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Economists surprised by Wheeler's hawkish tone

Economists have expressed surprised at the optimistic nature of the latest Official Cash Rate announcement.

Thursday, January 31st 2013, 9:35AM

by Susan Edmunds

As expected, Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler kept the OCR at 2.5% this morning.

But it’s the comments he made about increasing business confidence and construction activity that have some thinking he’s signalling a move in the rate will happen sooner than had been expected.

Wheeler said: “Global growth is set to recover in 2013 with economic indicators improving in many of our trading partners. Consistent with this, global financial market sentiment is positive, contributing to lower bank funding costs and some reduction in interest rates faced by households and firms in New Zealand.”

Dominick Stephens, Westpac chief economist, said Wheeler seemed very bullish about the prospects for economic growth, and interest rates has risen slightly in response. He said Westpac was predicting an OCR increase in December, which was earlier than most other commentators, and this announcement had reaffirmed his opinion.

Wheeler said the Canterbury rebuild was gathering momentum and its impact would be felt more broadly in incomes and domestic demand.

Gareth Kiernan, managing director Infometrics, said Wheeler seemed to be focusing on the depositors coming in to the market and playing down the fact that inflation was below expectations.

ASB economist Jane Turner said Wheeler made the point that the Reserve Bank would be watching the pick-up in house price growth and credit growth more closely over coming months.

Wheeler said: “The Bank does not want to see financial stability or inflation risks accentuated by housing demand getting too far ahead of supply.”

Stephens said that seemed to indicate that he was keener to increase the OCR than had been expected.

Tony Alexander, BNZ's chief economist, said he wasn't convinced that the announcement was signalling any change in rate tactics but said the announcement was notable for its absence of expressions of concern.  "What else can you say when international share markets are going through a bull run?"

The only negatives in Wheeler’s announcement were the acknowledgement that the latest inflation figures were surprisingly subdued, reflecting the high Kiwi dollar, which was undermining profitability in exports and industries in competition with imports. He said the labour market was also weak.

Turner said inflation was still expected to pick up slowly and there would be little motivation for Wheeler to increase the OCR very soon. She still expected the next move to happen in March.

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Westpac predicting rates to rise faster than forecast

In its recently released quarterly economic overview report, Stephens writes that Westpac’s prediction is for 90-day interest rates to rise much faster than either the Reserve Bank or the market expects.

It picks the first move in interest rates to happen in June 2013, when it says the OCR will still be at 2.50%.

By 2014, Westpac expects 90-day rates to be 4%. By comparison, the RBNZ tips them to have barely moved at 2.75% and the swaps market implied pricing puts them even lower, at just over 2.50%.
By 2015, Westpac expects rates to be over 5%.

Stephens’ report said that the Christchurch rebuild would make it hard for New Zealand to avoid substantial inflation.

“The inflation figures suggest that central co-ordination of small to moderate repairs – the bulk of the activity to date – has been effective in limiting construction cost inflation. This is unlikely to remain the case as major repairs and rebuilds take over as the main form of activity.”

He pointed to the fact that new housing in the Canterbury region has already risen roughly 10% over the past year.

Stephens said he expected home loan rates to follow the same trajectory as 90-day rates. They might stay on hold for another year or so but then would have to rise.

“Floating rates may not rise quite as rapidly as 90-day rates because at the moment banks have to pay a higher margin to procure funds from overseas. That pressure might come off.”
But he said it was unrealistic to expect the current historic lows to continue past 2013.

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