Homeowners, economists and even Prime Minister Scott Morrison are on tenterhooks as to whether the strongest inflation print since the introduction of the GST will trigger an RBA interest rate hike next week.
Consumer prices rose by 2.1 per cent to a more-than decade high during the March quarter and were 5.1 per cent higher through the year, easily outstripping the market's expectations ahead of Wednesday morning's drop from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The key question for borrowers and analysts now is whether this is hot enough for Governor Philip Lowe and his board to announce a controversial pre-election interest rate hike on Tuesday.
Market consensus was for an annual CPI figure of 4.6 per cent, but strong price increases for building materials, new houses, petrol, and tertiary education helped blow this figure out of the water.
"Continued shortages of building supplies and labour, heightened freight costs and ongoing strong demand contributed to price rises for newly built dwellings," Head of Prices Statistics at the ABS, Michelle Marquardt, said.
"Fewer grant payments made this quarter from the Federal Government's HomeBuilder program and similar state-based housing construction programs also contributed to the rise.
"The CPI's automotive fuel series reached a record level for the third consecutive quarter, with fuel price rises seen across all three months of the March quarter."
The local sharemarket sharply extended losses from 0.7 per cent to 1.1 per cent immediately after Tuesday's data as nervy investors continue to divide their attention between inflationary fears and policy settings that could stifle company earnings and economic growth.
Wednesday's data will also fray the nerves for people with home loans as well as a Prime Minister campaigning strongly on cost-of-living pressures.
The RBA has held the interest rate at an emergency setting of 0.1 per cent since November 2020 to help keep borrowing costs low and cushion the economy through the coronavirus pandemic.
The interest rate has not been increased since 2010 and was last hiked during an election campaign in 2007, something that was seen as a definitive moment in the defeat of Prime Minister John Howard.
Analysts had been torn on whether the timing federal election would mean the RBA would keep its weapon in the holster.
But an unexpectedly strong increase in consumer prices – stoked by conflict in Ukraine and ongoing supply chains bottlenecks – has prompted the central bank to come around to a view held by analysts and financial markets: rates will need to rise sooner than expected lest prices get out of control.
Some – such as Westpac economist Bill Evans – expect the RBA to lift the rate by an unusually large 40 basis points to 0.5 per cent on Tuesday.
Betashares ETFs senior economist David Bassanese previously excepted the RBA to hold off until June but the price pressures roiling financial markets have changed his mind.
Given heightened global supply chain bottleneck problems, and more aggressive rate hikes expected in the United States, Bassanese now thinks the RBA should and likely will raise interest rates next week by 15bps.
"The case to hike is so obvious it need not feel bound by next month's wage report," he said.
"Indeed, while inflation pressures are building in Australia they remain less acute than in the United States – accordingly we don't need to risk jarring economic sentiment with a 'shock and awe' 40 bps move next month."
Morrison will no doubt be hoping the RBA holds fire.
During a live press conference on Tuesday morning Morrison was asked how his government's one-off cost of living payments will help insulate people from higher prices in the long-term.
"You know how we've been able to manage money and ensure that wherever possible we've been able to put downward pressure on those rising costs of living," he said.
- by Alex Druce, news.com.au