South Africa faces interest rate balancing act on rising inflation and travel bans

South Africa’s inflation rate jumped to the highest level in almost five years in November, underscoring the difficult choice the central bank faces to strike a balance between taming price growth and supporting an economy grappling with the fallout from a fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

Consumer prices rose 5.5% from a year earlier, compared with 5% in October, Statistics South Africa said Wednesday in a statement published on its website. That’s the highest level since March 2017 and matches the median estimate of 14 economists in a Bloomberg survey.

Headline inflation, stoked by record-high fuel prices and rising food costs, has now breached 4.5% – the midpoint of the central bank’s target range at which it prefers to anchor expectations – for seven consecutive months.

The South African Reserve Bank last month raised its benchmark interest rate and signalled further increases. Policymakers may be forced to rethink that strategy as international travel bans imposed after the discovery of the omicron variant in the country risk stalling its economic recovery.

The implied policy rate path of the central bank’s quarterly projection model, which the monetary policy committee uses as a guide, last month indicated one 25-basis point rate increase in each of the next 12 quarters. Governor Lesetja Kganyago has long maintained that the model is a broad policy guide and that future interest-rate decisions will be data-dependent.

Economists predict South Africa will miss the central bank’s economic growth forecast of 5.2% for 2021 after output fell more than expected in the third quarter and more than 90 nations severed air links with the country before its summer holiday season over concerns about omicron.

Forward-rate agreements starting in two months, used to speculate on borrowing costs, signal traders are fully pricing in a quarter-point increase in the repurchase rate in January.

Read: South Africa inflation hits highest point in four years

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South Africa faces interest rate balancing act on rising inflation and travel bans