Australia central bank warns of sharp slowdown of economy as inflation soars

SYDNEY (REUTERS) – Australia’s central bank on Friday (Aug 5) warned that inflation was heading to three-decade highs, requiring further hikes in interest rates that would slow growth sharply and making it tough to keep the economy on an “even keel”.

In its quarterly statement on monetary policy, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) jacked up its forecasts for inflation, downgraded the outlook for growth and foreshadowed an eventual rise in unemployment.

Yet even with further increases in rates, inflation was not expected to return to the top of its 2 per cent to 3 per cent target range until the end of 2024, pointing to a long period of pain ahead.

The central bank has already raised its cash rate for four months in a row, taking it from an emergency low of 0.1 to a seven-year high of 1.85 per cent and is flagging more to come.

“The board expects to take further steps in the process of normalising monetary conditions over the months ahead, but it is not on a pre-set path,” said RBA governor Philip Lowe.

Markets see rates reaching 3 per cent by Christmas and peaking around 3.3 per cent in April next year.

The hawkish outlook reflects the fact that policymakers have been badly wrong-footed by inflation, which has surged on the back of rising costs for energy, food and construction.

The RBA has had to lift its forecast peak for headline inflation to 7.75 per cent, when as recently as May it had tipped 5.9 per cent.

Core inflation is seen topping out at 6 per cent by the end of this year and then declining only gradually to 3 per cent by late 2024.

Mr Lowe said these high levels risked getting built into wage- and price-setting behaviour, though so far, longer-term inflation expectations had remained anchored to the 2 per cent to 3 per cent range.

Forecasts for economic growth this year were slashed by a full percentage point to 3.25 per cent, while those for 2023 and 2024 were trimmed by around a quarter point to 1.75 per cent.

“A higher cost of living, rising interest rates and declining house prices are expected to weigh on growth and spending,” said Mr Lowe.

After a bumper 2022, house prices are now on the retreat, with Sydney seeing the fastest falls in 40 years.

RBA has also been surprised by the strength of the labour market, which saw unemployment hit a 48-year low of 3.5 per cent in June. The RBA now sees the jobless rate falling to 3.25 per cent by the end of this year, before rising slowly to 4 per cent by late 2024.

Annual wage growth is expected to pick up to 3 per cent this year and 3.6 per cent in 2023, though that would still lag inflation. Wages could grow 3.9 per cent in 2024, which would be the fastest in many years.