March 6, 2014 9:19 a.m.
SÃO PAULO—Brazil’s central bank said inflation is still a concern, as it signaled that the 10-month-long cycle of rate increases probably isn’t over.
The bank published Thursday the minutes from last week’s monetary policy committee meeting, at which the bank raised its benchmark Selic rate a quarter of a percentage point.
Since April of 2013, the central bank has raised the Selic at eight consecutive policy meetings, from 7.25% to the current level of 10.75%. Last week’s increase was a quarter point, and the previous six increases were a half point.
“The main thing I see is continuing rate increases,” said Guilherme Maia, an economist at Votorantim Corretora in São Paulo. “The central bank changed very little in the minutes [from the previous minutes]. They justified the decision for a smaller rate increase, but they didn’t give any signs they’re going to stop raising rates.”
Mr. Maia said he expects two more quarter-point rate increases this year.
Given the current inflation scenario, further adjustments to monetary policy could be appropriate, the central bank said in the minutes, repeating language from previous minutes. The bank added a comment saying the effects of the eight rate increases on inflation are cumulative and uneven, suggesting policy makers might be close to ending the cycle of rate increases.
The bank is fighting to bring down the inflation rate closer to 4.5%, which is the central point of its target range. Brazil’s mid-month consumer-price index, the IPCA-15, rose 5.65% as measured by the rolling 12-month index, from the 5.63% recorded through mid-January.
The bank is right to be worried about inflation, according to economists. Prices for agricultural commodities produced in Brazil, including soy, sugar, coffee and orange juice, have been rising since the beginning of the year because of a drought that has hurt harvests.
Despite some localized pressures, the outlook is for a moderation in the price of commodities in international markets, according to the central bank’s minutes. But Mr. Maia said commodity prices have recently become a source inflation and the central bank’s policy makers might be too optimistic.
Service prices are another concern. Brazil’s low unemployment rate has been putting pressure on service prices for several years. With joblessness falling to a record low average of 5.4% in 2013 and rising much less than expected in January following the end of holiday hiring, that situation is unlikely to change soon.
“The central bank’s focus right now is inflation and not economic activity,” said Cristiano Oliveira, an economist at Banco Fibra in São Paulo, who expects at least one more quarter-point increase to the Selic this year. “There is still a lot of inflationary pressure on the horizon.”
Government-administered prices for gasoline and electricity are being held steady for the time being but could rise again in coming months.
The government isn’t allowing oil company Petrobras or power utilities to raise their prices because it doesn’t want them to contribute to inflation. Petrobras, which can’t produce enough gasoline at its refineries and has to import the fuel and then sell it below cost in Brazil, has seen its share price hammered because of the losses.
Power companies face an increase in costs because of the drought. The reservoirs behind hydroelectric plants in some parts of the country have much lower water levels than normal and utilities might have to fire up more expensive oil-burning plants to meet demand for electricity.