no indication in the rest of their wording that the RBA has moved any closer to an easing bias.
Despite the unmistakable nervousness contained in this report we remain comfortable with our view that rates will remain on hold through 2014 and well into 2015 prior to the first hike in August.