Welcome news from UK Inflation

This morning has brought some good news for hard pressed UK consumers and workers from the Office for National Statistics.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 0.2% in August 2020, down from 1.0% in July…….The all items RPI annual rate is 0.5%, down from 1.6% last month.

As you can see there has been quite a fall which will help for example with real wages (which allow for inflation). After yesterday’s figures which showed us we have been seeing wages falls this is helpful. Although it would appear that someone at the BBC is keen to pay more for everything.

Before the latest figures were published, there had been fears that the UK inflation rate might turn negative, giving rise to what is known as deflation.

Economists fear deflation because falling prices lead to lower consumer spending, as shoppers put off big purchases in the expectation that they will get cheaper still.

They would have had REM on repeat if they had lived through the Industrial Revolution.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (time I had some time alone)

Briefly I thought my work was influencing them as I noted the start of the sentence below but the final bit is pretty woeful.  Mind you if you think that the Industrial Revolution was bad I guess you might also think that inflation is bad for borrowers.

Low inflation is good for consumers and borrowers, but can be bad for savers, as it affects the interest rates set by banks and other financial institutions.

What is happening?

Here is the official explanation.

“The cost of dining out fell significantly in August thanks to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and VAT cut, leading to one of the largest falls in the annual inflation rate in recent years,” said ONS deputy national statistician Jonathan Athow.

“For the first time since records began, air fares fell in August as fewer people travelled abroad on holiday. Meanwhile. the usual clothing price rises seen at this time of year, as autumn ranges hit the shops, also failed to materialise.”

As you can see we have a market effect in travel and also a result of a government policy. It looks as though the latter was pretty successful.

Last month, discounts for more than 100 million meals were claimed through the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

In terms of the inflation data it had this impact.

Falling prices in restaurants and cafes, arising from the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, resulted in the largest downward contribution (0.44 percentage points) to the change in the CPIH 12-month inflation rate between July and August 2020.

As you can see they are desperate to try to push their CPIH measure. We can deduce from that number that the impact on CPI will be a bit over 0.5% via its exclusion of the fantasy imputed rents in CPIH.

If we switch to the RPI we see this.

Catering Annual rate -7.0%, down from +3.4% last month
Never lower since series began in January 1988.

In fact the catering sector reduced the RPI by 0.52%. There was also another significant factor in its fall.

Fares and other travel costs. Annual rate -8.4%, down from +0.9% last month
Never lower since series began in January 1957.

That sector resulted in a 0.33% fall in the index.

Moving onto other detail there are increasing concerns over pork prices after the discovery of a case of swine flu in Germany but so far any price changes have not impacted the UK. Pork prices were in fact 1.3% lower than a year ago with bacon 0.3% higher. I must be buying the wrong sort of tea as I am paying more yet apparently prices are 8.3% lower than a year ago.

Are we sure?

We are still failing to record more than a few prices.

we have collected a weighted total of 86.9% of comparable coverage collected previously (excluding unavailable items).

The next bit is curious as what is still excluded?

As the restrictions caused by the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have been eased, the number of CPIH items that were unavailable to UK consumers in August has reduced to eight……. these account for 1.1% of the CPIH basket by weight

When I checked it was things I should have thought of like football and theatre admission.

The Trend

There is downwards pressure on the goods sector in the short-term.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was negative 0.9% on the year to August 2020, unchanged from June 2020.

This has been reinforced by the fall in the price of oil.

The price for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process displayed negative growth of 5.8% on the year to August 2020, down from negative growth of 5.7% in July 2020…..The largest downward contribution to the annual rate of input inflation was from crude oil.

Owner Occupied Housing

It was hard not to laugh as I read this earlier.

The Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) 12-month inflation rate was 0.5% in August 2020, down from 1.1% in July 2020.

Why? This is because the imputed rents used to keep the number lower have ended up producing a higher number than CPI.This is because they are smoothed are in fact on average from the turn of the year rather than now.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.5% in the 12 months to August 2020, up from 1.4% in the 12 months to July 2020.

Quite a shambles may be building here because Daniel Farey-Jones has been following rent changes in London and here is an example from the last 24 hours.

Bloomsbury 1-bed down 21% to £1,300……….Waterloo 2-bed down 16% to £2,000……..Shoreditch 1-bed down 23% to £1,842.

Here is how this is officially reported.

London private rental prices rose by 1.3% in the 12 months to August 2020.

Whilst Daniel’s figures started as anecdotes he has built up a number of them which suggests there is something going on with rents that is very different to the official data.

Switching to house prices the official series is way behind so here is Acadata on the state of play.

In August, Halifax and Rightmove are showing broadly similar annual rates of price growth of 5.2%
and 4.6% respectively, with Nationwide and e.surv England and Wales reporting lower figures of 3.7%
and 1.5%

Comment

The lower inflation news is welcome but a fair bit of it is temporary as the Eat Out To Help Out scheme is already over. There is a feature in the numbers which is something that has popped up fairly regularly in recent times.

The CPI all goods index annual rate is -0.2%, down from 0.0% last month….The CPI all services index annual rate is 0.6%, down from 2.1% last month.

Goods inflation is lower than services inflation and in this instance went into disinflation.

However I think we are in for a period of price shifts as I note this.

The annual rate for CPI excluding indirect taxes, CPIY, is 1.8%, up from 1.0% last month.

So once the tax cuts end we will see a rally in headline inflation. Some places will need to raise prices but it is also true that others are cutting. For example Battersea Park running track and gym has just cut its monthly membership fee.

My Response to the plan to neuter the UK Retail Price Index inflation measure

A feature of the last 8 years or so has been the increasingly desperate attempts by the UK establishment to scrap and now neuter the Retail Price Index measure of inflation. Why? That is easy as HM Treasury would save a lot of money via paying out less money for inflation linking on benefits and pensions and be able to present higher economic growth (GDP)  figures They have had some success with the latter as replacing the RPI with the CPI in the GDP calculations has raised annual growth estimates by up to 0.5% according to the statistician Dr. Mark Courtney.

Having failed to scrap the RPI some bright spark came up with the idea of keeping the name by changing it so much it would in fact become a cypher or copy of the CPIH inflation measure including the much derided fantasy imputed rents. This “cunning plan” ( Blackadder style) has been backed by the Office of National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authoriity who have danced like puppets on the end of a string held by HM Treasury. In my financial lexicon for these times you will find “independence” defined as independently deciding to agree with those who decide your career path

Let me explain further via my reply.

Response

The saddest part of this enquiry is that we keep going down the same road and now I note that it is apparently only to choose when change should happen rather than if. The reason for that is because since 2012 we keep having enquiries and the official view has kept losing them and/or found itself ignored. The former happened in 2012 when the vote was 10-1 against and the latter happened in 2015 when Paul Johnson recommended the CPIH inflation measure which has been so widely ignored, in spite of the increasingly desperate efforts by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to promote it.

If I kept losing on this scale maybe I too would want to take away the possibility of yet another defeat, but it is no way to run a proper public consultation.

2012

Back in 2012 I wrote to that inflation consultation as follows.

Accordingly making changes on a rushed and ill considered basis as is being proposed in this document will affect many people adversely and lead to a loss of confidence in and credibility of long-term contracts in the UK financial system.

That remains true for many pensioners both present and future and index-linked Gilts, as does this suggestion of mine.

For an investigation to be launched into both RPI and CPI as inflation measures and for there to be no change until BOTH have been thoroughly investigated and debated.

No such investigation has ever taken place and we have ended up in a situation where confidence in work produced by the ONS has been shaken and the UK Statistics Authority has been asleep at the wheel.

2020

A powerful indictment of what has happened in this period was provided by Jill Leyland at the recent Royal Statistical Society webinar on this issue. From the Webinar transcript.

In the 50 years of my working life, I’ve been a user of ONS statistics or, in the past, CSO statistics. And, for most of those years, ONS at its best is a world leader. At its best it is open-minded, has a sense of discovery, it is innovative, it listens, it has expertise. But the RPI saga since 2010 has been a very sorry one. Sometimes ONS has looked like a rabbit in the headlights.

I do hope that there will be a change Not just for all the reasons that Tony Cox and I have mentioned, but because I think the ONS is better than what it has proposed at the moment.

That was some message from a former vice president of the Royal Statistical Society,and fellow of the ONS. In her polite and considered way it is a devastating critique of the last decade which has become a lost decade for inflation measurement as the UK statistics establishment has continued to bash its head not only on the same wall but the same brick.

Are there problems with the RPI?

Jill Leyland also highlighted this.

I believe, and I’m fairly similar to Tony Cox here, that the RPI only has one real flaw. That is the combination of the Carli index with the way that clothing prices are collected. And that could be mended……. Turning back to the one flaw I do see. We are going to have scanner data which will give us a lot more opportunity to use weighted indices and that should come on-stream in the next few years.

So in fact there is only one problem which over the timescale we are looking at can certainly be improved and probably be fixed. Indeed if we look at the evidence provided by Tony Cox of the RPICPI User Group at the same webinar it puts the RPI in a better position than CPI and by implication CPIH.

It is also worth drawing attention to the greater use of weighted information in the RPI when compared to the CPI, which is generally regarded as providing the basis for a more accurate calculation.

In his presentation he showed that the RPI used direct weights for 43% of its composition whilst the CPI only uses it for 32% so it is in fact the RPI which is superior in this area. Indeed Carli is only 27% of the RPI whereas from the official rhetoric you might assume it is pretty much all of it, That, unfortunately has been a feature of ONS work which has been more like propaganda than disinterested and unbiased evidence

RPI Superiority

This comes in the area of owner occupied housing where the RPI wins hands down. It does so without a fight versus the Consumer Price Index or CPI which ignores the whole area, so if it was a boxing match it would be a walkover. In some ways the situation is worse for the CPIH inflation measure as its attempt to apply a fantasy has been exposed as exactly that.

There is a clear problem in assuming owner occupiers pay rent to themselves when they do not. I understand that the report of the 1986 advisory committee concluded that any inflation measure should be generally regarded as relevant to people’s concerns and a fair reflection of their experience. Rental Equivalence fails both tests and there is another problem with it. I’ve been asking about the actual rental figures that have been used and it turns out that they’re weighted back to some extent over the last 16 months,or if you prefer they are smoothed. So, they’re not even the actual rents from that month and are in some respect last year’s.That matters a lot when as happened this week the ONS tells people it has produced inflation figures for July 2020 when in fact a solid portion of the index was not even for 2020.

Those factors were no doubt involved in the way that the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords rejected Rental Equivalence and thereby the CPIH measure itself. After all it is 16.3% of it by weight at the time of writing. My critique above of the methodology also applies to the genuine rent numbers which are another 6.3% of the index. So nearly 23% of the index is in effect based on last year rather than the month declared which is not only misleading but something which brings the whole measure into question.This is reinforced by the fact that the weights themselves have been unstable and therefore uncertain.

Balance

There has not been any and the ONS has produced work which is one-eyed and partial.

Conclusion

The reality is that the RPI is a good measure of inflation which is in many respects SUPERIOR to the officially supported CPI and CPIH. I have described the reasons for this above. This means that the effort to reduce it to a cypher and copy of CPIH is even worse than a mistake as it embarrasses those who make such a case. Thus this consultation should be scrapped and quickly forgotten.

Then we can set about improving the RPI in the way intimated by Jill Leyland and Tony Cox above. In addition we could replace the hidden use of house prices via depreciation with house prices themselves which would be another step forwards.

In the background further work could be done on the Household Costs Index (HCI) and perhaps the ONS could find a way of putting capital costs (yes another official effort to avoid inflation relating to housing) in it. I am a supporter of the concept as for example the idea to include student loans is an advance to match the modern era and reality. But it is not yet ready and may not be for some time.

At the same time the CPIH measure needs to face up to the fact that those who developed this inflation concept in the Euro area have been too embarrassed to put Rental Equivalence in it. Also that the European Central Bank has realised that the underlying CPI measure cannot go on without allowing for owner-occupied housing costs.

Thus it is the CPIH inflation measure which should be put in the recycling bin and if you need someone to do that I volunteer.

Royal Statistical Society

It has been good to see its response be so powerful.

The RSS has today said that it “strongly disagrees” with the Treasury and UK Statistics Authority’s (UKSA) plans for the Retail Prices Index (RPI).

The full reply is on its website.

Weekly Podcast

 

 

UK inflation measurement is a case of lies damned lies and statistics

This morning has brought us up to date with the latest UK inflation data and we ae permitted a wry smile. That is because we have been expecting a rise whereas there was a load of rhetoric and panic elsewhere about deflation ( usually they mean disinflation). The “deflation nutters” keep being wrong but they never seem to be called out on it. The BBC report put it like this.

The rise was a surprise to economists, said Neil Birrell, chief investment officer at money manager Premier Miton. “It’s a bit early to call the return of inflation, but it does show that there is activity in the economy,” he said.

Perhaps they should find some better economists. Also only last night they were reporting on inflation were they not?

Manctopia: Billion Pound Property Boom……..Meet the people living and working in the eye of Manchester’s remarkable housing boom. ( BBC 2 )

Indeed it has been right in front of them as they now operate from Salford so at least they did not have to travel to do their research. Indeed this is how the BBC 5 live business presenter Sean Farrington tweeted the data.

Happy inflation day, by the way. Prices up 1% in 1yr FYI Inflation that everyone talks about came in at 1% (CPI) Inflation the @ONS prefers came in at 1.1% (CPIH) Inflation used for capping rail fares came in at 1.6% (RPI)

Down pointing backhand index

Here’s @ONS‘s view on RPI (tl;dr – it’s rubbish)

At least he bothered to say what the numbers for the Retail Price Index or RPI were and he gets credit for reporting numbers which the economics editor Faisal Islam has ignored but it touched a raw nerve with me and let me explain why below.

You might think with the BBC launching a flagship programme on property that you might mention that the RPI looks to measure housing inflation whereas CPI completely ignores it and CPIH uses fantasy imputed rents that are never paid. For those unaware the RPI includes owner-occupied housing ( it uses house prices via a depreciation component and mortgage costs). Whereas CPI has intended to include them for around 20 years now and been in a perpetual situation of the dog eating its homework. CPIH is based on the view that the truth ( rises in house prices) is inconvenient as they tend to rise too fast so they invented a fantasy where home owners charge themselves rent and use that to get a lower reading. Oh and the rents themselves are not July’s rent they are based on rents over the past 16 months or so because the series needs to be “smoothed” as it is so unreliable. I would say you really could not make it up but of course they have!

Where I agree is on the bits he goes onto which is the way that RPI is used for rail fares ( and student loans) which is a case of cherry-picking as we find ourselves paying the higher RPI but only receiving the lower CPI.

Today’s Numbers

The rises noted above were driven by several factors but one will be no surprise.

prices at the pump have started to increase as movement restrictions eased. Between June and July 2020,
petrol prices rose by 4.9 pence per litre, to stand at 111.4 pence per litre, and diesel prices rose by 4.0 pence per litre, to stand at 116.7 pence per litre. In comparison, between June and July 2019, petrol and diesel prices fell by 0.9 and 2.3 pence per litre.

I doubt anyone except the economists referred to above will have been surprised by that as negative oil price futures have been replaced by ones above US $40. Also there was this.

As government travel restrictions were eased, there were upward contributions from coach and sea fares, where prices rose between June and July 2020 by more than a year ago.

I have pulled those numbers out because this is going to be a complex and difficult area going forwards. Why? Well I was passed by several London buses yesterday and the all had “only 30 passengers” on the side so in future there is going to be a lot less output and higher inflation in that sector. Not easy to measure as the inflation will likely be in higher subsidies rather than bus,coach or rail fares. I am reminded at this point that the GDP data showed National Rail use at a mere 6%. That will have improved in July but even if we get to 50% we have a lot of inflation hidden there.

Another reason for the fall was that the summer clothing sales have been less evident so far.

Clothing and footwear, where prices overall fell by 0.7% between June and July 2020, compared with a fall of 2.9% between the same months in 2019.

Actually clothes for kids saw a price rise, do parents have any thoughts on what is going on?

prices for children’s clothes rose by 0.1% between June and July 2020 but fell by 2.6% between June and July 2019, with the stand out movements coming from clothes for children aged under four years old and from T-shirts for older boys.

There was bad news for smokers and drinkers too.

Alcoholic beverages and tobacco, where overall prices across a range of spirits increased by 0.6% between June and July 2020, but fell by 1.4% in 2019.

On the other side there was some good news.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages, with food prices falling by 0.3% this year, compared
with a rise of 0.1% a year ago

What is coming next?

Perhaps rather similar numbers.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was negative 0.9% on the year to July 2020, unchanged from June 2020.

There is ongoing upwards pressure but it is also true that the stronger UK Pound £ ( US $1.32 as I type this ) is offsetting it.

Comment

Let me explain how we should measure inflation and the problems in the current approach. The text books say it is a continuous rise in prices which does not help much as even the actively traded oil price struggles to do that. So we measure price changes and we should do this.

  1. Measure as many as we can to represent as best we can the impact of price rises on the ordinary consumer. The use of consumer is important as it prevents a swerve I shall explain in a moment.
  2. Use mathematical formula(e) that works as best as possible and head towards using direct weights as much as we can.
  3. Do not make numbers up that do not exist ( Yes the made up fantasy rents in the officially approved CPIH I am looking at you).

The use of consumer matters because if we stay with housing costs we see Phillip Lane of the ECB recently estimate them as a third of consumer spending which is similar to the US CPI shelter measure. Yet if we use the officially approved word consumption then house price changes are an asset and go in it 0%. Do you see the problem? It is one that fantasy rents that are never paid make worse and not better and is why I spend so much time on this issue.Just for clarity rents for those who pay rent are the right measure although the UK effort at this has so much trouble they smooth it over 16 months to avoid embarrassing themselves too obviously.

Next comes the issue of the maths formula used which are Carli,Jevons and Dutot. Each have strengths and weaknesses and regular readers will have seen Andrew Baldwin and I debate them on here. In a nutshell he prefers Jevons and I Carli although you would also have seen us note that we could sort that sharpish as opposed to the 8 years going nowhere that the official UK bodies have done. The RPI now gets 43% of its data via direct weights and more of this would help to make things better. This was represented at the recent discussion at the Royal Statistical Society.

I believe, and I’m fairly similar to Tony here, that the RPI only has one real flaw. That
is the combination of the Carli index with the way that clothing prices are collected. And that could
be mended………………………Turning back to the one flaw I do see. We are going to have scanner data which will give us a lot
more opportunity to use weighted indices and that should come on-stream in the next few years.  ( Jill Leyland)

I will simply point out that there has been a decade now to sort this out.

I hope that that gives you a picture of a debate that has gone on for a decade and have been dreadfully handled by our official bodies. I will not bore you with the details just simply point out they have lost every consultation so the latest one only involves the timing of changes which have kept being rejected ( by 10 to 1 back in 2012). It is very 1984.

Inflation measurement is not easy and let me give you an example of a problematic area from today’s numbers.

The effect came almost entirely from private dental examinations and non-NHS physiotherapy sessions, where price collectors reported that prices had risen, in part, as companies make their workplace COVID-secure;

Regular readers will know I have a big interest in athletics and sport and as part of that I have been noting reports of physiotherapy being ineffective due to Covid-19 changes. So the service is inferior. That is not easy to measure but we should measure steps backwards as well as forwards. As my dentist is able to inflict pain on me, may I point out that I am sure that is not true of her and the service will be superb…….

Meanwhile the inflation measure in the GDP numbers ( deflator) picked up inflation of 6.2% in the quarter and 7.9% for the year. Now the gap between that and the official consumer inflation measure is something for the UK Statistics Authority to investigate.

 

The fraudsters want to raise the US inflation target

Today brings us a new variation on an old theme. This is the issue of what is the right level for an inflation target and sometimes we go as far as to whether there should be one at all? This begins with something of a fluke or happenstance. This is the reality that inflation targets are usually set at 2% per annum following the lead set by New Zealand back in the day. This has become something of a Holy Grail for central banksters in spite of the fact that it had no theoretical backing as this from the Riksbank of Sweden explains.

There was no relevant academic research from which to draw support; instead, the New Zealand authorities had to launch the new regime more or less as an “experiment” and quite simply see how well it worked in practice.

In fact it was as we see so often a case of trying to fit later theory to earlier practice.

This shows that it does not seem to be until the mid-1990s, i.e. about five years after its introduction in practice, that inflation targeting began to attract any significant interest in the academic research.

Basocally it was from a different world where inflation was higher and they wanted something of an anchor and an achievable objective.

Also there is another swerve as other time the central bankster preference for theory over reality has led to claims that it provides price stability when it does not. Let me illustrate from the European Central Bank or ECB.

 The ECB has defined price stability as a year-on-year increase in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) for the euro area of below 2%.

The truth is in some ways in the “as defined” bit because if we return to the real world it simply isn’t. Also the inflation measure ignores owner-occupied housing an area where we often find inflation. It was relative price stability when inflation was higher but was never updated with the times leaving central bankers aping first world war generals and fighting the previous war.

What about now?

Here is CNBC from earlier this month.

Recent statements from Fed officials and analysis from market veterans and economists point to a move to “average inflation” targeting in which inflation above the central bank’s usual 2% target would be tolerated and even desired.

Actually then CNBC became refreshingly honest.

To achieve that goal, officials would pledge not to raise interest rates until both the inflation and employment targets are hit. With inflation now closer to 1% and the jobless rate higher than it’s been since the Great Depression, the likelihood is that the Fed could need years to hit its targets.

Not fully honest though because we only need to look back to yesterday and the Japanese experience which has gone on for (lost) decades. This theme was added to last week by an Economic Letter from the San Francisco Fed.

Average-inflation targeting is one approach policymakers could use to help address these challenges. Taking into account previous periods of below-target inflation, average-inflation targeting overshoots to bring the average rate back to target over time. If the public perceives it to be credible, average-inflation targeting can help solidify inflation expectations at the 2% inflation target by providing a better inflation anchor and thus maintain space for potential interest rate cuts. It importantly can help lessen the constraint from the effective lower bound in recessions by inducing policymakers to overshoot the inflation target and provide more accommodation in the future.

I have helped out by highlighting the bits which exhibit extreme Ivory Tower style thinking. In general people think inflation is under recorded and would be more sure of this id they knew that housing inflation is either ignored or in the case of the US fantasy rents which are never paid are used to estimate it. It turns into something the Arctic Monkeys dang about.

Fake tales of San Francisco
Echo through the room

Yesterday Bloomberg suggested such a policy was on its way but got itself in something of a mess.

But the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation has consistently fallen short, averaging just 1.4% since the target’s introduction.

The preferred measure PCE ( Personal Consumption Expenditure) was chosen because it gives a lower reading than the more commonly known CPI in the US. This is a familiar tactic by central banksters and if we add in the gap which is often around 0.4% we see things change. Next apparently things move in response to what the Fed is thinking as opposed to the interest-rate cuts, bond buying and credit easing.

“Rising inflation expectations are, in part, indicative of the market beginning to price in the Fed’s shift,” said Bill Merz, senior portfolio strategist and head of fixed-income research at U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Minneapolis.

Rising inflation expectations are presented as a good thing whereas back in the real world the old concept of “sticky wages” is back and in more than a few cases involves wage cuts.

Comment

There is an air of unreality about this which is extreme even for the Ivory Towers of economic theory. After all the last decade has given them everything they could dream of in terms of zero and sometimes negative interest-rates and bond buying on a scale they could not have even dreamt of. If we go back a decade they believed it would work and by that I mean hit the 2% inflation target and rescue the economy. But they have turned out to be the equivalent of snake-oil sales(wo)man where the next bottle will always cure you and even has “Drink Me” written on it in big friendly letters.

But it did not work and even worse like a poor general they left a flank open which is that by having no exit strategy they were exposed to any future downturn. So the Covid pandemic was unlucky in severity but not the event itself as something was always going to come along. To my mind the policy failure has been that central banksters got caught up in the here and now and forgot they had defined a fair bit of inflation away. So they did not realise the  real choice was to lower the target to 1.5% or 1% or to put in a measure of housing inflation that represents inflation reality rather than a non-existent fantasy.

Take a ride in the sky, on our ship fantasii
All your dreams will come true, right away ( Earth Wind & Fire)

Thus they have ended up on a road to nowhere where in their land of confusion they have ended up financing government deficits. This rather than inflation targeting is the new role. Next up they look to support the economy but the truth is that we see another area where they have seen failure. Keynes explained that well I think in that you can shift expectations or trick people for a while but in the end Kelis was right.

Seen it in your one to many times
Said you might trick me once
I won’t let you trick me twice.

So whether they end up targeting average inflation or simply raise the target does not matter in the way it once did. The real issue now is getting politicians weaned off central banks financing their deficits for them. Good luck with that…….

The Investing Channel

UK Inflation Problems are not helped by the official attempts to mislead us

Today brings the UK inflation situation situation into focus. Or rather the official attempt to measure it which has more than a few problems in a virus pandemic.  To that we can add the fact that the Office for National Statistics has spent several years attempting to mislead about inflation with its use of fantasy Imputed Rents which are never paid outside its Ivory Tower. For now let us look at the measure used and targeted by the Bank of England

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 0.6% in June 2020, up from 0.5% in May.

This gives us two perspectives. The most sensible one would be one of relief that in a time of trouble for economies at least inflation is not adding to it. Some of you will recall the “Misery Index” where the inflation rate was added to the unemployment rate. At least inflation is not contributing much to the misery being provided by unemployment right now. It will also help real wages.

The other perspective is the central banker one where low inflation is a bad idea as they pursue their Holy Grail of it being 2 percent per annum. So the Bank of England will see the number as a justification for all its monetary easing which it is adding to with its weekly dose of £6.9 billion buying of UK bonds or Gilts. They ignore the reality that this would make people worse off via lower real wage growth and frankly right now they would be causing real wage falls. Furthermore their policies raise the asset prices the inflation number are set up to ignore. The CPI measure ignores owner – occupied housing and has taken longer than it took to put a man on the moon to do nothing about that.

Causes

The monthly ebbs and flows are shown below.

The largest contribution to the CPIH 12-month inflation rate in June 2020 came from recreation and culture (0.32 percentage points).
Rising prices for games and clothing resulted in the largest upward contributions to the change in the CPIH 12-month inflation rate between May and June 2020.
Falling prices for food resulted in a partially offsetting downward contribution to the change.

The lower prices for food will be welcome as we also note two problem areas.Computer games and clothing are longstanding issues due to the role of fashion in their sectors.  A game which people are rushing to pay £60 for might go out of fashion and then be cut to £30. Objectively it is the same game but subjectively it is not  and in that gap is a world of problems for inflation measurement. Fashion clothing was the orginator of the official campaign against the Retail Price Index or RPI but as so often when the answer is inconvenient nothing happens or if you prefer we have seen another form of a lost decade. We could as the statistician Simon Briscoe suggested suspend fashion clothing for a while because as he pointed out it is about 0.2% of the index whereas owner – occupied housing is officially 17%. So it is revealing that you cannot ignore a small factor but a large one is just fine. I will leave readers to figure out for themselves what the impact on inflation would be.

Measurement Problems

These are ongoing.

As a result of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we identified 67 CPIH items that were unavailable to UK consumers in June, as detailed in Table 58 of the Consumer price inflation dataset; these account for 13.5% of the CPIH basket by weight and made a downward contribution of 0.02 percentage points to the change in the CPIH 12-month rate; the number of unavailable items is down from 74 in May and 90 in April; for June, we have collected a weighted total of 84.0% (excluding unavailable items) of the number of price quotes collected for February (the most recent “normal” collection).

So we are missing a fair bit of the data and this is worse for e CPI measure as it ignores owner- occupied housing so it rises to around 20 percent for it. You may note apparently we cannot exclude fashion clothing for a while but can produce numbers excluding factors one hundred times larger. Indeed we can produce clothing numbers when department stores are shut.

The Trend

We get a guide to the direction of travel from the producer price series.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was negative 0.8% on the year to June 2020, up from a negative 1.2% in May 2020.

The price for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process showed negative growth of 6.4% on the year to June 2020, up from negative growth of 9.4% in May 2020.

So we see that the downward push on prices is fading and there is another factor.

Prices for both petroleum products and crude oil have increased on the month as lockdown and travel restrictions have eased and global demand has picked up; the monthly rate for petroleum products is the highest since May 2018 whilst crude oil has seen the largest monthly increase since PPI records began; the annual growth rates have picked up partly because of a base effect as crude oil prices rose sharply between May and June 2020 but fell sharply the same time last year.

The problem here is that we recorded inflation falls from lower oil prices when the use of oil had fallen quite sharply. I used my car for the first time in a while two weeks ago. for example. This issue is a very large one for the producer price series because is we add energy to the UK Pound we have about three-quarters of the usual changes. So we have mostly been measuring changes in products which have fallen sharply in use. Awkward but I guess I will be the only person pointing this out.

Also there are to be “improvements” in line with international standards as we switch from net to gross. You will not be surprised to see the impact.

 For the net output PPI, the annual growth fell to negative 0.8% in June 2020, up from negative 1.2% in May 2020. For the gross output excluding duty PPI, the annual growth in June 2020 was negative 3.3%, up from negative 4.4% in May 2020.

I am thinking of offering a prize for anyone who spots an international standard that raises the inflation rate. I would offer a bottle of wine but fear it will have gone off before any claims.

Comment

Let me now bring in the other measures of inflation.

The all items CPIH annual rate is 0.8%, up from 0.7% in May………….The all items RPI annual rate is 1.1%, up from 1.0% last month. The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is
1.3%, unchanged from last month.

The new headline measure CPIH which includes fantasy imputed rents is one which the Office for National Statistics is pushing hard. Fortunately it is being widely ignored and that is before people are aware that the rents are for the last 16 months not for June.

Moving to the RPI there has been quite a campaign to discredit it. This is based on its use of house prices via a depreciation measure and the clothing issue I pointed put earlier. However there are those who argue that clothing inflation has been under recorded since this issue began which means that the RPI has been right if true. I have seen many examples of people thinking inflation is higher than the official series and there are genuine reasons to support that. There is the problem with weights right now and I notice in the US there are suggestions for people to keep diaries and use them which seems worth a go.

But the real issue right now is that not only are the inflation numbers wrong they are adding to an official campaign to mislead via the use of last year’s fantasy Imputed Rents. Let me give you another example from their alternative basket. You all know fuel use has been lower but they think we will not spot this.

This is particularly apparent for motor fuels, which made a negative contribution to the 12-month growth rate of the official series in June 2020. Figure 2 shows that the downward contribution to the 12-month growth rate from motor fuels was even more pronounced for the rescaled basket as it has a higher weight.

 

Do we know where we are going in terms of inflation and house prices?

The credit crunch has posed lots of questions for economic statistics but the Covid-19 epidemic is proving an even harsher episode. Let me illustrate with an example from my home country the UK this morning.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.5%, down from 1.7% in February…….The all items CPI is 108.6, unchanged from last month.

So the March figures as we had been expecting exhibited signs of a a downwards trend. But in terms of an economic signal one of the features required is timeliness and through no fault of those compiling these numbers the world has changed in the meantime. But we do learn some things as we note this.

The CPI all goods index annual rate is 0.6%, down from 1.0% last month…..The CPI all goods index is 105.7, down from 105.8 in February.

The existing world economic slow down was providing disinflationary pressure for goods and we are also able to note that domestic inflationary pressure was higher.

The CPI all services index annual rate is 2.5%, unchanged from last month.

So if it is not too painful to use a football analogy at a time like this the inflation story was one of two halves.

Although as ever the picture is complex as I note this.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.6%, up from 2.5% last month.

Not only has the RPI risen but the gap between it and CPI is back up to 1.1%. Of this some 0.4% relates to the housing market and the way that CPI has somehow managed to forget that owner occupied housing exists for around two decades now. Some episode of amnesia that! Also in a rather curious development the RPI had been lower due to different weighting of products ( partly due to CPI omitting owner-occupied housing) which pretty much washed out this month giving us a 0.3% shift on the month.

Of course the RPI is unpopular with the UK establishment because it gives higher numbers and in truth is much more trusted by the wider population for that reason.

But let me give you an irony for my work from a different release.

UK average house prices increased by 1.1% over the year to February 2020, down from 1.5% in January 2020.

I have argued house prices should be in consumer inflation measures as they are in the RPI albeit via a depreciation system. But we are about to see them fall and if we had trade going on I would be expecting some large falls. Apologies to the central bankers who read my blog if I have just made your heart race. Via this factor we could see the RPI go negative again like it did in 2009 although of course the mortgage rate cuts which also helped back then are pretty much maxxed out now.

If we switch to the widely ignored measure that HM Treasury is so desperately pushing we will see changes here as well.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.4% in the 12 months to March 2020, unchanged since February 2020…..Private rental prices grew by 1.4% in England, 1.2% in Wales and by 0.6% in Scotland in the 12 months to March 2020…..London private rental prices rose by 1.2% in the 12 months to March 2020.

Rises in rents are from the past. I have been told of examples of rents being cut to keep tenants. Of course that is only anecdotal evidence but if we look at the timeliness issue at a time like this it is all we have. Returning to the conceptual issue the whole CPIH and Imputed Rents effort may yet implode as we mull this announcement.

Cancelled

The comparison of private rental measures between the Office for National Statistics and private sector data will be published in the Index of Private Housing Rental Prices bulletin released on 22 April 2020.

Oh well! As Fleetwood Mac would say.

Oil Prices

We can look at a clear disinflationary trend via the inflation data and to be fair our official statisticians are awake.

U.S. crude oil futures turned negative for the first time in history, falling to minus $37.63 a
barrel as traders sold heavily because of rapidly filling storage space at a key delivery point.
Brent crude, the international benchmark, also slumped, but that contract is not as weak
because more storage is available worldwide. The May U.S. WTI contract fell to settle at a
discount of $37.63 a barrel after touching an all-time low of -$40.32 a barrel. Brent was down
to $25.57 a barrel. (uk.reuters.com 19 April 2020)

Actually Brent Crude futures for June are now US $18 so more is on its way than they thought but it is a fast moving situation. If we look at diesel prices we see that falls were already being noted as per litre prices had gone £1.33, £1.28 and £1.24 so far this year. As of Monday that was £1.16 which of course is well before the recent plunge in oil prices. This feeds in to the inflation data in two ways.

A 1 pence change on average in the cost of a litre of motor fuel contributes approximately 0.02 percentage points to the 1-month change in the CPIH.

Also in another way because the annual comparison will be affected by this.

When considering the price of petrol between March and April 2020, it may be useful to note
that the average price of petrol rose by 3.8 pence per litre between March and April 2019, to
stand at 124.1 pence per litre as measured in the CPIH.

If we switch to the producer price series we see that the Russo/Saudi oil price turf war was already having an impact.

The annual rate of inflation for materials and fuels purchased by manufacturers (input prices) fell by 2.9% in March 2020, down from negative 0.2% in February 2020. This is the lowest the rate has been since October 2019 and the sixth time in the last eight months that the rate has been negative.

The monthly rate for materials and fuels purchased was negative 3.6% in March 2020, down from negative 0.9% in February 2020. This is the lowest the rate has been since January 2015.

Roughly they will be recording about half the fall we are seeing now.

Comment

These times are providing lots of challenges for economic statistics. For example if we stay with oil above then it is welcome that consumers will see lower prices but it is also true we are using less of it so the weights are wrong ( too high). As to this next bit I hardly know where to start.

Air fares have shown variable movements in April which can depend on the position of Easter.

I could of course simply look at the skies over Battersea which are rather empty these days. I could go on by looking at the way foreign holidays are in the RPI and so on. There will of course be elements which are booming for example off-licence alcohol sales. DIY is booming if the tweet I received yesterday saying paint for garden fences had sold out is any guide. So you get the drift.

Returning to other issues the UK remains prone to inflation as this suggests.

“It’s right that retailers charge a fair price for fuel that reflects the price of the raw product, and in theory petrol prices could fall below £1 per litre if the lower wholesale costs were reflected at the pumps – but at the same time people are driving very few miles so they’re selling vastly lower quantities of petrol and diesel at the moment. This means many will be at pains to trim their prices any further.” ( RAC)

We learnt last week that some areas are seeing a fair bit of it as the new HDP ( Higher Demand Products) inflation measure recorded 4.4% in just 4 weeks.

So there are plenty of challenges. Let me give you an example from house prices where volumes will be so low can we calculate an index at all? Regular readers may recall I have pointed this out when wild swings have been recorded in Kensington and Chelsea but based on only 2 sales that month. What could go wrong?

Also we are in strange times. After all someone maybe have borrowed at negative interest-rates this week to buy oil at negative prices and then maybe lost money. If so let us hope they get some solace from some glam-rock from the 70s which is rather sweet.

Does anyone know the way?
Did we hear someone say
“We just haven’t got a clue what to do!”
Does anyone know the way?
There’s got to be a way
To Block Buster!

 

 

The plan to castrate the Retail Prices Index brings shame on UK statistics credibility

The Retail Prices Index or RPI has come in for quite a bit of official criticism over the past decade sometimes around the issue of what is called the Formula Effect and more rarely about the way it deals with the housing sector. The latter is more rare because many of the critics are not well informed enough to realise that house prices are in it as they are implicit via the use of depreciation. However to my mind this has been something of a sham and the real reason was highlighted in yesterday’s post.

UK real regular pay is now above its pre-crisis peak! If you like the CPIH measure of consumer prices. For CPI enthusiasts, it’s -1.8% below. For the RPI crew, it’s -7% below, for the RPIX hardcore, it’s -10.4%.

As you can see the RPI consistently gives a higher inflation reading hence using it real wages are lower. That is why official bodies such as the UK Statistics Authority with the dead hand of HM Treasury behind them keep trying to eliminate it. Let me illustrate by using the measures they have recommended RPI, then CPI and then CPIH as you can see from the quote above they keep recommending lower numbers. What a coincidence! This flatters real wages and GDP as consumer inflation is around 24% of the inflation measure used there so yes UK GDP has been inflated too. In fact by up to 0.5% a year,by the changes according to the calculations of  Dr.Mark Courtney.

They are back as this from the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority Sir (hoping to be Lord) David Norgrove shows.

We have been clear for a long time that RPI is not a good measure of inflation and its use should be discouraged. The proposals we put to the Chancellor are consistent with this longheld view.

That is very revealing as we have had several consultations and they have lost each one. In fact my view has gained more support over time because if you look at the facts putting a fantasy number as 17% of your inflation index as is done by putting Imputed Rents in CPIH is laughable when you can use an actual number like house prices. This is how they explain they lost. It does allow me to update my financial lexicon for these times where “wide range of views” equals “we keep losing”

There has since then been extensive consultation
and discussion about inflation measurement. All the statistical issues have been well aired. A
notable feature of these discussions was the wide range of opinions

They have lost so badly that this time around they have taken the possibility of losing out of the new plan.

The Authority’s consultation, which will
be undertaken jointly with that of HM Treasury, will begin on 11 March. It will be open to responses for six weeks, closing on 22 April. HM Treasury will consult on the appropriate timing for the proposed changes to the RPI, while the Authority will consult on the technical method of making that change to the RPI.

As you can see it is about how and when it will be done rather than what should be done. The plan is to put Imputed Rents in the RPI so it also records lower numbers. Regular readers may have noted Andrew Baldwin asking me to support his effort to stop a change to the inflation numbers calculated, which I did. You see that change will stop people like him and me being able to calculate what the impact of changing the RPI will be. You see at this point how the deep state operates. Along the way it exterminates an inflation measure which Andrew has supported after I may note the UK statistics establishment presented it ( RPIJ) as the next best thing to sliced bread. Before behaving like a spoilt child and taking their football home with them so no-one else can play.

Let me also address the Formula Effect issue. I have just explained above how suddenly they do not want people to be able to calculate it. Suspicious eh? But it is worse than that because all of the official propaganda ignores the fact that a lot of it is due to clothing prices and fashion clothing. We could find out as the statistician Simon Briscoe has suggested by suspending some of the clothing section for a while or producing numbers with and without it. After all CPI was the official measure for over a decade and it ignored owner occupied housing which is 17% of the index when included. But apparently you cannot exclude less than 1% which leads me to believe they already know the answer which presumably would be found in the 2012 pilot scheme which has been kept a secret.

Today’s Data

There was a quirk in the series meaning a rise was likely but not this much.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.8%, up from 1.3% in December.

The factor which was mostly expected was this.

In January 2020, the largest upward contribution to the CPIH 12-month inflation rate came from housing and household services……….However, in January 2020, its contribution increased to 0.55 percentage points (an increase of 0.19 percentage points from December 2019), as the gas and electricity price reductions from January 2019 unwound.

I was a bit slack yesterday in saying that inflation will fall to help real wage growth when I should have put it is heading lower but the impact of regulatory moves will cause bumps in the road. Apologies.

Changes to Ofgem’s energy price cap introduce some volatility — with CPI inflation expected to pick up to 1.8% in 2020 Q1, before falling back to around 1¼% in the middle of the year. The expected reduction in water bills as a result of action by the regulator Ofwat is also expected to contribute to the fall in inflation in 2020 Q2.  ( Bank of England)

As it does not happen often let us congratulate the Bank of England on being on the money so far. Returning to UK inflation it was also pushed higher by this.

Rising pump prices and upward contributions from transport services (in particular, airfares) meant transport’s contribution rose to 0.22 percentage points in January 2020.

There was also a nudge higher ( 0.07% in total) from a more surprising area as we are know the retail sector is in trouble but clothing and footwear prices saw a slightly lower sales impact. There was a similar impact on restaurants and hotels where prices fell less than last year.Meanwhile.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.7%, up from 2.2% last month.

House Prices

Sadly there are ongoing signs of a market turn.

The latest house price data published on GOV.UK by HM Land Registry for December 2019 show that average house prices in the UK increased by 2.2% in the year to December 2019, up from 1.7% in the year to November 2019 (Figure 1). Over the past three years, there has been a general slowdown in UK house price growth (driven mainly by a slowdown in the south and east of England), but there has been a pickup in annual growth since July 2019.

I was contacted on social media yesterday to be told that the market has really turned in Wales. The official numbers seem to have turned the other way though…

House price growth in Wales increased by 2.2% over the year to December 2019, down from 5.5% in November 2019, with the average house price in Wales at £166,000.

Maybe they will turn back in January.

Comment

A lot of today’s article has been comment via fact based opinions. Let me add two more factors. Firstly the UK establishment just as the Euro area has released it cannot get away any longer with ignoring the owner-occupied housing sector in its official inflation measure. Meaning the screams of those unable to afford housing have even penetrated the clouds around the skyscraper Ivory Towers of the ECB. Next whilst this may seem like a fait accompli it has seemed like this as every consultation has begun but each time so far I have ended up winning. If you think about it they are admitting they cannot win on the arguments by trying to eliminate them from the consultation.

As to this month’s data it is a shame to see a rise but with the UK Pound £ and the oil price where they are the trend should remain downwards. But there will be swings and roundabouts as the impact of utility price regulation comes into play.

How official inflation measures are designed to mislead you

Over the past year or two even the mainstream media seems to have had flickers of realisation about the problems with official inflation measures. Perhaps their journalists wondered how things could be so expensive with recorded inflation so low? I recall even Bloomberg publishing pieces on exactly that looking at problems in the housing situation in Germany which expressed exactly that with those experiencing reality questioning the official numbers and in more than a few cases suggesting they came from a place far,far away.

Yesterday a member of the Executive Board of the ECB expressed his worries about this area, So let us look at what Yves Mersch had to say.

A prolonged loss of trust in the ECB risks undermining the broad public support that is necessary for central bank independence.

I think he is going a bit far with “broad public support” as most people will only have a vague idea about what the ECB does but let us indulge Yves for now. He goes onto ground which is about as near as central bankers get to admitting the amount of mission-creep that has gone on.

This is of particular concern when the range of non-conventional measures brings monetary policy closer to the realm of fiscal policy and the institutional effects of these policies are becoming more pronounced.

House Prices

This follows a section where he points out this.

The risks arising from strong housing price inflation extend beyond financial stability.

Indeed although the Euro area had lots of problems for financial stability as pre credit crunch house prices in Ireland, Spain and the Baltic States boomed and later bust, which also undermined many banks. However in spite of this he confesses that one way of guarding against this happening again has been ignored.

At present, owner-occupied housing costs are not included in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) that is used to formulate our inflation aim of below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.

I mean why would you put in something which for many is their largest monthly expenditure? The next sentence covers a lot of ground but the latter part is very revealing.

There are a number of technical explanations for this exclusion, but it is clear that households view the cost of housing as an important part of their lifetime expenditure.

“View”?! The truth is that if we switch to describing it as shelter it is a basic human need. Of course central bankers have a track record in downplaying basic human needs in the way that food and energy are left out of so-called core inflation measures, but this takes things a step further as many of the costs of shelter are completely ignored rather than downplayed. As to the “technical explanations” let us just mark them for now as I will cover them later.

Next we get another example of the central banking obsession with rents.

 Rents represent around 6.5% of the basket used for measuring inflation.

Let me explain why. This is because in their Ivory Tower world people consume housing services whatever they do. This works for those who do rent as their (usually) monthly payment fits with that theory. Actually in practice there are more than a few problems with measuring this accurately as I noted earlier in the reference to Bloomberg Germany in particular. Also there are a lot of complaints concerning Ireland too. So even where it should work there are troubles,

But when you apply consumption of housing services to people who buy their own home be it outright or via a mortgage there is trouble. If someone is fortunate enough to buy outright then you have one large payment rather than a stream of services. Even the highest Ivory Tower should be able to spot that this simply does not work. You might think that using mortgages would work much more neatly after all a monthly payment does have some sort of fit with consuming housing services. But for a central bank there is a problem as it is the main player in what the monthly mortgage costs is these days. In the case of the ECB its negative deposit rate of -0.5% and its QE bond buying operations ( currently 20 billion Euros per month) have reduced mortgage rates substantially.

So there is the “rub”. Not only are they reducing the recorded level of inflation with their own policy which is of course trying to raise inflation! But even worse they are raising house prices to do so and thus inflation is in fact higher. It is not the misrepresentation or if you prefer lying that bother them as after all they are practised at that but even they think they may struggle to get away with it. In a way the speech from Yves reflects this because the background to all this is below.

House prices rose by 4.1 % in both the euro area and the EU in the third quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

You see why they might want to keep house prices out of the inflation index when we note that the official HICP measure recorded 1% (twice) and 0.8% in that same quarter.

Yves continues the official swerve with this.

Indeed, the United States, Japan, Sweden and Norway already integrate owner-occupied housing into their reference inflation indices.

You see both Japan and the United States use rents as a proxy for owner-occupied housing costs in spite of the fact that no rents are paid. You might think when Yves has noted the influence of house prices he would point that out. After all using fantasy rents to measure actual rises in house prices will only make this worse.

The gap between perceptions and official measures of inflation can complicate the communication of policy decisions. If households believe that inflation is rampant then they will see little justification for unconventional measures, in particular negative interest rates.

There is no little arrogance here in “believe that inflation is rampant” to describe people who have real world experience of higher prices and hence inflation as opposed to sticking your head in the sand for two decades about an important area.

Comment

Even Yves is forced to admit that the omission of owner-occupied housing costs has made a material difference to recorded inflation.

If it were to be included in the HICP, it could raise measured inflation rates in the euro area by around 0.2 to 0.5 percentage points in some periods. Taking that into consideration, core inflation would lift from its current 1.3% to its long-run trend, or even higher, thereby having a bearing on the monetary policy stance.

You can bet that the numbers have been absolutely tortured to keep the estimate that low. But this also hides other issues of which Eurostat provides a clear example below.

 the annual growth rate of the EU HPI reached a maximum of 9.8 % in the first quarter of 2007

Pre credit crunch Euro area house prices did post a warning signal but were ignored. After all what could go wrong? But more recently let me remind you that the ECB put the hammer down on monetary policy in 2015.

Then there was a rapid rise in early 2015, since when house prices have increased at a much faster pace than rents.

Or to put it another way the Euro area HICP is full of imagination.

Could it be that it’s just an illusion?
Putting me back in all this confusion?
Could it be that it’s just an illusion now?
Could it be that it’s just an illusion?
Putting me back in all this confusion?
Could it be that it’s just an illusion now?

I promised earlier to deal with the technical issues and could write pages and pages of excuses, but instead let me keep it simple. The consumer in general spends a lot on housing so they switch to consumption where purchase of assets is not included and like a magic trick it disappears. Hey Presto! Meanwhile back in the real world ordinary people have to pay it.

The inflation problem is only in the minds of central bankers

Yesterday we looked at the trend towards negative interest-rates and today we can link this into the issue of inflation. So let me open with this morning’s release from Swiss Statistics.

The consumer price index (CPI) remained stable in December 2019 compared with the previous month, remaining at 101.7 points (December 2015 = 100). Inflation was +0.2% compared with the same month of the previous year. The average annual inflation reached +0.4% in 2019.These are the results of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

The basic situation is not only that there is little or no inflation but that there has been very little since 2015. Actually if we switch to the Euro area measure called CPI in the UK we see that it picks up even less.

In December 2019, the Swiss Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) stood at 101.17 points
(base 2015=100). This corresponds to a rate of change of +0.2% compared with the previous month
and of –0.1% compared with the same month of the previous year.

Negative Interest-Rates

There is a nice bit of timing here in that the situation changed back in 2015 on the 15th to be precise and I am sure many of you still recall it.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

If we look at this in inflation terms then the implied mantra suggested by Ben Bernanke yesterday would be that Switzerland would have seen some whereas it has not. In fact the (nearly) 5 years since then have been remarkable for their lack of inflation.

There is a secondary issue here related to the exchange rate which is that the negative interest-rate was supposed to weaken it. That is a main route as to how it is supposed to raise inflation but we find that we are nearly back where we began. What I mean by that is the exchange-rate referred to above is 1.084 compared to the Euro. So the Swiss tried to import inflation but have not succeeded and awkwardly for fans of negative interest-rates part of the issue is that the ECB ( European Central Bank) joined the party reminding me of a point I made just under 2 years ago on the 9th of January 2018.

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

The Low Inflation Issue

Let me now switch to another Swiss based organisation the Bank for International Settlements  or BIS. This is often known as the central bankers central bank and I think we learn a lot from just the first sentence.

Inflation in advanced economies (AEs) continues to be subdued, remaining below central banks’ target
in spite of aggressive and persistent monetary policy accommodation over a prolonged period.

As we find so often this begs more than a few questions. For a start why is nobody wondering why all this effort is not wprking as intended? The related issue is then why they are persisting with something that is not working? The Eagles had a view on this.

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

We then get quite a swerve.

To escape the low inflation trap, we argue that, as suggested by Jean-Claude Trichet, governments
and social partners put in place “consensus packages” that include a fiscal policy that supports demand
and a series of ad hoc nominal wage increases over several years.

Actually there are two large swerves here. The first is the switch away from the monetary policies which have been applied on an ever larger scale each time with the promise that this time they will work. Next is a pretty breathtaking switch to advocacy of fiscal policy by the very same Jean-Claude Trichet who was involved in the application of exactly the reverse in places like Greece during his tenure at the ECB.

Their plan is to simply add to the control freakery.

As political economy conditions evolve, this role should be progressively substituted by rebalancing the macro
policy mix with a more expansionary fiscal policy. More importantly, social partners and governments
control an extremely powerful lever, ie the setting of wages at least in the public sector and potentially
in the private sector, to re-anchor inflation expectations near 2%.

The theory was that technocratic central bankers would aim for inflation targets set by elected politicians. Now they want to tell the politicians what to so all just to hit an inflation target that was chosen merely because it seemed right at the time. Next they want wages to rise at this arbitrary rate too! The ordinary worker will get a wage rise of 2% in this environment so that prices can rise by 2% as well. It is the economics equivalent of the Orwellian statements of the novel 1984

Indeed they even think that they can tell employers what to do.

Finally, in a full employment context,
employers have an incentive to implement wage increases to keep their best performing employees
and, given that nominal labour costs of all employers would increase in parallel, they would able to raise
prices in line with the increase of their wage bills with limited risk of losing clients

Ah “full employment” the concept which is in practical terms meaningless as we discussed only yesterday.

Also as someone who studied the “social contracts” or what revealingly were called “wage and price spirals” in the UK the BIS presents in its paper a rose tinted version of the past. Some might say misleading. In the meantime as the economy has changed I would say that they would be even less likely to work.

Putting this another way the Euro area inflation numbers from earlier showed something the ordinary person will dislike but central bankers will cheer.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in December (2.0%, compared with 1.9% in November),

I would send the central bankers out to explain to food shoppers how this is in fact the nirvana of “price stability” as for new readers that is what they call inflation of 2% per annum. We would likely get another ” I cannot eat an I-Pad” moment.

Comment

Let me now bring in some issues which change things substantially and let me open with something that has got FT Alphaville spinning itself into quicksand.

As far as most people are concerned, there is more than enough inflation. Cœuré noted in his speech that most households think the average rate in the eurozone between 2004 and last year has been 9 per cent (in fact it was 1.6 per cent). That’s partly down to higher housing costs (which are not wholly included in central banks’ measurement of inflation).

That last sentence is really rather desperate as it nods to the official FT view of inflation which is in quite a mess on the issue of housing inflation. Actually the things which tend to go up ( house prices) are excluded from the Euro area measure of inflation. There was a plan to include them but that turned out to be an attempt simply to waste time ( about 3 years as it happened). Why? Well they would rather tell you that this is a wealth effect.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the
second quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Looking at the situation we see that a sort of Holy Grail has developed – the 2% per annum inflation target – with little or no backing. After all its use was then followed by the credit crunch which non central bankers will consider to be a rather devastating critique. One road out of this is to raise the inflation target even higher to 3%, 4% or more, or so we are told.

There are two main issues with this of which the first is that if you cannot hit the 2% target then 3% or 4% seems pointless. But to my mind the bigger one is that in an era of lower numbers why be King Canute when instead one can learn and adapt. I would either lower the inflation target and/or put house prices in it so that they better reflect the ordinary experience. The reason they do not go down this road is explained by a four letter word, debt. Or as the Eagles put it.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said: “We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device”

Good to see UK wage growth well above house price growth

Today brings the UK inflation picture into focus and for a while now it has been an improved one as the annual rates of consumer, producer and house price inflation have fallen. Some of this has been due to the fact that the UK Pound £ has been rising since early August which means that our consumer inflation reading should head towards that of the Euro area. As ever currency markets can be volatile as yesterdays drop of around 2 cents versus the US Dollar showed but we are around 12 cents higher than the lows of early August. The latter perspective was rather missing from the media reporting of this as “tanks” ( Reuters) and “tanking” ( Robin Wigglesworth of the FT) but for our purposes today the impact of the currency has and will be to push inflation lower.

The Oil Price

This is not as good for inflation prospects as it has been edging higher. Although it has lost a few cents today the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil is at just below US $66 has been rising since it was US $58 in early October. Whilst the US $70+ of the post Aramco attack soon subsided we then saw a gradual climb in the oil price. So it is around US $8 higher than this time last year.

If we look wider then other commodity prices have been rising too. For example the Thomson Reuters core commodity index was 167 in August but is 185 now. Switching to something which is getting a lot of media attention which is the impact of the swine fever epidemic in China ( and now elsewhere ) on pork prices it is not as clear cut as you might think. Yes the Thomson Reuters Lean Hogs index is 10% higher than a year ago but at 1.92 it is well below the year’a high of 2.31 seen in early April

Consumer Inflation

It was a case of steady as she goes this month.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 1.5% in November 2019, unchanged from October 2019.

This does not mean that there were no changes within it which included some bad news for chocoholics.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages, where prices overall rose by 0.8% between October and November 2019 compared with a smaller rise of 0.1% a year ago, especially for sugar, jam, syrups, chocolate and confectionery (which rose by 1.8% this year, compared with a rise of 0.1% last year). Within this group, boxes and cartons of chocolates, and chocolate covered ice cream bars drove the upward movement; and • Recreation and culture, where prices overall rose between October and November 2019 by more than between the same two months a year ago.

On the other side of the coin there was a downwards push from restaurants and hotels as well as from alcoholic beverages and tobacco due to this.

The 3.4% average price rise from October to November 2018 for tobacco products reflected an increase in duty on such products announced in the Budget last year.

Tucked away in the detail was something which confirms the current pattern I think.

The CPI all goods index annual rate is 0.6%, up from 0.5% last month……..The CPI all services index annual rate is 2.5%, down from 2.6% last month.

The higher Pound £ has helped pull good inflation lower but the “inflation nation” problem remains with services.

The pattern for the Retail Prices Index was slightly worse this month.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.2%, up from 2.1% last month.

The goods/services inflation dichotomy is not as pronounced but is there too.

Housing Inflation ( Owner- Occupiers)

This is a story of many facets so let me open with some good news.

UK average house prices increased by 0.7% over the year to October 2019 to £233,000; this is the lowest growth since September 2012.

This is good because with UK wages rising at over 3% per annum we are finally seeing house prices become more affordable via wages growth. Also you night think that it would be pulling consumer inflation lower but the answer to that is yes for the RPI ( via the arcane method of using depreciation but it is there) but no and no for the measure the Bank of England targets ( CPI) and the one that our statistical office and regulators describes as shown below.

The Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH).

Those are weasel words because they use the concept of Rental Equivalence to claim that homeowners pay themselves rent when they do not. Even worse they have trouble measuring rents in the first place. Let me illustrate that by starting with the official numbers.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.4% in the 12 months to November 2019, up from 1.3% in October 2019.

Those who believe that rents respond to wage growth and mostly real wages will already be wondering about how as wage growth has improved rental inflation has fallen? Well not everyone things that as this from HomeLet this morning suggests.

Newly agreed rents have continued to fall across most of the UK on a monthly basis despite above-inflation annual rises, HomeLet reveals.

Figures from the tenancy referencing firm show that average rents on new tenancies fell 0.6% on a monthly basis between October and November, with just Wales and the north-east of England registering a 1.1% and 0.4% increase respectively.

Both the north-west and east of England registered the biggest monthly falls at 0.8%.

Rents were, however, up 3.2% annually to £947 per month.

This is at more than double the 1.5% inflation rate for November.

As you can see in spite of a weak November they have annual rental inflation at more than double the official rate. This adds to the Zoopla numbers I noted on October 16th which had rental inflation 0.7% higher than the official reading at the time.

So there is doubt about the official numbers and part of it relates to an issue I have raised again with the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords. This is that the rental index is not really November’s.

“The short answer is that the rental index is lagged and that lag may not be stable.I have asked ONS for the detail on the lag some while ago and they have yet to respond.”

Those are the words of the former Government statistician Arthur Barnett. As you can see we may well be getting the inflation data for 2018 rather than 2019.

The Outlook

We get a guide to this from the producer price data.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 0.5% on the year to November 2019, down from 0.8% in October 2019……..The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process was negative 2.7% on the year to November 2019, up from negative 5.0% in October 2019.

So the outlook for the new few months is good but not as good as it was as we see that input price inflation is less negative now. We also see the driving force behind goods price inflation being so low via the low level of output price inflation.

Comment

In many respects the UK inflation position is pretty good. The fact that consumer inflation is now lower helps real wage growth to be positive. Also the fall in house price inflation means we have improved affordability. These will both be boosting the economy in what are difficult times. The overall trajectory looks lower too if we add in these elements described by the Bank of England.

CPI inflation remained at 1.7% in September and is expected to decline to around 1¼% by the spring, owing to the temporary effect of falls in regulated energy and water prices.

However as I have described above these are bad times for the Office for National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority. Not only are they using imaginary numbers for 17% of their headline index ( CPIH) the claims that these are based on some sort of reality ( actual rental inflation) is not only dubious it may well be based on last year data.

The Investing Channel