UK inflation measurement is in crisis

It is Wednesday so it is inflation numbers day in the UK. If that feels a little out of key then you are right as they used to be on a Tuesday and the labour market data set followed the next day. But in a sad indictment of our rulers it was decided that releasing the labour market numbers at 9:30 today did not give then enough time to spin, excuse me, analyse the numbers in time for Prime Ministers Questions at lunchtime. The theme of being out of tune though continues today as we note the ongoing problems in simply collecting the prices.

As a result of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we identified 74 CPIH items (or 14.2% of the CPIH basket by weight) that were unavailable to UK consumers in May, as detailed in table 58 of the Consumer price inflation dataset; this is down from 90 unavailable items in April; compared with the February 2020 index (the most recent “normal” collection), we have collected a weighted total of 81.6% (excluding unavailable items) of the number of price quotes for the May 2020 index, although the coverage varies across the range of items.

There is a clear issue with being unable to collect some of the data. Added to that is the fact that prices which are unavailable are likely to be the ones which have risen in price. For example the new HDP ( High Demand Products) measure had to drop out things like face masks and hand sanitiser for a while which introduces a downwards bias to the reading. What happens when they cannot record something? Well let me hand you over to the BBC explanation.

The ONS admitted that it had difficulty compiling inflation statistics for May, since many areas of the economy were completely shut down.

For instance, inflation figures for holidays had had to be “imputed”, it said.

Of course some will be pleased by this as there is a lot of official enthusiasm for imputing prices as they have demonstrated in the area of rents. For newer readers the official CPIH measure uses fantasy rents to impute owner-occupied housing costs. This is the reason in spite of all the official effort it remains widely ignored as I doubt anyone charges themselves rent to live in their own home. Even worse they have had real trouble measuring actual rents and you do not have to take my word for it,just read the release from earlier this week.

To achieve this, completely new innovative methodology will be needed. In October 2019, we started building a prototype using a new methodology with the capability to meet the aims specified in Section 3.

Perhaps we will get inflation numbers with this year’s rents rather than last years? It is rather conspicuous that they have failed to answer my question on this subject

Today’s Data

A further fall was recorded in terms of the annual rate

The all items CPI annual rate is 0.5%, down from 0.8% in April……The all items CPI is 108.5, unchanged from last month.

As you can see prices were unchanged on a monthly basis although there were shifts in the structure.

The CPI all goods index annual rate is -0.9%, down from -0.4% last month……The CPI all services index annual rate is 1.9%, down from 2.0% last month.

That is intriguing as we see disinflation in the good sector but not that much impact at all on services.That teaches us a little about pricing in that sector as it has seen a volume drop that for once justifies the word collapse and yet the pricing impact has been small. Looking at specific areas we see this.

Transport, where the price of motor fuels fell this year but rose a year ago, contributing 0.12 percentage points to the easing in the headline rate. Petrol prices fell by 2.8 pence per litre between April and May 2020, compared with a rise of 4.2 pence per litre between the same two months a year ago. Similarly, diesel prices fell by 2.6 pence per litre this year, compared with a rise of 2.8 pence per litre a year ago.

I doubt any of you are surprised by this and it was joined by Recreation and Culture which is of note as a problem area popped up again.

Within this broad
group, there was a downward contribution (of 0.06 percentage points) from games, toys
and hobbies, with the effect coming from a variety of traditional toys and games, plus
computer games consoles and computer games

For newer readers this is the effect of computer games being discounted when they go out of fashion which the numbers struggle to cope with.Fashion clothing has the same problem and actually in an odd link led to them trying to neuter the RPI. Next we get an attempt at humour, at least I hope it is humour.

Health, where prices overall fell by 1.4% this year compared with a rise of 0.2% a year ago.
The effect came from pharmaceutical products, particularly pain killers and antihistamine
tablets, and other medical and therapeutic products, particularly daily disposable soft
contact lenses.

Does anybody believe health costs are falling?

On the other side of the coin was this.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages, with prices rising by 0.5% this year compared with a smaller rise of 0.1% a year ago.

The details are for the CPIH measure because our statistical establishment is so desperate to get it a mention they only break the numbers down for it. From the point of view of the Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey can add the new CPI number to the letter he is presently composing to the Chancellor to explain why it is more than 1% below target. His quill pen is probably being dipped into the Bank of England official ink no doubt being held by a flunkey right now as he explains how he will expand QE by another £100 billion or so in response. That is something of a Space Oddity as of course QE will boost the asset prices it ignores. Oh well! As Fleetwood Mac would say.

Retail Prices Index

This too saw a fall in the annual rate.

The all items RPI annual rate is 1.0%, down from 1.5% last month……..The all items RPI is 292.2, down from 292.6 in April.

I note that on a monthly basis the RPI fell. If it did that more often it would quickly be back in official favour! Also even under the old system the Governor of the Bank of England would have to get his quill pen out.

The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is
1.3%, down from 1.6% last month

As to credibility of our inflation numbers I am afraid this is another downgrade.

The published RPI annual growth rate for April 2020 was 1.5%. If the index were to be recalculated
using the correct interest rate, it would reduce the RPI annual growth rate by 0.1 percentage points
to 1.4%.

To get mortgage rates wrong is really rather poor and it was not the only mistake.

In addition, an error has been identified in the adjustment made to reflect a change in product size
for a single price quote for “canned tuna” collected in April 2020.

Comment

As you can see there is a large amount of doubt about the inflation numbers right now. This has not stopped much of the media from already setting the scene for more monetary policy easing. The Bank of England votes later today and it has the problem that the Deputy Governor for this area Ben Broadbent has actively demonstrated a wide-ranging ignorance of the issues. Just as a reminder I expect them to vote for at least another £100 billion of QE bond buying. This is in spite of the fact that the asset prices it will boost are ignored by the CPI inflation measure they target.

Meanwhile some new research has suggested that prices are in fact rising more quickly, and the emphasis is mine.

In this paper, we use detailed scanner data to provide a portrait of inflation during the Great Lockdown, covering millions of transactions in the UK fast-moving
consumer goods sector. We find that there was an unprecedented spike in inflation at the beginning of lockdown, which coincided with a reduction in product variety.

Indeed there was more.

The price increases we found for many categories, including those not subject to demand spikes, indicate supply disruptions and changes in market power may be playing an important role.

This has a consequence.

Many households are subject to reduced
income and liquid wealth, and higher prices for foods, drinks and household goods
will feed into squeezed household budgets

Here are the numbers.

First, we find that in the first month of lockdown month-to-month inflation was
2.4%. This sharp upturn in inflation is unprecedented across the preceding eight
year

So thank you to Xavier Jaravel and Martin O’Connell for this paper which suggests that as well as Fake News we also have to contend with fake official statistics.

The Investing Channel

Where will all the extra US Money Supply end up?

Today brings both the US economy and monetary policy centre stage. The OECD has already weighed in on the subject this morning.

The COVID-19 outbreak has brought the longest economic expansion on record to a juddering halt. GDP
contracted by 5% in the first quarter at an annualised rate, and the unemployment rate has risen
precipitously. If there is another virus outbreak later in the year, GDP is expected to fall by over 8% in 2020
(the double-hit scenario). If, on the other hand, the virus outbreak subsides by the summer and further
lockdowns are avoided (the single-hit scenario), the impact on annual growth is estimated to be a percentage
point less.

Actually that is less than its view of many other countries. But of course we need to remind ourselves that the OECD is not a particularly good forecaster. Also we find that the official data has its quirks.

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 2.5 million in May, and the unemployment rate
declined to 13.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today……In May, employment rose sharply in leisure and hospitality, construction, education and health services, and retail trade. By contrast, employment
in government continued to decline sharply……….The unemployment rate declined by 1.4 percentage points to 13.3 percent in May, and the number of unemployed persons fell by 2.1 million to 21.0 million.

Those figures not only completely wrong footed the forecasters they nutmegged them as well in one of the most spectacular examples of this genre I have seen. I forget now if they were expecting a rise in unemployment of eight or nine million but either way you get the gist. We do not know where we are let alone where we are going although the Bureau of Labor Statistics did try to add some clarity.

If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to “other  reasons” (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical May) had
been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate  would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported (on a not seasonally  adjusted basis).

We learn more about the state of play from the New York Federal Reserve.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at -25.5% for 2020:Q2 and -12.0% for 2020:Q3. News from this week’s data releases increased the nowcast for 2020:Q2 by 10 percentage points and increased the nowcast for 2020:Q3 by 24.5 percentage points. Positive surprises from labor, survey, and international trade data drove most of the increase.

As you can see the labo(u)r market data blew their forecasts like a gale and leave us essentially with the view that there has been a large contraction but also a wide possible and indeed probable error range.

The Inflation Problem

We get the latest inflation data later after I publish this piece. But there is a problem with the mantra we are being told which is that there is no inflation. Something similar to the April reading of 0.3% is expected. So if we switch to the measure used by the US Federal Reserve which is based on Personal Consumption Expenditures the annual rate if we use our rule of thumb would in fact be slightly negative right now. On this basis Chair Powell and much of the media can say that all the monetary easing is justified.

But there are more than a few catches which change the picture. Let me start with the issues I raised concerning the Euro area yesterday where the numbers will be pushed downwards by a combination of the weights being (very) wrong, many prices being unavailable and the switch to online prices. It would seem that the ordinary person has been figuring this out for themselves.

The May 2020 Survey of Consumer Expectations shows small signs of improvement in households’ expectations compared to April. Median inflation expectations increased by 0.4 percentage point at the one-year horizon to 3.0 percent, and were unchanged at the three-year horizon at 2.6 percent. ( NY Fed Research from Monday)

It is revealing that they describe an increase in inflation that is already above target as an “improvement” is it not? But we see a complete shift as we leave the Ivory Towers and media palaces as the ordinary person surveyed expects a very different picture. Still the Ivory Towers can take some solace from the fact that inflation is in what they consider to be non-core areas.

Expected year-ahead changes in both food and gasoline prices displayed sharp increases for the second consecutive month and recorded series’ highs in May at 8.7% and 7.8%, respectively, in May.

Just for the avoidance of doubt I have turned my Irony meter beyond even the “turn up to 11” of the film Spinal Tap.

Central bankers will derive some cheer from the apparent improvement in perceptions about the housing market.

Median home price change expectations recovered slightly from its series’ low of 0% reached in April to 0.6% in May. The slight increase was driven by respondents who live in the West and Northeast Census regions.

Credit

More food for thought is provided in this area. If we switch to US Federal Reserve policy Chair Jerome Powell will tell us later that the taps are open and credit is flowing. But those surveyed have different ideas it would seem.

Perceptions of credit access compared to a year ago deteriorated for the third consecutive month, with 49.6% of respondents reporting credit to be harder to get today than a year ago (versus 32.1% in March and 48.0% in April). Expectations for year-ahead credit availability also worsened, with fewer respondents expecting credit will become easier to obtain.

Comment

I now want to shift to a subject which is not getting the attention it deserves. This is the growth in the money supply where the three monthly average for the narrow measure M1 has increased in annualised terms by 67.2% in the three months to the 25th of May. Putting that another way it has gone from a bit over US $4 trillion to over US $5 trillion over the past 3 months. That gives the monetary system quite a short-term shove the size of which we can put into context with this.

In April 2008, M1 was approximately $1.4 trillion, more than half of which consisted of currency.  ( NY Fed)

Contrary to what we keep being told about the decline of cash it has grown quite a bit over this period as there is presently a bit over US $1.8 trillion in circulation.

Moving to the wider measure M2 we see a similar picture where the most recent three months measured grew by 40.6% compared to its predecessor in annualised terms. Or if you prefer it has risen from US $15.6 billion to US $18.1 billion. Again here is the historical perspective from April 2008.

 M2 was approximately $7.7 trillion and largely consisted of savings deposits.

So here is a question for readers, where do you think all this money will go? Whilst you do so you might like to note this from the 2008 report I have quoted.

While as much as two-thirds of U.S. currency in circulation may be held outside the United States….

The Investing Channel

 

The one thing we can be sure of is that the inflation numbers are wrong

Today’s has brought us inflation data with more and indeed much more than its fair share of issues. But let me start by congratulating the BBC on this.

The UK’s inflation rate fell in April to its lowest since August 2016 as the economic fallout of the first month of the lockdown hit prices.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) fell to 0.8% from 1.5% in March, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

Falling petrol and diesel prices, plus lower energy bills, were the main drivers pushing inflation lower.

But prices of games and toys rose, which the ONS said may have come as people occupied their time at home.

They have used the CPI inflation measure rather than the already widely ignored CPIH which the propagandists at HM Treasury are pushing our official statisticians to use. Although in something of an irony CPIH was lower this month! Also it would be better to use the much more widely accepted RPI or Retail Prices Index and the BBC has at least noted it.

Inflation as measured by the Retail Prices Index (RPI) – an older measure of inflation which the ONS says is inaccurate, but is widely used in bond markets and for other commercial contracts – dropped to 1.5% from 2.6%.

Yes it is pretty much only the establishment which makes that case about the RPI now as supporters have thinned out a lot. It also has strengths and just as an example does not require Imputed or fantasy Rents for the housing market as it uses actual prices for houses and mortgages.

So as an opener let us welcome the lower inflation numbers which were driven by this.

Petrol prices fell by 10.4 pence per litre between March and April 2020, to stand at 109.0 pence per litre, and
diesel prices fell by 7.8 pence per litre, to stand at 116.0 pence per litre……..which was the result of a 0.2% rise in
the price of electricity and a 3.5% reduction in the price of gas between March and April 2020, compared with price rises of 10.9% and 9.3% for electricity and gas over the same period last year.

Problems. Problems,Problems

Added to the usual list of these was the fact that not only did the Office for National Statistics have to shift to online price collection for obvious reasons which introduces a downwards bias there was also this.

Hi Shaun, the number of price quotes usually collected in store was about 64% of what was collected in February – so yes just over a third. This is for the local collection only.

Let me say thank you to Chris Jenkins for replying so promptly and confirming my calculations. However the reality is that there is a problem and let me highlight with one example.

prices for unavailable seasonal items such as international travel were imputed for April 2020. This imputation was calculated by applying the all-items annual growth rate to the index from April 2019.

Yes you do read that correctly and more than one-third of the index was imputed. In addition to this rather glaring problem there is the issue of the weighting being wrong and I am sure you are all already thinking about the things you have spent more on and others you have spent less on. Officially according to our Deputy National Statistician Jonathan Athow it does not matter much.

A second was to also account for lower consumption of petrol and diesel, which has been falling in price. Reducing the weight given to petrol and diesel gives a figure similar to the official CPI estimate.

Sadly I have learnt through experience that such research is usually driven by a desire to achieve the answer wanted rather than to illuminate things. If we switch to the ordinary experience I was asked this earlier on social media.

Are face masks and hand sanitiser included in the CPI basket? (@AnotherDevGuy)

I have just checked and they are not on the list. This poses a couple of issues as we note both the surge in demand ( with implications for weighting) and the rise in price seen. A couple of area’s may pick things up as for example household cleaners are on the list and judging by their suddenly popularity albeit in a new role lady’s scarves but they are on the margins and probably underweighted.

The New Governor Has A Headache

If we check the inflation remit we see that the new Governor Andrew Bailey will be getting out his quill pen to write to the new Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

If inflation moves away from the target by more than 1 percentage point in either direction, I
shall expect you to send an open letter to me, covering the same considerations set out above
and referring as necessary to the Bank’s latest Monetary Policy Report and forecasts, alongside
the minutes of the following Monetary Policy Committee meeting.

He will of course say he is pumping it up with record low interest-rates and the like. He is unlikely to be challenged much as this morning has brought news of a welcome gift he has given the Chancellor.

Negative Interest-Rates in the UK Klaxon!

For the first time the UK has issued a Gilt (bond) with a negative yield as the 2023 stock has -0.003%. So yes we are being paid to borrow money.

A marginal amount but it establishes a principle which we have seen grow from an acorn to an oak tree elsewhere.

There is trouble ahead

There are serious issues I have raised with the ONS.

How will price movements for UK houses be imputed when there are too few for any proper index? The explanation is not clear at all and poses issues for the numbers produced.

Also this feeds into another issue.

“It should be noted that the methodologies used in our consumer price statistics for many of these measures tend to give smoothed estimates of price change and will therefore change slowly.”

The suspension of the house price index below after today poses big problems for the RPI which uses them and actually as happens so often opens an even bigger can of worms which is smoothing.

In other words we are being given 2019 data in 2020 and this is quite unsatisfactory. So whilst the ONS may consider this a tactical success it is a strategic failure on the issue of timeliness for official statistics. I think all readers of this would like to know more detail on the smoothing process here as to repeat myself it goes against the issue of producing timely and relevant numbers.

Some of you may recall the disaster smoothing had on the with-profits investment industry and once people understand its use in inflation data there will be plenty of issues with it there too. My full piece for those who want a fuller picture is linked to below.

https://www.statsusernet.org.uk/t/measuring-prices-through-the-covid-19-pandemic/8326/2

Comment

As the media projects lower inflation ahead sadly the picture is seeing ch-ch-changes,

Oil prices rose for a fourth straight session on Tuesday amid signs that producers are cutting
output as promised just as demand picks up, stoked by more countries easing out of curbs
imposed to counter the coronavirus pandemic. Brent crude, climbed 25 cents or 0.7% to
$35.06 a barrel, after earlier touching its highest since April 9. (uk.reuters.com 19 May 2020)

That may not feed into the May data but as we move forwards it will. That also highlights something which may be one of the Fake News events of our time which is the negative oil price issue. Yes it did happen but since then we have seen quite a bounce as we are reminded that some issues are complex or in this instance a rigged game.

How much of other price rises the inflation numbers will pick up is open to serious doubt. Some of this is beyond the control of official statistics as they could hardly be expected to know the changes in the patterns for face masks for example. But the numbers will be under recorded right now due to factors like this from the new HDP measure.

Out of stock products have been removed where these are clearly labelled, however, there may be products out of stock that have still been included for some retailers. If the price of these items do not change, this could cause the index to remain static.

What do you think might have happened to prices if something is out of stock?

Meanwhile there is another signal that inflation may be higher ahead.

BoE Deputy Governor Ben Broadbent said it might go below zero around the end of 2020

The reality is of a complex picture of disinflation in some areas and inflation sometimes marked inflation in others.

 

 

 

The Bank of England sets interest-rates for the banks and QE to keep debt costs low

This morning has seen a change to Bank of England practice which is a welcome one. It announced its policy decisions at 7 am rather than the usual midday. Why is that better? It is because it voted last night so cutting the time between voting and announcing the result reduces the risk of it leaking and creating an Early Wire. The previous Governor Mark Carney preferred to have plenty of time to dot his i’s and cross his t’s at the expense of a clear market risk. If it was left to me I would dully go back to the old system where the vote was a mere 45 minutes before the announcement to reduce the risk of it leaking. After all the Bank of England has proved to be a much more leaky vessel than it should be.

Actions

We got further confirmation that the Bank of England considers 0.1% to be the Lower Bound for official UK interest-rates.

At its meeting ending on 6 May 2020, the MPC voted unanimously to maintain Bank Rate at 0.1%.

That is in their terms quite a critique of the UK banking system as I note the Norges Bank of Norway has cut to 0% this morning and denied it will cut to negative interest-rates ( we know what that means) and of course the ECB has a deposit rate of -0.5% although to keep that it has had to offer Euro area banks a bung ( TLTRO) at -1%

Next comes an area where action was more likely and as I will explain we did get a hint of some.

The Committee voted by a majority of 7-2
for the Bank of England to continue with the programme of £200 billion of UK government bond and sterling
non-financial investment-grade corporate bond purchases, financed by the issuance of central bank reserves, to
take the total stock of these purchases to £645 billion. Two members preferred to increase the target for the
stock of asset purchases by an additional £100 billion at this meeting.

The two who voted for “More! More! More!” were Jonathan Haskel and Michael Saunders. The latter was calling for higher interest-rates not so long ago so he has established himself as the swing voter who rushes to vote for whatever is right in front of his nose. Anyway I suspect it is moot as I expect them all to sing along with Andrea True Connection in the end.

(More, more, more) how do you like it, how do you like it
(More, more, more) how do you like it, how do you like it

What do they expect?

The opening salvo is both grim and relatively good.

The 2020 Q1 estimate of a fall in GDP of around 3% had been informed by a wide range of high-frequency indicators, as set out in the May Monetary Policy Report.

A factor in that will be that the UK went into its version of lockdown later than many others. But then the hammer falls.

The illustrative scenario in the May Report incorporated a very sharp fall in UK GDP in 2020 H1 and a
substantial increase in unemployment in addition to those workers who were furloughed currently. UK GDP was
expected to fall by around 25% in Q2, and the unemployment rate was expected to rise to around 9%. There were large uncertainty bands around these estimates.

As you can see GDP dived faster than any submarine But fear not as according to the Bank of England it will bounce like Zebedee.

UK GDP in the scenario falls by 14% in 2020 as a whole. Activity picks up materially in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021 after social distancing measures are relaxed, although it does not reach its pre‑Covid level until the second half of 2021 . In 2022, GDP growth is around 3%. Annual household consumption growth follows a similar
pattern.

Is it rude to point out that it has been some time since we grew by 3% in a year? If so it is perhaps even ruder to point out that it is double the speed limit for economic growth that the Bank of England keeps telling us now exists. I guess they are hoping nobody spots that.

Anyway to be fair they call this an illustrative scenario although they must be aware it will be reported like this.

NEW: UK GDP set for ‘dramatic’ 14% drop in 2020 amid coronavirus shutdown, Bank of England predicts ( @politicshome )

Inflation Problems

In a way this is both simple and complicated. Let us start with the simple.

CPI inflation had declined to 1.5% in March and was likely to fall below 1% in the next few months, in large
part reflecting developments in energy prices. This would require an exchange of letters between the Governor
and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

So for an inflation targeting central bank ( please stay with me on this one for the moment) things are simple. Should the Governor have to write to the Chancellor he can say he has cut interest-rates to record lows and pumped up the volume of QE. The Chancellor will offer a sigh of relief that the Bank of England is implicitly funding his spending and try to write a letter avoiding mentioning that.

However things are more complex as this sentence hints.

Measurement challenges would temporarily increase the noise in the inflation data, and affect the nature and behaviour of the index relative to a normal period.

It is doing some heavy lifting as I note this from the Office for National Statistics.

There are 92 items in our basket of goods and services that we have identified as unavailable for the April 2020 index (see Annex B), which accounts for 16.3% of the CPIH basket by weight. The list of unavailable items will be reviewed on a monthly basis.

There is their usual obsession with the otherwise widely ignored CPIH, But as you can see there are issues for the targeted measure CPI as well and they will be larger as it does not have imputed rents in it. A rough and ready calculation suggests it will be of the order of 20%. Also a downwards bias will be introduced by the way prices will be checked online which will mean that more expensive places such as corner shops will be excluded.

Also I am not surprised the Bank of England does not think this is material as the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent is the Deputy Governor is in charge of this area but I do.

The ONS and the joint producers have taken the decision to temporarily suspend the UK House Price Index (HPI) publication from the April 2020 index (due to be released 17 June 2020) until further notice……..The UK HPI is used to calculate several of the owner occupiers’ housing costs components of the RPI. The procedures described in this plan apply to those components of the RPI that are based on the suspended UK HPI data.

Perhaps they will introduce imputed rents via the back door which is a bit sooner than 2030! Also the point below is rather technical but is a theme where things turn out to be different from what we are told ( it is annual) so I will look into it.

 

Unfortunately, since weights are lagged by two years, we would see no effect until we calculate the 2022 weights1. This means that the current weights are not likely to be reflective of current expenditure and that the 2022 weights are unlikely to be reflective of 2022 expenditure.

That sort of thing popped up on the debate about imputed rents when it turned out that they are (roughly) last year’s rather than the ones for now.

Comment

There are three clear issues here. Firstly as we are struggling to even measure inflation the idea of inflation-targeting is pretty much a farce. That poses its own problems for GDP measurement. Such as we have is far from ideal.

The all HDP items index show a stable increase over time, with an increase of 1.1% between Week 1 and Week 7. The index of all food has seen no price change from Week 5 to Week 7, resulting in a 1.2% price increase since Week 1.

As to Bank of England activity let me remind you of a scheme which favours larger businesses as usual.

As of 6 May, the Covid Corporate Financing Facility
(CCFF), for which the Bank was acting as HM Treasury’s agent, had purchased £17.7 billion of commercial
paper from companies who were making a material contribution to the UK economy.

I wonder if Apple and Maersk are on the list like they are for Corporate Bonds?

Within that increase, £81 billion of UK government bonds,
and £2.5 billion of investment-grade corporate bonds, had been purchased over recent weeks.

By the way that means that their running totals have been wrong. As to conventional QE that is plainly targeted at keeping Gilt yields very low ( the fifty-year is 0.37%)

Let me finish by pointing out we have a 0.1% interest-rate because it is all the banks can stand rather than it being good for you,me or indeed the wider business sector. Oh did I mention the banks?

As of 6 May, participants had drawn £11 billion from the TFSME

Podcast

 

 

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!

 

 

We are facing both inflation and disinflation at once

Before we even get to the issue of inflation data we have been provided an international perspective from China Statistics.

According to the preliminary estimates, the gross domestic product (GDP) of China was 20,650.4 billion yuan in the first quarter of 2020, a year-on-year decrease of 6.8 percent at comparable prices.

This provides several perspectives. Firstly there is clear deflation there and as this gets confused let me be clear that it is a fall in aggregate demand and whether you believe the China data or not there has clearly been a large fall. That is likely to have disinflationary influences but is not necessary the same thing as many assume.

After all China has had an area where the heat is on as Glenn Frey would say for some time.

pork up by 122.5 percent, specifically, its prices went up by 116.4 percent in March, 18.8 percentage points lower than February.

This contributed to this.

Grouped by commodity categories, prices for food, tobacco and alcohol went up by 14.9 percent year on year;

Vegetable prices were up by 9% too adding to the food inflation and this led to the Chinese being poorer overall.

In March, the consumer price went up by 4.3 percent…….In the first quarter, the nationwide per capita disposable income of residents was 8,561 yuan, a nominal increase of 0.8 percent year on year, or a real decrease of 3.9 percent after deducting price factors.

Regular readers will be aware that a feature of my work is to look at the impact of inflation on the ordinary worker and consumer as opposed to central bankers who love to torture the numbers to get the answer they wanted all along. An example of this is the use of core inflation which excludes two of the most vital components which are food and energy. Also if you use the European measure called CPI in the UK you miss a dair bit of shelter as well as owner-occupied housing is ignored.

The Bank of England

One of its policymakers Silvana Tenreyro was drumming a familiar beat yesterday.

During Covid-19, large, temporary changes in relative prices and consumption expenditure shares will make inflation data difficult to interpret.

Many of you are no doubt thinking that higher prices will be “looked through” and falls will led to some form of a central banking war dance. In an accident of timing we were updated on this subject by the Office for National Statistics yesterday as well.

Prices for the HDP basket increased by 1.8% from 30 March to 5 April (week 3) to 6 April to 12 April (week 4) with prices for all long-life food items decreasing by 1.5% and all household and hygiene items increasing by 1.1%.

At a more detailed level, prices for pet food and rice rose by 8.4% and 5.8% respectively, while prices of pasta sauce fell by 4.5% (note that the size of the sample means that sometimes single retailers can contribute to substantial movements at the item level).

Firstly let me welcome this new initiative from the ONS which in fact is likely to be too low as to be fair even they admit. If you look at the Statsusernet website I have made some suggestions but for now let me point out that something were prices are likely to have shot up ( face masks) have been dropped. The overall picture is as below.

Movements in the all HDP items index show a stable increase over time, with an increase of 4.4% since week 1. Pet food has a high weight in the all HDP items basket and is one of the main drivers of this change.

Up is the new down

Silvana seems to be heading in another direction though.

.Current policy actions will help counterbalance some of
this underlying weakness in inflation.

If she was aware of the numbers above maybe she has a sense of humour. Sadly we then get an outright misrepresentation.

Low and stable inflation is an essential pre-requisite for longer-term economic prosperity.

For example the Industrial Revolution must have seen quite large disinflation and in modern times areas of technology have seen enormous advances and price falls. This next bit is wrong too.

And it allows households, businesses and governments to finance their spending without introducing inflation risk premia to their borrowing costs.

If the inflation target of 2% per annum is hit as is her claimed objective then that is a clear inflation risk premium that needs to be paid. We are back to the central banking fantasy that 2% per annum is of significance rather than plucked out of thin air because it seemed right.

Indeed she continues in the same vein.

Our recent policy decisions will help ensure price stability by mitigating any deflationary pressures arising
from recent events.

Just for clarity central bankers merge both deflationary and disinflationary pressures and as she says there has already been a policy response.

The MPC’s policy actions have involved reducing Bank Rate from 0.75% to 0.1%, introducing a Term
Funding scheme with additional incentives for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (TFSME) and increasing
the size of our asset purchase programme, or quantitative easing, by £200 billion.

That gets awkward when she shifts to agreeing with me about inflation trends..

The exact effect of these issues, or even the sign of their effect, is going to be difficult to gauge.

Why? Again we are in agreement.

The key conceptual challenge is that there have been large shifts in spending patterns, which will change the
representative household consumption basket. Spending on social consumption has stopped almost
completely, for example, while spending on essentials from supermarkets has increased markedly.

Then she is in agreement again.

There are also likely to be considerable shifts in the prices of some goods still in high demand relative to
those no longer being purchased

Trouble is she had already acted.

Disinflation

A clear sign of a disinflationary trend is the price of crude oil. There are all sorts of issues with measuring it but according to oilprice.com the WTI benchmark is around US $25 and Brent Crude around US $28. Both have more than halved compared to this time last year.

Silvana looks at this with relation to labour costs and maybe my influence is beginning to spead as she wonders about the numbers.

While not mismeasurement per se, measured
productivity growth has been stronger in consumer goods producing sectors than in aggregate. Thinking
about how the consumption basket relates to inflation behaviour may be crucial over the coming years, given
the vast changes we are currently seeing in spending patterns.

We diverge on the fact that I think there has been mismeasurement.

As to the weakness in commercial rents I think most of you can figure that one out merely be looking at your local high street.

There are a range of possible explanations for the weakness in rent inflation over the past few years.

Comment

Let me welcome a Bank of England policymaker actually looking at inflation developments and doing some thinking. But as an external member I think one should be going further. For example I know she is looking mostly at commercial rents but there have been similar issues with ordinary rents but where is the challenge to these numbers being foisted on the owner-occupied housing sector. Or indeed the attempt to gerrymander the inflation data by replacing house prices and mortgage rates with Imputed Rents in the Retail Prices Index?

The UK Statistics Authority (the Authority) and HM Treasury are jointly consulting on reforming the methodology of the Retail Prices Index (RPI).

If you like it will be a case of one inflation measure to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. At least the consultation has now been extended until August as believe it or not they were hoping to get away with running it during the lockdown. As to the changes let me hand you over to the RPI-CPI User Group of the Royal Statistical Society.

1. The UKSA is consulting on how to splice the RPI and CPIH together – effectively replacing RPI with CPIH, but retaining the name RPI.
2. The Treasury is consulting on when (between 2025 and 2030) this change should take place.
Importantly, neither is consulting on whether this change should be made.

Looking ahead we will see pockets of inflation in for example medical areas and as some are reporting essential goods too. Or rather what are called non-core by central bankers and Ivory Towers.

My usual essential shopping has cost between £32 – £38 for months, now jumped to £42 – £48. Inflation, the quiet poverty maker. ( @KeithCameron5 )

In other areas like fuel costs we will see disinflation. But further ahead as we see production of some items brought back to domestic industry we are likely to see higher prices. So our central bankers have abandoned inflation targeting if you look several years ahead as they are supposed to.

 

 

 

The UK government plans to rip us all off

This morning has seen the publishing of some news which feels like it has come from another world.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.7%, down from 1.8% in January…….The all items RPI annual rate is 2.5%, down from 2.7% last month.

Previously we would have been noting the good news and suggesting that more is to come as we look up the price chain.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 0.4% on the year to February 2020, down from 1.0% in January 2020. The price for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process displayed negative growth of 0.5% on the year to February 2020, down from positive growth of 1.6% in January 2020.

There is something that remains relevant however as I note this piece of detail.

Petroleum products made the largest downward contribution to the change in the annual rate of output inflation. Crude oil provided the largest downward contribution to the change in the annual rate of input inflation.

That is something which is set to continue because if we look back to February the base for the oil price ( Brent Crude) was US $50 whereas as I type this it is US $27.50. So as you can see input and output costs are going to fall further. This will be offset a bit by the lower UK Pound £ but I will address it later. In terms of consumer inflation the February figures used are for diesel at 128.2 pence per litre whereas the latest weekly number is for 123.4 pence which is some 7.7% lower than a year ago. So there will be a downwards pull on inflation from this source.

There is a bit of an irony here because the Russo/Saudi turf war which began the oil price fall on the supply side has been overtaken by the large falls in demand we are seeing as economies slow. According to The Guardian we may run out of spaces to put it.

Analysts at Rystad estimate that the world has about 7.2bn barrels of crude and products in storage, including 1.3bn to 1.4bn barrels onboard oil tankers at sea.

In theory, it would take nine months to fill the world’s remaining oil stores, but constraints at many facilities will shorten this window to only a few months.

The Rip-Off

The plan hatched by a combination of HM Treasury and its independent puppets the UK Statistics Authority and the Office for National Statistics is to impose a type of stealth tax of 1% per annum. How?

In drawing up his advice, the National Statistician considered the views of the Stakeholder Advisory Panel on Consumer Prices (APCP-S). The Board accepted his advice and that was the basis of the proposals we put to the Chancellor to cease publication of RPI and in the short term to bring the methods of CPIH into RPI.The Chancellor responded that he was not minded to promote legislation to end RPI, but that the Government intended to consult on whether to bring the methods in CPIH into RPI between 2025 and 2030, effectively aligning the measures.

The emphasis is mine and the plan is to put the fantasy Imputed Rents that are used in the widely ignored CPIH into the RPI. There is good reason that the CPIH has been ignored so let me explain why. In the UK the housing market is a big deal and so you might think what owner-occupiers pay would be a considerable influence on inflation. But in 2002 a decision was made to completely ignore it in the new UK inflation measure called CPI ( Consumer Prices Index).

Putting it in was supposed to be on its way but plans took a decade and the saga took a turn in 2012 when the first effort to use Imputed Rents began. It got strong support from the Financial Times economics editor Chris Giles at the time. He stepped back from that when it emerged that there had been a discontinuity in the numbers, which in statistical terms is a disaster. So the fantasy numbers ( owner-occupiers do not pay rent) are based on an unproven rental series.

Why would you put a 737 Max style system when you have a reliable airplane? You would not, as most sensible people would be debating between the use of the things that are paid such as house prices and mortgage payments. That is what is planned in the new inflation measure which has been variously called HII and HCI. You may not be surprised to learn that there have been desperate official efforts to neuter this. Firstly by planning to only produce it annually and more latterly by trying to water down any house price influence.

At a time like this you may not think it is important but when things return to normal losing around 1% per year every year will make you poorer as decisions are made on it. Also it will allow government’s to claim GDP and real wages are higher than they really are.

Gold

There is a lot going on here as it has seen its own market discontinuity which I will cover in a moment. But we know money is in the offing as I note this from the Financial Times.

Gold continued to push higher on Tuesday as a recent wave of selling dried up and Goldman Sachs told its clients the time had come to buy the “currency of last resort”. Like other asset classes, gold was hit hard in the recent scramble for US dollars, falling more than 12 per cent from its early March peak of around $1,700 a troy ounce to $1,460 last week.  The yellow metal started to see a resurgence on Monday, rising by more than 4 per cent after the Federal Reserve said it would buy unlimited amounts of government bonds and the US dollar fell.

So we know that the blood funnel of the Vampire Squid is up and sniffing. On its view of ordinary clients being “Muppets” one might reasonably conclude it has some gold to sell.

Also there have been problems in the gold markets as I was contacted yesterday on social media asking about the gold price. I was quoting the price of the April futures contact ( you can take the boy out of the futures market but you cannot etc….) which as I type this is US $1653. Seeing as it was below US $1500 that is quite a rally except the spot market was of the order of US $50 below that. There are a lot of rumours about problems with the ability of some to deliver the gold that they owe which of course sets alight the fire of many conspiracy theories we have noted. This further went into suggestions that some banks have singed their fingers in this area and are considering withdrawing from the market.

Ole Hansen of Saxo Bank thinks the virus is to blame.

Having seen 100’s of anti-bank and anti-paper #gold tweets the last couple of days I think I will give the metal a rest while everyone calm down. We have a temporary break down in logistics not being helped by CME’s stringent delivery rules of 100oz bars only.

So we will wait and see.

Ah, California girls are the greatest in the world
Each one a song in the making
Singin’ rock to me I can hear the melody
The story is there for the takin’
Drivin’ over Kanan, singin’ to my soul
There’s people out there turnin’ music into gold ( John Stewart )

 

Comment

Quite a few systems are creaking right now as we see the gold market hit the problems seen by bond markets where prices are inconsistent. Ironically the central banks tactics are to help with that but their strategy is fatally flawed because if you buy a market on an enormous scale to create what is a fake price ( lower bond yields) then liquidity will dry up. I have written before about ruining bond sellers ( Italy) and buyers will disappear up here. Please remember that when the central banks tell us it is nothing to do with them and could not possibly have been predicted. Meanwhile the US Federal Reserve will undertake another US $125 billion of QE bond purchases today and the Bank of England some £3 billion. The ECB gives fewer details but will be buying on average between 5 and 6 billion Euros per day.

Next we have the UK deep state in operation as they try to impose a stealth tax via the miss measurement of inflation. Because they have lost the various consultations so far and CPIH has remained widely ignored the new consultation is only about when and not if.

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.

Meanwhile for those of you who like some number crunching here is how a 123.4 pence for the price of oil gets broken down. I have done some minor rounding so the numbers add up.

Oil  44.9 pence

Duty 58 pence

VAT 20.5 pence

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.

UK Real Wages have not regained their previous peak

As we switch out focus to the UK labour market we see two contrasting forces being applied to it. The first comes from the better news being reported for the UK economy recently.

Financial wellbeing expectations hit survey-record high in
February ( IHS Markit )

That came only yesterday and according to it the outlook is brightening.

Looking ahead, UK households signalled positive expectations towards their financial health. The Future Household Finance Index – which measures expected change in financial health over the next 12 months – rose to 52.7 in February, from 49.6 in January. The level of optimism was at its highest since the data were first collected in February 2009, exceeding the previous
peak seen in January 2015.

This led according to the survey to a better labour market situation.

UK households recorded a lessened degree of pessimism
towards their job security during February, with the respective index rising (but remaining below 50.0) to a seven-month high. Meanwhile, the rate of growth in both workplace activity and income from employment accelerated from January.

This survey is a curious beast because the headline index which went from 44.6 to 47.6 in this report has never been in positive territory. Whilst in some ways that does cover out experience ( real wages for example) it does not cover the employment situation which has been pretty good.

This backed up the survey of the wider UK economy conducted by IHS Markit earlier this month.

At 53.3 in January, up from 49.3 in December, the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit/CIPS UK Composite Output Index posted above the neutral 50.0 mark for the first time since last August. The latest reading signalled a faster pace of growth than the earlier ‘flash’ estimate (52.4 in January) and was the highest for 16 months.

This too came with positive news for the labour market.

This uplift in success also created some business pressures
as the rush to increase staffing levels resulted in demands
for higher salaries.

Apple and HSBC

Last night, however, brought a reminder that on a world wide scale there is an ongoing economic impact from the Corona Virus.

Apple Inc become the latest company to flag lower revenue as a result of the epidemic, saying it would not meet its revenue guidance for the March quarter because of slower iPhone production and weaker demand in China. ( Reuters)

The main Apple market is not yet open due to yesterday being Presidents Day but more minor markets have suggested it will open more than 4% lower. I note that Reuters is also reporting this for the Chinese economy.

Analysts at Nomura again downgraded their China first-quarter economic growth forecast, to 3%, half the pace in the fourth quarter, and said there was a risk it could be even weaker.

This morning we have seen another consequence of the era of treating banks as The Precious.

HSBC posted plummeting profits for 2019 today as it outlined plans to get rid of $100bn (£77bn) of assets and dramatically downsize its investment banking arm in a restructure that will cost 35,000 jobs over the next three years. ( City-AM )

We know that the situation is really poor because the chief executive has deployed the word “resilient” which we have learnt means anything but.

Today’s Data

Employment

The long sequence of good news in this area continues.

The UK employment rate was estimated at a record high of 76.5%, 0.6 percentage points higher than a year earlier and 0.4 percentage points up on the previous quarter.

If we look further we see that such numbers are based on this.

There was a 180,000 increase in employment on the quarter. This was, again, mainly driven by quarterly increases for full-time workers (up 203,000 – the largest increase since March to May 2014), and for women (up 150,000 – the largest increase since February to April 2014). The quarterly increase for women working full-time (also up 150,000) was the largest since November 2012 to January 2013.

Actually this continues to be a remarkable performance and is a clear gain in the credit crunch era. However we do need context because there is for example an element of subjectivity in the definition of full-time work. Those completing the survey are guided towards 16 hours per week which is a bit low in itself but they can also ignore that. Also the rise in female employment is no doubt influenced by the rise in the retirement age for them.

The overall position is that on this measure things turned for the UK economy in 2012 a year earlier that GDP picked up. Regular readers will recall that back then we were worried about it being part-time but that has changed. Overall though there has been a pick-up in self-employment with ebbs and flows which is currently flowing.

Whilst there is an implicit rather than explicit link to unemployment ( as there is also the inactivity category) the good employment news has driven this.

the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 3.8%; this is 0.2 percentage points lower than a year earlier and 0.1 percentage points lower than the previous quarter…..For October to December 2019, an estimated 1.29 million people were unemployed. This is 73,000 fewer than a year earlier and 580,000 fewer than five years earlier.

Wages

Here the news has been less good. Let me explain using today’s release.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain slowed to 2.9% from 3.2% last month for total pay (including bonuses), and to 3.2% from 3.4% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

This gives us two contexts. We have been in a better phase for wages growth but it has been slowing recently and that has continued. Things get more complex as we look at real wages as there are serious problems with the official representation of them.

In real terms (after adjusting for inflation), annual growth in total pay is estimated to be 1.4%, and annual growth in regular pay is estimated to be 1.8%.

The problem is that a simply woeful inflation measure is being used, via the use of fantasy imputed rents in the official CPIH inflation measure. This ensures that housing inflation is under-recorded and thus real wages are over recorded. A much better context is provided by this from Rupert Seggins.

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%. If the household deflator’s your thing, then it happened in 2016 Q1.

Can anybody think why Her Majesty’s Treasury is trying to replace house prices in the RPI with Imputed Rents?! Actually trying to measure housing inflation stops the establishment claiming house prices are a Wealth Effect rather than the more accurate gains for existing owners but inflation for present and future buyers. Returning to real wages as you can see it makes a very large difference.

Having established that I have been disappointed to see so many news sources copy and paste this part of the release.

In real terms, regular pay is now at its highest level since the series began in 2000, whereas total pay is still 3.7% below its peak in February 2008.

As The Zombies pointed out.

And if she should tell you “come closer”
And if she tempts you with her charms
Tell her no no no no no-no-no-no
No no no no no-no-no-no
No no no no no

If we look into the monthly data we see that the UK chemicals sector is doing well and wage growth has picked up to 8.9%. Care is needed with such detail but it has been around 7% for over 6 months. However other areas of manufacturing are more troubled with the clothing and textiles sector seeing no increase at all. Whilst I am all for higher wages I have to confess that fact that the real estate sector is seeing consistent rises above 6% has a worrying kicker.

Comment

We find ourselves in broadly familiar territory where the quantity news for the UK economy is again very good but the quality news is not as good. At least these days the real wages position is improving a little. But to claim we are back to the previous peak is frankly a case of people embarrassing themselves.

The numbers themselves always need a splash of salt. For example I have pointed out already the growth of the self-employed, so their omission from the wages data is increasingly significant. Also whilst we are employing more people this time around hours worked was not as strong.

Between October to December 2018 and October to December 2019, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK increased by 0.8% (to 1.05 billion hours), while average actual weekly hours decreased by 0.2% (to 31.9 hours).

I look at such numbers because out official statisticians have yet to cover the concept of underemployment adequately. There is an irony here in that productivity will be boosted by a shorter working week. Maybe even by this.

In October to December 2019, it was estimated that there were a record 974,000 people in employment on a “zero-hour contract” in their main job, representing a record 3.0% of all people in employment. This was 130,000 more than for the same period a year earlier.

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.