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Wheeler keeps OCR at 2.5%, ready to hike 'as needed'

Wheeler keeps OCR at 2.5%, ready to hike 'as needed'

By Paul McBeth

Dec. 12 (BusinessDesk) – Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler kept the official cash rate at a record-low 2.5 percent, while lifting the projected path for interest rates and saying he’s ready to start hiking “as needed” to keep inflation under control. The kiwi gained on the statement.

“Annual CPI inflation increased to 1.4 percent in the September quarter and inflation pressures are projected to increase,” Wheeler said in a statement. “The bank will increase the OCR as needed to keep future average inflation near the 2 percent target midpoint.”

The momentum in the economic recovery, driven by strong commodity prices, increasing consumer spending and expanding construction is offsetting the impact of a high New Zealand dollar and lower government spending, meaning “it is becoming unnecessary to maintain the current degree of monetary stimulus,” the bank said in the monetary policy statement.

“The bank’s assessment is that, consistent with CPI inflation settling near the 2 percent midpoint of the target range over the medium term, growing demand and inflation pressure should warrant a withdrawal of stimulus beginning in 2014,” the report said.

The New Zealand dollar jumped to 82.72 US cents from 82.37 cents immediately before the statement.

The central bank lifted its forecast track for the 90-day bank bill rate, seen as a proxy for the OCR, by 10 basis points through the projected period, with the rate predicted to increase to 2.7 percent in the March quarter of next year, rising to 3.8 percent by the end of the year, and 4.8 percent by March 2016.

The higher track for the rate was on the view that terms of trade, which reached a 40-year high in the September quarter, and domestic demand were stronger than previously thought, despite a higher currency than projected.

Wheeler has previously indicated he plans to raise rates next year depending on how much the bubbling housing market and growing building activity spill over into lifting inflation, though the pace and scale of tightening may depend on the strength of the currency.

“We expect the RBNZ will repeat the previous messages that the OCR is going up, but not until around April. It will acknowledge that the economy is stronger, but the exchange rate is higher than previously anticipated,” Westpac Banking Corp market strategist Imre Speizer said in a note before the release. “If our expectations prove correct, markets will be disappointed.”

Yesterday, traders were betting Wheeler will lift the key rate 116 basis points over the coming year, according to the Overnight Index Swap curve.

The bank increased its forecast for the annual pace of inflation through the first half of 2014, though sees a slower pace from the September quarter than previously thought as measures of underlying inflation show it’s beginning to pick up.

Wheeler singled out the strong kiwi dollar as offsetting domestic demand, saying “the high exchange rate is a particular headwind for the tradables sector and the bank does not believe it is sustainable in the long run.”

Still, the Reserve Bank expects the currency will remain at a high level by past standards, even if it moderates over the medium term.

The currency has been trading above the central bank’s September projections after the Federal Reserve’s decision to keep printing money at its current pace left the greenback debased, and as Australia’s slowing economy pushed the kiwi to five-year highs against its trans-Tasman counterpart. The accelerating local economic recovery and terms of trade at a 40-year high have added to investor’s appetite for the kiwi.

The currency traded at 77.56 at 5pm in Wellington yesterday, above the 74.3 quarterly average projected by the Reserve Bank, a level it hasn’t tested since early September.

As a means to clamp down on riskier lending fanning the flames in a heating property market, Wheeler imposed restrictions on the level of low-equity lending banks can write to help stifle demand without having to resort to an interest rate hike. Quotable Value figures this week showed property prices rose at an annual pace of 9.2 percent last month.

The bank estimates the restrictions will lower annual house price inflation by between 1 and 4 percentage points, and trim household credit growth by between 1 and 3 percentage points.

Wheeler said the bank is watching the housing market closely, though data to assess the impact of the loan restrictions is limited to date.

While the policy has only been in place since October, the bank this week carved out new housing from the policy after it was convinced that high loan-to-value lending on new builds financed about 12 percent of activity, but just 1 percent of total mortgage lending.

(BusinessDesk)

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