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Central banks wield weapon of choice in the inflation battle

The use of interest rates by the RBA and other central banks as a means to tackle inflation is a critical economic mechanism, writes adviser David Simon. The importance of monitoring and managing this "silent enemy" cannot be understated.

Inflation, as many would know, refers to the gradual increase in prices over time, decreasing the purchasing power of money. If left unchecked, inflation can significantly erode wealth, destabilise an economy and lead to financial uncertainty.

Central banks worldwide, including the RBA, are essential in managing inflation. Their primary weapon of choice? Interest rates. By adjusting these rates, central banks aim to keep inflation within a target range, fostering sustainable economic growth and safeguarding the value of money.

To understand why interest rates are crucial in this fight, we must first grasp their influence on our economic behaviour. Higher interest rates make borrowing costlier and saving more attractive. This slows down the circulation of money in the economy as people become less inclined to spend and more prone to commit. With reduced demand, the upward pressure on prices weakens, curtailing inflation.

  • On the other hand, if inflation is ignored or poorly managed, the consequences can be grave. A stark example of this is the hyperinflation crisis in Zimbabwe during the late 2000s. With the Zimbabwean economy plagued by increasing prices, its Government resorted to printing money excessively to fund its expenditures rather than the conventional method of interest rates. This created a significant oversupply of money and a lack of confidence in the nation’s economy, leading to prices skyrocketing. At the height of the crisis, inflation rates reached an astronomical 89.7 sextillion per cent per month in November 2008.

    This extreme scenario underscores the significance of vigilant monitoring and managing inflation. It highlights the perils of ignoring inflation or relying on short-term fixes that exacerbate the problem in the long run. In Zimbabwe’s case, the failure to implement effective anti-inflationary measures resulted in a drastic decline in living standards, widespread poverty, and the eventual abandonment of the country’s currency.

    While interest rates are vital for influencing inflation, controlling other factors, such as unemployment, presents a more nuanced challenge. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, an unemployment rate of 4.5 per cent signifies a fully employed economy. Australia’s unemployment rate is at a low of 3.6 per cent, indicating that the economy has more jobs than people to fill them. This labour scarcity weakens talent supply, compelling employers to compete by offering higher wages to attract employees. The consequence is a ripple effect where companies elevate their prices to offset increased labour costs and safeguard their profit margins.

    This unemployment rate also plays a significant role in shaping the housing market. In Australia during the 1990s, employment spiralled from around 6 per cent in 1989 to 11.2 per cent in 1992. Coupled with interest rates as high as 18 per cent, the banks had little option but to sell the assets. The current record per centage unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent is expected to increase to 5.4 per cent sometime in late 2024, which makes it likely for the banks to offer respite because of stable labour market conditions.

    The careful manipulation of interest rates by central banks, like the RBA, is instrumental in controlling inflation. Encouraging or discouraging spending through rate adjustments influences the economic climate and promotes financial stability. However, the adverse effects of ignoring inflation, as exemplified by Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation crisis, underline the necessity of robust economic management.

    In a world where economic conditions continuously change, understanding these fundamental principles is crucial for anyone, from the casual investor to the high-net-wealth individual. We must keep our fingers on the economy’s pulse and be aware of the measures taken to safeguard our wealth against the silent enemy of inflation.

    David Simon

    David Simon is the executive chairman and a principal adviser at Integral Private Wealth.

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