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The Reserve Bank of Australia is looking for more clarity on the current state of inflation, having likely accelerated since its last set of forecasts in February.
The central bank left the official cash rate unchanged at a record low 0.1 per cent at Tuesday’s monthly board meeting, but indicated that it is now more concerned about the outlook for inflation.
Economists are now expecting an interest rate rise as early as June.
Annual inflation was already running at 3.5 per cent at the end of last year, but the RBA had previously expected it to edge up to 3.75 per cent by June, holding above its two to three per cent inflation target.
Assistant RBA governor Christopher Kent told a Senate hearing on Wednesday this expected pick-up in inflation was prior to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The war has pushed commodity prices higher, coming alongside supply chain issues impacting manufacturing goods.
There are also potential supply chain issues from China as it struggles to manage a COVID-19 outbreak, while at the same time floods on the Australian east coast have affected food and construction prices.
“There are a lot of moving parts and you have got to take it holistically,” newly promoted deputy RBA governor Michele Bullock told the hearing.
RBA governor Philip Lowe notably dropped the word “patient” in his post-meeting statement on Tuesday, having repeatedly used it in the past in terms of needing to lift interest rates.
He also warned the board will be monitoring the data closely from now on.
Economists expectations for the first rate rise – likely to be a 0.15 per cent increase to 0.25 per cent – are now clustering around the June 7 board meeting.
This would be after the release of the consumer price index for the March quarter on April 27, and the wage price index on May 18 for the same period.
Deutsche Bank Research chief economist Phil O’Donaghoe has brought forward his expectation for the first rate move to June from August and predicts a further three 0.25 per cent increases over the rest of 2022 taking the cash rate to one per cent.
“We pencil in the August, November and December meetings as likely dates for those three subsequent hikes,” he said.
Treasury does not believe government spending in last week’s federal budget will inflame inflation or alter the outlook for interest rates.
The 2022/23 budget papers show the government made $39 billion worth of new spending decisions, which includes an $8.6 billion cost-of-living package.
Luke Yeaman, deputy secretary of Treasury’s macroeconomic group, told senators that given the size of the overall economy, he did not expect this would have a material impact on inflation.
“We don’t believe that level of spending is going to materially change the profile of interest rates,” he told senators on Wednesday.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg tried to soothe the concerns of voters, saying many households are in a position to absorb a rate rise.
“Australians are about 36 months ahead on mortgage payments if you take into account offset accounts,” he told the Nine Network.
“And what the Reserve Bank said yesterday was that household budgets were in a strong position.”
But Dr Lowe also said “rising prices are putting pressure on household budgets and the floods are causing hardship for many communities”.
Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers was unsurprisingly not impressed with the treasurer’s comments.
“If Josh Frydenberg doesn’t understand that interest rate rises will hurt and if he thinks that wages growth is strong enough, then he’s even more horrendously out of touch than we feared,” Dr Chalmers told reporters in Brisbane.