Egypt inflation at nine-year low raises scope for more rate cuts

A further drop in key interest rates may help stimulate business growth in the country

This picture taken on October 23, 2019 from the Cairo Tower in the centre of the Egyptian capital shows a view of the Nile river flowing through the city between the central downtown (background) and Zamalek districts (foreground).  / AFP / Mohamed el-Shahed

Egypt’s inflation rate slowed to its lowest level in over nine years, offering fresh ammunition for the central bank to move ahead with another rate cute when it meets next week.

Consumer prices in urban parts of the country rose 3.1 per cent in October compared to 4.8 per cent in September, according to the state statistics agency, Capmas. The rate was the lowest since September 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The month-on-month rate accelerated to 1 per cent compared to September. The decline reflected the high base effect from last year as well as a sharp easing in food and beverage prices, which constitute the largest component of the consumer price index.

With the latest slowdown in inflation, the “real interest rate is almost 10 per cent -- one of the highest globally,” said Allen Sandeep, director of research at Naaem Holding in Cairo. That could give the regulator room for a measured rate cut on November 14, but it “remains to be seen if the regulator eases interest rates aggressively as, in our view, the high base factor impacts should last just a few more months.”

Six of seven economists surveyed by Bloomberg before the inflation announcement predicted a cut of 100 basis points at next week’s meeting. The benchmark rate is currently 13.25 per cent.

The easing in the annual inflation rate puts it well within the central bank’s target range of 9 per cent, plus or minus 3 percentage points, by the fourth quarter of 2020. The regulator has cut interest rates by 2.5 percentage points since August.

The slowdown in the rate of annual inflation is one of the central bank’s biggest accomplishments since Egypt embarked on a sweeping IMF-backed economic program in 2016. After the regulator devalued the currency, inflation spiked to over 30 per cent, crimping business activity.

Further rate cuts may help stimulate business activity that’s been relatively muted. But the central bank must also weigh the possible impact of any rate cut on investors in local debt who’ve seen Egypt as an emerging market darling offering some of the best rates on return.

Cairo-based investment bank CI Capital expects inflation to average 7.55 per cent in the 2019-20 fiscal year and 9.55 per cent in the following one. “We continue to see that such low inflation figures should not be the main factor behind interest rate decisions moving forward, and that the CBE needs to slow down the pace of cuts,” economist Noaman Khalid said in emailed comments.

Mr Khalid expects the central bank to hold rates in the next two meetings, “as it needs to assess the impact and sensitivity of the recent rate cuts on overall activity” in order to not exhaust its liquidity instruments and ensure Egypt remains a favorite for the emerging-market carry trade.