Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reserve Bank: Could this really be the end?

The Reserve Bank has signaled that it is losing enthusiasm for cutting rates, declaring that further interest rate cuts will be ineffective in the short-term.

The minutes of the February board meeting that cut rates by 1.00 percentage points describe the halving of the official rate to date as "very significant" and "early", leading to lending rates that will soon hit generational lows.

But the Bank says the cuts and the government's two stimulus packages will "take time to be effective" and will have "only a modest effect on the near-term outlook in Australia".

"Given the speed at which the global contraction had occurred, short-term prospects were thus still for weakness in demand and output," the board's minutes say, implying that there is little more the Bank can do...

"The Bank has re-framed policy around medium term growth prospects, which gives them some scope to look through short-term weakness," said Westpac economist Anthony Thompson.

"They appear to be emphasising that we need to be patient for the policy stimulus in the pipeline to work."

Financial markets displayed little patience in the wake of the board minutes, continuing to price in a cut of 0.50 to 0.75 points at the board's next meeting.

"In the fortnight since the board meeting reported in the minutes, global data has deteriorated further, Australia's unemployment rate has risen, and confidence has relapsed," said UBS economist Scott Haslem. "We still look for a 0.50 points cut in March."

Westpac told clients that while it was still expecting a cut of 0.75 points next month the board had clearly indicated that in future cuts would be be smaller than in the past and that it was "nearing the end of its easing cycle".

The ANZ also expects a cut in the cash rate from 3.25 to 2.50 per cent. Economist Katie Dean said that by shifting its focus to the future the Bank had held open the option of further "preemptive" cuts.

The minutes indicate that the bank believes that the effect of the government's December stimulus package may already be fading. They say liaison with retailers suggests that sales "picked up noticeably in December, but it seemed that they weakened again in January".

"This highlights the risk of intensification of the Australian economic downturn in the second half of this year, when the impact of the Government's second set of cash handouts wash through," said the ANZs Katie Dean.

The Bank's governor Glenn Stevens will will quizzed about his thoughts at his half-yearly appearance before the parliament's economics committee on Friday.

Data releases separately Tuesday showed a collapse in wage expectations.

The Melbourne Institute said total pay over the year to February had climbed 4.2 per cent.

Expected pay rises in the year ahead amounted to just 2.5 per cent.

Melbourne Institute research fellow Edda Claus said the more modest expectation was “consistent with a slowing economy".