Saturday, August 11, 2012

At last, our dollar worries the Reserve Bank

THE Reserve Bank's view of the year ahead foresees the economy growing at trend, against a background of grey clouds: a two-speed economy, with little growth in jobs, and a lot of downside risk from Europe, and the high dollar.

It sees the carbon tax having surprisingly little impact on underlying inflation: just 0.25 percentage points in 2012-13, then no more. It sees mining investment peaking in 2013-14, barely a year away, and detracting from growth thereafter.

If you think that's easily replaced, the Reserve points out that in 2011, even net of imports, mining investment made up most of the growth in our GDP.

The Reserve is troubled by Europe. It's on edge about the US, and the partisan impasse over the budget deficit. But it's relaxed about China, seeing its economy as having hit bottom and about to rebound as stimulus measures take effect.

Part of its concern about Europe is that it sees the investor exodus from European bonds ending up here, and pushing up the Australian dollar at a time when falling commodity prices should be driving it down.

What is new in yesterday's Statement of Monetary Policy is that for the first time, the Reserve accepts that a persistent high dollar could do more damage than it expected to businesses exposed to global prices which now includes much of the economy, as the internet spreads global competition to our service industries.

The Reserve does not canvass possible solutions, such as the Swiss policy of setting a cap on the exchange rate, and printing money to keep it there or in other ways, as advocated by its former board member Warwick McKibbin.

But it sees the high dollar forcing trade-exposed business to lift productivity sharply. That implies weakened jobs growth "in the near term" and a risk of "labour shedding across a range of industries", as the high dollar combines with the housing slump and deep spending cuts at federal and state levels.

It expects unemployment will "edge higher", wage growth will slow to 3.5 per cent, and inflation even with the carbon price to remain within its target band of 2 to 3 per cent.

Yesterday's statement does not imply an interest rate cut around the corner. But it implies that the Reserve is leaning that way. It sees the risks as mostly on the downside, but is sitting back to watch what unfolds, ready to hit the trigger if its fears are realised.

Commonwealth Bank's economics team summed it up as "cautiously optimistic". Yes, but it is more cautious than it was, and less optimistic than it was.

Some analysts interpreted the rise in its growth forecasts for 2012 as indicating stronger growth ahead. Wrong. It reflects stronger growth behind us, due to the Bureau of Statistics' surprisingly high first estimate of 1.3 per cent growth in the March quarter.

The Reserve assumes this will not be revised down much, but will lift the starting point for future growth. That could be optimistic. In the past, on average, high initial estimates of growth have been revised down by 0.4 percentage points. The bureau has already revised its estimate of March quarter retail spending by that much.

The key fact is that the Reserve has left its growth forecast to June 2013 unchanged: between 2.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent. And it has cut its forecast for growth in 2013-14 by half a percentage point, to the same range.

That is, the Reserve forecasts the growth rate over the next two years to be around 3 per cent, plus or minus half a percentage point. It describes this as "around trend". Good. There is a widespread but outdated assumption that our trend growth rate is 3.25 or 3.5 per cent; that was in the days of rising debt, and the Reserve believes those days are gone.

On Thursday, assistant governor Guy Debelle forecast that credit growth will remain subdued for years. He tipped it to grow "at the pace of nominal [GDP] 5, 6, 7 per cent most likely, for the next few years. I'm pretty sure we're not going back to double digit rates."

If he's right, that will have profound implications across the economy especially for growth in house prices, and for investments that depend on them rising at the pace we saw when housing credit was growing at double-digit rates: as it did, with two short breaks, from 1964 to 2008. Stable house prices will be good for first home buyers, bad for investors.

Second, slow growth in credit will have profound effects on banks, retailers, new housing and renovations, tourism, restaurants and discretionary expenditure of all kinds.

For all our talk of "cautious consumers", households have barely begun the task of deleveraging. The ratio of household debt to disposable income has shrunk only from 156 per cent at its peak to 150 per cent. It is still three times as high as it was 20 years ago.