Australia Raises Key Rate, Reiterates Further Tightening to Come

  • In Business
  • 2022-12-06 03:46:00Z
  • By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Australia's central bank raised its key interest rate for an eighth consecutive month and said it expects to tighten further as policy makers combat the hottest inflation in three decades.

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The Reserve Bank increased its cash rate by a quarter-percentage point to 3.1%, the highest level since November 2012, at its final meeting of 2022. Tuesday's widely anticipated decision brings the RBA's cumulative hikes since May to 3 percentage points, the sharpest annual tightening since 1989.

"The board expects to increase interest rates further over the period ahead, but it is not on a pre-set course," RBA Governor Philip Lowe said in his post-meeting statement. "The size and timing of future interest rate increases will continue to be determined by the incoming data."

The governor's comment on further tightening helped the Aussie dollar strengthen to 67.29 US cents in Sydney, while three year bond yields rose 6 basis points to 3.07%.

Australia has been an early mover in slowing the pace of tightening as the central bank tries to safeguard economic growth while reining in inflation that's forecast to touch 8% this quarter. It was the first developed economy to downshift to quarter-point hikes in October and has signaled a potential pause ahead to assess the impact of increases so far.

In contrast, central banks in Wellington and Washington have tightened by 4 percentage points and 3.75 percentage points respectively in their cycles and signaled a determination to slow consumer prices irrespective of the economic cost.

That explains why in Australia, money markets are pricing in a peak rate of around 3.5% by mid-2023, which is broadly in line with economists' estimates. New Zealand's central bank late last month forecast a terminal rate of 5.5% next year and the Fed is also expected to keep tightening.

'Prices-Wages Spiral'

"Wages growth is continuing to pick up from the low rates of recent years and a further pick-up is expected due to the tight labor market and higher inflation," Lowe said today.

"Given the importance of avoiding a prices-wages spiral, the board will continue to pay close attention" to labor costs and price setting by firms, he said.

Working in Lowe's favor, a monthly inflation indicator last week showed headline prices eased in October to 6.9%, compared with a median estimate of 7.6%. Economists expect data Wednesday will show gross domestic product surged 6.3% last quarter from a year earlier, though much of that reflects a low base effect due to virus lockdowns in 2021.

Still, underlying strength remains in the A$2.2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy, underpinned by large savings built up during the pandemic and low unemployment, even in the face of the rapid rate increases.

There's good news even in the housing market, where the pace of declines eased last month, implying forecasts for an "orderly" slowdown might prove accurate amid weak supply and rapidly-rising immigration.

All that goes to explain why the RBA doesn't see a recession Down Under, though its desire to engineer a soft landing has led to questions about the rate-setting board's commitment to defeating inflation.

Sally Auld, chief investment officer at JBWere Ltd, said last week the central bank was "playing with fire" in its approach to inflation. Her sentiments were echoed by Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd's Felicity Emmett who said the RBA was taking a risk in allowing inflation to remain above the top of its 2-3% target until 2025.

Lowe has acknowledged the path to cooling inflation while preserving employment gains is "narrow," while remaining open to switching back to larger half-point increments if consumer prices see a renewed rise.

Some economists, including at ANZ, reckon the RBA will have to do a lot more tightening than currently envisaged given the inflationary wave sweeping across the globe.

--With assistance from Tomoko Sato and Matthew Burgess.

(Updates with further details, market reaction.)

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