RBA expected to hold policy, but for how long?

Up until a couple of weeks ago markets were pricing in strong odds that the Reserve Bank of Australia would cut the Official Cash Rate to 0.50% from 0.75%.

All that changed after December’s labour market data was released. Unemployment dropped for a second consecutive month, hitting the lowest levels since April 2019 at 5.1%. Unemployment decreased by 13,000, largely thanks to a 29,000 increase in the number of workers employed part-time.

While still leaving the jobless rate significantly above 4.5% – a level be RBA believes will prompt an acceleration in wage growth – the unexpectedly strong report saw markets slashing odds of further easing in February.

The Australian dollar snapped a 5-day downtrend against the US dollar, spiking to test 0.6880, but the selloff quickly resumed as the focus returned to the viral outbreak in China.

AUD/USD chart, MARKETSX, 16.00 GMT, January 29th, 2020

Bets on easing in February drop after jobs data

According to ASX 30 day interbank cash rate futures contracts for February 2020, the probability of a cut has fallen from 56% as of January 16th to 30% by January 28th.

Westpac also noted that the strong data lowered the odds of further accommodation, with chief economist Bill Evans stating:

“Prior to the release of the surprisingly strong December Employment Report we had expected the cuts to be timed for February and June.”

“Given this strength and the significance of the labour market in the mind of the RBA, we have consequently decided to push out our forecast for two further cash rate cuts from February and June to April and August 2020.”

However, Westpac believes that the recent strength in the labour market won’t last, supporting the call for further easing. Evans explained:

“The importance of the April date is that the Board will have seen another print of the national accounts for the December quarter which is likely to highlight the soft growth environment while we expect that the surprise improvement in the unemployment rate will be unravelling.”

Consensus: cuts are still coming

The general consensus is that the RBA will have to ease further as the year progresses. While some parts of the economy are stabilising, particularly the property market (which has of course been helped by 75 basis points worth of easing during 2019), others are flagging.

Construction and consumer confidence are weak, and expectations for retail sales over the Christmas period are low. Construction output has declined for five straight quarters, while consumer confidence has erased most of the rebound recorded after hitting the lowest levels since mid-2015 in October.

There are also questions over the impact of the bushfires upon monetary policy. It is believed that, despite the economic damage estimated to be in the region of $100 billion, the bushfires will have only a short-term impact and therefore may not have any bearing on monetary policy. However, if it serves to further knock consumer confidence, it could be a contributing factor in any decision to ease policy.

The Chinese coronavirus outbreak is another large unknown; Australia trades heavily with China, so talk of factory shutdowns and a reduction in consumption could hurt the Australian economy.

What will the guidance say?

It can take 12 to 18 months for the impact of monetary policy adjustments to be fully known, so the RBA is likely to claim next month that it needs more time to assess the effects of 2019’s trifecta of cuts.

But how much time? Some analysts, like Evans at Westpac, believe the RBA will tee up a cut for April, while others think we may have to wait until the second half of the year to see further easing.