We are facing both inflation and disinflation at once

by Shaun Richards

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.