UPDATE 1-Australia c.bank chief rejects market push for early tightening

* Further progress is needed towards inflation goals – Lowe

* Step down in bond purchases does not mean withdrawal of support

* Unemployment must fall to low 4% for inflation to lift

* RBA will keep buying bonds until it sees progress on jobs, inflation

* (Rewrites throughout with RBA Governor’s quotes, adds bullets)

SYDNEY, July 8 (Reuters) – Australia’s top central banker on Thursday sought to drive home the message that a step-down in bond purchases did not represent a withdrawal of support, rejecting views it had embarked on a policy tightening path.

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) on Tuesday announced it would scale back its government bond purchases from September to A$4 billion a week from current A$5 billion, sparking talks of rate rises as early as next year.

In a speech in Sydney on Thursday, Governor Philip Lowe pushed back on market pricing, saying interest rates will remain at current record lows of 0.1% for a long time to come.

He also clarified it was the total stock of bonds purchased, not the flow, that mattered for policy.

“It’s a modest scaling back and it’s reflecting the progress that we’ve made,” Lowe said, referring to recent strength in economic data, particularly solid employment growth.

The RBA, last year, slashed interest rates three times to 0.1% and launched a massive bond buying programme to drive borrowing costs down.

The measures have helped boost jobs growth, consumer spending and housing prices, propelling Australia’s A$2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy out of its first recession in three decades.

Yet more progress was needed, Lowe said.

Unemployment would need to fall further and hold in the low 4% levels from 5.1% now to lift inflation to within the RBA’s 2-3% target band, an outcome not expected until 2024.

“It is not enough for inflation to be forecast in this range. We want to see results before we change interest rates,” Lowe added.

“We’re going to keep buying these bonds until we make more material progress.”

By mid-November, the RBA’s cumulative bond purchases would amount to A$237 billion, or nearly 12% of the country’s annual output.

“This represents a substantial and ongoing degree of support to the Australian economy. The adjustment in the rate of weekly purchases does not change this,” Lowe said.

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