Squeezed between inflation and interest rates


The Australian cash rate since 1998 (Reserve Bank of Australia chart)

I just happened to be reading a novel set in the Edwardian era at the same time as the media was going bonkers (again) about the Reserve Bank raising interest rates by 0.25% to 3.6%. In Louis de Bernieres’s* book, The Dust That Falls from Dreams, one of the characters is holding forth about the sudden rise in the bank rate and subsequent collapse of the share market in 1914.

Hamilton McCosh, a daring entrepreneur and investor, is at first delighted when the bank rate goes to 4% because he has ‘a few bob invested here and there’. Then the rate doubles to 8% and quickly rises to 10%.

“Just as I was gleefully rubbing my hands the blighters closed the Stock Exchange”, he tells his pals at the Atheneum, a gentlemen’s club.

This is late July 1914, you gather, a few weeks before World War I broke out. McCosh didn’t know then that the stock market would stay closed for five months. Rather than cause inflation, this financial crisis functioned like the ultimate credit squeeze. Inflation stayed low, well at least until 1915, when it rose rapidly to 12% then to 25% in 1917.

In the pre-war period, De Bernieres’s McCosh is aghast – you can’t get credit anywhere and there’s a rout on the stock market. “What’s Serbia got to do with us?” he complains.

In 2023 you could insert “Ukraine’“and immediately realise that we have seen cycles like this before. In times of war, the supply of money is tested, oil is expensive and hard to source, there is much unemployment, securities can’t be sold and supplies of necessities are dwindling.

The 1914 financial crisis in the City was a liquidity crisis of massive proportion, the likes of which was not seen again until 2007/2008. Amidst much intervention by the government and the Bank of England, the day was ultimately saved.

In De Bernieres’s novel, McCosh regroups and singles out two stocks he thinks will do well – Malacca Rubber and Shell Oil (as he calculates where money will be spent in the war effort).

Self-interest and venality arises quickly whenever a country’s financial welfare is threatened. Survival of the shiftiest is the order of the day.

At this point in time, many of Australia’s mortgage holders must be in a state of anxiety as yet again the goal posts are moved.

Not that the RBA had any option. Monetary policy is under pressure from forces beyond the Reserve Bank’s control. We are not the only country where inflation and interest rates have risen sharply. You can chart the increases in Australia back to the onset of a pandemic in March 2020, then steeply rising since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022.

The impact of Covid is what initially sent the cost of living index soaring. From March 2020, when it was 2.2%. Inflation rose steadily through the Covid years, driven up by stock shortages, the impact of bushfires and floods on production, disruptions to supply chains and the ever-rising cost of fuel.

Inflation reached 7.3% in the September quarter of 2022, about six months after Russia invaded Ukraine. The RBA now thinks inflation may have peaked (at 7.8% in December 2022). But as ABC business reporter Peter Ryan observed, the March quarter figure will be the one to clarify matters when released on April 23. Wherever it rests, Australia’s inflation rate is a long way north of the 2%-3% range promised in 2019.

When inflation rises, central banks almost always use monetary policy to beat it into submission. This week’s interest rate rise – the 10th in a row,   takes the official cash rate to 3.6%.

As Peter Martin observed in a timely piece for The Conversation, Tuesday’s interest rate hike was the culmination of a process that has added $1,080 to the monthly cost of payments on a $600,000 variable mortgage.

Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, calculated this increase ($12,960 per year) by comparing payments on the National Australia Bank’s base variable mortgage rate before the Reserve Bank started its series of hikes in May 2022.

Before the Reserve Bank began raising the cash rate, the base variable rate was 2.19%. It’s about to be 5.49%, pushing up the monthly payment on a $600,000 mortgage from $2,600 to $3,680.

The Reserve Bank acknowledges it is a “painful squeeze”, but hints it might not need to squeeze much harder.

There’s more pain across the ditch. NZStats revealed that the annual inflation rate for 2022 reached 7.2%. Housing and household utilities was the largest contributor to the annual inflation rate. This was due to a 14% hike in the cost of building a house and rentals also rose.

As if to demonstrate its independence from the government of the day, New Zealand’s Reserve Bank pretty much ignored the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle. While all around people were shovelling silt out of their houses, the RBNZ increased the cash rate from 4.25% to 4.75% on February 22. This was a more dramatic increase than seen this week in Australia. But New Zealand is anxious to suppress the spiralling cost of housing. You’d think a country which is over-endowed with pine forests would have this covered, eh?

I guess the new UK prime minister will want to take credit for the drop in inflation recorded in January (8.8%) compared with 9.7% in December 2022. The Bank of England Governor has warned that it may need to raise rates again if inflation re-asserts itself. After 10 successive increases since December 2021, the official rate is at 4%. Meanwhile in the US, the Federal Reserve is flagging higher and faster rates rises (4.75% in February), despite inflation dropping below 7%.

Why does all this matter and who does it matter to? If you are young, working and buying your own home, yet another 0.25% increase in the cash rate wrecks your household budget. Those who borrowed their deposit (from the Bank of Mum and Dad) will be desperate for another pay rise, as inflation eats into the recent 4.5% increase in wages.

As The Guardian reported just last month, almost 25% of borrowers were at risk of mortgage stress as of December 2022. Another 800,000 borrowers face higher repayments as fixed loans end later this year and revert to the variable rate.

Tim Lawless, research director at CoreLogic, says the clear reason for mortgage stress is that interest rates increased faster and earlier than anyone was thinking. (Whatever happened to the notion of buying a modest first home then upgrading as finances permit?Ed.)

“We are expecting that the rate of mortgage stress will push higher into 2023,” Lawless told The Guardian, “partly because of higher interest rates, but also because of the cost of living.”

Theo Chambers, chief executive of Shore Financial added: “People probably borrowed more than they could have today. With borrowing capacities down almost 35% from 12 months ago, these people wouldn’t get approved today.”

As for De Bernieres’s Hamilton McCosh, how is he supposed to earn a living in Edwardian Britain, he fumes, saddled with four children, a truculent wife and two mistresses current (one retired), all of whom have children to feed?

As the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen once said, “Home life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt“.

*author of Captain Corellli’s Mandolin


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