Rates on hold despite slowing economy

Melissa Jenkins
(Australian Associated Press)

The central bank has held the cash rate at 1.50 per cent as widely predicted, despite expectations of weaker economic growth in the March quarter.

Keeping the cash rate unchanged for a tenth consecutive month, Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe again highlighted concerns about weak wages growth and a patchy housing market.

Meeting a day before the latest economic growth figures are released, the RBA also stuck to its long term forecasts, even though March quarter figures are likely to be well below that target.

“Year-ended GDP growth is expected to have slowed in the March quarter, reflecting the quarter-to-quarter variation in the growth figures,” Dr Lowe said in a statement.

“Looking forward, economic growth is still expected to increase gradually over the next couple of years to a little above 3 per cent.”

Economists have trimmed their March quarter GDP expectations because of a larger than expected hit from weaker export volumes, with consensus forecasts of 0.1 per cent growth in the quarter, and an annual growth rate of 1.4 per cent.

Dr Lowe said the housing market appeared to be cooling, with conditions starting to ease in markets where prices have been briskly rising, a reference to Sydney and Melbourne.

He also said new supervisory measures should help address the risks associated with high and rising debt levels, in reference to a recent Australian Prudential Regulation Authority directive to banks to cap interest-only loans.

Aberdeen Asset Management head of Australian macro David Choi said he expected further regulatory measures due to be announced by APRA would stop banks from lending loosely to households.

“The last thing the RBA wants is another surge in house price growth, fuelled by unsustainable growth in household leverage,” he said.

JP Morgan analyst Sally Auld said the RBA had for the first time acknowledged increases in mortgage rates were occurring independently of its monetary policy settings.

She said the governor’s commentary on the labour market had also changed slightly, noting growth in total hours worked remained weak despite stronger employment figures over recent months.

“The bank is clearly not yet comfortable enough with recent labour market developments to shift to a more comprehensively positive description of the jobs market,” she said.

Dr Lowe said sluggish wage growth is dampening household consumption, and decent growth in real wages would not happen for some time.

Company profits lifted six per cent in the March quarter, but wages and salaries rose just 0.3 per cent, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released on Monday.

The Australian dollar climbed after the RBA’s announcement, rising to 74.86 US cents by 1630 AEST, having earlier hit a low of 74.57 US cents when weaker than expected exports data was released.

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