Damien Graham, Chief Investments Officer recaps what’s been happening in the market over the first quarter of the 2023/24 financial year, how that builds on what is expected for the rest of the year.
Interest rates, and uncertainty about where they’re heading, was the dominant theme over the quarter. The US economy is continuing to do better than expected, even in the face of previous rate hikes designed to slow it down. Strong performance from the US economy is good news, but it also means that the US Federal Reserve (the US central bank) is likely to keep interest rates ‘higher for longer’.
Higher for longer is now the key message in markets. Inflation is coming down but is remaining ‘sticky’ (not coming down quickly), and when this is combined with stronger than expected economic growth and a tight labour market (low unemployment) it means central banks may not cut rates in the near future, even if we’ve reached the end of the interest rate rises, as many believe.
At home, Governor Lowe presided over his last meeting as Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and new Governor, Michele Bullock left rates unchanged at her first meeting in October. Her statement was very similar to Governor Lowe’s last, which made investors believe she may not deviate substantially from the course he set and maintain a steady outlook.
She said that on the one hand, “some further tightening of monetary policy may be required” (in other words more rate rises could be on the horizon), but on the other hand “data are consistent with inflation returning to the 2-3% target range over the forecast period”. Or in other words, inflation is coming down in line with expectations, so previous hikes are working. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Overall, given how many interest rate hikes we’ve had, and the speed with which they’ve been delivered, Australia’s economic growth has been better than expected.
On the other hand, household budgets are being affected by higher inflation and higher interest rates, particularly on mortgages. Australian households are understandably feeling cautious about their finances, and concerns have been made worse by the higher prices of petrol and electricity (in addition to higher mortgage costs). Spending has started to fall, and consumer confidence remains very low.
In better news, the labour market remains very tight, or in other words unemployment is still very low, although it did rise a bit over the quarter.