The latest RBA Statement on Monetary Policy released today appears to be very upbeat. Despite forecasting growth down a bit in the near term, they are still holding the view of growth above 3% later, and if this is correct, supported by and improving international economic outlook, a rise in business investment, strong exports and low unemployment, then it seems to me conditions would be right to lift the cash rate towards the neutral position (which as we saw recently they hold to be 2% higher than current levels). That said, many economic commentators think the RBA is overly bullish, given high household debt and flat income growth, and risks in the property market. Here are some relevant extracts.
The economy is expected to grow at an annual rate of around 3 per cent over the next couple of years, which is a bit higher than estimates of potential growth. The unemployment rate is accordingly expected to edge lower. Underlying inflation is higher than late last year; it is expected to reach around 2 per cent over the second half of 2017 and increase a little thereafter. The forecast for headline inflation has been revised a little higher, and lies between 2 and 3 per cent over much of the forecast period.
The forecast pick-up in inflation reflects a number of factors. As spare capacity in the labour market declines, this is expected to lead to a gradual increase in wage growth from its current low rates. Higher utilities inflation will add to overall inflation over the next year, although it is difficult to know exactly how much higher energy costs will be built into the prices of other goods and services. Headline inflation will also be boosted by further tobacco excise increases over the next couple of years.
Working in the opposite direction are the effects of the recent exchange rate appreciation, ongoing competition in the retail industry and low rent inflation.
By the end of the forecast period, the unemployment rate is forecast to be a little under 5½ per cent. This forecast is little changed from three months ago, and implies that some spare capacity in the labour market will remain. Recent stronger conditions in the labour market have afforded greater confidence in this forecast. Since the start of the year, around 165 000 full-time jobs have been created, average hours worked have increased and labour force participation has risen. Employment has increased in every state over this period, including in the miningexposed states. This suggests that the drag on economic activity from the earlier declines in the terms of trade and falling mining investment is running its course. The unemployment and underemployment rates have both edged lower. Indicators of labour demand point to continued employment growth and little change in the unemployment rate over coming quarters.
Wage growth is expected to remain subdued, but to increase gradually over the forecast period as labour market conditions continue to improve. The increase in minimum and award wages announced by the Fair Work Commission will add a little to wage growth in the September quarter.
The experience of some economies that are already close to full employment suggests that declining spare capacity might take some time to flow through to wage and thus price inflation. Inflationary pressures could instead emerge more quickly if workers seek to ‘catch up’ after a long period of low wage growth. The recent growth in employment is supporting growth in household income and indications are that growth in household consumption increased in the June quarter. Further out, continued employment growth and somewhat faster average household income growth are expected to support consumption growth, which is forecast to be a little above its post-crisis average in the period ahead.
A number of factors could offset the forces supporting stronger consumption growth. Slow real wage growth is likely to weigh on consumption, especially if households expect the slow growth to continue for some time.
However, ongoing expectations for low real wage growth remain a key downside risk for household spending. The recent sharp increase in the relative price of utilities poses a further downside risk to the non-energy part of household consumption to the extent that households find it hard to reduce their energy consumption; this is likely to have a larger effect on the consumption decisions of lower-income households.
Some households may also feel constrained from spending more out of their current incomes because of elevated levels of household debt. This effect would become more prominent if housing prices and other housing market conditions were to weaken significantly. Household debt is likely to remain elevated for some time: housing credit growth overall has been steady over the past six months, but has continued to outpace income growth. The composition of that debt is changing, however, as lenders respond to regulators’ recent measures to contain risks in the mortgage market. Investor credit growth has moderated and loan approvals data suggest this will continue in coming months. Also, new interest-only lending has declined recently in response to the higher interest rates now applying to these loans and other actions by the banks to tighten lending standards.
Dwelling investment is likely to recover from the partly weather-related weakness of the March quarter and stay at a high level over the next year or so, sustained by the large pipeline of residential building work already approved or underway. However, dwelling investment is not expected to make a material contribution to GDP growth.
The number of new residential building approvals has stepped down since last year; if they remain at this level, dwelling investment would be expected to start to decline in a year or so. Conditions in the established housing markets of the two largest cities remain fairly strong, although housing price growth appears to have eased a bit in recent months, more so in Sydney than in Melbourne. Housing prices in Perth have declined a little further, while growth in apartment prices in Brisbane has been weak.
Looking at Bank Funding the RBA says the implied spread between lending rates and debt funding costs for the major banks is estimated to have increased over the past year. Most of this increase was a result of higher interest rates on investor and interest-only housing lending. Lower funding costs have also contributed to the increase in the implied spread.
Housing credit growth has been stable over recent months. Growth in investor housing credit has declined recently, after accelerating through the second half of 2016. This has been largely offset by slightly faster growth in housing credit extended to owner-occupiers.
There are a number of uncertainties that could affect housing prices, particularly in the eastern states. The risk of more weakness in apartment prices in some locations where a large amount of supply is coming online remains. This could mean that buildings approved but not commenced do not go ahead, in which case dwelling investment and related household spending would be weaker than expected. Declining housing prices could also cause difficulties for some apartment developers.
Recent state and federal budget measures intended to restrain foreign investment have not yet had time to have had their full effects, which are uncertain; however, the effects are likely to be
largest in housing markets where foreign buyers have been most active, particularly inner-city apartments.