Australia keeps key rate unchanged at 1.5% record low

By BLOOMBERG

SYDNEY • The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left its key rate unchanged at a record low yesterday as it gauges the impact of a housing market slowdown on the nation’s economy.

Governor Philip Lowe and his board left the cash at 1.5%, as expected and as they have since August 2016. “Growth in household income remains low, debt levels are high and some asset prices have declined,” he said in a statement.

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Lowe noted that credit conditions are tighter for borrowers than they have been “for some time”, reflecting a clampdown by regulators and nervousness among lenders in the middle of an inquiry into the behaviour of banks. Australian house prices recorded their biggest monthly drop since the global financial crisis in November, reflecting the lending curbs and buyers waiting to see how far the market falls.

For the RBA, the risk is whether this prompts households to cut consumption — a key driver of the economy — and boost savings. Lowe removed his long-held line “wages growth remains low” from the statement, instead saying that the recent pickup in wages growth was a “welcome development”. On the impact of the US-China trade tensions on the international outlook, Lowe said: “The global economic expansion is continuing and unemployment rates in most advanced economies are low.

There are, however, some signs of a slowdown in global trade, partly stemming from ongoing trade tensions.”

The RBA chief kept his commentary on the currency pretty much unchanged. The Aussie has recovered some ground in the past three weeks, but is still down 9.2% from its late January peak.

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A weakening housing market adds a new variable to the RBA’s policy framework as it threatens household confidence and spending. It has been using low rates to accelerate economic growth and tighten the labour market to such an extent that employers will need to offer higher wages to secure workers; that in turn will boost household incomes and inflation and should lay the ground for the first rate increase since 2010.