Labour market weakens, but RBA Shadow Board recommends against further rate cut

Australia’s labour market is weakening, but the Shadow Board recommends no change to the cash rate. Flickr/Thami César, CC BY

The CAMA RBA Shadow Board is a project by the Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis, based at the ANU, which asks industry and academic economists what interest rate the Reserve Bank of Australia should set. Timo Henckel is the non-voting chair of the board.

Last month, the Reserve Bank of Australia surprised many by lowering the cash rate from 2.5% to 2.25%, pointing to a likely fall in economic growth over the next 12 months – around 2.25%, well below trend of 3%. Some analysts are calling for another cut tomorrow.

(The RBA Shadow Board had on balance recommended a policy of no change. Read a further explanation by Shadow Board member and UNSW Australia Business School Professor James Morley here.)

Weak labour market data confirms the soft economic outlook, and financial markets are anticipating another possible rate cut during the next few months. The CAMA RBA Shadow Board, however, on balance prefers to hold rates and still considers it necessary that the cash rate is lifted in six-12 months.

In particular, the Shadow Board recommends with confidence that the cash rate be held at its current level of 2.25%; the Board attaches a 64% probability to this being the appropriate policy setting. The confidence attached to a required rate cut equals 14%, while the confidence in a required rate hike stands at 22%.

Recent labour market data underline the cracks in the Australian economy: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the unemployment rate jumped to 6.4%, its highest since 2002. The seasonally adjusted labour force participation rate remained at 64.8% but wage growth is weak, 2.5% in nominal terms. Stagnant real wages will put the brakes on consumer spending and make it less likely that GDP growth ticks up again.

The fall of the Aussie dollar has halted at around 78 US¢. There are clear signs the weaker dollar is helping the domestic economy. However, the danger is that Australia is becoming embroiled in the global currency war, whereby countries loosen monetary policy in an attempt to gain international competitiveness.

While feasible for countries individually, collectively the world as a whole cannot devalue (exchange rates are relative prices, not absolute prices), and consequently the world economy becomes inundated with liquidity, leading to all sorts of false price signals and economic dislocations. Such concerns underlie the scepticism towards further rate cuts.

Confidence measures remained mixed. Consumer confidence bounced back in February, with the Westpac Consumer Sentiment Index coming in at 100.70 this month (93.2 in the previous month). Business confidence measures remain largely unchanged, but the most recent estimate of capacity utilisation dropped from 80.53% in December to 79.96% in January. As the economy is rebalancing and trying to come to terms with the many domestic and international uncertainties, consumer and business confidence measures will continue to lack clear direction.

The picture for the global economy looks much the same as in the previous month: Europe is weak while working through a plan to restructure Greek debt, China is steadying, while the US economy remains the only relative highlight in the world economy.

What the CAMA Shadow Board believes

The consensus to keep the cash rate at its current level of 2.25% equals 64%. There is little confidence (only 14%) that another rate cut is appropriate whereas the Shadow Board considers it more likely (22%) that a rate hike, to 2.5% or higher, is the appropriate policy decision for this month.

The probabilities at longer horizons are as follows: six months out, the estimated probability that the cash rate should remain at 2.25% equals 31%. The estimated need for an interest rate increase lies at 56%, while the need for a rate decrease is estimated at 13%. A year out, the Shadow Board members’ confidence in a required cash rate increase equals 63%, in a required cash rate decrease 12% and in a required hold of the cash rate 26%.

Comments from Shadow Reserve bank members

Mark Crosby, Associate Professor, Melbourne Business School:

“The RBA could use up all its ammunition.”

Having unexpectedly cut last month, it would seem to make sense to hold and wait before moving again. International developments remain uncertain but are stable, and I have a concern that the RBA is using up all of its ammunition before it becomes absolutely necessary.

At longer horizons it still seems likely that raising to more neutral levels rather than cutting rates would seem desirable.

Bob Gregory, Professor of Economics at Australian National University:

I did not support the interest rate change last month. Still worried about housing and think we gain very little else from a cut.

Guay Lim, Professorial Fellow, Deputy Director, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at University of Melbourne:

“It’s unclear that further cuts would stimulate real spending.”

It would be difficult to make the case for another cut in the cash rate following so soon after the cut last month. This is not to detract from real concerns that growth remains below trend, but one reason for pause is that it is unclear that further cuts would stimulate real spending.

This is not the appropriate forum to discuss economic research, but it is apposite to note that the relationship between spending (in real terms) and the cash rate appeared to have changed post-global financial crisis. From 1993-2007, lowering the cash rate appeared to have had the desired effect of stimulating growth in real GNE, but post GFC, the evidence is not so apparent.

Unless there are clear signals of worsening economic conditions, it seems prudent to keep rates steady rather than risk fuelling asset-price inflation. And there are signs of improvement! The US economy is recovering steadily and growth in China, though slower, is still robust. Meanwhile, the exchange rate has depreciated and consumer confidence has picked up.

Jeffrey Sheen, Professor and Head of Department of Economics, Macquarie University, Editor, The Economic Record, CAMA:

“In the absence of a fiscal response, monetary policy carries the burden.”

The Australian economy continues with below-normal activity. There is little on the horizon that might restore normality: the labour market weakened in January with the unemployment rate reaching 6.4% and wage rises showing moderation at 2.7%; planned capital expenditures are showing significant declines, particularly in mining and manufacturing; the TWI appreciated by 3% in February despite continued weakening in commodity prices; and the weighted growth of Australia’s partners remained modest.

The main downside risk to a further easing of monetary policy is asset price inflation, but this is not an obvious problem at this stage - for example only Sydney and Melbourne housing prices are growing much faster than Australia’s 5%.

The RBA Board judged the evident weaknesses last month to merit a relaxation of monetary policy, and the data releases this month give further support to that judgment. In the apparent absence of a cogent fiscal response, monetary policy needs to carry an even bigger burden for the time being.

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