RBA's Lowe Sees Interest-Rate Outlook `More Evenly Balanced'

(Bloomberg) -- Australian central bank chief Philip Lowe shifted to a neutral policy outlook as he acknowledged increased economic risks at home and abroad, sending the nation’s currency down by more than half a U.S. cent.

“Over the past year, the next-move-is-up scenarios were more likely than the next-move-is-down scenarios. Today, the probabilities appear to be more evenly balanced,” Lowe said in the text of a speech in Sydney Wednesday.

The governor said the job market will remain the key swing factor: if Australians are finding jobs and wages rise faster, inflation should accelerate and “it will be appropriate to lift the cash rate at some point,” he said.

“On the other hand, given the uncertainties, it is possible that the economy is softer than we expect, and that income and consumption growth disappoint,” Lowe said. In the event of a sustained increase “in the unemployment rate and a lack of further progress towards the inflation objective, lower interest rates might be appropriate at some point. We have the flexibility to do this if needed.”

The Australian dollar dropped to 71.64 U.S. cents at 2:24 p.m. in Sydney compared with 72.42 cents before the speech.

The Reserve Bank’s step back from its tightening bias reflects weak household spending, slumping house prices and persistent weak inflation against a backdrop of slower global growth. After standing pat for 2 1/2 years as much of the developed world’s central banks started hiking rates, its stance is now more in step with global peers including the Federal Reserve that are pausing their tightening cycles or dumping their hawkish bias.

The consistent bright spot for the RBA has been the labor market. Unemployment has fallen to 5 percent and hiring remains strong, though as in other developed nations, this has failed to translate into the faster wage growth and higher inflation.

Stabilizing Role

The RBA has kept its cash rate at a record-low 1.5 percent, seeking to play a stabilizing role in the economy and willing to ride out weak inflation to avoid encouraging heavily-mortgaged households from borrowing further. Sydney property prices have fallen more than 12 percent from a July 2017 peak.

“What we are seeing looks to be a manageable adjustment in the housing market,” Lowe said. “It is not expected to derail economic growth. The previous trends in debt and housing prices were becoming unsustainable and some correction was appropriate.”

Lowe said he expects a pick up in household disposable income to provide a counterweight to the wealth effects of lower housing prices.

Other Key Points From Lowe’s Speech:

  • Expects “a stronger GDP outcome in the December quarter” after growth slowed in the third quarter amid weaker consumption
  • For 2019 and 2020, forecast economic growth “has been revised down by around a quarter percentage point, largely reflecting a modest downgrading of the outlook for household consumption and residential construction”
  • The outlook for the labor market “remains positive.” The central scenario is that growth will be sufficient to see “a modest further decline” in unemployment to around 4.75 percent over the next couple of years
  • Welcomed the report of the Royal Commission into the financial industry and the government’s response. The recommendations “that bear on credit provision are balanced and sensible, and should remove some uncertainty”
  • “Continued low income growth, together with falling housing prices, would be an unwelcome combination and would make for a softer outlook for the economy. Some Australian households have high levels of debt, so there is a degree of uncertainty about how they would respond to this combination. So we are monitoring things closely”

The RBA will release its quarterly update of forecasts for economic growth, inflation and unemployment on Friday.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.