Welcome to May, and while the weather is cooling the economic and political landscape is heating up. All eyes are on interest rates as the federal election campaign shifts into top gear ahead of the May 21 polling day.
The economic event that overshadowed all others in April was the release of the March quarter Consumer Price Index (CPI), which showed inflation up 2.1% in the quarter and 5.1% on an annual basis. This was the biggest lift in prices since 2001 and well above the Reserve Bank’s target of 2-3%. The biggest increases were for fuel, housing construction, and food as the war in Ukraine pushes up global oil prices and the cost of transporting food and other goods. Most economists now agree that the Reserve will lift official interest rates on Tuesday from their current historic low of 0.1%. The question now is by how much. Any rate rise will be passed through to variable mortgage rates, putting more pressure on household budgets during an election campaign where cost of living is a major theme.
On a positive note, unemployment fell below 4% in March, its lowest since 1974 as the economy continues to recover from COVID-related disruptions. As a result, businesses are more confident, with the NAB business confidence index lifting to a five-month high of 15.8 points in March, well above its long-term average of 5.4 points. Consumers are less confident, with the Westpac-Melbourne Institute consumer sentiment rating down 0.9% in April to a 19-month low of 95.8 points.
The Aussie dollar fell from US75c to around US71c over the month, adding to cost pressures on imported goods. Oil prices eased slightly, with Brent crude down 6% in April but up 48% on the year.