The CPI index fell by 0.1% in the 12 months to April 2015. This is partly the result of lower air and sea fares, as the upward ‘blip’ in these fares at Easter last year was not present in mid-April this year as Easter fell outside the period when the statistics are collected. What is more significant is that fuel, commodity and retail food prices have fallen over the past 12 months, and the exchange rate has risen, especially against the euro.
But how do we define what’s happened and how significant is it? It might seem highly significant as it’s the first time in 55 years that the CPI has fallen over a 12-month period. In fact, the effect is likely to be temporary, as fuel prices are now rising again and commodity prices generally are beginning to rise too. What is more, the pound seems to have peaked against the euro. Thus although aggregate demand remains relatively dampened, the main causes of falling prices and potential rises in the coming months are largely to be found on the cost side. This then brings us on to the definition of a falling CPI.
A falling CPI over a 12-month period can be defined as negative inflation. This is unambiguous. But is this ‘deflation’? The problem with the term ‘deflation’ is that it is ambiguous. On the one hand it can be defined simply as negative inflation. In that case, by definition, the UK has experienced deflation. But on the other, it is used to describe a situation of persistent falling prices as a result of declining aggregate demand.
If an economy suffers from deflation in this second sense, the problem can be very serious. Persistent falling prices are likely to discourage consumers from spending on durables (such as fridges, TVs, cars and furniture) and firms from buying capital equipment. After all, why buy an item now if, by waiting, you can get it cheaper later on? This mentality of waiting to spend leads to falling aggregate demand and hence falling output. It also leads to even lower prices. In other words deflation can get worse: a deflationary spiral.
If we define deflation in this second, much more serious sense, then the UK is not suffering deflation – merely temporary negative inflation. In fact, with prices now falling (slightly) and wages rising at around 2% per year, there should be an increase in aggregate demand, which will help to drive the recovery.
Should Britain Panic Over Negative Inflation? Sky News, Ed Conway (20/5/15)
UK inflation negative for first time since 1960; BoE says temporary Reuters, Andy Bruce and William Schomberg (19/5/15)
UK inflation negative for the first time since 1960 CNBC, Dhara Ranasinghe (19/5/15)
UK inflation rate turns negative BBC News (19/5/15)
Why there’s little to fear as the spectre of deflation descends on UK The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/5/15)
UK inflation turns negative The Guardian, Katie Allen (19/5/15)
Is the UK in the early stages of deflation? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/5/15)
Is the UK in deflation or negative inflation? Q&A The Guardian, Katie Allen and Patrick Collinson (19/5/15)
Market View: Economists unconcerned on temporary deflation FT Adviser, Peter Walker (19/5/15)