The minutes of the June RBA Board meeting show the decision to cut the cash rate by 25bp at that meeting was driven by a revised assessment of spare capacity in the labour market and that the Board expects to ease policy further. We continue to expect a further 25bp rate cut in August and a final 25bp cut in November.
Note that much of the information from the minutes is not new. Key aspects have already been covered in a speech by the RBA Governor on the day of the decision and in other commentary from the Bank since then. Assessments have also likely evolved since June 4, particularly following the March quarter national accounts released a day later.
As such, our main interest in reading the meeting minutes is around the commentary from members and the tone of the discussion – particularly the degree of urgency around policy easing.
The minutes are clear on the prospect of further cuts, noting in the concluding paragraph that “… it was more likely than not that a further easing in monetary policy would be appropriate in the period ahead”. In the lexicon of RBA statements, “period ahead” signals that policy is ‘live’ in coming meetings but stops short of indicating an imminent move at the next meeting.
The case for easing in June rested firmly on a reassessment of the labour market. Updates on wage costs, showing growth of 0.5%qtr, 2.3%yr to March, were seen as “further evidence of spare capacity”. The latest data around jobs and unemployment is assessed as “mixed” – with an increase in unemployment and underemployment and a moderation in employment growth noted, albeit with the latter still running above growth in the labour force and participation rates reaching a record high. The contrast with the “strong” description in the May minutes is striking.
However, the real change was around the assessment of the extent of spare capacity – i.e. the degree to which unemployment was above the ‘full employment’ levels associated with stable inflation. As outlined by the Governor, the Bank now sees this as around 4.5% compared to the 4.75-5% cited previously – the shift reflecting the unfolding mix of wage and unemployment outcomes. The current 5.2% unemployment rate is a sizeable 0.7ppts above this target level. While noting estimates are uncertain, Board members concurred with the change in assessment.
Other factors behind the decision to cut seem less urgent. The outlook for both the global economy and the Australian economy was assessed as “reasonable” albeit with the latter conditioned on market pricing for the cash rate that implied interest rates would be lower in the period ahead. Around inflation, the persistence of low underlying inflation – below the 2-3% target range for three years and expected to remain low near term – looks to have been a secondary consideration behind the cut, giving scope for the move rather than driving the decision. That said, there did seem to be some concern that this might start to undermine medium term inflation expectations.
The risks a rate cut would present around high household debt and housing markets were assessed as low. Members judged it “was unlikely to encourage a material pick-up in borrowing by households that would add to medium term risks”. Interestingly, members also noted that lower rates would “stimulate activity and thereby improve the resilience of the Australian economy to any future adverse shocks” – perhaps an indication that the Board is a little keener to get the economy moving.
Overall, the minutes confirm more easing is on the way. Board members appear very much aligned to the Governor’s views, particularly around the labour market. That said, the ‘tone’ is not urgent in the sense that growth outlook still does not seem to be viewed as that challenging and low inflation is not a driving force behind the easing.
We continue to see the next 25bp rate cut coming in August and a final 25bp cut in November.
There are complications. After shifting its view on full employment and having identified more significant spare capacity in the labour market, the Board may see little point in delaying follow-on easing moves – the case having already been made.
However, we expect the next move to instead be framed by a downgrade to the Bank’s forecasts meaning it will be more inclined to move in August when the full set of revised forecasts are released in its Statement on Monetary Policy. We expect this to include a downward revision to the Bank’s near term growth forecast from ‘around 2.75%’ to something more materially below trend. The disappointing March quarter national accounts release has already lowered the starting point. Updates on the consumer are likely to show soft conditions extending into the June quarter. Meanwhile weak labour market updates are likely to take the unemployment further away from the Bank’s 4.5% target. Given the need to adjust, it is much simpler communication-wise, to cut rates at the time the forecast is changed than to cut in July and announce the lower forecast a month later.