What next from the RBA? Economists divided on rates
Economists are diverging on their outlook for the Australian economy, despite most expecting the Reserve Bank to keep the cash rate on hold on Tuesday.
Analysts and financial markets are expecting the central bank to leave interest rates at a historic low of 3 per cent at its April board meeting, after stronger than expected jobs data for February, and improvements in consumer sentiment and the housing market.
This week will also see a range of economic data released: new home sales, the trade balance, building approvals and retail sales figures.
But while some economists believe the current easing cycle - which has seen 175 basis points shaved off the cash rate since November 2011 - has come to an end and rates could begin to rise by the end of 2013, others are still expecting up to 50 basis points of cuts this year.
"I think the markets are right to price in quite a low probability of a cut in April," National Australia Bank senior economist David de Garis said.
"But I think how the non-mining economy is going to perform over the next few quarters is still an open question."
Optimism about the global economy, which has been shaken following the Cyprus deposit deal, the continued strength of the Australian dollar, weakness in commodity prices, and hopes of a shift away from resources-led growth in Australia as mining investment peaks were also expected to weigh on the Reserve's Bank's deliberations for the rest of the year.
NAB and ANZ forecast the cash rate to fall to 2.5 per cent by the end of the year, with expectations that non-mining sector investment will remain subdued.
ANZ senior economist Justin Fabo said although he expected the central bank to shift away from its easing bias in its April statement, there were still risks in the global economy from the eurozone, as well as continued weakness in commodity prices.
"I guess the key data there will be the next [capital expenditure expectations] release in May, to see if there are some signs of improvement in non-mining business investment," he said.
Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said certain sectors of the economy — such as business confidence, housing finance, house prices and some aspects of the housing market — were underperforming when the current easing cycle was compared with previous cycles in 2008-09, 2001 and 1996-97.
He said Westpac retained its view that interest rates would bottom out at 2.75 per cent.
At the same time, HSBC chief economist Paul Bloxham, who has forecast since the start of 2013 that the Reserve Bank's easing phase is over, said a rise in the cash rate was possible in the fourth quarter.
"A key catalyst for the next move may be concerns about over-inflation of the housing market," he said, adding that although rising house prices were a "necessary evil" to boost housing construction and growth in non-mining sectors of the economy, a rise that was too sharp would be unwelcome.
His stance was supported by the "shadow board" at the Australian National University, a panel of nine academics and economists, on which he sits.
"The balance of risks implies that rates should rise within the next 12 months to return monetary policy to a neutral stance," the board said.
Deutsche Bank economist Phil O'Donoghue said the key factor over the next few months would be a rebalancing of the economy away from the mining sector.
"I think mining investment has already peaked," Mr O'Donoghue said.
"It remains at very high levels, but I think we're past the peak, and that's going to become evident in the GDP numbers over the next couple of quarters.
"The question for the RBA is what is going to be filling the gap."
Meanwhile, a business expectations survey by Dun & Bradstreet found fewer Australian businesses were planning to make a capital investment in the June quarter, with the index outlook dropping from nine points in the previous quarter to five — the lowest since the September 2011 quarter.
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