Australia's central bank left interest rates at record lows today, as expected, and sounded less confident that the economy would grow at 3% or more this year.

The new data was another sign that rates will likely remain on hold for months to come. 

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) expects the country's gross domestic product to "grow faster in 2018 than it did in 2017".

The bank entirely removed reference to expectations of "above 3%" growth over the next couple of years. 

The change in rhetoric comes as analysts downgrade forecasts for fourth-quarter GDP, due tomorrow. 

A Reuters poll of analysts last week showed economists expect GDP to have expanded by 0.6% on a quarterly basis and 2.5% on the year in the December quarter. 

However, recent soft indicators have prompted analysts to trim these expectations to rises of around 0.5% and 2.4%, respectively. 

The RBA is one of the less hawkish central banks in the developed world.

The US Federal Reserve is expected to raise rates at least three times this year and the European Central Bank is seen stepping back from its massive asset buying programme soon.

Today's figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed a drop in rural exports and a jump in consumer and oil imports, shaving 0.5 percentage points off gross domestic product (GDP) in the quarter. 

As a result, the country's current account deficit widened to its largest in over a year to $14 billion. 

The RBA acknowledged the slowdown in exports in the fourth quarter, calling it a temporary blip. 

Adding to the dour mood, retail sales for January rose a tepid 0.1% when analysts had looked for a 0.4% gain due to weakness in clothing and department stores. Sales had dipped 0.5% in December.

Consumer spending accounts for around 57% of Australian GDP. 

Australia's brick-and-mortar retailers have been struggling amid cut-throat competition and as relentless price discounts fail to entice customers facing paltry wage growth and mountains of debt.

One bright spot was the surprisingly strong spending by Australia's government, which helped offset the drag from weather-dampened exports. 

The data showed government spending rose 1.7% in the fourth quarter to an inflation-adjusted $83.16 billion lifting potential for growth.