RBA Frets Over Currency, China; Sticks With GDP, CPI Outlook

Australia’s central bank said the outlook for the currency and China are key uncertainties to its growth and inflation forecasts, which were otherwise little changed.

The Reserve Bank of Australia, in its quarterly statement Friday, predicted annual growth of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent through December, accelerating to around 3 percent to 4 percent in 2018. There was little near-term change for unemployment and core inflation was expected to remain below 2 percent for most of the forecast period through 2018. It gave no interest-rate guidance after cutting to a record-low 1.5 percent Tuesday.

While the currency is forecast to remain at current levels, “it represents a significant source of uncertainty” given its potential to react to changed growth outlooks, commodity prices and policy decisions at home or abroad, the RBA said. Meanwhile, China, Australia’s key trading partner, “remains an important source of uncertainty” -- from a possible slowdown in the property market to how authorities balance supporting growth while enacting disruptive reforms.

Governor Glenn Stevens and his board eased policy twice this year to try to keep a lid on a currency circled by yield-hungry investors in a world of zero or negative rates, and to speed up inflation. At the same time, they’ve made progress on steering the economy toward services from mining, with growth above 3 percent and unemployment under 6 percent.

‘Clear Reluctance’

“The RBA’s clear reluctance to ease suggests that unless the inflation figures for the third quarter are very weak, the dollar strengthens towards 80 U.S. cents and/or GDP slumps, rates are unlikely to be cut again in the coming months,” said Paul Dales, a Sydney-based economist with Capital Economics.

“We think things will be different early next year when underlying inflation is not rising as the RBA expects,” he said. “At that point, rate cuts will come back on the table and the RBA may reduce them to 1 percent.”

The Aussie edged higher at 1:18 p.m. in Sydney, buying

76.57 U.S. cents compared with 76.37 cents before the report.

The RBA noted that a key missing ingredient is corporate investment, though the drag from unwinding resource investment is likely to ease.

“The outlook for non-mining business investment remains subdued in the near term,” the central bank said. “However, the subtraction from GDP growth from lower mining investment looks to have peaked in the 2015/16 financial year.”

Terms of Trade

The RBA predicted the terms of trade, or ratio of export to import prices, will remain close to current levels over the next couple of years. “This is around 35 percent lower than their peak in late 2011, but still well above levels that prevailed prior to the mining boom,” it said.

Australia’s resource industries have benefited from easing in China. The central bank there held benchmark rates unchanged since October and instead injected credit into the economy, while the government -- often by stealth fiscal stimulus -- has poured cash into infrastructure projects to prop up employment.

The RBA said its outlook for coal prices “is slightly more positive than previously thought,” reflecting supply cuts in China and elsewhere. Iron ore prices are expected to fall from current levels as Chinese steel demand is projected to ease over the next few years and total iron ore supply expected to increase.

LNG Projects

Meanwhile, the liquefied natural gas “export profile” has been revised higher to reflect some increase in capacity at LNG projects.

The RBA has faced difficulties with its currency, which has appreciated about 10 percent from a January trough, as the U.S. hesitates on tightening policy and Europe and Japan run negative rates and bond-buying programs. Australia’s key service sectors of tourism and education are among the most sensitive to the exchange rate. It’s predicting net services exports will continue to grow.

The RBA’s low-rates policy has had some successes: rising house prices have fueled a residential construction boom.

The substantial amount of building work “in the pipeline increased a little further in the March quarter, and it is sufficient to underpin dwelling investment growth for the next year or so.”

But the bank reiterated its warning about over-supply in parts of inner-city Melbourne and Brisbane. If housing demand doesn’t continue “it could place downward pressure on prices and rents and increase the risk that off-the-plan purchases fail to settle.” It noted that consumer inflation could also be affected as housing costs “comprise a significant share of the CPI basket.”

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