RBA tapers

From Bill Evans at Westpac:

The Governor of the Reserve Bank has announced the intention to reduce the weekly purchases from $5 billion to $4 billion and not to extend its Yield Curve Target from the April 2024 bonds to the November 2024 bonds – two clear signs that policy is tightening…..

The decision to not extend the Yield Curve Target program to the November 2024 bonds….Giving up the option to extend the purchases at 0.1% to a 3 year 4 month bond from a 2 year 9 month bond, is effectively tightening policy.

Australia needs to break the downward spiral

Ross Gittins, Economics Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, sums up Australia’s predicament:

“The problem is, the economy seems to be running out of puff because it’s caught in a vicious circle: private consumption and business investment can’t grow strongly because there’s no growth in real wages, but real wages will stay weak until stronger growth in consumption and investment gets them moving.

Policy has to break this cycle. But, as [RBA governor] Lowe now warns in every speech he gives, monetary policy (lower interest rates) isn’t still powerful enough to break it unaided. Rates are too close to zero, households are too heavily indebted, and it’s already clear that the cost of borrowing can’t be the reason business investment is a lot weaker than it should be.

That leaves the budget as the only other instrument available. The first stage of the tax cuts will help, but won’t be nearly enough…..”

Cutting already-low interest rates is unlikely to cure faltering consumption and business investment. Low wage growth and a deteriorating jobs market are root causes of the downward spiral and not much will change until these are addressed.

Low unemployment is misleading. Underemployment is growing. Trained barristers working as baristas may be an urban legend but there is an element of truth. The chart below shows underemployment in Australia as a percentage of total employment.

Australia: Underemployment % of Total Employment

How to halt the spiral

Tax cuts are an expensive sugar hit. The benefit does not last and may be frittered away in paying down personal debt or purchasing imported items like flat-screen TVs and smart phones. Tax cuts are also expensive because government is left with debt on its balance sheet and no assets to show for it.

Infrastructure spending can also be wasteful — like school halls and bridges to nowhere — but if chosen wisely can create productive assets that boost employment and build a healthy portfolio of income-producing assets to offset the debt incurred.

The RBA has already done as much as it can — and more than it should. Further rate cuts, or God forbid, quantitative easing, are not going to get us out of the present hole. What they will do is further distort price signals, leading to even greater malinvestment and damage to the long-term economy.

What the country needs is a long-term infrastructure plan with bipartisan support. Infrastructure should be a national priority. There is too much at stake for leadership to take a short-term focus, with an eye on the next election, rather than consensus-building around a long-term strategy with buy-in from both sides of the house.

Australia: RBA hands tied

Falling wage rate growth suggests that we are headed for a period of low growth in employment and personal consumption.

Australia Wage Index

The impact is already evident in the Retail sector.

ASX 300 Retail

The RBA would normally intervene to stimulate investment and employment but its hands are tied. Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble. Household debt is already precariously high in relation to disposable income.

Australia: Household Debt to Disposable Income

Like Mister Micawber in David Copperfield, we are waiting in the hope that something turns up to rescue us from our predicament. It’s not a good situation to be in. If something bad turns up and the RBA is low on ammunition.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and — and in short you are for ever floored….

~ Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

RBA stuck

Great slide from the NAB budget presentation:

RBA Interest Rates in a Cleft Stick

The RBA is in a cleft stick:

  • Raising interest rates would increase mortgage stress and threaten stability of the banking system.
  • Lowering interest rates would aggravate the housing bubble, creating a bigger threat in years to come.

The underlying problem is record high household debt to income levels. Housing affordability is merely a symptom.

There are only two possible solutions:

  1. Raise incomes; or
  2. Reduce debt levels.

Both have negative consequences.

Raising incomes would primarily take place through higher inflation. This would generate more demand for debt to buy inflation-hedge assets, so would have to be linked to strong macroprudential (e.g. lower maximum LVRs for housing) to prevent this. A positive offshoot would be a weaker Dollar, strengthening local industry. The big negative would be the restrictive monetary policy needed to slow inflation when the job is done, with a likely recession.

Shrinking debt levels without raising interest rates is difficult but macroprudential policies would help. Also policies that penalize banks for offshore borrowings. The big negative would be falling housing prices as investors try to liquidate some of their investments and the consequent threat to banking stability. The slow-down in new construction would also threaten an economy-wide down-turn.

Of the two, I would favor the former option as having less risk. But there is a third option: wait in the hope that something will turn up. That is the line of least resistance and therefore the most likely course government will take.

Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts?

From Jens Meyer:

Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts and no-one noticed?

Well, not exactly no-one. Goldman Sachs chief economist Tim Toohey reckons the speech RBA assistant governor Chris Kent delivered on Tuesday amounts to an explicit shift to a neutral policy stance.

Dr Kent spoke about how the economy has been doing since the mining boom, and in particular how its performance matched the RBA’s expectations.

Reflecting on the RBA’s forecasts of recent years, Dr Kent essentially framed the RBA’s earlier rate cut logic around an initial larger than expected decline in mining capital expenditure and subsequent larger than expected decline in the terms of trade, Mr Toohey said.

Having so closely linked the RBA’s easing cycle to the weakness in the terms of trade (and earlier decline in mining investment), Dr Kent’s key remark was to flag “the abatement of those two substantial headwinds” and highlight that this “would be a marked change from recent years”….

Source: Did the RBA just signal the end of rate cuts and no-one noticed?

Will the RBA cut interest rates in May?

From Justin Smirk at Westpac:

The headline CPI surprised in Q1 falling 0.2% compared to Westpac’s forecast for +0.4%….. The annual rate is now just 1.3%yr compared to 1.7%yr in Q4.

The core measures, which are seasonally adjusted and exclude extreme moves, rose 0.2% compared to the market’s expectation of 0.5% rise…. The annual pace of the average of the core inflation measures is now 1.5% from 2.0% in Q4 (Q4 was unrevised) and is the lowest print we have yet seen from this measure.

From Jens Meyer at The Age:

Today’s weak inflation numbers are a game changer for the Reserve Bank that will trigger a rate cut, says JPMorgan head of fixed income and foreign exchange strategy Sally Auld.

The investment bank now expects the RBA to cut by 0.25 percentage points next week and to follow this up with a further 25 basis points cut in August, taking the cash rate to 1.50 per cent.

Smirk disagrees:

…..But low inflation, on its own, is not a trigger for a rate cut. Sure, it unlocks the interest rate door for the RBA should it decide it needs to walk through that door as the Bank would not have to wait for another CPI update before doing so. However, it does not mean that the RBA will cut rates! A rate cut is dependent on local economic conditions demanding a rate cut. With unemployment on a new downtrend this is not so at the moment and we suggest that the RBA is waiting to see a new weaker trend in domestic activity and employment before it would embark on such a strategy.

Source: Australian 14 CPI 2016 | Westpac

Source: Three reasons for the Reserve Bank of Australia to cut official interest rates in May

RBA leaves official cash rate at 2pc

Jens Meyer quotes RBA governor Glenn Stevens:

While the decision to keep rates unchanged was widely expected, analysts were speculating that the governor would show some concern about the recent steep rise in the Australian dollar’s exchange rate, which gained nearly 12 per cent from its January lows to a peak of US77.23¢ last week.

Mr Stevens duly added a paragraph to this month’s statement, noting that the currency had appreciated “somewhat”.

“In part, this [the recent rise] reflects some increase in commodity prices, but monetary developments elsewhere in the world have also played a role,” he said, referring to recent monetary easing by other central banks including the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank, as well as the decision by the US Federal Reserve to reduce the pace of interest rate hikes.

“Under present circumstances, an appreciating exchange rate could complicate the adjustment under way in the economy,” he added.

But anyone hoping for a stronger “jawbone” was disappointed and the Australian dollar shot up by about half a cent to the day’s high of US76.32¢, before falling back in late trade to around US76¢.

Central banks around the globe are destabilizing financial markets and the RBA responds with a polite acknowledgement at the end of its statement. Someone please tell the governor: If you want to run with the big dogs, you’ve got to learn to pee high.

Source: RBA leaves official cash rate at 2pc

RBA strategy: Fight fire with gasoline

This is just plain wrong.

Bulk Commodity Prices

The Australian economy is sitting atop an enormous housing bubble caused by credit expansion from 1995 to 2007. To counter the end of the mining boom, the RBA lowered interest rates to stimulate the economy. While this may be necessary to relieve pressure on borrowers, what we don’t need is another credit expansion. That would simply make the economy more unstable and increase the risk of a crash. Banks are moving to curb lending to speculators, with lower LVRs, but not fast enough in my view. We can’t afford a credit contraction, but the RBA needs to impose sufficient discipline to keep credit growth at/below the inflation rate — so that it gradually declines in real terms as the economy grows.