By David Winning

SYDNEY--Australian consumer price inflation remained strong in the latest quarter, illustrating the challenge the country's central bank faces in bringing inflation back to target and adding 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.

The ABS's monthly CPI indicator rose 3.5% in the 12 months to March.

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.

The Australian dollar strengthened against the greenback as investors bet on the RBA staying on hold for longer in the wake of the CPI data. Australian government bonds slumped in response to the strong inflation data, with both 2- and 10-year yields rising after the release.

Westpac on Wednesday scrubbed its call that the central bank would lower interest rates in September, instead seeing a maiden cut in November.

"All told, the data reinforce our conviction that the RBA is unlikely to cut rates before 4Q," said Abhijit Surya, Australia and New Zealand economist at Capital Economics. "If anything, the slew of upside surprise raise the risk that the bank will feel the need to hike rates further."

Write to David Winning at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

04-23-24 2321ET