RBNZ on the back foot as inflation rises – but consumers are struggling on a sticky wicket, too, as food costs soar

Reserve Bank “not in a  good  place”, admits  governor.   This  was  the  headline  Radio NZ  News  ran over  a  report of  RBNZ governor Adrian  Orr  speaking  to an International Monetary Fund  seminar.

He  might have  added  that the average  Kiwi consumer  is  “not  in  a  good  place”, either,   when doing the  daily  shopping,  with  food  costs soaring  and  inflation  rising at  a faster  rate  than  it  has  for nearly  30  years.

But isn’t  it  Orr’s  job to  keep  inflation  under  control – or can he pass the buck (as it shrinks in value) to the Monetary Policy Committee?

And whatever happened to the inflation target?

Orr  does  concede that  the  RBNZ  was caught on the back foot,  but argues  that was the same for many other central banks, as a  result of supply chain shocks and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had exacerbated inflation pressures.

Moreover, he  contends the RBNZ had been “reasonably aggressive” in ending its bond-buying programme last year and moving to lift the official cash rate,  and is also balancing risks.

“If you go too fast or too high … you run the risk of having a sharper than needed slow down in economic activity,” Orr said in a recorded interview.

“If you go too slow, it’s inflation expectations that will get away from us and at the moment the balance of risks, as far as the Monetary Policy Committee is concerned, is very much weighted toward constraining those inflation expectations in the medium term to be within the target range.”

How   does  this wash   with average   New Zealanders who  find  the purchasing power of their pay packets shrinking  by the  month?

Independent  economists   were talking at  the  beginning  of  the  year of  the  need  to suppress  the  rising  inflationary  pressures,  and   some  were  arguing  even  before the  Monetary Policy  Committee   met  on  February 23  of the  possibility of  a 50  basis point  rise  in the Official Cash  Rate.

In the  event the  OCR  was  raised only 25  basis points.

Orr  told  the  IMF seminar  that before the pandemic the central bank’s biggest worry had been deflation not inflation, but conceded the RBNZ was now “not in a good place” and the policy direction was clear.

“We need to tighten monetary conditions and that’s what we’ve been about.”

The RBNZ raised its official cash rate (OCR) by 50 basis points to 1.50% last week.

A growing number of analysts believe it will follow that up with a further 50 basis point rise in May, with the prospect the OCR will have been lifted to 3.25% by early next year.

That  will  be  no  delight  to  new  mortgage  holders,  who  will be  facing hefty rises in  their  weekly  outgoings.

The  debate    is  now  focussing  on  whether inflation  will  become  ingrained.

Already  trading  banks are acting, with the BNZ  announcing new higher fixed home loan rates, matching some of the new higher ANZ rates in the   competitive zone in their rate cards.

The BNZ has gone from having some of the lowest big-bank rates in the 12-, 18- and 24-month sector of the market to now having the equal highest.

Its one-year fixed carded rate is up 56 bps to 4.55%; its 18-month is up 55 bps to 4.90%, and its two-year carded rate is up 56 bps to 5.25%. ANZ no longer has those levels of rates on its own, says Interest.co.nz’s  David  Chaston.

Given the speed and relentlessness of recent swap rate hikes, it won’t be long before all the other big banks join them.

Let’s  hope  the  Reserve  Bank  governor  can  make  the  right  calls  from  now  on  in getting inflation under control.

He may  need  the assistance  of  Finance Minister Grant  Robertson in  keeping  a  tight grip on the  fiscal side of the  equation.  Correction – he will need it.

This makes  the 2022/23 Budget  due  out  on May 21 one of the most fiscally  sensitive in  recent  years.

The Monetary Policy Committee – by the way – has six members and is responsible for formulating monetary policy in New Zealand, directed towards the economic objectives of:

  • achieving and maintaining stability in the general level of prices over the medium term; and
  • supporting maximum sustainable employment.

Adrian Orr is one of three internal RBNZ members.  

The Official Cash Rate is the interest rate set by the Reserve Bank to meet the dual mandate, set out in a Remit to the Monetary Policy Committee.

The current Remit, signed in February 2019, defines price stability as annual increases in the Consumers Price Index (CPI) of between 1 and 3% on average over the medium term, with a focus on keeping future average inflation near the 2% target midpoint.

There is no numerical target for supporting maximum sustainable employment.

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