The Bank Negara Malaysia logo outside the Sasana Kijang Center, which houses the bank's facilities, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Friday, May 13, 2022. Malaysia’s economy grew at a faster-than-expected pace in the first quarter of the year as activity picked up with the easing of virus restrictions. Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg

Malaysia central bank to hold rates at 2.75% in March, reach peak at 3% or higher in Q2

BENGALURU: Malaysia’s central bank will hold its policy interest rate unchanged at 2.75% on Thursday but lift it next quarter to a cyclical peak of at least 3.00%, according to a Reuters poll of economists.

In a surprise decision in January, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) kept its benchmark rate unchanged, citing concerns over downside risks to the economy from 100 basis points of interest rate rises last year aimed at taming inflation, which is still above its target range of 2% to 3%.

Sixteen of 26 economists in the Feb. 28 to March 6 Reuters poll expected BNM to again keep the overnight policy rate unchanged at 2.75% at its March 9 meeting. The other 10 forecast a rise of 25 basis points.

A slight majority, 13 of 22, expected the central bank to raise interest rates to 3.00% or higher by the end of June. By year-end, interest rates would still be 3.00% or higher, according to 15 of 22.

Among respondents who also had more distant forecasts, the median expectation for every quarter of 2024 was 3.00%, implying that the peak would be reached this year.

“Given a moderation in global commodity prices and softer domestic growth momentum amid lingering macro headwinds, we expect BNM to extend its interest rate hike pause at the next monetary policy meeting,” Lee Sue Ann, an economist at UOB, wrote in a research report.

She expected the central bank to lift its policy rate by 25 basis points in May then keep it unchanged at 3.00% for the rest of the year.

No economist in the poll expected a rate cut this year.

BNM’s policy stance has been in line with that of other Asian central banks, such as the Bank of Thailand and the Reserve Bank of India, which have raised interest rates only modestly in this cycle and are expected to hike once more before pausing.

A weaker currency and the resultant higher inflation feeding through expensive imports is a factor pushing BNM to take its policy rate a bit higher. The Malaysian ringgit has lost more than 3% against the dollar since BNM’s January meeting.

“This, together with an expected rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve in its March meeting, supports the case for a rate hike to shore up the currency,” wrote Denise Cheok, an economist at Moody’s Analytics. – Reuters