WEEKEND ECONOMIST: It's down to two

The Reserve Bank will bottom out at 2 per cent. But the falling dollar, resilient capex and improving housing data will see the board sit still on Tuesday.

The Reserve Bank board meets on Tuesday. Financial market and real economy developments since the May 7 meeting, at which rates were cut by 25 basis points to 2.75 per cent, have, on net, not been supportive of an immediate follow-up move. As a consequence, we now anticipate that the next move is likely to be delivered in August.

The medium term case for lower interest rates remains very clear. We retain our position that the terminal cash rate will be 2 per cent, with single moves in August, late 2013 and early 2014.

The most prominent developments that point to the bank remaining on hold in the near term are the surprisingly rapid decline in the Australian dollar; the rise in US bond rates; resilient capex plans; a firming of dwelling approvals and an improvement in housing finance and auction clearance rates.

Balancing these themes, we have seen faltering household and business confidence; a significant downgrading of the mining project pipeline by the official commodity forecaster; global growth downgrades by official agencies; soft actual investment in the first quarter and soft global business surveys.

The net impact of these factors is clearly pointing towards the bank remaining patient for the moment. Markets are currently pricing an 18 per cent probability of a 25 basis point cut in June and a 76 per cent probability that the cut of 25 basis points will happen by August. There is a 100 per cent probability of that cut occurring by year's end and a 75 per cent probability of a second cut in that timeframe.

The 'trough' in market pricing implies 39 basis points of easing by February 2014.

The external factors influencing near term deliberations are both related to the idea that the US Federal Reserve will 'taper' its asset purchases within a few meetings. This has led to rises in the US dollar and US interest rates, which can be seen as a reduction in the US dollar's QE discount and the QE premium in US bond prices.

We remain sceptical that the US economy will be able to justify a tapering of the Fed's current $US85 billion per month purchasing pace.

Once that realisation filters through to market sentiment, the US dollar and bond yields will both decline, and Australian dollar should rise back towards parity with the US dollar.

The capex report was the most important single data release since the May 7 meeting. I wrote the following in our weekly last Friday:

We rate this survey very highly as a key influence in the policy debate. Recall that we expected a soft survey result on February 28 which would have prompted the Reserve Bank to cut rates at its March board meeting. Instead the decision was subsequently delayed until May. The February survey painted a bleak picture for the investment outlook in 2012-13 but a more positive result for 2013-14. The picture for 2013-14 provided a couple of "welcome" surprises. Mining investment was not expected to contract, slowing to a 2 per cent pace. More importantly, services investment was expected to be boosted by 12 per cent. Manufacturing was expected to contract by a further 3 per cent. The result for services investment encouraged the Reserve Bank to conclude that their key plan to transition business investment away from the inevitably slowing mining investment to non-mining investment was starting to work. The test will be whether this result is supported in the report on May 30.

Services investment plans have passed that test. This broad sector produced a resilient 10.8 per cent uplift in plans for 2013-14 in the second estimate, immaterially lower than the promising first estimate of 12 per cent. Those growth rates are derived using 10-year average realisation ratios for services capex.

There is no perfect method of translating plans into hard forecasts. Realisation ratios – RRs – range widely based on cycle position, so averaging them can be misleading. Average RRs are in no way guaranteed to produce the 'correct' answer. We have to assume that the bank will use a number of methods to adjust the data, one of which will be to apply average RRs, which will give an answer similar to that which we have already reported above. On that basis, a literal reading of the survey would leave the bank feeling just a little more confident that growth is rotating back towards the non-mining business sector.

While we are keen to see the more reliable third estimate of plans before we make that sort of uplift concrete in our forecasts, we allow that from the Reserve Bank's point of view, capex gives them breathing space. The overall investment story remains uncertain and subject to downward revisions in my view. The Bureau of Resource and Energy Estimates downgrades of the resources project pipeline were significant, and may already be out of date given information that has come to hand in the last few days around coal project delays and deferrals. 

Construction work done, equipment outlays and capital goods imports all fell in the March quarter. The hidden sting in the capex report was the downgrading of 2012-13 plans, which created an arithmetic lift to 2013-14 as mining projects are pushed out. While private non-residential non-education approvals have picked up from their trough, the gains are lumpy in nature and are accordingly not as broad in scope as one would like. Capacity utilisation is falling and commercial vacancy rates are moving higher.

It is well known that business confidence is well below average. A sustained period with a lower currency, a less cautious consumer and an upswing in house prices and residential building might boost confidence, although other issues around regulation, shrinking margins, global concerns and political uncertainty remain constraints. With the exception of consumer psychology, which took a major step back in April and May, progress on each of these fronts has been made recently. Dwelling approvals rose by 9.1 per cent in April (private houses 2.5 per cent for the month, apartments surging). The data suggest that the housing recovery, which appeared to stall in quarters four and one, has regained some momentum. Along with a strong housing finance print last time around, there is enough for the Reserve Bank to once again step back and observe for a few more months before acting again.

The consumer did not have a good month though – far from it. Consumer sentiment is now back below 100, having fallen heavily in each of the last two months – with the May survey conducted post both the cash rate cut and the federal budget. Job insecurity rose back to the levels seen in the second half of 2012. While retail had a strong first quarter, that was coming off a terrible second half of last year, and the quarter ended with the pulse weakening. The April update will come to hand on Monday, alongside a range of inputs for Wednesday's GDP report. We expect a 0.7 per cent, quarterly, and 2.6 per cent, yearly, outcome for GDP.

The June board meeting is not likely to produce a further easing of policy, with the run of information since the May 7 cut allowing the bank to remain patient in the short run. The medium term case for lower interest rates remains very clear. The next easing is likely to come in August, with additional moves coming in the December quarter of this year and the March quarter of next year, for an eventual low of 2 per cent.

Bill Evans is Westpac's chief economist.

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