Minutes of the Monetary Policy Meeting of the Reserve Bank Board

Sydney – 3 March 2020

Members Present

Philip Lowe (Governor and Chair), Guy Debelle (Deputy Governor), Mark Barnaba AM, Wendy Craik AM, Ian Harper, Steven Kennedy PSM, Allan Moss AO, Carol Schwartz AO, Catherine Tanna

Others Present

Luci Ellis (Assistant Governor, Economic), Christopher Kent (Assistant Governor, Financial Markets), Andrea Brischetto (Deputy Head, Domestic Markets Department)

Anthony Dickman (Secretary), Ellis Connolly (Deputy Secretary), Alexandra Heath (Head, Economic Analysis Department), Bradley Jones (Head, International Department), Marion Kohler (Head, Domestic Markets Department)

Financial Markets

Members commenced their discussion by noting that, since the previous meeting, it had become increasingly clear that the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) beyond China would cause a major disruption to economic activity around the world. Many countries were imposing travel restrictions and businesses and individuals were electing not to travel. COVID-19 had also been creating considerable uncertainty worldwide, leading to a significant reduction in risk appetites. This uncertainty meant that there was an increasing probability that people would seek to avoid gatherings, including public transport and perhaps workplaces.

These developments were evident in the significant changes in global financial markets outside of China in recent weeks. There had been sharp falls in the prices of risky assets and markets were finding it difficult to price the risks, given their unprecedented nature.

In the advanced economies, equity markets had declined sharply from recent highs, with sectors most exposed to COVID-19 disruptions experiencing particularly large falls. Spreads in corporate bond and money markets had widened, including in Australia, and issuance of corporate debt had slowed in late February after a strong start to the year. However, members noted that while spreads had widened, corporate borrowing costs had not risen much, if at all, because sovereign bond yields had declined to very low levels. In a number of countries, including Australia, sovereign bond yields were at record lows. On the whole, international financial markets were functioning effectively despite the sharp rise in volatility.

Members then turned to a discussion of international policy responses. Following the sharp adjustment to Chinese asset prices after the extended Lunar New Year break, the authorities in China had introduced a range of measures to forestall a tightening in financial conditions. This included monetary and fiscal easing targeted at supporting smaller firms in particular, with policymakers also indicating a willingness to ease policies. These measures had underpinned a stabilisation of onshore equity and credit markets. Elsewhere in the region, some central banks had also eased monetary policy, and modest fiscal measures were being deployed in some countries. Financial market volatility in the region had increased, but conditions had remained orderly.

Central banks in the major advanced economies had acknowledged the uncertainty created by the outbreak of COVID-19. Some had signalled a preparedness to provide further monetary policy accommodation if conditions warranted. Market pricing had moved substantially, suggesting that central banks in the advanced economies were expected to ease monetary policy at upcoming policy meetings. The expectation that central banks in the advanced economies would soon respond with easier policy had contributed to yields on long-term sovereign debt declining to historic lows in many markets.

In foreign exchange markets, the Japanese yen had appreciated as concerns about COVID-19 intensified. Members also noted that the US dollar had appreciated in recent months against most currencies. Regionally, the renminbi had been little changed and exchange rates in emerging Asia had depreciated somewhat, but in the context of broader US dollar strength. Members observed that the Australian dollar was at its lowest level in more than a decade.

Domestically, members noted that issuance of bank debt had slowed recently, but this partly reflected the substantial volume of funding already to hand and the modest growth in bank credit. Bank funding costs had declined a little over the prior month, with a modest widening in spreads more than offset by sharp declines in risk-free rates. The reductions in the cash rate in the previous year had brought bank funding costs to historic lows, with retail deposit rates having fallen further in recent months.

Lending rates were also at historic lows. While standard variable mortgage rates had declined by around 60 basis points since mid 2019, the average rate paid on outstanding variable-rate mortgages had drifted down by an additional 10 basis points beyond that. Members noted that, if the downward drift in average rates paid continued at its recent pace, there would be full pass-through of the previous year's reductions in the cash rate to the average mortgage rate by mid 2020.

Members discussed the factors contributing to this downward drift in average mortgage rates. In particular, ongoing strong competition for new high-quality borrowers had seen new and refinancing borrowers receive lower interest rates than those paid by existing borrowers. Improving transparency would help address this. Some borrowers were also switching from interest-only loans to principal-and-interest loans, which had lower interest rates.

Members observed that the growth in housing credit for owner-occupiers had increased a little over the previous six months or so, but housing credit was growing more slowly than housing loan commitments, consistent with a rise in mortgage payments over this period. Loan commitments to investors had increased modestly over the same period, while housing credit for investors had stopped declining recently.

Market pricing suggested that market participants expected the cash rate target to be cut by 25 basis points at the present meeting, and again by June.

International Economic Conditions

Members commenced their discussion of the global economy by noting that the spread of COVID-19 was expected to affect global growth in 2020 by more than had been factored into the forecasts presented at the previous meeting.

Actions taken by Chinese authorities to limit the spread of COVID-19 had severely restricted economic activity in China in the March quarter and there continued to be significant uncertainty about the size and persistence of this disruption. While industrial output was typically lower in the March quarter because of the Lunar New Year holiday period, production had remained at holiday levels for much longer than usual. Coal consumption by power plants had also remained around the low levels typical of the Lunar New Year period. Members noted that this had not reduced demand for coal imports, which suggested that there had been a significant decline in China's domestic coal production. Iron ore imports also had not been significantly affected. Business conditions in China in February had deteriorated by much more than expected and supplier delivery times had increased sharply, indicating that there had also been disruptions to supply chains. Retail activity and residential property sales had been subdued.

Chinese GDP was expected to rebound later in 2020 as businesses seek to make up lost production and a range of stimulus and tax relief measures from the Chinese Government take effect. Some government measures, including direct support for manufacturers of medical equipment, were intended to support containment efforts, while others, such as assistance to affected small businesses, were designed to reduce the adverse economic spillovers from COVID-19.

Given the disruptions to logistics and other transportation in China, forecasts for global oil demand had been scaled back considerably and oil prices had fallen. This would lead to a decline in headline inflation globally. The prices of other commodities that tend to be responsive to changes in the outlook for global demand, including base metals, had also fallen since the start of 2020. Prices for liquefied natural gas had also declined. Prices of other bulk commodities had been little changed in net terms; iron ore prices had reversed an earlier fall, even as Chinese steel inventories had increased, possibly in anticipation of a pick-up in demand as economic activity rebounded.

Growth in other Asian economies was also expected to be lower in the March quarter than previously thought, reflecting a combination of lower Chinese domestic demand, less Chinese outbound travel and supply chain disruptions. Early indicators of trade activity in the Asian region in February had declined, following a period where trade, industrial production and manufacturing indicators in the more export-oriented economies had stabilised, amid signs of stabilisation in the global electronics cycle. Overall, growth in Australia's major trading partners was expected to be around ½ percentage point lower in 2020 as a result of COVID-19.

In the major advanced economies, GDP data for the December quarter had been weaker than expected for Japan and the euro area, while GDP growth in the United States had been relatively resilient. Even though employment growth had eased over 2019 in the major advanced economies, unemployment rates had continued to edge lower. Prior to any supply disruptions related to COVID-19, industrial production in the euro area had continued to decline, particularly in the auto sector. Members noted that, to date, there had been no reports that supply disruptions were contributing to these declines. Some survey measures of business conditions in the United States and Japan had deteriorated sharply in February, but investment intentions and business sentiment in the United States had been more positive.

Domestic Economic Conditions

Members noted that the December quarter national accounts would be released the day after the meeting. Quarterly GDP growth was expected to have remained moderate, reflecting ongoing weak growth in household consumption and a further decline in dwelling investment. The bushfires over the summer months were expected to have affected growth in both the December quarter 2019 and the March quarter 2020, after which recovery efforts were expected to boost growth.

Members noted that economic activity in the first half of 2020 would be significantly affected by the global response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Services exports (which comprise around 5 per cent of GDP) were expected to decline by around 10 per cent in the March quarter, mainly because of a steep decline in inbound arrivals, including students, particularly from China. This effect alone was expected to lower Australian GDP growth by around ½ percentage point in the March quarter. Tourism and education exports were expected to remain low in the June quarter, before returning to their previous levels over the second half of the year as the Chinese economy recovers and travel resumes. Members observed that this estimate did not include possible effects on domestic activity of supply chain disruptions and public health safety interventions to reduce the likelihood of transmitting COVID-19.

Information from the capital expenditure (capex) survey and preliminary data on non-residential construction work done suggested that both non-mining and mining investment had decreased in the December quarter, led by weakness in building and engineering investment. However, mining firms had continued to expect solid growth in investment over the rest of 2019/20. The capex survey had also reported firms' investment intentions for 2020/21 for the first time. The responses suggested that mining investment would increase strongly, consistent with the most recent set of forecasts and the messages from liaison with businesses, while non-mining investment was expected to remain subdued.

National housing price growth had remained robust in February and most capital cities had experienced at least moderate price increases. The strong growth in housing prices had also encouraged more new residential listings, albeit from very low levels. Turnover had increased, which, by itself, was expected to help support other types of spending. Indicators of activity at the earlier stages of residential building had remained consistent with a turnaround in activity in the second half of 2020, especially for detached dwellings. However, data on residential building work done indicated dwelling investment had decreased again in the December quarter, driven by a further decline in the construction of new dwellings.

Growth in household consumption was expected to have been subdued in the December quarter; retail sales volumes had increased modestly and there had been further declines in motor vehicle sales in the quarter. A few categories of spending that are most correlated with housing activity had picked up in the quarter. The drought had continued to affect food prices and the volume of food sales had declined in the quarter. Members noted that growth in consumption in the first quarter of 2020 could be weaker than expected if the COVID-19 outbreak induced some households to cancel or defer international travel or disrupted supply chains for imported consumer durables. Although there was considerable uncertainty about the size of the net effect on GDP, it was expected to be small based on the available evidence.

Employment had grown by 1.9 per cent over the year to January, which was stronger than growth in the working-age population. However, the unemployment rate had increased to 5.3 per cent, reversing the small decline in the previous month, and the underemployment rate had increased to 8.6 per cent. The unemployment rate had been around 5¼ per cent for most of the preceding year. Members noted that the labour force data could be volatile from month to month and that it was too soon to know if the modest rise in these measures of spare capacity signalled a change in trend. The wage price index confirmed that growth in wages had remained steady at low rates in the December quarter, consistent with information from liaison with businesses, which suggested that wage outcomes had become increasingly concentrated in the 2–3 per cent range. Wages growth had slowed a little in some industries. These data and reports from liaison with businesses suggested that wages growth was unlikely to pick up in the near future.

Considerations for Monetary Policy

In considering the policy decision, members observed that it was becoming increasingly clear that COVID-19 would cause major disruption to economic activity around the world. The outbreak had occurred in the context of a global economy that was gradually emerging from a soft patch in trade and manufacturing activity. However, following the outbreak, growth in output in China and other economies was expected to be significantly lower in the first half of the year, reflecting a combination of lower domestic demand, less travel and supply chain disruptions. The recent outbreaks of COVID-19 outside of China, and intensified efforts to contain its further spread, raised the prospect of a broader and more extended disruption to the global economy. It was too early to tell how persistent these effects would be and at what point economic activity would rebound. In response to the outbreak, policy measures to support growth had been announced in several countries, including China. Inflation remained subdued in most advanced economies, despite low unemployment rates.

Financial markets had been more volatile as market participants assessed the implications of COVID-19, with the prices of many risky assets falling sharply. The uncertainty generated by the outbreak, and an expectation that central banks would respond with easier policy, had resulted in long-term government bond yields falling to historic lows in many countries, including Australia. The Australian dollar had depreciated to be at its lowest level in more than a decade. Australia's financial markets were operating effectively, and the Bank would continue to ensure that the Australian financial system had sufficient liquidity.

The advent of COVID-19 around the world was having a significant effect on the Australian economy, particularly in the education, transport and tourism sectors. The uncertainty associated with the outbreak was also likely to affect household spending and business investment in coming months. As a result, GDP growth in the March quarter was likely to be noticeably weaker than previously expected, and it was difficult to predict how long it would take for the economy to return to more usual levels of activity. Once the disruptions passed, GDP growth was expected to pick up, supported by the low level of interest rates, high levels of spending on infrastructure, the lower exchange rate, stronger investment in the resources sector and recoveries in residential construction and household consumption. The Australian Government had also indicated that it would assist areas of the economy most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Given these developments, members considered how best to respond, noting that even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, progress towards full employment and the inflation target had been expected to be only gradual. The COVID-19 outbreak was expected to delay that progress further.

In discussing a possible monetary policy response, members welcomed indications from the Australian Government that fiscal measures would be taken to support investment, the cash flow of affected businesses and jobs. They also discussed the support that lower interest rates would provide to jobs and economic activity through a lower exchange rate and a boost to aggregate cash flows for households and businesses. Members recognised that the combined monetary and fiscal responses would help the economy deal with the challenges posed by COVID-19.

As part of their deliberations, members considered a number of scenarios, including one where the COVID-19 outbreak would be contained in the very near future and where there would be a rapid recovery in economic activity. In that scenario, the maximum effect of any additional monetary policy stimulus would be felt in the recovery phase, rather than in the short term, when policy support would most be needed. However, this scenario was considered very unlikely, with the more realistic scenario being that the outbreak would have a significant effect on the Australian economy.

Members also discussed the risk that a further reduction in interest rates could encourage additional borrowing at a time when there was already a strong upswing in the housing market. In the current context of heightened uncertainty, that risk was not viewed as particularly high relative to the benefits from lower interest rates.

The Board concluded that it was appropriate to ease monetary policy further in response to the global COVID-19 outbreak to provide additional support to employment and economic activity. Members agreed that it was reasonable to expect that an extended period of low interest rates would be required in Australia to reach full employment and achieve the inflation target. Members also agreed on the importance of monitoring the rapidly changing developments closely in subsequent weeks and maintaining contact to assess the implications of the COVID-19 outbreak for the economy. The Board was prepared to ease monetary policy further to support the Australian economy.

The Decision

The Board decided to lower the cash rate by 25 basis points to 0.5 per cent.