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Financials

Australia will need 'very significant monetary support' for years - RBA's Lowe

* Cash rate to stay near zero for a long time to come - Lowe

* RBA board wants to see inflation within 2%-3% target range

* RBA forecasts imply inflation may undershoot target for several years

* RBA watching for signs of fall in lending standards amid house price surge

SYDNEY, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Australia will need to maintain “very significant monetary support” for several years, with the cash rate set to stay near zero for “as long as is necessary” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s top central banker said on Wednesday.

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) held its cash rate at a record low 0.1% at its first policy meeting of the year on Tuesday and surprised the market by extending its bond buying programme by another A$100 billion ($76 billion).

In a speech in Canberra on Wednesday, Lowe reiterated interest rates will stay low for quite a while yet even though Australia’s A$2 trillion economy has performed far better than expected after largely controlling its coronavirus outbreak.

“Before increasing the cash rate, the Board wants to see inflation sustainably within the 2% to 3% target range,” said RBA Governor Philip Lowe.

Meeting its goal would require a tighter labour market and stronger wages growth than the RBA has forecast, Lowe said.

“It is difficult to determine exactly when this condition might be met but... we do not expect it to be before 2024, and it is possible that it will be later than this,” Lowe added.

Australia’s worst downturn since the Great Depression, rising unemployment and feeble inflation prompted the RBA to slash the cash rate three times last year and boost its balance sheet from A$180 billion to A$330 billion.

The federal government joined in by unleashing a A$300 billion fiscal spending plan.

The stimulus has ignited a fire in the housing market where prices are at record highs, home loans have surged and approvals to build standalone houses have jumped 55% over the past year.

The resurgence in the property market supports household balance sheets and encourages spending through positive wealth effects, Lowe said, noting higher prices can also encourage further residential construction.

“But as housing prices rise again, we will be monitoring lending standards closely. We would be concerned if there were to be a deterioration in these standards, but there are few signs of this at the moment.” ($1 = 1.3148 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Swati Pandey and Wayne Cole in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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