While Australia’s interest rate has remained unchanged since August 2016, around the world it’s a different story, with interest rates rising after a prolonged period of record-low rates. Here’s what it means for Australians.
When several major banks lifted their variable mortgage rates in September 2018, it was big news – as interest rate moves always are in Australia. There was criticism from some quarters about this so-called ‘out of cycle’ rate move, with some not sure why banks would make such a move when the Reserve Bank of Australia has kept the official cash rate steady for more than two years.
But as Ryan Felsman, Senior economist, Commsec explains, there is more than just the cash rate at play when it comes to mortgage rates. Crucially, Australia’s financial system does not exist in a vacuum, what happens overseas can and does affect the interest rates Australian mortgage holders pay. Australian banks source about 40% of their funding from overseas, where interest rates are on the rise.
“We’re in a rising interest rate environment broadly and, as a result of that, we’re seeing those out of cycle variable mortgage rate increases,” he says.
Changing global conditions
Globally, he says the unprecedented period of low interest rates and central bank stimulus that came about as a result of the global financial crisis is finally coming to an end, this is having a significant effect on credit markets.
Central banks in the UK, Canada and many emerging markets have all lifted rates, while the European Union is also reining in a massive stimulus program.
The Fed gets moving
But the major impact on global markets has come from the US, where surging economic growth, low unemployment and benign inflation has seen the Federal Reserve shift into rate hike mode at the same time it’s shutting off its own stimulus. The Fed has lifted rates nine times since the end of 2015, with the Fed Funds Rate now sitting at 2.5% – it’s highest level since April 2008. And there are expected to be several more rate hikes in 2019.
However, Felsman says the Fed’s moves would be shaped by the broader US economy, which is expected to slow a little from here, and inflation, which is expected to remain benign, unless President Trump’s tariff hikes push up prices. “At the end of the day, they aren’t going to have this great big experiment for the past 10 years and then shoot themselves in the foot and lift interest rates too quickly, like they did in 1994, and take the stuffing out of the economy.”
The RBA’s dilemma: to lift or not to lift
Still, any US rate moves will increase funding pressure on Australian banks, who may also have a cash rate hike to deal with this year. CommSec is forecasting a rate hike in November 2019, though Felsman says that would again depend on how the economy, including the housing market, is tracking.
But he says the Reserve Bank would want to lift rates sooner rather than later, given Australia’s economic growth is currently at a robust 3%. “If you don’t lift interest rates now, we’re going to be lifting rates into a weakening environment both domestically and globally,” he says.