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Cablegate: New Zealand's Reserve Bank Slashes Key Interest Rate

VZCZCXRO2877
RR RUEHAG RUEHCHI RUEHDF RUEHFK RUEHHM RUEHIK RUEHKSO RUEHLZ RUEHNAG
RUEHPB RUEHRN RUEHROV
DE RUEHWL #0357/01 2980214
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 240214Z OCT 08
FM AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5494
INFO RUEHNZ/AMCONSUL AUCKLAND 1768
RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA 5294
RUEHDN/AMCONSUL SYDNEY 0738
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RUEHZU/ASIAN PACIFIC ECONOMIC COOPERATION
RUEHSS/OECD POSTS COLLECTIVE
RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHDC 0259
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEHRC/DEPT OF AGRICULTURE WASHDC
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 WELLINGTON 000357

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/ANP, EAP/EP AND EEB, STATE PASS TO USTR, PACOM FOR
J01E/J2/J233/J5/SJFHQ

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ECON ETRD EFIN APEC PGOV PREL NZ
SUBJECT: NEW ZEALAND'S RESERVE BANK SLASHES KEY INTEREST RATE

Ref A) Wellington 337, B) Wellington 336

WELLINGTON 00000357 001.2 OF 003


1. (U) Summary: New Zealand's Reserve Bank announced on October 23
a cut in the benchmark interest rate by a record 1 percentage point
to 6.5 percent in order to help stimulate the economy and ward off
fears of a global economic downturn. Some economists predict the
rate could drop as low as 4.5 percent by March 2009. The Reserve
Bank believes that a fall in commodity and energy prices, along with
rising fears of global recession, will dampen inflationary pressures
and work to bring inflation within the legally mandated target range
of 1 to 3 percent by the middle of 2009. To further strengthen New
Zealand's financial markets, the Reserve Bank has also announced
that it will now guarantee a cap of NZ$1 million per depositor per
guaranteed financial institution. Meanwhile, ANZ National Bank, the
country's largest bank, is one of the first to report a net profit
despite the turmoil in the international financial markets. End
Summary.

RBNZ Reduces Benchmark Rate to 6.5 Percent
------------------------------------------

2. (U) On October 23rd, New Zealand's Reserve Bank (RBNZ) announced
a drop in its benchmark interest rate (the Official Cash Rate
-"OCR") by a record 1 percentage point from 7.5 percent to 6.5
percent to help ameliorate the effects of the current recession (see
Ref A) and to limit the impact of the international financial crisis
(see Ref B) on consumer confidence. Reserve Bank Governor Alan
Bollard said in announcing the rate reduction, "ongoing financial
market turmoil and a deteriorating outlook for global growth have
played a large role in shaping today's decision." He further said,
"economic activity in New Zealand will be constrained, relative to
the outlook presented in the Bank's September Monetary Policy
Statement, by international developments and New Zealand can
therefore expect to face lower demand for exports and credit is
likely to be less readily available in such an environment consumers
and businesses are likely to be more cautious and curtail spending."
As for the possibility of future interest rate reductions, Bollard
said, "the timing and extent of further OCR reductions will depend
on evidence of actual reductions in domestic cost pressures as well
as how the global financial developments play out."

Predictions of Future Cuts in OCR
---------------------------------

3. (U) ASB chief economist Nick Tuffley expects a further 50 basis
point cut in the OCR in December, followed by cuts of 25 basis
points each in January and March 2009 bringing the OCR to 5.5
percent. UBS New Zealand senior economist Robin Clements expects
the OCR to be cut to 5.75 percent by March 2009 while Stephen
Halmarick, the Australasian co-head of economic and market analysis
at Citigroup, said he now expected the OCR to be cut to 4.5 percent
by next March. The Reserve Bank has never previously cut the OCR by
more than half a percent, or 50 basis points, since its introduction
in March 1999.

RBNZ's Mandate to Target Inflation
----------------------------------

4. (U) Governor Bollard is anticipating the reduction in domestic
spending to be partly offset by the depreciation of the New Zealand
dollar, the falling oil prices and the recent loosening of the GNZ's
fiscal policy to help offset domestic inflationary pressures. He
said, "with weaker short-term growth and sharply lower oil prices we
now expect that annual CPI inflation will return to the target band
of 1 to 3 percent around the middle of 2009." He remains concerned
that domestically generated inflation (particularly in labor costs,
electricity prices and construction costs) will remain stubbornly
high.
5. (U) Inflation in New Zealand recently reached an 18-year high of
5.1 percent, being pushed up primarily by petrol, housing and
electricity costs per the October 21 Consumer Price Index (CPI)
Report (Statistics New Zealand) which announced that for the prior
three months ending September, the CPI was up 1.5% over last quarter
with gas prices as a primary factor. The current CPI increase
follows a rise of 1.6% in the June quarter, which took the annual
inflation rate at that time to 4%. The CPI rise is well above the
RBNZ's target of 1-3% over the medium term. But a sharp decline in
world financial markets, triggering falls in commodity and energy
prices, along with rising fears of global recession, are expected to

WELLINGTON 00000357 002.2 OF 003


help dampen inflationary pressures.
First Reaction to OCR Reduction
-------------------------------

6. (U) Kiwibank and ASB were the first local retail banks to react
to the reduction in the OCR by cutting home mortgage rates.
Kiwibank dropped its variable home loan rate by one percentage
point, bringing the new variable rate to 8.70 percent per annum with
immediate effect for new customers and in two weeks for existing
customers. The one-year mortgage rate has also been cut to 7.99
percent. ASB Bank reduced its fixed lending rates, but is keeping
its variable rate under review. Among its new rates are a 6-month
fixed rate of 7.99 percent, compared with its website-advertised
rate of 9.25 percent, and a 12-month rate of 8.1 percent, compared
with 8.95 percent on the website. The rates are to take effect
October 24.

Measure Taken to Protect NZ's Financial Sector
--------------------------------------------- -

7. (U) On October 22, the New Zealand Treasury released more
details of the government's "Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme," and
said it expects to start announcing approvals for banks beginning
October 28. There was still no move to widen the scheme to cover
wholesale as well as retail banking (see Ref B). There is now a cap
on the size of deposit covered by a guarantee of NZ$1 million per
depositor per guaranteed institution. NZ Treasury has also released
details of fees for the new business done by registered banks and
non-bank deposit takers not already subject to a fee charge.
Critics had said that finance companies and other non-banks got a
free ride under the scheme when it was first announced and the
Reserve Bank moved quickly to announce a fee of 300 basis points per
annum to be charged monthly to non-bank deposit takers that are
rated below BB or are unrated.
8. (U) The Reserve Bank is also investigating options that will
bring forward prudential requirements imposing discipline on
non-bank deposit takers. "The objective of the two-year opt-in
scheme is to ensure ongoing retail depositor confidence in New
Zealand's financial system given the international financial market
turbulence," said Treasury Secretary John Whitehead and Reserve Bank
governor Alan Bollard. The issues relating to coverage of the
scheme were mostly about the boundary between what constitutes
retail and wholesale operations. (Note: Wholesale banking
traditionally includes services by banks to large corporate clients,
real estate developers, international trade/finance businesses, and
institutional customers, e.g., pension funds, government
entities/agencies, insurers, and stockbrokers, as contrasted with
retail banking, which is the provision of banking services to
individuals. End note.). The absence of deposit guarantees for
wholesale operations may keep away or limit foreign deposits coming
into New Zealand banks (and, on which New Zealand banks heavily
rely) and Australian banking regulations also limit the amount
parent banks can lend overseas branches. Therefore, New Zealand
banks may be in a comparatively less advantageous position to
attract foreign money without some wholesale bank guarantees.
9. (U) Finance Minister Cullen has publicly stated that the bank
deposit guarantees should be finalized and functioning before the
date of the election (November 8). If the GNZ goes beyond
guaranteeing retail bank deposits (estimated cost NZ$150 billion) to
include more wholesale banking, the GNZ could be liable for coverage
of up to NZ$300 billion worth of deposits. Cullen is still
reluctant to guarantee all wholesale deposits and said he refuses to
be "stampeded" into urgent action.
10. (U) Not surprisingly, the guarantees for bank deposits has
become an election issue. National Party leader John Key and
deputy Bill English have called for quick moves to extend the
government's proposed deposit guarantees to cover banks'
international borrowing (i.e., extend the guarantees to partial
wholesale coverage). Key said, "the difference between me and
Michael Cullen is I understand the importance of ensuring that the
wholesale scheme is in place under the right terms and conditions."
Cullen accused National Party's leadership of putting big Australian
banks ahead of the national interest saying, "they (National) need
to recognize their responsibility is to the New Zealand taxpayer and
the New Zealand financial system." Cullen would prefer that
Australian parent banks provide the additional guarantee coverage to
their New Zealand branches (rather than the NZ government), which
are limited under current Australian banking regulations.
First Real-World Test of NZ's Financial Market

WELLINGTON 00000357 003.2 OF 003


--------------------------------------------- -

11. (U) ANZ National Bank, the country's largest bank, on October
23 reported a NZ$990 million net profit after tax in the year to
September 30, down from NZ$1.039 billion in the same period last
year. "A year ago none of us really expected the worst financial
market conditions in anyone's working experience in the banking
industry," said chief executive Graham Hodges. The volatility in
the markets meant more customers used institutional bank services
like foreign exchange dealing, which helped the institutional bank
make a $263m profit, up from $215m last year. The bank is
expressing comfort with its position in a world where banks are
collapsing. It is one of only 14 banks with an AA credit rating and
has NZ$8b in liquid assets as of September 30.
12. (SBU) Comment: The RBNZ is gambling that its historic
reduction in the OCR to 6.5 percent will work to bring the economy
out of recession while hoping that external dis-inflationary
pressures will work to offset the effects of the rate reduction.
The RBNZ will monitor closely the country's economic indicators over
the next quarter to ensure that this scheme does not result in
stagflation. End Comment.
MCKEAN

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