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

by Shaun Richards

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.

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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.

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.