But leaving aside whether individuals gain or lose from higher interest rates, where does the jump in prices leave the economy? How much of a worry has inflation become? Will rates have to rise so high they threaten the recovery? Could we even end up back in recession?
This time last week some business economists were sounding pretty panicky. “The inflation genie is well and truly out of the bottle”, some assured us. Others claimed the economy was “overheating” and, since the Reserve Bank had left it so late to start raising rates, they’d have to rise a long way to get inflation back under control.
But when Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe announced on Tuesday that the official interest rate – aka the “overnight cash rate” – had been increased by 0.25 percentage points to 0.35 per cent, warned that further rises in rates will be needed “over the period ahead”, and explained how he saw the problem and how it could be fixed, many economists seem to have calmed down.
Implicitly, Lowe refuted the claim that the economy was overheating. Even at 5.1 per cent, our inflation rate was lower than the other rich countries’, and our wage growth so far had been much lower.
So the rise in inflation “largely reflects global factors” – that is, not of our making – but “domestic capacity constraints are increasingly playing a role and inflation pressures have broadened, with firms more prepared to pass through cost increases to consumer prices”.
That is, we don’t have as big a problem as that 5 per cent figure could make you think, but the economy’s growing so strongly we could get a problem if we kept interest rates so low.
The truth is that a rise in rates cuts both ways. It’s bad news for people with home loans, but good news for older people living on their savings and for young people saving for a deposit on a home.
Many retailers and other firms have gone for years trying to hold down their costs, including by finding ways to save on labour costs, and avoid passing those costs on to customers, but the rise in their pandemic and Ukraine-related costs – plus the media’s incessant talk of rising prices – has emboldened them to start increasing their own prices.
Now, as Lowe explains, even if petrol and pandemic-related costs don’t fall back down, they won’t keep rising. So in time the inflation rate will fall back of its own accord, provided it doesn’t lead to our firms putting their prices up too high and giving their workers pay rises big enough to fully cover their higher living costs.
If that does happen, the once-only rise in prices coming from abroad gets into the wage-price spiral and the inflation rate stays high.
This is why Lowe has started raising the official interest rate and may keep raising it by 0.25 percentage points every month or so until, by the end of next year, it’s up to maybe 2.5 per cent (which, not by chance, is the mid-point of the Reserve’s 2 to 3 per cent inflation target).
Note that, if 2.5 per cent is roughly equal to the “neutral” interest rate – that is, the rate that’s neither expansionary nor restrictive – this would only involve withdrawing the “extraordinary monetary support” put in place to help us through the pandemic. It would take the Reserve’s foot off the accelerator, not jam on the brakes.
According to Lowe’s estimations, the resulting reduction in mortgagees’ disposable income, plus the likelihood that most workers’ wage rises wouldn’t be sufficient to cover the 5 per cent rise in their living costs, thus reducing their wages in real terms, would limit firms’ ability to raise their prices and so help to get the inflation rate back to the top of the 2 to 3 per cent target range by 2024.
The inflation problem fixed, without crashing the economy. Done at the expense of people with home loans and ordinary workers? Yep. No one said using interest rates to control the economy was particularly fair.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor
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