7 Feb 2023

Australia's Reserve Bank lifts interest rates, signals more to come

8:01 pm on 7 February 2023
Office employees walk in front of the Reserve Bank of Australia in Sydney on September 4, 2018. - Weak inflation, sluggish wage growth and high levels of household debt saw Australia's central bank keep interest rates on hold at a record low on September 4. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP)

File pic Photo: AFP or licensors

Australia's central bank raised its cash rate 25 basis points to a decade-high of 3.35 percent and reiterated that further increases would be needed, a more hawkish policy tilt than many had expected.

Wrapping up its February policy meeting, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) also dropped previous guidance that it was not on a pre-set path and forecast inflation would only return to the top of its target range of 2-3 percent by mid-2025.

"The board expects that further increases in interest rates will be needed over the months ahead to ensure that inflation returns to target and that this period of high inflation is only temporary," Governor Philip Lowe said in a statement.

Markets were surprised by the hawkish tone of the RBA which shattered any expectations of an imminent pause to the tightening campaign.

Futures market has priced in a peak rate of 3.9 percent implying at least two more rate hikes in March and April, compared with 3.75 percent before the decision.

"The surprise was not in the decision, but rather the shift in tone and forward guidance in the Governor's Statement," said Gareth Aird, head of Australian economics at CBA, as he updated his call for rates to peak at 3.85 percent after the decision, compared with 3.35 percent previously.

"This change implies that the RBA board has essentially made up their mind and intend to raise the cash rate further over coming months, if the economic data prints in line with their updated forecasts."

Markets had expected a quarter-point move, with some risk of a bigger rise given recent inflation data had surprised on the high side. This was the ninth hike since last May, lifting rates by a total of 325 basis points.

Lowe said core inflation had been higher than expected, with the trimmed mean gauge accelerating to 6.9 percent last quarter from a year ago, above the central bank's previous forecast of 6.5 percent.

High inflation 'very costly'

Inflation is expected to decline to 4.75 percent this year and only slow to around 3 percent by mid-2025, according to the RBA's latest forecasts.

The RBA also expects economic growth to average around 1.5 percent over 2023 and 2024.

The interest rate increases so far - including today's move - will add over $A900 ($NZ987) a month in repayments to the average $A500,000 mortgage, according to RateCity.

House prices fell for the ninth straight month in January, with prices in Sydney and Melbourne down about 10 percent from a year ago.

There were signs that consumers were finally pulling back on spending as cost of living surges and rate increases bit. Australian retail sales recorded the biggest drop in more than two years in December.

The next big test is the December quarter wage growth report later this month, which analysts expect to be robust given the labour market is at its strongest in nearly 50 years.

"High inflation makes life difficult for people and damages the functioning of the economy. And if high inflation were to become entrenched in people's expectations, it would be very costly to reduce later," warned Lowe as he signalled the bank's intention to extend the tightening cycle.


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