Official cash rate

The official cash rate (OCR) is interest rate paid by banks in the overnight money market in Australia and New Zealand. Through the regulated use of exchange settlement accounts, a central bank is able to adjust the interest rates of a nation's economy. The OCR cannot be changed by transactions between financial institutions as this does not change the supply of money, only its location. Only transfers between the central bank and an institution can affect the cash rate.

As banks are made to settle all inter-bank transfers overnight, the central bank can regulate the rate paid for cash by the sale or buy back of bonds and other government issued securities (these are known as domestic market operations). As the sale or purchase of bonds affects the supply of money, then the interest rate will change to reflect its availability. This system indirectly influences the term structure of interest rates in the whole economy. Changes to the official cash rate generally affect the rates on housing and other loans within a matter of days or weeks. Under the Australian system the Reserve Bank of Australia issues its dealing intentions at the start of each day, and banks and other financial institutions will act prior to the actual rate being achieved.

In New Zealand

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) is the interest rate set by the Reserve Bank to meet the inflation target specified in the Policy Targets Agreement. The current PTA, signed in December 2008, defines price stability as annual increases in the Consumers Price Index (CPI) of between 1 and 3 per cent on average over the medium term.

The OCR was introduced in March 1999 and is reviewed eight times a year by the Bank. Monetary Policy Statements are issued with the OCR on four of those occasions. Unscheduled adjustments to the OCR may occur at other times in response to unexpected or sudden developments, but to date this has occurred only once, following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

What the OCR does The OCR influences the price of borrowing money in New Zealand and provides the Reserve Bank with a means of influencing the level of economic activity and inflation. An OCR is a fairly conventional tool by international standards. In the past, the Reserve Bank used a variety of tools to influence inflation, including influencing the supply of money and signalling desired monetary conditions to the financial markets. Such mechanisms were more indirect, more difficult to understand, and less conventional.

How the OCR works Most registered banks hold settlement accounts at the Reserve Bank, which are used to settle obligations with each other at the end of the day. For example, if you write out a cheque or make an EFT-POS payment, the money is paid by your bank to the bank of the recipient. Many hundreds of thousands of such transactions are made every day. The Bank pays interest on settlement account balances, and charges interest on overnight borrowing, at rates related to the OCR. These rates are reviewed from time to time, as is the OCR. The most crucial part of the system is the fact that the Reserve Bank sets no limit on the amount of cash it will borrow or lend at rates related to the OCR.

As a result, market interest rates are generally held around the Reserve Bank’s OCR level. The practical result, over time, is that when market interest rates increase, people are inclined to spend less on goods and services. This is because their savings get a higher rate of interest and there is an incentive to save; and conversely, people with mortgages and other loans may experience higher interest payments.

When people save more or spend less, there is less pressure on prices to rise, and therefore inflation pressures tend to reduce. Although the OCR influences New Zealand’s market interest rates, it is not the only factor doing so. Market interest rates – particularly for longer terms – are also affected by the interest rates prevailing offshore since New Zealand financial institutions are net borrowers in overseas financial markets. Movements in overseas rates can lead to changes in interest rates even if the OCR has not changed.

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