Australia holds key rate at record low


SYDNEY • Australia held its interest rate at a record low as the central bank delivered a more sobering take on the global economy.

Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) governor Philip Lowe and his board kept the cash rate at 1.5%, where it has now been for two years, in Sydney yesterday. Lowe amended his language on China’s economy in his accompanying statement, saying growth “has slowed a little”, instead of growing solidly. He noted authorities there easing policy, while heeding risks in the financial sector.

“The RBA quite rightly sounded a little less upbeat on the global outlook,” said Paul Dales, chief economist for Australia at Capital Economics. It “suggested that interest rates won’t rise for a while yet. Our more cautious forecasts suggest that rates may not rise until late in 2019, if not sometime in 2020”.

Australia is the most China-dependent developed economy with about a third of its exports going there. The governor reiterated that US trade policy is a key uncertainty for the global outlook.

The RBA has kept rates low in expectation the stance will gradually tighten the labour market and spur wage gains sufficiently to drive faster inflation. But outside strong economic growth and increased demand for construction workers amid an infrastructure boom, there are few signs of this emerging.

“The bank’s central forecast for the Aust ral ian economy remains unchanged,” Lowe said. “Gross domestic product growth is expected to average a bit above 3% in 2018 and 2019. This should see some further reduction in spare capacity.”

The RBA maintains its next move is more likely to be up than down; Lowe, since taking the helm in September 2016, has consistently said that an increase will only come once the economy is near full employment and inflation closer to the central bank’s 2%-3% target midpoint. Markets aren’t pricing in a rate increase for at least another year, according to bets by swaps traders.

Lowe said the outlook for the labour market “remains positive” and predicted a further gradual decline in unemployment “over the next couple of years to around” 5%. The jobless rate is currently 5.4%.

A swing factor remains the Australian dollar, which is trading at around 74 US cents and has held in a relatively tight range in recent weeks.

The currency is often used as a proxy for betting on China and any setbacks to the world’s second-largest economy could filter down to it.

Australia’s economy reached 27 years without a recession on June 30, an expansion underpinned by high immigration — the population is set to reach 25 million today — and strong export volumes to China.

The key risk at home remains an overpriced east-coast property market, though values are cooling and the RBA will be hoping for a soft landing.