Banks slash mortgage rates after OCR cut

Photo / Herald on Sunday
Photo / Herald on Sunday

All the major banks today moved to slash interest rates after the Reserve Bank said it was cutting the Official Cash rate by 50 basis points to 2.5 per cent following last month's devastating earthquake.

Many fixed and floating rates were already cut last week.

Westpac today said it was reducing floating mortgage rates for retail and business customers by 0.5 of a percentage point. That would see its Everyday floating rate at 5.6 percent and its floating rate at 6.24 percent.

ASB said it was it was reducing its variable lending rate to 5.75 per cent, and was also lowering on call savings account interest rates.

ASB chief executive customers, markets and products Catherine McGrath said it was hoped that by dropping the variable lending rate it could help the Reserve Bank alleviate new financial pressures confronting many New Zealanders.

BNZ said it was reducing its variable housing rates by 50 basis points and its six-month fixed rate by 45 basis points.

It dropped its standard variable rate to 5.99 percent.

BNZ treasurer Tim Main said that since the global financial crisis, the average cost of bank funding, particularly deposits and term wholesale funding, had been continually rising.

Regulatory changes were requiring all banks to hold more expensive, but more stable forms of funding. BNZ would need to take account of those costs when adjusting lending rates in the future, Mr Main said.

"For now however, rebuilding Christchurch and supporting confidence more broadly in the economy is extremely important, and BNZ has no hesitation in passing on today's rate cut by the Reserve Bank."

Kiwibank cut its floating interest rates by 0.5 of a percentage point to 5.65 percent, while National Bank and ANZ responded to the cut by dropping their variable rates to 5.74 per cent.

Two other banks, HSBC and SBS, also moved to cut their rates today.
Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard termed the cut to the Official Cash Rate an "insurance measure" to stave off a severe downturn in the wake of the 6.3 magnitude Christchurch earthquake.

"We have acted pre-emptively in reducing the OCR to lessen the economic impact of the earthquake and to guard against the risk of this impact becoming especially severe," Bollard told reporters in Wellington.

"While it is difficult to know exactly how large or long-lasting these effects will be, it is clear that economic activity, most certainly in Christchurch but also nationwide, will be negatively impacted."

The statement confirms the widespread anticipation of a cut to stem the blow to economic confidence after last month's quake, which killed at least 166 people and wreaked some $15 billion worth of damage. About $9 billion of that is assumed to be on residential property, with commercial property and public infrastructure assets costing $3 billion each.

ASB chief economist Nick Tuffley said it was unlikely the Reserve Bank would cut the rate further in the short term.

The timing of future OCR increases would be closely influenced by the timing of Christchurch reconstruction along with signs of broader economic recovery, he said.

"We judge the RBNZ will be on hold until March 2012," Tuffley said.

ANZ economist Mark Smith said he is anticipating the first rate hike to come as early as December.

This was based on the view that inflation would prove less benign than what the Reserve Bank had projected, and that reconstruction efforts will begin by the end of quarter three, he said.

Today's statement suggests official interest rates will rise steeply next year, as reconstruction takes hold in Christchurch, with economic growth seen peaking at close 6 per cent in 2013. The bank expects the high proportion of floating rate mortgage lending to mean today's cut will create a swift improvement, while making a reversal quicker in a year or so.

Prime Minister John Key stepped on constitutional niceties last week when he told Bloomberg he expected a rate cut and would welcome such a move, while major lenders had already pre-empted a reduction in the OCR, shaving half a percentage point from their one-year mortgage rates before today's announcement.

Bollard had to weigh up whether the impact of the quake was so great as to warrant a cut that wasn't focused solely on price targets, and would have the effect of shoring up business confidence.

The quake is expected to push up prices as resources are mobilised to rebuild Christchurch, and it would be inappropriate for stimulatory rates during the rebuild, the statement said.

Earlier this week, the Treasury said there were inflationary pressures throughout the global economy, and the Christchurch reconstruction was so large it would inevitably have an impact on inflation. The faster the rebuild, the greater the pressure on prices, it said.

The central bank expects inflation will come back within its target band of between 1 per cent and 3 per cent once the effects of last year's hike in consumption tax flow through, and forecasts 4.4 per cent growth in the consumer price index in the March 2011 year, slowing to a pace of 2.1 per cent in 2012 and 2.4 per cent in 2013.

The bank offered uncharacteristically limited economic projections in today's statement as it struggled to come to grips with the size and scope of the quake. "Readers should view the forecasts as a thematic representation of the thinking behind the policy decision, rather than a strict prediction of the future," it said. Full projections will be included in the June MPS.

Bollard pushed out the expected track of rate hikes even further, having already trimmed the forecast. The 90-day bank rate is expected to be 3 per cent in the 2012 March year, 0.7 percentage points lower than forecast in the December statement.

Traders had been betting he would hike the OCR by 50 basis points over the coming 12 months before the quake, and were expecting the rate to be just 7 points higher in a year's time before the release, according to the Overnight Index Swap curve.

The move puts New Zealand at odds with other central banks, which are looking at removing the extraordinary stimulus put in place to cope with the collapse of the global financial system in 2008 and tightening monetary policy.

Bollard stopped tightening monetary policy after two increases in the middle of last year as the economic recovery struggled to take hold, with an unexpected contraction in the third quarter and minimal growth in the second.

The quake has made the prospect of a double-dip recession a reality on the central bank forecasts, with annual growth in the March 2011 year trimmed by 0.8 percentage points to 0.9 per cent. Much of that comes from the quake, which will shave 0.6 percentage points from economic growth in the first quarter, in an economy that was already flat-lining.

The Treasury's expecting economic growth of just 2 per cent this year, down from the 3.5 per cent forecast in the half-year update, but still stronger than the 0.5 per cent predicted by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research.

Before the disaster, there were signs of the economy was picking itself back up, with sentiment surveys showing increasing numbers of firms optimistic about the future, while Fonterra hiked its forecast pay-out to farmers on the day of the quake on the back of record high prices for locally produced commodities.

"The earthquake has dealt the economy a serious blow. Limited information to date quantifying the extent of the earthquake damage suggests around 2 per cent will be knocked off national GDP in 2011 leaving growth at only 1.5 per cent, but surging to 5.1 per cent in 2012 during reconstruction," said Imre Speizer, market strategist at Westpac Bank, in a note before the announcement.

NZ Herald Online / BusinessDesk / NZPA

See the full announcement here.
See the history of OCR changes here.

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