Could the era of benign inflation that has been unpinning the Reserve Bank’s rate cutting cycle be nearing an end?
That is the key question from today’s consumer inflation data, which posted an unexpectedly high reading of 1.2 per cent in the three months to September.
It is the biggest quarterly inflation rise in a year.
Economists were wrong-footed after many bet that the Australian Bureau of Statistics would print 0.6 per cent in the quarter after a decidedly soft result of 0.4 per cent in June.
While the annualised headline rate of 2.2 per cent is at the bottom end of the Reserve Bank’s two per cent to three percent target band, the mild resurgence of the inflation dragon might be ringing alarm bells in the RBA’s headquarters in Sydney’s Martin Place.
It is now a safe bet that the RBA board will leave the cash rate steady at the 50 year low of 2.5 per cent it next meets on the first Tuesday of November – Melbourne Cup day.
The race that stops the nation has been a key day for rate movements over the past decade with five rate rises, two rate cuts and three “on hold” outcomes.
But the steady economic environment coupled with the outlook for slowing rising inflation is raising expectations that the next move for the RBA could be up.
The RBA will also be quietly monitoring the steady rise in housing prices in Sydney, although a senior official recently described fears of a housing bubble as “excessively alarmist”.
A key indicator of the changing mood is the Australian dollar, which peaked at 97.55 US cents after the quarterly inflation news hit.
The Reserve Bank has cut the cash rate by 2.25 per cent since late 2011 firstly in response to the euro zone debt crisis, which was threatening social and political unrest across the continent.
But then the stubbornly high Australian dollar, which surpassed 110 US cents in July 2011, posed a real and present danger to Australian exporters.
While the RBA has noted in recent months that the dollar has fallen in part because of rate cuts (to below 89 cents in August) cuts to the cash rate can only have limited impact.
At the very least, today’s inflation result gives the RBA board a big reason to access the changing environment.
Any fresh commentary from the RBA governor Glenn Stevens will be scrutinised for signals on if, or when, the rate cutting cycle is exhausted.