ANZ's rate rise molehill

Friday's ANZ rate hike increases the probability that the RBA will cut official rates, but it doesn't change the rate setting process because the RBA knows the bank can’t move significantly away from its competitors.

Friday’s minor rate movement by ANZ was the rate increase, for both fundamental and tactical reasons, the bank had to make.

In the scheme of things six basis points is neither here nor there, and certainly not something that deserved Wayne Swan’s mock outrage. Swan seems to have forgotten that the last time ANZ lifted it home loan rate, in February, it did so by the same six basis points – and the other major banks (and some not-so-major banks) responded with increase of between nine and 15 basis points.

So, to a degree, ANZ was only playing catch-up on Friday.

There is a fundamental justification for the banks increasing their rates slightly. They do have longer term pre-crisis borrowings continually maturing that have to be re-financed in the current market.

While wholesale borrowing costs are lower than they were at the height of the global financial crisis and have been broadly trending down (apart from a spike in recent weeks as fears about the stability of the eurozone flared again), they are still elevated, which means the banks’ average borrowing costs are still edging up as the longer-term borrowings are re-financed.

The other fundamental reason for raising the cost of lending is that banking is essentially two-dimensional – there is both an asset and liability side to banks.

On the asset side, demand for credit is extremely weak. There is no volume growth in the system to offset the pressure on margins from higher funding costs. On the liability side there is fierce competition for deposits as the banks try to reduce their exposure to the volatile and unreliable wholesale funding markets.

That competition is continuous, given that term deposits have relatively short maturities, and is likely to be a long-term feature of the system because all the banks are targeting even higher proportions of deposit funding over time.

That means there will be continuing upwards pressure on the relative cost of those deposits – the interest rates the banks have to offer to attract and retain them – and therefore pressure to re-balance the pricing of the relationship between borrowers from the banks and lenders to them.

From the perspective of the whole system, adding a marginal disincentive to borrowings and a marginal incentive for savings – slightly re-balancing the relationship between savings and borrowings in favour of savings – is not such a bad thing.

Tactically, the ANZ needed to restore its capacity to compete for deposits without sacrificing margin relative to its peers. It also needs to get its customer base used to frequent small movements in its rate – in both directions – if its bold new rate-setting policy is to be effective.

In December, ANZ announced it would in future set its rates independently of the Reserve Bank’s first-Tuesday-of-the-month board meetings, reviewing them every second Friday of the month. The strategy was to de-link ANZ’s rate movements from the RBA’s to emphasise that bank funding costs aren’t set by the RBA decisions.

The RBA can strongly influence the absolute level of rates in the market, but not the price investors demand from borrowers relative to its cash rate, and the key issue for the banks is not the absolute cost of funds but the spreads they experience over the cash rate relative to those they charge borrowers.

For ANZ’s new approach to rate-setting to work, it really needs to move its borrowing rates regularly, ideally in both directions and by modest amounts, to get its customers used to the notion that funding costs are moving continuously without getting too far out of kilter with its competitors and therefore creating a competitive vulnerability.

Friday provided a major opportunity. Not only was ANZ largely playing catch-up with its peers, which makes it harder to argue it was somehow profiteering at the expense of its customers and therefore has made it a smaller target for the bank-bashing brigade, but the RBA made it clear after holding official rates unchanged earlier this month that if the March quarter inflation numbers don’t contain any nasty surprises when they are disclosed on 24 April it is likely to cut the cash rate.

If that were to happen, and it is probable albeit not certain, a 25 basis point reduction in the cash rate would more than compensate borrowers for ANZ’s six basis point increase – and also provide another opportunity for all the banks to hang onto some of the reduction. ANZ’s move increases the probability that the RBA will cut official rates.

The RBA has been saying consistently in recent times that the banks have a case when they argue their margins have been eroded by rising funding costs and that it takes that into account in its own rate deliberations. In fact, it has said that official rate would be a full percentage point higher if the banks had simply been passing on official rate movements.

It uses the cash rate to target the actual lending rates within the economy that it believes are appropriate for the state of the economy.

In that sense, in terms of the rates borrowers actually pay, what ANZ or the other big banks do is largely irrelevant – if the RBA thought the banks would retain all of a 25 basis point rate reduction, but wanted the entire reduction to flow through to the economy, it would simply cut official rates by 50 basis points. It makes monetary policy slightly more complicated but not necessarily less effective.

ANZ’s rate-setting policy, while it adds noise to the process – and hopefully a better understanding among borrowers, depositors and politicians about the relationships between official rates and the rates bank customers pay and receive – doesn’t change it because the RBA knows the bank can’t move significantly away from its competitors.