RBA Governor Philip Lowe spoke at the A50 Australian Economic Forum today prior to the Statement on Monetary Policy to be released tomorrow.
The RBA will be releasing our latest economic forecasts tomorrow in the Statement on Monetary Policy. These forecasts will be largely unchanged from the previous set of forecasts. The RBA’s central scenario remains for the Australian economy to grow at an average rate of a bit above 3 per cent over the next couple of years. This outlook has not been affected by the volatility in the stock market over recent days. Indeed, it is worth keeping in mind that the catalyst for this volatility was a reassessment in financial markets of the implications of strong growth for inflation in the United States. For some time, many investors had been working under the assumptions that unusually low inflation and unusually low volatility in asset prices would persist, even with above-trend growth at a time of low unemployment. A reassessment of these assumptions now appears to be taking place against the backdrop of strong economic conditions globally.
On Wage Growth
On balance, though, in the current environment, some pick-up in wage growth would be a welcome development. Ideally, this would be on the back of stronger productivity growth. But even if productivity growth were to be around the average of recent years, a faster rate of wage increase should be possible. Indeed, a lift in wage growth is likely to be necessary for inflation to average around the midpoint of the 2–3 per cent medium-term inflation target. Stronger growth in real wages would also boost household incomes and create a stronger sense of shared prosperity. Our central scenario is for this pick-up in wage growth to occur as the economy strengthens, but to do so only gradually. Through our liaison with business we hear some reports of wage pressures emerging in pockets where labour markets are tight. We expect that over time we will hear more such reports. After all, the laws of supply and demand still work.
A while back we had become quite concerned about some of the trends in household borrowing, including very fast growth in lending to investors and the high share of loans being made that did not require regular repayment of principal. Our concern was not that developments in household balance sheets posed a risk to the stability of the banking system. Rather, it was more that they posed a broader macro stability risk – that is, the day might come, when faced with bad economic news, households feel they have borrowed too much and respond by cutting their spending sharply, damaging the overall economy.
We have worked closely with APRA, including through the Council of Financial Regulators, to address these issues. This work, together with other steps taken by APRA, has helped improve the quality of lending in Australia. In the housing market, there has also been a change. National measures of housing prices are up by only around 3 per cent over the past year, a marked change from the situation a couple of years ago. This change is most pronounced in Sydney, where prices are no longer rising and conditions have also cooled in Melbourne. These changes in the housing market have reduced the incentive to borrow at low interest rates to invest in an asset whose price is increasing quickly.
On balance then, from a macro stability perspective, the situation looks less risky than it was a while ago. We do, however, continue to watch household balance sheets carefully as there are still risks here.
It’s understandable that some other central banks are raising rates. They lowered their rates by more than us and, in a number of countries, the unemployment rate is now below conventional estimates of full employment at a time when above-trend growth is expected.
Our circumstances are a little different. We are still some way from what could be considered full employment and our central scenario for inflation is for it to remain below the midpoint of the medium-term target range for the next couple of years.
We expect, though, to make further progress in reducing unemployment and having inflation return to the midpoint of the target range. If we do make that progress, at some point it will be appropriate for interest rates in Australia to also start moving up. So, given recent developments in Australia and overseas, it is likely that the next move in interest rates in Australia will be up, not down. If this is how things play out, the likely timing will depend upon the extent and pace of the progress that we make. As I have discussed, while we do expect steady progress, that progress is likely to be only gradual.