Author: Dean Garratt

The latest inflation numbers are a joy for headline writers! With the falling price of toys, we can perhaps speak of ‘inflation toying with us’, while the fall in the cost of gas might allow us to say that ‘gas takes the fuel out of inflation’. More generally, the latest inflation figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the annual rate of CPI inflation falling from 3.5% in January to 3% in February. In other words, the weighted price of a representative basket of consumer goods and services rose by 3% in the 12 months to February as compared with 3.5% over the 12 months to January.

In compiling the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the ONS collects something in the range of 180,000 price quotations over 650 representative goods and services. These goods and services fall into 12 broad product groups. The items to be selected for these groups are reviewed once a year so that, in the face of changing tastes and preferences and changes in the goods and services available to us, the ‘CPI shopping basket’ remains representative. A price index and a rate of price inflation are available for each of these 12 broad groups as well as for goods and services within these groups. So, for instance, we can obtain a price for ‘transport’, then, within this group, we can obtain a price for the purchase of ‘vehicles’ and, finally, a price for ‘new cars’ and for ‘second-hand cars’. This level of detail also means that individuals can calculate their own personal inflation rates using the ONS personal inflation calculator.

So what of the latest fall in the rate of CPI inflation? Well, the ONS reports ‘widespread’ downward pressures. This phrase needs some careful unpicking. Downward pressure is reported from ‘recreation and culture’ because its average price was static in February, but rose a year earlier. Within this group, the average price of games, toys and hobbies fell this year, but increased a year ago and, so, our possible headline ‘inflation is toying with us’. Similarly, downward pressure is reported from ‘housing and household services’ where a fall in its average price this year follows static prices a year ago. A major driver of this change was a reduction in average gas bills and so our other possible headline, ‘gas takes the fuel out of inflation’.

The latest price numbers from the ONS show that some product groups are experiencing long-term price deflation. For instance, while the average price of ‘clothing and footwear’ actually rose in February, when we analyse annual rates of price inflation for this product group, one has to go back to March 1992 to find the last time it was positive! Indeed, within the slightly narrower product group of ‘clothing’, the average annual rate of price deflation over the past ten years has been 6.1%. A similar longer-term trend of price deflation can be found in the product group ‘audio-visual, photo and data processing’. Here there has been an average annual rate of price deflation of 9.9% over the past ten years. So, smile for the camera!

Articles

Rates set to remain at record low as inflation falls back sharply heraldscotland, Ian McConnell (23/3/10)
Inflation data boosts government before budget AFP (23/3/10)
UK inflation rate falls to 3% in February BBC News (23/3/10) )
Inflation slows more than expected Reuters UK, David Milliken and Christina Fincher (23/3/10)
UK inflation falls sharply to 3% Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (23/3/10)
Inflation rate fell to 3 per cent in February Independent. James Moore (24/3/10)
Inflation falls back to 3% Guardian, Philip Inman (23/3/10)
How soon before we scrap the Bank’s inflation target? Telegraph, Edmund Conway (23/3/10)

Data

Latest on inflation Office for National Statistics (23/3/10)
Consumer Price Indices, Statistical Bulletin, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (23/3/10)
Consumer Price Indices, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For CPI (Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices) data for EU countries, see:
HICP European Central Bank

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between an increase in the level of prices and an increase in the rate of price inflation.
  2. The annual rate of price inflation for clothing in February was -3.9%. If the average price of clothing was cheaper, year-on-year, how could it have exerted ‘upward’ pressure on the overall rate of CPI inflation?
  3. What factors might help to explain why, over the past 10 years, the average annual rate of price inflation for audio-visual, photo and data processing equipment has been -9.9%?
  4. What factors might help to explain why, over the past 10 years, the average annual rate of price inflation for clothing and footwear has been -5.7%?
  5. What factors might help to explain why the annual rate of ‘new car’ price inflation was 5.4% in February 2010 compared with -0.2% in February 2009?
  6. What factors might help to explain why the annual rate of ‘second-hand’ car price inflation was 19.0% in February 2010 compared with -15.1% in February 2009? And, are you surprised at the difference in the rates of ‘new’ and ‘second-hand’ car price inflation?

It is often said of statistics that you can make of them whatever you want to. Well, this appears especially true of the latest labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics. Firstly, the good news: unemployment fell. But, secondly, the not so good news: the number of economically inactive individuals rose to an all-time high. So what are we supposed to make of the latest figures? And, are there any other little gems to be uncovered in the latest set of labour market numbers?

At its most simple, an economically active individual is somebody 16 or over who is either in employment or is unemployed but actively seeking work. In the three months to January 2010, the total number of economically active individuals in the UK stood at 31.309 million, of which 28.860 million were employed and 2.449 million were unemployed. The number unemployed in the previous three months had been at 2.482 million. When expressed as a percentage of those economically active, the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9% in the previous three months to 7.8% in the three months to January.

The total number of economically inactive individuals of working age, i.e. those aged 16 to 59 (women) or 64 (men), stood at 8.157 million in the three months to January, which, as well being an historic high, was a rise from 8.009 million in the previous three months. This converts into an inactivity rate amongst those of working age of some 21.5%, the highest since the three months to October 2004. A key point though is that inactivity rates do tend to rise either during periods of rising unemployment and/or following prolonged periods of relatively high unemployment. For instance, following the early 1990s downturn the rate of inactivity peaked at 22.1% in the three months to January 1995. In comparison, following the boom of the late 1980s the rate, the inactivity rate began the 1990s at only 19.3% – a record low. A large contributing factor to the rise in inactivity in the three months to January has been the rise in the number of students not in the labour market to 2.13 million, an increase of some 98,000 over the three months. Again, parallels can be drawn with the early 1990s because this is the highest number of students not in the labour market since comparable figures began in 1993.

In part, it appears that inactivity levels reflect perceptions amongst individuals of the probability of finding employment. So, while unemployment has fallen by 33,000 over the latest three months we do have to keep in mind that inactivity has increased by 149,000. Therefore, this may be a case of a ‘jobless’ decrease in unemployment!

Some commentators, however, are more optimistic about the current trend in unemployment, pointing to the fact that unemployment levels have not hit the levels predicted, despite the economy contracting by 5% in 2009. They point to the flexible labour market. Of course, time will tell if this is truly a ‘benefit’ of a more flexible labour market. But, what is clear is that one manifestation of a changing structure to the UK labour market is the growth in part-time work. In the three months to January, 26.69% of those employed were employed part-time: this was another record high which seems to have been largely lost in the mass of statistics.

Articles

Unemployment falls as ‘economic inactive hits record’ Telegraph, Harry Wallop (17/3/10)
Unemployment plunge boost economy hopes thisismoney, Ed Monk (17/3/10)
UK unemployment records further fall BBC News (17/3/10) )
Gordon Brown given unexpected boost by fall in unemployment Guardian, Kathryn Hopkins and Julia Kollewe (17/3/10)
Not lagging, but not leading either BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (17/3/10)

Data

Latest on employment and unemployment Office for National Statistics (17/3/10)
Labour market statistics, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (17/3/10)
Labour Market Statistics page Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission

Questions

  1. What factors do you think could affect labour market inactivity rates?
  2. How might inactivity rates affect an economy’s potential output?
  3. What factors do you think will have contributed to the growth in part-time employment in the UK?
  4. The UK economy came out of recession in the last quarter of 2009. Does this mean that unemployment will continue to fall from now on?

One measure of the level of activity in the housing market is the number of mortgage approvals for house purchase. While a small number of approvals will not result in transactions because house purchases can ‘fall through’, the current number of approvals is, nonetheless, an extremely good guide to transaction levels in the near future. The seasonally-adjusted approval number for January 2010 reported by the Bank of England was 48,198. This has drawn a fair amount of attention because it was the lowest since May last year and it was the second monthly fall in a row.

The increase in mortgage approval numbers seen in the second half of last year represented an increase in housing demand and helps in understanding why house prices rose over the same period. But, we should perhaps put January’s approval figure into further context. 2008 saw mortgage approval numbers collapse to only 451,350 (or roughly 37,600 per month) from 1,323,609 (or roughly 110,300 per month) in 2007. The average monthly number of approvals across the last decade was 95,000 – roughly double January’s number.

So what a trawl through the figures shows is that the current level of approvals is by historic standards low, but still above the incredibly low levels seen during 2008. But, more than this, it suggests that we perhaps need to get accustomed to relatively low mortgage approval numbers. With financial institutions and households alike needing to remain cautious and rebuild their respective financial positions, we should expect ‘new norms’, so far as activity levels are concerned, for quite some time to come.

Articles

UK mortgage approvals fall for second month in January: BOE RTT News (1/3/10)
Mortgage approvals drop sharply BBC News (1/3/10)
UK mortgage approvals drop to eight-month low Bloomberg.com, Scott Hamilton (1/3/10)
Mortgage lending dives after end of stamp duty holiday Independent on Sunday, James Thompson (14/3/10)
Housing market turnover falls despite record low rates on new mortgages Financial Times, Norma Cohen (13/3/10)
Fears grow that new mortgage drought could hit house prices Times Online, James Charles (13/3/10)

Data

Mortgage approval numbers and other lending data are available from the Bank of England’s statistics publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) (See Table A5.4.)

Questions

  1. What factors do you think will have contributed to the fall in mortgage approvals in 2008? And what factors might explain the slight recovery in the second half of 2009?
  2. What factors do you think will be important in determining mortgage approvals in the months ahead?
  3. How might changes in the number of mortgage approvals be expected to affect house prices?
  4. What role might financial institutions, like banks and building societies, play in affecting UK house price growth in 2010? How might their influence compare with that in the period 2008/9?

In the Perils of snow and stamp duty blog here on the Sloman Economics News site we noted two particular influences that may have contributed to February’s reported fall in UK house prices: the end of the stamp duty holiday and the poor winter weather. Here we ponder a little more on the recent relationship between the economic and house prices cycles and, more generally, on the significance and causes of the recent imbalances between housing demand and supply.

What is particularly interesting about February’s house price fall (the Halifax put the fall at 1½% and the Nationwide at 1%) is that it is happening just after the economy reportedly grew by 0.3% in the last quarter of last year. But, then again, the house price fall is a reversal of an upward trend that started back in the summer of 2009 when the economy was still contracting! One’s gut reaction might be that cycles in house prices and economic growth ought to coincide. One reason for this is that the growth in income of the household sector will reflect the phase of the business cycle that the economy is in. For instance, during the slowdown or recessionary phase, like the period during 2008/9, the household sector’s income is likely to be shrinking and this will impact on housing demand. The magnitude of the effect on demand will depend on the sensitivity of housing demand to changing incomes – something that economists refer to as the income elasticity of demand.

We can, despite what might appear to be the recent puzzling behaviour of UK house prices, apply the concepts of demand and supply to gain some insight into what has been driving house prices. One way of thinking about the concepts of housing demand and supply is to relate them respectively to the number of ‘instructions to buy’ and the number of ‘instructions to sell’ on an estate agent’s book. We can then try and think of factors which might influence, in a given period, the number of instructions to buy and sell.

One possible explanation of the house price growth of last year is that despite the household sector’s shrinking income there were in fact a number of relatively cash-rich households out there, partly because the lowering of interest rates meant that the debt-servicing costs on variable rate mortgages fell. This left some households with more discretionary income to spend or to use to increase their housing investment by trading-up between one housing market and another. The key point here is if there is not a similar increase in the number of instructions to sell then the imbalance between the flow of instructions to buy and instructions to sell results in upward pressure in prices. In those markets where the imbalance between demand and supply is greatest price pressures are most acute. This appears to have been especially true last year in particular markets in the south of England.

So what of February’s fall? Well, again we have to think about the balance between instructions to buy and sell. What appears to have happened is that the demand pressures that built up in some markets lessened. And, as we consider elsewhere on this site, it is perhaps even the case that the wonderful British weather ‘played a hand’ by discouraging some households from looking to buy and adding to our estate agents’ lists of instructions to buy.

Articles

UK housing recovery running out of steam CITY A.M., Jessica Mead (5/3/10)
UK house prices ‘lose momentum’, say Nationwide BBC News (26/2/10)
UK house prices see first fall since June, says Halifax BBC News (4/3/10)
Fears grow of double dip for UK housing market The Independent, Sean O’Grady (5/3/10)

Data

Halifax House Price Data Lloyds Banking Group
House Prices: Data Download Nationwide Building Society

Questions

  1. What do economists mean by the income elasticity of demand? How income elastic do you think owner-occupied housing demand is likely to be?
  2. How important do you think current house prices are likely to be in affecting the number of instructions to buy and instructions to sell in the current period?
  3. How important do you think expectations of future house prices are in affecting the number of instructions to buy and sell in the current period?
  4. What role might financial institutions, like banks and building societies, play in affecting UK house price growth in 2010? How might their influence compare with that in the period 2008/9?
  5. Rather than economic growth affecting house prices, is it possible that house price growth could affect economic growth?

Figures released by the Bank of England show that in the third quarter of 2009 UK households increased their housing equity (i.e. repaid mortgage debt) by £4.9 billion, equivalent to 2% of their disposable income. This was the sixth consecutive quarter in which saving in housing exceeded net mortgage lending. Interestingly, during each of these six quarters the UK economy contracted.

Saving in housing (or ‘negative housing equity withdrawal’ (HEW)) will reduce aggregate demand if it is funded out of income that would otherwise have been spent on consumer goods and services. Since the proportion of income saved, as measured by the saving ratio, climbed from an historic low of 0.9% in the third quarter of 2008 to 8.6% in the same quarter of 2009, increased saving in housing equity has been depressing spending levels. Indeed, across the six quarters in which HEW has been negative, households have increased their stock of housing equity by £33.9 billion, equivalent to 2.3% of disposable income – money which could otherwise have been spent.

Increased saving in housing by households is an example of the household sector’s attempt to repair its balance sheets. Another example has been the fall in the sector’s outstanding stock of unsecured debt (e.g. outstanding personal loans and credit-card debt). Elsewhere in the economy, banks too have been looking to repair their badly damaged balance sheets and, of course, there is the considerable interest in how the UK government will reduce its budget deficit. We can expect these repairs to balance sheets to have some impact on the pace of economic recovery. What is less certain is the size and duration of these balance sheet effects.

Home loan repayments ‘a priority’ BBC News (29/12/09)
Homeowners pay off £5bn of mortgage debt Financial Times, Vanessa Houlder (30/12/09)
Homeowners stop cashing in on the value of their homes Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (29/12/09)
Mortgages paid off at the fastest rate for 40 years Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/12/09)
Homeowners rush to repay mortgages thisismoney, Rosamund Urwin (29/12/09)

Questions

  1. What factors might explain why UK households have been increasing their saving in housing equity during 2009?
  2. Why might increasing amounts of HEW, such as those in the mid 2000s, not necessarily result in higher levels of consumer spending?
  3. What do you understand by the ‘household balance sheets’? What do you think is likely to be the most significant item on the sector’s balance sheets?