The Bank's central forecast for the Australian economy remains for growth to pick up, to average a bit above 3 per cent in 2018 and 2019. This should see some reduction in spare capacity in the economy. Business conditions are positive and non-mining business investment is increasing. Higher levels of public infrastructure investment are also supporting the economy. Stronger growth in exports is expected. One continuing source of uncertainty is the outlook for household consumption, although consumption growth picked up in late 2017. Household income has been growing slowly and debt levels are high.
Employment has grown strongly over the past year, although growth has slowed over recent months. The strong growth in employment has been accompanied by a significant rise in labour force participation, particularly by women and older Australians. The unemployment rate has declined over the past year, but has been steady at around 5½ per cent for some months. The various forward-looking indicators continue to point to solid growth in employment in the period ahead, with a further gradual reduction in the unemployment rate expected. Notwithstanding the improving labour market, wages growth remains low. This is likely to continue for a while yet, although the stronger economy should see some lift in wages growth over time. Consistent with this, the rate of wages growth appears to have troughed and there are reports that some employers are finding it more difficult to hire workers with the necessary skills.
Inflation remains low. The recent inflation data were in line with the Bank's expectations, with both CPI and underlying inflation running marginally below 2 per cent. Inflation is likely to remain low for some time, reflecting low growth in labour costs and strong competition in retailing. A gradual pick-up in inflation is, however, expected as the economy strengthens. The central forecast is for CPI inflation to be a bit above 2 per cent in 2018.
The Australian dollar has depreciated a little recently, but on a trade-weighted basis remains within the range that it has been in over the past two years. An appreciating exchange rate would be expected to result in a slower pick-up in economic activity and inflation than currently forecast.
The housing markets in Sydney and Melbourne have slowed. Nationwide measures of housing prices are little changed over the past six months, with prices having recorded falls in some areas. In the eastern capital cities, a considerable additional supply of apartments is scheduled to come on stream over the next couple of years. APRA's supervisory measures and tighter credit standards have been helpful in containing the build-up of risk in household balance sheets, although the level of household debt remains high.
The low level of interest rates is continuing to support the Australian economy. Further progress in reducing unemployment and having inflation return to target is expected, although this progress is likely to be gradual. Taking account of the available information, the Board judged that holding the stance of monetary policy unchanged at this meeting would be consistent with sustainable growth in the economy and achieving the inflation target over time.