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Is it time for a rate rise pause?

Peter Switzer
5 December 2022

Tomorrow afternoon at 2:30, Dr Phil Lowe faces his Bud Fox moment, where he makes a decision that will define his stint as the most powerful policymaker in the country. At that time, we’ll learn if the cash rate will go from 2.85% to 3.1% (a 0.25% rise stay at 2.85% until at least the first Tuesday in February. You see, there’s no RBA meeting in January and that could mean mortgage-sufferers could get two months off from stressing about interest rate rises eating into their household budgets.

So how likely is it that we could see no change or a pause in the RBA’s rate-rise cycle?

The majority consensus view of economists is tipping a quarter percent rise but there is a minority saying a pause might be timely, after seven months of rises, where the cash rate went from 0.1% to 2.75%.

Building credibility around a possible pause are the minutes from the November meeting. This is how The Australian reported the Suncorp chief economist Paul Brennan’s take on the matter: “More significantly, at its meeting last month the board for the first time signaled a pause in the tightening cycle was one of three possible considerations when it opted for a further 25bps rate increase. The other option was returning to a 50bps rise, although in reality this was highly unlikely.”

Brennan cites falling house prices, the recent drop in inflation, lower demand for credit and a reduced retail reading in October for reasons that Dr Phil and his board could seriously think about a pause.

So why is this a Bud Fox moment for Dr Phil? And what is a Bud Fox moment?

In the movie Wall Street, lead character Bud Fox, played by Charlie Shean, had a lucky meeting with hedge fund buccaneer Gordon Gecko, played by Mike Douglas. As he went into that meeting, Fox knew this was a ‘make it or break it’ event for his career in high finance, and the same applies to Dr Phil.

If he raises again and the economy tanks early in 2023 because of eight rate rises in a very short time, then he will be blamed for misleading people into an interest rate trap with his “rates won’t rise until 2024” comment in 2020 and 2021, as well as creating a recession and bigger-than-expected jobless levels.

It's a hard job running interest rates after a potential Great Depression caused by a pandemic and related lockdowns was averted but Dr Phil and other central bankers are the people charged with and paid to do the job.

Given monetary policy works with a lag, I think it’s time for Dr Phil and his RBA team to wait two months to see if their work is doing the trick. If it shows that the gains on inflation are small by February, he then could slug us with a half-a-percent rise to really scare the pants off over-spenders.

However, if the data says inflation is falling and China is coming out of lockdown, as is being reported today, then there could be some cost falls from a better supply chain that will mean interest rate rises will be less necessary to bring down inflation.

I’m in Dr Phil’s corner, despite his bad 2024 call on rates, but if he screws up this rate rise program, then it will be hard to make excuses for someone on $1 million plus a year to run the RBA and interest rates for our economy.

Pause, Phil, pause!

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