Westpac tips interest rates fall

Bill Evans, Westpac chief economist, 15/07/2011

Westpac chief economist, Bill EvansWestpac chief economist Bill Evans expects the Reserve Bank will soon slash interest rates. His call reverses a long-held view that the next move in interest rates would be up, saying circumstances have turned so bad, so quickly that rates could be slashed over the next 12 months by 100 basis points.

If passed on in full, this would cut the current standard variable home rate from 7.8pc to 6.8pc.

He also warned that unemployment was set to jump next year, possibly as high as 5.75pc, from 4.9pc where it currently sits.

Here is his full explanation


The market is now pricing-in a 25 basis point rate cut by October and 50 percent chance of a follow-on move by February next year.

The impetus has in the main been from the large trading books of offshore investors/traders who cannot envisage a tightening environment in a developed economy where rates are already in the contractionary zone, especially against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions in global financial markets and a worsening situation in Europe.

We saw similar moves to price rate cuts following deteriorating global conditions in May last year (when Greece required emergency funding), November (when Ireland was forced to seek an EU/IMF bailout) and in March following Japan’s earthquake disaster. All proved to be temporary.

Local economists, including ourselves, and domestic traders have been surprised by current market positioning given that the Reserve Bank has held a strong medium-term tightening bias.

Our view has been that because of the Bank's strong tightening bias there would be one rate hike in 2011 which would be a policy mistake and rather than signalling a sequence of hikes would be followed by a long period of steady rates extending through most of 2012.

We are now of the view that the direction of market pricing is probably correct and the next rate move in Australia will be down, rather than up.

We now expect a sequence of rate cuts beginning with 25bps (0.25pc) in December 2011 and through 2012 totalling 100bps (1pc) prior to a period of steady rates in 2013.

While the catalyst for the first rate cut is likely to come from offshore, we do not expect it to be a one-off. Interest rates are too high in Australia given the state of the non-mining sectors of the domestic economy and a downward adjustment is required to avert a damaging round of contraction. This rate adjustment is likely to take a similar form to previous easing cycles.

Easing cycles are typically quite short with multiple associated moves.

Since the deep recession of the early 1990s there have been three easing cycles. These were: July 1996–July 1997 (–250bps); February 2001–December 2001 (–200bps) and September 2008– April 2009 (–425bps). These cycles were short and sharp and delivered a considerably larger cumulative cut than we envisage in the current circumstances.

In those cycles the starting point for rates was comfortably above neutral whereas we assess current rates to be only 25–75bps above neutral. Our assessment of the state of the domestic economy, the outlook for the world economy, and difficult global financial conditions which are expected to persist for some time, indicates that rates in Australia need to move back into the expansionary zone.

Reasons for Westpac's rate view

The catalyst for the first move is likely to be further adverse developments in Europe and their knock on effects on global financial markets. Among the many other side-effects will be an ongoing negative impact on business and consumer confidence in Australia that is likely to become more pervasive as conditions deteriorate.

The current period is being marked by financial turmoil in Europe where prospects of negative fallout to the real world economy are rising. Credit spreads have already begun to increase with, in the case of southern European banks, spreads now exceeding the peaks during the global financial crisis.

I recently visited fund managers and central banks in Europe and could not find anyone who expected the current crisis to be resolved without an extended period of financial market turmoil.

European Financial Risks

Fear within the financial system in Europe around the exposures of counterparties are adversely affecting liquidity and look set to intensify. Sovereign defaults/major restructuring are likely to be the only credible ‘solution’ for the weakest countries with these events triggering major losses for the European banks.

The size and incidence of these losses will also be unclear but those banks expected to be most exposed are likely to find credit more and more scarce, imposing credit crunches across Europe.

Given the international nature of the European banking system, this may spread to other financial systems. Our view is that the degree of international deleveraging that could be undertaken in this scenario is less than what was seen in the 2008/09 episode, but it would still be material.

We note that foreign commercial banks, presumably mostly European, are holding unusually large liquid positions in the US system. International banking claims on emerging Asia have recovered to pre-crisis levels. So there is capital out there to repatriate heightening contagion risks. The spectre of 2008 provides an ongoing concern for businesses globally.

The catalyst for the first rate cut is likely to be associated with these European convulsions but further cuts will be driven by the combined negative impact of European events on confidence and specific domestic issues.

The fragile consumer

The consumer is of particular concern domestically. Previous rate cut cycles were at least partly associated with a weakening consumer. In the 1996/97 period the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Index of Consumer Sentiment averaged around 103 with slumping dwelling approvals and ‘post-recession fragility’ adding to the case for cuts. In the early months of the 2001 cycle the Index averaged 91, with slumping dwelling approvals again adding to the case for cuts.

The Index averaged 88 during the 2008/09 period, a disastrous level by historical standards. The Index has been weak for some time, particularly respondents' views on the state of their own finances. In July the Index fell to 92.8 with consumer views on the outlook for their own financial position sustained at extremely weak levels only recorded on three previous occasions – during the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s and in mid 2008.

We do not expect to see a strong bounce-back in confidence in the immediate future.

Revised growth forecasts

Our research is now pointing to a much weaker profile for consumer spending than had been envisaged in the past. Whereas previous easing cycles had been associated with major collapses in housing and business investment the key driver in this cycle is likely to be an excessively weak consumer.

We have lowered our growth profile for consumer spending in 2011 from 2.6pc to 1.2pc and for 2012 from 2.8pc to 2pc. With some associated dampening of housing and investment plans (outside mining) growth in domestic demand has been revised down from 3.8pc to 2.5pc in 2011 and from 4.5pc to 2.7pc in 2012.

The unemployment rate is expected to rise from 4.9pc in June 2011 to 5.5-5.75pc through 2012.

Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy and house prices are also playing key roles in this expected slowdown. The Federal Government is planning to tighten policy around 3.5pc of GDP over the fiscal years 2011/12 and 2012/13. A capping of expenditure growth by the states also points to reduced support from other levels of government.

Concerns about the introduction of a price on carbon have contributed to the recent slide in consumer confidence. The June sentiment survey included additional questions on news recall that showed a sharp spike in ‘taxation’ issues only matched in the past by the mining tax debate in 2010 and the GST introduction in 1999-2000. In all three episodes news on tax was viewed as a big negative.

Current concerns on this front might subside. However, the experience of the GST suggests that is unlikely. According to our sentiment survey at the time, anxiety remained high for the whole year leading up to the GST introduction in July 2000 and concerns lingered throughout the rest of that year. With the carbon price not due to be introduced until July next year it is likely to remain a drag on confidence for some time yet.

De-leveraging of the household sector

Meanwhile we believe the economy is also going through a structural deleveraging by the household sector that makes consumer demand more susceptible to weakness. Whilst deleveraging is probably a long term desirable development for the economy its short term impact on activity and employment continues to be a significant drag. We have already seen the household savings rate rise to 10pc, significantly undermining consumer demand.

Although growth in consumer spending has been positive, and only marginally below its long run trend rate in the year to March, it has been lacklustre by historical standards. That is especially so given the weak spending in 2008 and 2009 and the backdrop of very strong disposable income and population growth. These last two supports are now fading with employment growth moderating and migration inflows down sharply.

Despite the patchier income picture, there is a risk that consumers are becoming even more intent on restraining spending/lifting saving. Global financial turmoil will be reviving unpleasant memories of the 2008 financial crisis. Our consumer survey also shows households are becoming progressively more nervous about prospects for house prices. Housing is the major component of household wealth.

Fears about falling wealth are likely to spur further increases in the savings rate. That will further undermine consumer spending with a more significant bottom line impact on spending growth due to the weaker income backdrop. While we see the major drag on growth working through consumer spending and the household sector, spill-over effects on business investment and housing are inevitable. That is already apparent in surveys of investment intentions where growth is restricted to the booming mining sector.

Overall we would argue that for the interest sensitive parts of the economy – households and housing in particular – interest rates are now too high. The Reserve Bank has indicated that the ‘neutral’ cash rate is thought to be around 4.5pc, with current rates seen as “mildly restrictive”.

However, you only really know where neutral is when you are there. Our assessment of the impact of rates on confidence, housing activity, credit growth, and (non mining) investment spending plans is that we are most definitely not at neutral and that the real neutral rate is likely to be significantly further below the 4.5pc suggested by the Bank.

A cumulative cut of 100bps will only move rates marginally into the stimulatory zone.
Given the Reserve Bank's most recent set of inflation forecasts how could one possibly forecast rate cuts? Recall that the Bank indicated in May that if market forecasts for rates were correct (which at the time envisaged a rate hike nine months into the future) then the Bank would breach its inflation target by 2013. On that thinking isn't it folly to forecast that the Bank would consider cutting rates?

However the Bank's concerns were based around a much stronger growth profile for the Australian economy than we now envisage. The RBA Governor already noted in the statement accompanying the RBA Board’s July decision that “… growth through 2011 is now unlikely to be as strong as earlier forecast.” With time we expect the Bank will move towards growth expectations much closer to our own and with that allay its concerns about a blow-out in inflation.


Along with inflation forecasts the outlook for the unemployment rate is critical to any policy decisions. The RBA’s medium term tightening bias rests on the concern that we are already at full employment and the mining boom will drive the unemployment rate down to 4.25pc by 2013. Our forecast is that the unemployment rate is heading towards 5.5–5.75pc through 2012.

The dynamics of the economy over the course of the remainder of 2011 and 2012 will be dominated by the key channel of falling consumer confidence and global financial turmoil spilling over to business confidence which lowers investment and employment intentions leading to a fall in employment growth and an increase in the unemployment rate.

In turn this rise in the unemployment rate feeds back to consumer confidence and spending, further impacting businesses' employment decisions.

The Reserve Bank has made it clear that it welcomes softer activity in the household/housing sector to create capacity for the mining boom. We assert that it will see that it is ‘over- achieving’ given that consumer spending and housing investment represent around 60pc of economic activity while mining investment is around 4pc. In turn, the mining sector represents around 2pc of total employment with, possibly, a further 5pc benefitting indirectly through construction and business services to the mining sector.

Sectors of the economy where business confidence is weak are large employers – retail and wholesale (15pc); manufacturing (9pc); non-mining related construction (9pc) and finance (4pc).

Severe cutbacks in these sectors cannot be adequately compensated by mining and associated services. In particular the links to the rest of the economy from the boost to national incomes from the terms of trade are muted when governments; households and firms are saving rather than spending and investing.

The turning point in the labour market may have already been reached. A range of lead indicators, notably job ads and the Westpac Melbourne Institute Index of Unemployment Expectations are now turning.

In the last two months Westpac's Index of Unemployment Expectations has surged by 24.9pc – the last time we saw such a rise was immediately after the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.

For now the level of the Index is still consistent with enough jobs growth to hold the unemployment rate steady but the sharp turn in the trend, which is consistent with our priors, is a significant signal. For policy, the two month shift is one that is from a position historically associated with ‘stable to modest tightening policy’ to one that is more consistent with a moderate easing.

Global growth

The Reserve Bank has consistently argued that global growth prospects are above average. After a 5.0pc outcome in 2010, the IMF forecasts world GDP to expand by 4.3pc and 4.4pc in 2011 and 2012, which we feel is a reasonable approximation of the Bank's working expectations. That includes forecast for Europe of 2.0pc and 1.7pc. If that 2012 outcome were to fall to –1pc, a not unreasonable number if a credit crunch were to emerge in late 2011, global growth would by 0.4ppts lower on the direct effect alone, pushing activity to 4pc before real and financial linkages are accounted for.

Assuming these are non-zero and negative, world GDP would have a 3-handle next year, which would certainly be a sub-par outcome. With global fiscal consolidation underway and monetary policy normalisation proceeding in emerging markets, the external backdrop for the Australian economy seems unlikely to be supportive.

While it is possible that China and India would shift back towards a more accommodative policy stance if the developed world hit serious financial hurdles, this would not begin to benefit Australia until deep into 2012, and the areas of Australia that would benefit would be those already booming.


These are incredibly uncertain times. The views expressed above are subject to much greater than normal risks. We do not expect that many other commentators on the Australian economy will share our views – at this stage certainly not the Reserve Bank or Treasury.

Consider the range of risks:

  • A return to stability in European financial markets.
  • Sustained recovery in consumer and business confidence in Australia.
  • Resurgence of jobs growth and jobs lead indicators.
  • Fall in the Australian savings rate and sudden end to households' deleveraging.
  • We are underestimating the likely boost to confidence of a long period of steady rates.
  • Unexpected reversal of China's tightening policy.
  • The general dynamics of our views are about right but we have underestimated the fervour of the authorities to constrain the non mining sectors of the economy.

The Australian Dollar

We have not made material adjustments to our expected profile for the A$. We already expect an 8–10 big figure fall in the A$ through to mid 2012. Note that the first stage of the rate cycle we now envisage has recently been priced into the market .

Modest changes in interest rate differentials are considered to be much less important than our global growth view and the outlook for the US$. Adjustments to those views are broadly offsetting. Heightened concerns about the impact of financial market turmoil on global growth are largely offset by our decision to "bring forward" the timing of QE3 in the US from the second quarter of 2012 to the first quarter.

That event (and its front running by the markets) will have the A$ stronger than it would otherwise have been if the RBA were easing unilaterally.

  • Bill Evans is Westpac's chief economist.


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