By David Winning

SYDNEY--Australian consumer prices rose by 3.6% annually in the latest quarter, illustrating the challenge facing the country's central bank to bring inflation back within its target band and adding to uncertainty around the timing of interest-rate cuts.

The consumer price index rose by 3.6% in the March quarter from a year earlier, meaning the annual inflation rate is now more than half of its peak at the end of 2022, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed. Still, CPI rose by 1.0% on a quarterly basis, accelerating from the 0.6% increase recorded for the three months through December.

Housing and education were again among the main drivers of inflation in the March quarter. "Rents continue to increase at their fastest rate in 15 years," Michelle Marquardt, head of price statistics at the ABS, said on Wednesday.

Central banks around the world are finding the last mile in their battle to tame inflation to be the hardest since they began raising interest rates at an unprecedented clip in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. That challenge has led to a redrawing of expectations around when central banks will start to loosen policy and provide borrowers with relief on debt costs.

In the U.S., stubborn inflation persisted in March, derailing the case for the Federal Reserve to begin reducing interest rates in June. Higher-than-expected CPI rattled asset classes, pushing stocks down on the day that the report was released and driving up bond yields.

Many of the drivers of inflation in the U.S. also confront the Reserve Bank of Australia in its deliberations around when to pivot toward a dovish stance on rates. Global energy prices are higher on geopolitical tensions, which is significant for Australia as a large importer of crude oil.

Still, Australia also faces domestic price pressures in areas such as healthcare and housing that complicate the RBA's efforts to get inflation back into its 2% to 3% target band by the end of next year and muddy the outlook for interest rates.

The next few months are likely to witness such events as a reasonably big rise in the minimum wage of Australian workers and the delivery of generous income tax cuts midyear. These will coincide with a federal budget that is likely to include new spending measures designed to take the pain out of rising living costs.

As a result, economists are divided over whether the RBA will be confident enough that inflation is under control to cut interest rates this year, and some think it will be the last major central bank to loosen policy.

Write to David Winning at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

04-23-24 2206ET