Today has seen a shocking decision on the Retail Prices Index or RPI

This morning the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced his plans for the Retail Price Index or RPI. This is an issue close to my heart and something I have put a lot of time and effort into since its future became the subject of doubt in 2012. The moment we were told on Monday that today was the day I feared the worst along the lines of the saying “a good day to bury bad news”. With the Chancellor’s Budget Statement and the ongoing debate in Parliament over Brexit today has proven to be a day that the UK deep state thinks it can get away with something it has been angling for since 2012.

In essence HM Treasury has wanted to scrap the RPI because it is expensive in terms of the interest paid on UK index linked Gilts and for various pensions. Of course those making such decisions often benefit from RPI linked pensions it is for others and particularly younger readers that they want it to go. The last 7 years have seen various methodological efforts mostly around the formula effect but they have found themselves up against opponents like me and their cases have foundered and sunk.

Housing Costs

This is another area where up until today the HM Treasury effort had mimicked the Titanic. If we go back to 2002/03 the UK introduced a main measure of inflation that excluded owner occupied housing costs called CPI. Why? Well in a familiar theme it is cheaper for the Treasury as it gives a lower reading than the RPI, and more subtly when it is put in the GDP numbers it gives a higher reading ( averaging about 0,23%).

Next they though they could do better and find a way of measuring housing costs and further reduce the inflation number. That hit the barrier that house prices are soaring so instead of real numbers they decided to make some up. This is the Rental Equivalence system where they assume home owners pay rent to themselves when they do not. Rental Equivalence is the inflation version of Imputed Rents. In the UK the measure based on this is called CPIH and partly due to my efforts has been widely ignored.

House of Lords

The Economic Affairs Committee published a report in January after taking evidence from various sources including me and here is an example.

The Deputy National Statistician, Jonathan Athow, said that the lack of a measure of owner-occupier housing costs in CPI was its “major weakness”. Shaun Richards, an independent adviser to pension and investment funds, said that “if there is something untenable in my opinion it is a measure of inflation which completely ignores a very important sector which is owner-occupied housing.

In their report they then went on to reject the Rental Equivalence methodology of CPIH.

We are not convinced by the use of rental equivalence in CPIH to impute owner-occupier housing costs. The UK Statistics Authority, together with its stakeholder and technical advisory panels and a consultation of a wide range of interested parties, should agree on the best method for capturing owner-occupier housing costs in a consumer price index.

Over to the UK Statistics Authority

Here is their response to this.

In light of the 10 years of development and consultation, ONS are not minded to undertake any further engagement with users and experts specifically on rental equivalence and owner-occupier housing costs. There is never likely to be agreement on a single approach.

As no doubt many of you have spotted that is shifting the goalposts as the EAC from the House of Lords had rejected an approach. Why are they shifting the goalposts? Well they are back with the rejected approach.

ONS views rental equivalence as the correct approach conceptually for an economic measure of inflation, and one where sufficient data is available to make it practical. Of
course, they remain committed to ongoing monitoring and development of the CPIH and the Household Cost Indices.

Here is the crux of the matter. They have made a decision and regardless of the objections and argument they keep making the same decision. They lose the debate but come back again.Over time I have rallied support at the Royal Statistical Society ( which in another “accident” of timing is in a conference this morning and cannot reply) and as you can see above the House of Lords. So it leaves me mulling this from Hotel California.

And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast

Another problem with Rental Equivalence

Tucked away in the House of Lords report was something of a bombshell.

 We note that the private rental market is subject to its own distortions and may not provide a good proxy for owner-occupier housing costs.

The fantasy structure of Rental Equivalence relies on good data from ordinary rents. Just for clarity I have no problem at all with the concept of using rents for those who do. But there are two catches. They are hinted at in the quote above and let me specify them. There are doubts that the properties which are let are that similar to those which are owned. But more fundamentally I have seen experts post concerns that due to the mixture of new and old rents being incorrect in the survey used the number is up to 1% too low. Since it claims currently rental inflation is of the order of 1% that is quite an issue!

Research

This is something we are regularly denied as for example work was done around 2012 around the Formula Effect but has never been published. I and others are of the opinion that fashion clothing and more recently computer game pricing are factors here. Today is not for the detail but I wrote to both the EAC and the Treasury Select Committee on this subject on February 26th as follows.

My understanding of this which I have checked with others is that the exact impact of the change is unknown because the Office for National Statistics suspended its investigation into this back in 2012. Perhaps one day it will properly explain why it did this but for now the main issue is that we do not know the precise impact until the proper research is completed and peer reviewed. I am sorry to have to point out that your letter is therefore potentially materially misleading and has already had a market impact on the price of index-linked Gilts.

This is a familiar theme where there are claims of research but when you ask for it then it does not appear. If I ever get a reply to that letter I will let you know.

I had other concerns but I am here just establishing a principle.

Comment

There are various conceptual issues here of which the simplest is that over the past 7 years the UK statistical authorities have pursued a campaign which has been one of propaganda rather than argument. We have done much better here as those of you who have followed the replies of Andrew Baldwin will know. He has made the case for the RPIJ measure which revealingly was first promoted but then abandoned by the UK statistical establishment when it did not give them what they wanted. Their behaviour was similar to a spoilt child taking their football home with them.

On a conceptual level the statistician Simon Briscoe has covered it well I think.

The details of the opportunities missed are in the table below but with ONS producing sub-standard documents like the infamous “shortcomings” paper, OSR failing (I think ever) to criticise anything that ONS has done on RPI, and the UKSA board not even trying to sort anything out (and being subservient to the Treasury), there is little hope.

https://simonbriscoeblog.wordpress.com/2019/09/03/how-poor-governance-led-to-the-problems-with-the-rpi/

The OSR is the Office for Statistics Regulation to which I gave evidence and I would say they ignored it but for the fact I believe it went straight over their heads.

Let me also address why the Bank of England supports this. Their main game is to inflate house prices. So if you keep house prices out of the inflation measure it is all growth or from their perspective jam today. First-time buyers or those trading up face inflation and face in many cases unaffordable properties yet according to the inflation numbers they are better off!

But there is a glimmer of good news. I suspect that the Chancellor Sajid Javid thought he would kick this particular can onto somebody else’s watch.

Today the Chancellor has announced his intention to consult on whether to bring the methods in CPIH into RPI between 2025 and 2030, effectively aligning the measures.

I intend to continue to fight on as the establishment view has crumbled so many times before. There is hope around the Household Cost Indices mentioned above although they are a good idea which the establishment are trying to neuter ( You will not be surprised that it is in the areas of housing costs and student loans). So let me leave you with the Fab Four.

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to you door

 

The campaign against the UK Retail Price Index carries on

This week brought some disappointing news for the Bank of England. If we go back to Monday we were told this.

LONDON (Reuters) – British households’ expectations for inflation over the next 12 months rose to 2.8% in July from 2.6% in June, according to a survey from U.S. investment bank Citi and pollsters YouGov.

Longer-term inflation expectations rose to 3.4% from 3.3% in June, the Citi/YouGov survey of 2,011 adults showed.

“Rising inflation expectations should … support hawks at the (Bank of England),” Citi economists Christian Schulz and Ann O’Kelly said.

There are two problems there for the Bank of England. The first is that expectations imply that people think that inflation is above the 2% target and has been so. This is an implied defeat for the enormous effort that it and other parts of the UK establishment have put it getting our official statisticians have put into getting the Imputed Rent driven CPIH as the headline inflation measure.

Even worse the measure of future expectations has risen. This shows two factors at play. One is rhetoric as we are subjected to a media barrage about future falls in the UK Pound £ exchange rate. The other is the reality that the UK Pound £ has been in a weak phase and in inflation terms this is best represented by the rate against the US Dollar because it is the currency in which nearly all commodities are priced. Whilst it is relatively stable this morning at US $1.2060. Whereas if we go back a bit over 3 months to the early part of May we see that it was some 11 cents higher. Over the past year it is some 5.5% lower so we can see that there is some commodity price pressure on the cards so well done to the ordinary person surveyed for inflation expectations.

Producer Price Inflation

We can find out what is coming down the inflation pipeline from these numbers.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 1.8% on the year to July 2019, up from 1.6% in June 2019…….The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process was 1.3% on the year to July 2019, up from 0.3% in June 2019.

This is a change as the previous overall trend was for both input and output inflation to be falling. The main area is a little awkward so let us look at it.

On the month, crude oil provided the largest positive contribution of 0.30 percentage points with monthly growth of 1.8%. This is a 9.3 percentage points increase following negative growth of 7.5% in June 2019.

This is because the lower UK Pound has been a constant influence but the oil price has been ebbing and flowing to some extent mirroring the tweets of President Trump on the trade war. For example yesterday it rose 3/4% as he announced delays in planned tariffs on China. So the outlook with Brent Crude around US $61 per barrel is for it to have a small disinflationary impact looking ahead but the trend may change with one tweet.

Also do any of you have thoughts on this? The subject is on my mind anyway after last Friday’s power cut in Battersea.

This growth was mainly driven by electricity production and distribution, which increased 20.1% on the year to July 2019, the highest the rate has been since records began in 2009.

Consumer Inflation

Here the situation looks calm on the surface but there are two serious problems below it.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 2.1% in July 2019, increasing from 2.0% in June 2019.

In a world where US President Trump describes a 0.3% monthly and 1.8% annual increase like this I am not sure where this puts us!

Prices not up, no inflation.

Anyway if we return to the UK we see that a problem I have warned about before is back.

The largest upward contribution (of 0.08 percentage points) to change in the CPIH 12-month rate came from recreation and culture. Within this group, the largest effect came from games, toys and hobbies (in particular from computer games and consoles) where prices overall rose by 8.4% between June and July 2019 compared with a rise of 4.1% between the same two months a year ago.

Here is the confession that we are blundering in the dark here.

Price movements for these items can often be relatively large depending on the composition of bestseller charts and the upward contribution between the latest two months follows a downward contribution, from computer games purchased online and games consoles, between May and June 2019.

This matters because it highlights a systemic problem. A similar problem is in play with fashion clothing. Rather than doing something about it the UK establishment has been using the latter problem as a tool for beating the Retail Price Index with. Rather than research and reflection we get rhetoric.

Retail Price Index

Speaking of the RPI the annual rate fell to 2.8% which is partially good news for rail passengers because the rate at which regulated fares rise will be that. At east it is below the rate of wages increases. But there is a problem here too.

An error has been identified in the Retail Prices Index (RPI) in 2019, caused by an issue with the 2017 to 2018 Living Costs and Food Survey (LCF)dataset, which is used to produce the weights underpinning the RPI.

Indicative estimates show that if the corrected LCF dataset had been used to calculate the 2019 RPI weights, it would have led to an upward revision of 0.1 percentage points to the published RPI annual growth rate in March 2019, from 2.4% as currently published to 2.5% and a downward revision of 0.1 percentage points to the June 2019 rate, from 2.9% as currently published to 2.8%. No other month’s annual growth rates have been affected.

It is a good job that large amounts of financial contracts do not depend on this, Oh wait! But these numbers also matter in themselves.

House Prices

There was some excellent news here.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 0.9% in the year to June 2019, unchanged from May 2019 . 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.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 2.7% over the year to June 2019, less than the 3.1% fall in May 2019. Average house prices in London have now been falling over the year each month since March 2018.

With wage growth at 3.7% finally houses are on average becoming more affordable. As the London numbers highlight there are regional disparities though. On the other side of the coin house prices in Wales rose by 4.4%.

Comment

I have a couple of serious points to make so let me start with some humour courtesy of The Guardian.

City economists had forecast CPI to fall to 1.9% – instead, it’s now over the Bank’s target of 2%.

The unexpected rise could pile pressure on Threadneedle Street to raise interest rates, even as economic growth falters…

Meanwhile the problems with how we measure inflation in the UK pile up as computer game are added to the problems with fashion clothing. Yet the UK Statistics Authority and the ONS have instead spent their time joining the establishment campaign against the RPI. Please do not misunderstand me as I have a lot of sympathy with the ordinary statisticians who in my experience are doing their best, but it was hard not to have a wry smile this morning at us getting the numbers wrong and creating their worst nightmare a “discontinuity”.

If we look wider we see that there are problems elsewhere as the changes to package holiday prices showed in Germany and in the wider Euro area inflation data. That will impact the GDP numbers via the deflator. Ironically with an RPI style inflation measure or perhaps based on the new HII/HCI the UK could be in good shape here.

Let me give another perspective by quoting Paul Johnson of the IFS in Prospect Magazine from February.

A version of it, CPIH, takes account of owner occupiers’ housing costs and is the one that the statisticians would like us to use. But it is of relatively recent vintage and hasn’t really caught on yet.

He seems to have forgotten that it was the Johnson Review ( yes him) that recommended this in 2016.

ONS should move towards making CPIH its main measure of inflation. In the meantime, the CPI should continue to be the main measure of inflation.

 

 

The Bank of England reveals it is an inflation creator rather than targeter

Yesterday Bank of England Governor Mark Carney spoke at the ECB summer conference in sunny Sintra Portugal. Tucked away in a speech mostly about the Euro was a reference to the problems the Bank of England has had with inflation as you can see below.

While the euro area has continued to experience ‘divine
coincidence’ the UK has not (Chart 1). In the euro area, inflation has averaged half a point below target,
reflecting in part the drag from persistent slack in the labour market. In contrast, UK inflation has been above
target, averaging 2.3%, during a period where the economy was operating well below potential.

Over such a period that is quite a difference and for the moment I will simply point out that he has no idea about the “potential” of the UK economy as his speech later inadvertently reveals. But let us move on to his explanation.

That reflects the inflationary impacts of two large exchange rate depreciations and weak productivity that have
offset a major positive shock to labour supply. This has created tensions between short-term output and
inflation stabilisation in the UK that have not been evident in other major economic regions.

Missing from his explanation is the way that expectations of easier policy from the Bank of England helped drive both “large exchange rate depreciations”. The 2007/08 one pre dates his tenure at the Bank of England but the post EU Leave vote one was on his watch. I still come across people who think he pumped £500 billion into the UK economy on the following morning rather than getting the ammunition locker ready. But he did cut interest-rates ( after promising to raise them) and pour money into the UK Gilt Market with £60 billion of Sledgehammer QE purchases.

So rather than something which just happened he and the Bank of England gave it a good shove and that is before we add in that he planned even more including a cut to a Bank Rate of 0.1% that November. That did not happen because it rapidly became apparent that the Bank of England had completely misread the UK economic situation. But by then the damage had been done to the UK Pound which was pushed lower than it would otherwise have done.

We get an implicit confirmation of that from this.

Since 2013, the MPC’s remit has explicitly recognised that there are circumstances in which bringing inflation
back to target too quickly could cause undesirable volatility in output and employment.

In other words in a world where inflation is lower than before  it is no longer an inflation targeter and instead mostly targets GDP. Actually we get a confession of this and a confirmation of a point I have made many times on here as we note this bit.

Indeed, on the basis of this past behaviour in the great moderation, the MPC would have raised interest rates by 2 to 3 percentage points between August 2013 and the end of 2014.

Due to the international environment with the Euro area heading for negative interest-rates that would have been to much, But we could have say moved from 0.5% to 1.5% as I have regularly argued and would have put ourselves on a better path. Oh and I did say that Governor Carney has no idea of the potential of the UK economy, so here that is in his own words.

What we – and others – learnt as the recovery progressed was that the UK economy had substantially more
spare capacity than previously thought.

UK Inflation

It is hard not to have a wry smile at UK inflation being bang on target after noting the above.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) 12-month rate was 2.0% in May 2019, down from 2.1% in April 2019.

Tucked away in the detail was something which should be no surprise if we note the state of play in the car industry.

there were also smaller downward contributions from the purchase of vehicles (second-hand and new cars).

The other factor was lower transport costs as air fares fell mostly due to the Easter timing effect and the cost of diesel in particular rose more slowly than last year. On the other side of the coin was something which has become very volatile and thus a problem for our statisticians.

Price movements for computer games can often be relatively large depending on the composition of bestseller charts.

Looking for future trend we see what looks like a relatively benign situation.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 1.8% on the year to May 2019, down from 2.1% in April 2019.

There had been worries about the input inflation rate which picked up last time around but the oil price seems to have come to the rescue for now at least.

Petroleum provided the largest downward contribution to the change in the annual rate of output inflation. The annual rate of input inflation fell 3.2 percentage points in May 2019, driven by a large downward contribution to the change in the rate from crude oil.

Welcome news from house prices

If we switch to this area we see that the slow down in the annual rate of growth continues.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 1.4% in the year to April 2019, down from 1.6% in March 2019 . 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.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 1.2% over the year to April 2019, up from a fall of 2.5% in March 2019.

I am pleased to see that as the best form of help for prospective buyers is for wage growth ( currently around 3%) to exceed house price growth. There is a lot of ground to be gained but at least we are making a start.

There is an irony here as I note that for once this will be similar to the number for rents that are being imputed as the inflation measure for owner-occupiers. Yes for newer readers you do have that right as the official CPIH inflation measure assumes that those who by definition do not pay rent rush out and act as if they do.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.3% in the 12 months to May 2019, up from 1.2% in April 2019.

The problem for CPIH is that we have had an extraordinary house price boom without it picking anything up, so this is an anomaly and is unlikely to last.

Comment

There is a sort of irony in UK inflation being on target in spite of the fact that the Bank of England has mostly lost interest in it. The credit crunch era has seen other examples of this sort of thing which echoes when the Belgian economy did rather well when it had no government. We might well be better off if we sent the Monetary Policy Committee on a long holiday.

At the moment there have been quite a few welcome developments in this area. Because wage growth is positive compared to both CPI inflation and house prices after sustained periods of falls. Some caution is required as the RPI is still running at an annual rate of growth of 3% but we are in sunnier climes.There are troubles in other areas as the lower car prices highlight so we need to grab what we can.

Let me finish with a thank you to the Guardian for quoting me in their business live blog and for providing some humour.

Today’s drop in inflation means there’s no chance of the Bank of England raising interest rates on Thursday, say City economists.

Where have those people been in the credit crunch era?

 

 

 

Are UK house prices finally falling? It is very good news if so

One of the reasons that inflation measurement matters was highlighted yesterday mostly unwittingly I think, If we look at the subject of real wages in the UK we were told this.

Including bonuses, average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain were estimated to have increased by 3.4%, before adjusting for inflation, and by 1.5%, after adjusting for inflation, compared with a year earlier.

Whereas Andrew Baldwin kindly crunched the numbers using other inflation measures for us.

Using any other deflator one gets lower real wage growth: 1.3% with the CPI, 1.2% with the RPIJ, 0.6% with the RPI

So we have growth but there is a lot of debate about how much? As it happens CPI and RPIJ have moved more in line with the official CPIH measure but we have seen spells where it has been much wider. This issue does change how you see the credit crunch which I can illustrate with a tweet from former Bank of England policymaker Danny Blanchflower.

and still real wage growth 5% below feb 2008 levels….

That is from the official data series which has been switched to CPIH which makes real wage growth look better than it really is. Intriguingly as I pointed out the way the influence of Imputed Rents the former Bank of England policymaker replied with this.

Ok but doesn’t the harmonized E.U. measure do what you want?

To which I replied.

Nope as the inflation measure you used to target ignores owner occupied housing entirely. They are usually just around the corner from putting it in…..

Perhaps he had forgotten. But it does reveal how this importance of this matter gets overlooked. Also Danny was keen to emphasise the role of hedonics which reminded me of this report from the annual review of US consumer inflation.

From February 2018 to February 2019, the price of lettuce increased 14.5 percent while television prices decreased 16.8 percent. This compared to an increase of 1.5 percent for all consumer items over that period.

Anybody else reminded of this famous phrase.?

I cannot eat an I-Pad

 

Inflation Trends

If we look back a year the UK trade weighted index for the Pound £ is little changed however that hides a fall followed by a rally. Thus from the low of mid-December at 76 it has risen to 79.5 putting a brake on the economy equivalent to more than a 0.75% Bank Rate rise. Makes you think doesn’t it about all the hand wringing from the Bank of England over any 0.25% rise. However if we switch to the US Dollar whilst we have been rallying over a similar time frame we are nearly 9 cents lower than the US $1.41 of this time last year.

We find also that the oil price is not far from where it was a year ago with the current US $ 66/67 for Brent Crude being a couple of dollars lower than a year ago. However we did see a fall followed by a rise from just over fifty dollars on Christmas Eve so there will be some upwards pressure as this is reflected first in producer and next in consumer prices.

Today’s Data

Let me change my usual pattern and start with something I have been hoping for and doing so for a while.

Average house prices in the UK increased by 1.7% in the year to January 2019, down from 2.2% in December 2018 . This is the lowest annual rate since June 2013 when it was 1.5%. Over the past two and a half years, there has been a slowdown in UK house price growth, driven mainly by a slowdown in the south and east of England.

Maybe it’s because I’m Londoner that I especially welcome this bit.

The lowest annual growth was in London, where prices fell by 1.6% over the year to January 2019, down from a decrease of 0.7% in December 2018. This was followed by the East of England where prices fell 0.2% over the year.

I have some friends trying to buy at the moment and wish then well. It is symbolic of the times that a couple who both have professional jobs can only afford a shared appreciation property ( for readers from abroad they only “own” say 2/3rds). Switching back to the national numbers we see that with wage growth in January at 3.7% then over the past year there has been real wage growth of 2% in this area. This is a welcome move after many years of losses.

Also the more up to date numbers from LSL Acadata hint at more good news to come.

Prices edged up for the third consecutive month in February, rising 0.5% to take the average value of a home in England and Wales to £302,435. A spike in prices early last year, however, means prices are down 0.5% compared to this time last year.

 

Producer Prices

These numbers are beginning to pick-up the higher oil price.

The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process increased to 3.7% on the year to February 2019, up from 2.6% in January 2019…..Crude oil provided the largest upward contribution to the change in the annual rate of input inflation.

Over the next month or too this will also give the output number a push albeit a smaller one.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 2.2% on the year to February 2019, up from 2.1% in January 2019.

 

Consumer Inflation

This was a mixed month for our measures as shown below.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.9%, up from 1.8% in January…….The all items RPI annual rate is 2.5%, unchanged from last month……The all items CPIH annual rate is 1.8%, unchanged from last month.

The drivers were an upwards pull from apparel and transport offset by rises in recreation and culture mostly computer games and food and drink. Intriguingly one of the falls came from an area which has proved very difficult to measure.

The effect came from a
range of products but most noticeably from footwear, particularly women’s footwear.

Have any readers noticed this?

As to why CPIH continues to be the lowest measure it is because of the impact of Imputed Rents via the use of Rental Equivalence.

The OOH component annual rate is 1.1%, unchanged from last month.

This is very different to the United States where the official inflation measure shows that it is such matters ( they call it OER) which has pulled the inflation numbers higher.

Comment

It is genuinely pleasing to be able to report that real wages are outpacing house prices by a decent amount and even more so that this may increase, if we move from slower house price inflation to actual falls. I have been hoping for a long time that first-time buyers might get some actual help from this route rather than being helped to borrow ever more.

Of course this will not be welcome in Threadneedle Street where at the emergency COBRA meeting Bank of England Governor Mark Carney will be ruing the negative wealth effects and chewing his fingernails. I would not want to be the underling bringing him these numbers. But returning to happier news we may for once be seeing the beginning of an actual positive rebalancing of the UK economy as real wages make house prices ( a little) more affordable.

 

 

 

 

 

How much has housing benefit inflated UK house prices?

A subject raised by many of you in the comments section has been given something of an airing in The Times newspaper. An article has been written by Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and I welcome some light being shone in a dark area. However we need to tread carefully as Paul was the author of the 2015 Inflation Report which these days even he is admitting misfired. Here is what Housing Benefit is according to the UK Government website.

Housing Benefit can help you pay your rent if you’re unemployed, on a low-income or claiming benefits.

There is also a savings limit of £16,000. First Paul points out that a lot more interest should be taken in it due to the amount of money involved. Along the way I have highlighted the section which makes me think of the house price boom.

It is a curious omission. The government spends an astonishing £22 billion a year on housing benefit. That dwarfs spending on the police, on overseas aid and the budgets of many entire government departments. Spending on this one benefit has doubled since the early 2000s. More than four million households receive it. All that is true despite repeated cuts in generosity such that for most working-age people it covers a lower proportion of their actual rent than was the case in the past.

Once we get over the size of the intervention there are two main themes here I think. Firstly is the flow of £22 billion into the housing market to support house prices and rents. I am sorry to say that Paul rather fumbles this ball.

 If you’re paying that much money to that many people to cover their rent, you might expect that to push up the market level of rent. I say we don’t know because there isn’t a lot of robust evidence telling us that is definitely happening, and indeed some evidence that it doesn’t happen in the short-term.

I would suggest that when you have evidence that water isn’t wet you have a rethink as a simple process of following the money seems a much better guide to me. Also the second theme is common in the modern era where we are told something if being cut back but more money is spent on it in both nominal and real terms.

The problems

Let us work our way through the problems listed.

First, it is an awful lot of money.

As we have done that one let’s move on.

Second, as a means-tested benefit affecting large numbers of people, housing benefit can have substantial effects on work incentives.

This is a point many of you have made in the comments section and we are in an area I feel strongly about called the “Poverty Trap” where marginal tax rates can be very high and on occasion above 100% ( which in spite of the insanity of it has existed). The idea of those on low incomes paying proportionately as much tax as those on very high incomes is madness but also sadly reality for some. Here I am from February 4th 2010.

1. End the poverty trap that has the highest marginal tax rates for our poorest citizens.

Returning to this list.

Third, this scale of spending is itself a reflection of many of the other problems we face in the housing market.

Agreed and it reminds us yet again of the link here between this and other flows of money into the UK housing market and the level of house prices and rents.

Fourth, spending on this scale could itself be exacerbating some of those problems, potentially pushing up rents and acting as a transfer to landlords.

Amazing how Paul seems so doubtful about £22 billion a year having a material impact. But you see this is an area where he went wrong with his 2015 Inflation Report when he recommended the CPIH inflation measure which uses Imputed Rents via Rental Equivalance for owner-occupiers. If you are thinking that seems silly because owner-occupiers do not pay rent you are correct. But you see that line of thought has led to the use of very low numbers for rent rises in the inflation numbers like the latest one shown below.

Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK rose by 1.0% in the 12 months to January 2019, unchanged from December 2018.

Yet we need apparently to keep pouring extra money into this area suggesting something is very wrong! Conveniently the official inflation measure is kept low by all of this.

And fifth, cuts in recent years mean that, despite the scale of spending, many families are left struggling to pay their rent and to cover other living expenses.

As there is apparently little or no rental inflation and there have been cuts there must be plenty more people claiming this benefit which begs the question why?

What has caused this?

The main drivers of the increase in spending have been the rapid expansion of the private rented sector alongside increased rents in social housing, in part because cheaper council housing has been in decline.

The shift from social renting to private renting is clear although the article suddenly gets rather economical with the truth.

If you own your own home, you are not eligible for housing benefit, so the collapse in rates of owner-occupation has played an important role.

I was curious about the use of the word collapse in reference to owner-occupation as the House of Commons Library put it like this in June 2017.

The rate of owner-occupation is also slightly lower than it was ten years ago.

Also here is the English Housing Survey from last month.

However, the rate of owner occupation has not changed since 2013-14. The increase from 63% in 2016-17 to 64% in 2017-18 is not statistically significant.

People are now paying higher rents which returning to my point above has been missed by the inflation data as private rents are higher than social or council housing ones. Back to Paul’s article.

Rents in the private sector are much higher than those in the much-diminished local authority sector.

There are issues of luck as to geography as well.

 If you live in Liverpool and have no private income, your housing benefit will still cover your full rent if you live in a property in the lowest 30 per cent of local rents. In Greater Manchester you’ll be left with more than 15 per cent of the rent to pay and in much of London you’ll need to come up with more than a quarter of the rent bill from somewhere.

Comment

This is an important issue as we consider this.

In the long run, the solution to these issues can’t come from the housing benefit system itself. The trade-offs are inescapable. It will come from fixing the underlying problems — high rents, high house prices, inadequate social housing.

It can however help as we again mull how rents have got so high with apparently no inflation? Paul continues to have a blind spot here as we have a factor in how people feel they are worse off than the official data tells them.

The idea of a flow of money into the housing sector boosting house prices and rents gets further support from what are substantial sums even after the  cuts.

Even so, if you are entitled to a three-bedroom property, perhaps because you are a couple with two older children, you can easily be entitled to more than £300 a week in London and more than £200 a week in parts of the South East.

Then we finish by mulling the travesty and unfairness of the poverty-trap.

Many people in that position are trapped on benefits. They can’t earn enough to break free of the benefits system and because of the way in which housing benefit is withdrawn at a rate of 65p for every pound as earnings rise, the financial gain from earning more is limited, especially when other benefits and tax credits are also being withdrawn.

Also if we look back in time was the problem even more in the shadows? What I mean by that was there was a form of implicit subsidy in lower council house rents back in the day to the extent that they were below market rents.

Podcast

 

 

Good news for UK inflation comes with another attempt to mislead us

Yesterday saw quite a development in the UK inflation measurement saga as the Treasury Select Committee joined the fray by writing to the UK National Statistician John Pullinger.

As the Economic Affairs Committee presented in their report, the error caused the RPI to be artificially inflated by 0.3 percentage points in 2010……There was general agreement amongst the witnesses spoken to that the 0.3 percentage point increase was an error, and of course you yourself admitted this. Instead of fixing this however, you have designated RPI a “legacy measure”, making no further  improvements to the index. This is not a tenable position when the index remains in widespread use. The past RPI index-linked Gilt matures in 2068.

As I have already replied to the Financial Times on the subject there are some good parts to this but also problems.

Fair enough, except we have an immediate problem as the very bodies which have so failed us over the past 7 years such as the UK Statistics Authority are now supposed to fix a problem they are not only part of they have contributed to. When I gave evidence to it I felt it was simply going through the motions.

The National Statistician and the UK Statistics Authority have failed so comprehensively they cannot be part of the solution. Also as I have reflected on this there are two other problems. Firstly the approach above seems to want to turn the clock back to before 2010 when the RPI was affected by a change in the method of collecting prices for clothing which has turned out to especially impact fashion clothing. Whereas we need to go forwards with an improved model. Also they have come out with a 0.3% number out of thin air as I recall the evidence of Simon Briscoe who gave the most evidence in this area and he wanted further research to get a number rather than stating one, So this from the Treasury Select Committee is both unfounded and potentially misleading.

This has led to a £1 billion yearly windfall for index-linked gilt holders, at the expense of consumers, like students who have seen interest on their loans rise, or rail passengers affected by increasing fares.

You see students,consumers and rail passengers have been affected by a political choice which was to use the higher RPI for when we pay for things and the invariably lower CPI when the government pays for things. Former Chancellor George Osborne was responsible for this swerve which boosted the government;s finances via a type of stealth tax. So I can see why government MPs are keen to push this view but more surprised that opposition MPs have joined in, perhaps they were so busy looking good for the crowd they did not stop to think.

There is also another serious problem as I wrote to the FT.

Next we have the issue that official communiques seem to forget that there are problems with other inflation measures too. For example the House of Lords was very critical of a major part of the measure the UK Office for National Statistics has pushed hard.

 

“We are not convinced by the use of rental equivalence in CPIH to impute owner-occupier housing costs”

 

Can anybody spot the mention of the flawed CPIH above? Those of a fair mind looking for balance would think it deserves it. You see it is always like that……

As you can see there are familiar issues here where the establishment takes evidence but then cherry picks it to come to an answer it wanted all along! A balanced report would recommend changes to both RPI and CPIH. After all the latter is supposed to be the new main inflation measure. Also the use of 0.3% seems to be answering a question before it has been properly asked! We were supposed to go forwards and measure the impact of the changes made in 2010 so if the MPs via their own expertise have calculated the answer at 0.3% they should explain their calculations and reasoning.

I will be writing to them challenging them on these issues. They seem to be unduly influenced by the work of the economics editor of the Financial Times Chris Giles who keeps claiming that index-linked Gilt holders who he called “the gnomes of Zurich” at the Royal Statistical Society. I have challenged him on that statement as after spending many years in that market I do not recall ever dealing with one of these creatures and we know that many UK pension funds including the Bank of England one invest in it instead. Until we do the proper research we cannot know if there has been a windfall let alone the size of it. Chris is much quieter these days past about his vigorous support of CPIH and rental equivalence.

Today’s Data

This brought some welcome good news.

The all items CPI annual rate is 1.8%, down from 2.1% in December.

This has various consequences as for example it has been quite a while since the Bank of England has been below its inflation target. Although as it was partly to do with the Ofgem price cap some of it will not last as it reversed it a few days ago.

The largest downward contribution to the change in the 12-month rate came from electricity, gas and other fuels, with prices overall falling between December 2018 and January 2019 compared with price rises the same time a year ago.

Actually just as I am typing this I see this on Sky News.

Energy supplier Npower says it will raise its standard gas and electricity prices by 10% from 1 April.

If we look further upstream for price trends we see that the pressure continues to be downwards.

The headline rate of output inflation for goods leaving the factory gate was 2.1% on the year to January 2019, down from 2.4% in December 2018…..The growth rate of prices for materials and fuels used in the manufacturing process slowed to 2.9% on the year to January 2019, down from 3.2% in December 2018.

If we move to the RPI we see that it fell as well and also would have been on target in annual terms.

The all items RPI annual rate is 2.5%, down from 2.7% last month. The annual rate for RPIX, the all items RPI excluding mortgage interest payments (MIPs), is
2.5%, down from 2.7% last month.

Comment

It is a welcome development that I can point out that UK real wages are now increasing against all our inflation measures. After a credit crunch that has been something of a nuclear winter for real wage growth it is nice to see and report on, but sadly we have a long way to go to get back to where we were. Some good news in what looks like an economic downturn.

Let me translate my views on inflation measurement above to a real life example. You see if you follow the establishment mantra you tell people they are better off than they are as the Resolution Foundation has done here.

 

Using the CPIH inflation measure understates the fall in real wages we have seen via its use of rents that are never paid ( Imputed Rent) as a measure of owner occupied housing costs. For newer readers CPIH assumes that people who own a house pay themselves rent and even worse these “estimates” are based on rental data which is dubious and suggested by some to be 1% too low via the wrong balance between new and old rents. In a nutshell this is why I have persisted in my long campaign about inflation measurement because the establishment is happy to produce numbers which to be polite are economical with the truth. I am not.

 

Victory on the Retail Prices Index! And it feels good!

This morning I have some good news to report which is the result of the around 7 year campaign I have conducted in support of the Retail Price Index or RPI. I have given regular readers a sense of deja vu with the headline and let me add to that with something I wrote for Mindful Money back on the 10th of January 2013.

I am pleased to report that today’s update will be very upbeat and will contain sections which I hoped to be able to write but felt were certainly far from favourite to take place. Regular readers will be aware that the subject of inflation is a specialist subject for me and a sub-section is the official attempts to “improve” ( in my financial lexicon such an “improvement” equals a lower number). Accordingly when the National Statistician decided to have a consultation to “improve” the UK Retail Price Index I feared the worst. However I hoped and worked for the best as I not only attended the public meeting and explained my view but responded to the consultation both in my own name and as part of the RPI CPI User Group at the Royal Statistical Society.

Those who have followed the saga will recall that last summer I noted a new review of the Retail Prices Index this time by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee ( EAC). I feared another establishment stitch-up so I invited the EAC to a meeting on the subject at the Royal Statistical Society to expose them to other points of view, including mine as I was one of the speakers.

In case you are wondering what this is about I will go through the technical points below but it can be summarised in the theme that the establishment invariably finds reasons to object to inflation measures which give higher numbers and favour ones with lower numbers. In terms of UK inflation that means attacking the RPI (2.7%) and proposing the measure called CPIH (2%). From the point of view of HM Treasury such a gap if compounded over time on matters such as pensions and benefits saves it a lot of money, and the gap has usually been larger than that recently. Thus whilst I have battled the Office for National Statistics, the Office for Statistics Regulation and for long periods the economic editor of the Financial Times Chris Giles the main opponent in my opinion has been HM Treasury.

What has happened here?

The official campaign was publicly pushed as being due to what has been called the “Formula Effect” which is much of the gap between RPI and the various CPI variants. I have long thought that much of the force behind the argument came from the fact that the RPI has house prices in it as well, leading to usually higher readings. But there was a way of investigating and then (hopefully) fixing this Formula Effect.

We heard evidence that the Carli formula, as used in the RPI, produces an upward bias. But expert opinion on the shortcomings of the RPI differs……. There is however broad agreement that the widening of the range of clothing for which prices were collected has produced price data which, when combined with the Carli formula, have led to a substantial increase in the annual rate of growth of RPI.

The Formula Effect has been driven by a problem in the clothing sector and particularly fashion clothing triggered by a change made in 2010. My argument all along has been let’s fix that as the Formula Effect would then be much smaller. The estimates are that the Formula Effect would be halved and maybe a bit more. We do not of course absolutely know this although there was some official research ( which was rather suspiciously abandoned) back in 2012 which gives some clues. If we get the Formula Effect more than halved then this can return to one for statistical purists rather than being at the forefront of the UK inflation debate.

given the properties of the Carli formula that may lead to upward bias have long been evident, yet expert opinion still differs, it may be a perpetual debate.

Putting it another way a major influence in this has been price collection on women’s strappy tops. The statistician Simon Briscoe was very powerful on this point.

We have to bear in mind that strappy tops are one-thirtieth of one per cent of the RPI. I can think of no other area of life or public policy where if one three-thousandth of something was wrong, we would discard the whole lot. We would simply mend it.

Housing Costs

Those who have followed my work on this subject will know that I can only type, yes yes yes! To this next bit.

We are not convinced by the use of rental equivalence in CPIH to impute owner-occupier housing costs.

This has been a long battle against the UK establishment and for most of this period against the Financial Times as well. For example the Paul Johnson Inflation Review of 2015 supported the use of the inflation measure CPIH which uses rental equivalence or imputed rents. These do not exist in real life and are an entirely fictional concept as opposed to the house prices ( via a depreciation component) and mortgage interest-rates which not only exist but are widely understood that the RPI uses.

If it was left to me I would improve the RPI by having an explicit house price component rather than the implicit depreciation one. Maybe the EAC will get around to that.

Comment

There is much to welcome here from the EAC as if its recommendations are implemented two major problems with UK inflation measurement will be improved at worst and fixed at best.However the statistics establishment comprising the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Statistics Regulation have seen their reputation badly damaged by the frankly spiteful decision to do this and then for the latter to rubber stamp it.

given its widespread use, it is surprising that the UK Statistics Authority is treating RPI as a ‘legacy measure’. The programme of periodic methodological improvements should be resumed.

I gave evidence to the OSR and frankly I was left with the view that it is the equivalent of a chocolate teapot and should be scrapped. Just to be clear the EAC does not go that far.

Also it is welcome that other areas have come round to more like my point of view as I see that the Financial Times and Paul Johnson have been willing to look to correct past mistakes. It is never easy to do that so we should welcome it.

On the downside I see two main problems with the Review.

In future there should be one measure of general inflation that is used by the government for all purposes. This would be simpler and easier for the public to understand.

I see the point of trying to stop the government from “inflation shopping” but the truth is that we need different measures for different purposes. For example a cost of living index for wage negotiations is not the same as one for the national accounts.

The idea that we should use CPI for now and then later use a new number that includes owner occupied housing later has various problems.

The government should begin to issue CPI-linked gilts and stop issuing RPI-linked gilts. We heard evidence to suggest there was sufficient demand to make a viable market

That seems silly as we would end up with 3 types of index-linked Gilts ( RPI, CPI, and the new measure likely to be the improved RPI). Also we were supposed to put owner occupied housing in CPI back in 2003 but somehow it got “forgotten” for over a decade.

So my suggestion is to get on with improving the RPI and give the work a twelve month deadline. Then in a year’s time we could issue index-linked Gilts based on the new measure. We might be able to update some of the existing Gilts on the new basis as well but that is a matter for the Bank of England but some we would not as there were explicit rules in their documentation.

Me on The Investing Channel