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The year Australia's central bank was dragged into QE fold

During the pandemic, the RBA turned to tools it has never used before

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The RBA sprang into action in March, when it cut the cash rate to 0.25 per cent, set up a lending facility for banks and established a three-year yield target of 0.25 per cent.

Sydney

AS the coronavirus ricocheted from China through South Korea, Iran and Italy in late February, Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) chief Philip Lowe knew his economy would not be spared.

"I thought, gee, if that was happening in three such diverse economies at the same time, this is going to be a global problem," he recounted a couple of weeks ago.

"I remember talking a lot with the treasurer that evening about the potential implications of this and I said: 'This is going to come to Australia and it's going to be a very big deal'."

So it proved. Within a month, Australia was locking down and the RBA was turning to tools it had never used before, as its economy veered towards its first recession in almost 30 years.

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In its final meeting of the year on Tuesday, the RBA kept its key interest rate and three-year yield target at 0.10 per cent. Mr Lowe said the jobless rate was still likely to be around 6 per cent at the end of 2022 - from 7 per cent now - and that the board would keep the size of its A$100 billion (S$98.6 billion) bond purchase programme "under review".

He reiterated that the bank was prepared to do more if needed. The governor heads into 2021 having prepared the ground for the government and households to spend big over the summer months, powering a domestic demand-led recovery.

But in the background is an increasingly worrying relationship breakdown with China, which takes around 35 per cent of Australia's exports.

It has slapped tariffs on goods from Down Under, and is refusing to take calls from ministers in Canberra, while gloating over alleged Australian war crimes.

The RBA cannot do much about those China risks, so engineering a strong domestic economy becomes all the more important.

The RBA sprang into action on March 19, when it cut the cash rate to 0.25 per cent, set up a lending facility for banks and established a three-year yield target of 0.25 per cent.

The yield control was geared to Australia, where most fixed-term borrowing has short horizons, but it also doubled as forward guidance, with the RBA saying rates would not rise for at least three years.

In the weeks that followed, the yield curve quickly fell into line with the RBA's new guidance. The scale of Australia's lockdown brought the government to the fore, too.

It abandoned a planned budget surplus and opened the fiscal spigots to support households and firms through the pandemic.

The RBA also expanded a new lending facility to banks in September - a move it tried to spin as a significant addition to its easing. Then it sat tight in October as the government announced a budget that sent deficit and debt to peacetime records.

In the meantime, a fresh wave of the virus had rocked Melbourne and forced the state of Victoria into a new lockdown. As the virus fog cleared, with the lockdown proving effective in squashing the virus, it was time to act again. In November, the bank cut its cash rate, three-year yield target and bank lending rate to 0.10 per cent and announced a quantitative easing (QE) programme over six months.

The goal was to narrow the spread of Australia's longer-term debt to that of global counterparts and contain a currency that had surged more than 25 per cent.

So it was that in the eight months to November, a one-time rockstar economy that did not do recessions and did not need to buy bonds was now in its deepest slump since the Great Depression, and running yield curve control and QE. BLOOMBERG

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