Thanks to the rising cost of housing, inflation is stirring, enough to get the Reserve Bank a little twitchy ahead of next Tuesday’s monthly board meeting.

Annual CPI inflation jumped to 2.9% in the year to March, from a more comforting 2.1% in the 12 months ending December, 2009.

The March quarter figures from the ABS put inflation at the top of the Reserve Bank’s preferred range of 2% to 3% at 2.9% for the year to March, after a 0.9% in the quarter from the December quarter.

And the RBA won’t like the ABS’ comments that housing costs were a major driver in all eight capital cities.

“At the eight capital cities level, the housing group was the highest positive contributor to the quarterly movement driven by rises for electricity. Increases were recorded in all capital cities with the housing group the largest positive contributor in Melbourne, Adelaide and Darwin.

“Over the 12 months to March quarter 2010, the housing group increased 6.1% mainly due to rises in electricity (+18.2%), house purchase (+4.1%), rents (+4.6%) and water and sewerage (+14.0%),” the ABS said.

So a combination of factors have come together to push up housing costs across the board: lazy and greedy state governments boosting utility charges, the Reserve Bank’s rate rises being passed on and the impact of those on rental costs as the number of properties available for renters fell.

According to the Reserve Bank’s preferred measures, inflation eased in the year to March, but jumped in the quarter. Over the 12-month to March the weighted mean inflation rate eased to 3.1% from a revised 3.5% annual rate in the year to December, with the trimmed mean measure down to 3% from 3.2%.

But the quarterly measures saw the weighted mean rise to 0.8% from 0.6% and the trimmed mean rise to 0.8% from 0.5%, in line with the rise in the quarterly CPI from 0.5% in the December three months to 0.9% in March.

The bank knows the cost of living is starting to rise, that’s one of the reasons  we have had five rate rises since last October, including two in a row in February and March, but the bank is targeting inflation now to prevent it becoming a problem next year

If anything, the CPI will make the RBA wonder a bit harder if it should reveal a rate rise next week to shift the cash rate closer to average (as the bank has been suggesting it is doing in recent minutes and post-board statements) a bit faster than previously planned.

The ABS said the most significant price rises this quarter were for automotive fuel (+4.2%), pharmaceuticals (+13.3%), deposit and loan facilities (+3.4%), vegetables (+10.3%), electricity (+5.9%), house purchase (+1.2%) and hospital and medical services (+2.9%).

“The most significant offsetting price falls were for furniture (-4.6%), fruit (-5.7%), domestic holiday travel and accommodation (-2.3%), audio, visual and computing equipment (-5.9%), men’s outerwear (-6.7%) and children’s and infants’ clothing (-9.9%).

“At the all-groups level, the CPI rose in all capital cities this quarter. Melbourne and Perth registered the highest increases with rises of 1.3% and 1.1% respectively, while rises for all other capital cities were in the range of 0.5% to 0.8%.

“The health group recorded the second highest positive contribution with rises in all capital cities ranging from 3.1% in Adelaide to 5.4% in Brisbane. In four capital cities the health group was the highest positive contributor. This was mainly due to increases in pharmaceuticals prices across all capital cities ranging from 11.9% in Perth to 15.4% in Hobart.”

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey