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)
- Is negative inflation ever a ‘bad thing’?
- Explain the movement in UK inflation rates over the past five years.
- How do changes in exchange rates impact on (a) inflation; (b) aggregate demand? Does it depend on what caused the changes in exchange rates in the first place?
- Why is the current period of negative inflation likely to be short-lived?
- Would you describe the negative inflation as negative cost-push inflation?
- What factors could change that might make negative inflation more persistent and raise the spectre of deflation (in its bad sense)?
- If inflation remains persistently below 2%, what can the Bank of England do, given current interest rates, to bring inflation back to the 2% target?
- What is meant by ‘core inflation’ and what has been happening to it in recent months?
- What global factors are likely to have (a) an upward; (b) a downward effect on UK inflation?
The latest inflation figures, as detailed in February’s Consumer Price Inflation Statistical Bulletin, show that the annual rate of CPI inflation hit zero in February. This is down from 0.3 per cent in January. While inflation is now well outside the 1-3 per cent target range that the Bank of England is charged with meeting, perhaps a more pertinent question is whether the UK is teetering on the brink of deflation – and the risks that may carry.
To get a better sense of the latest inflation picture we need to delve deeper into the numbers and look at the patterns in the prices that make up the overall Consumer Price Index. Interestingly, these shows that five of the 12 principal product groups that make up the index are currently experiencing price deflation.
As explained in Consumer Price Inflation: The 2015 Basket of Goods and Services, produced by the ONS, around 180,000 prices quotations are collected each month for around 700 representative items. These goods and services fall into one of 12 broad product groups. These include, for example, food and non-alcoholic beverages and transport.
The items included in each of the 12 product groups are reviewed once a year so that the chosen items remain representative of today’s spending patterns. A monthly price index is calculated for these 12 broad groupings, known as divisions, and for sub-categories of these. For example meat is a category within food and non-alcoholic beverages. The overall CPI is a weighted average of the 12 broad groupings.
The annual rate of CPI inflation in February 2015 was zero. This means that the price of the representative basket of goods and services was unchanged from its level in February 2014. As Chart 1 shows (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart), the annual rate of CPI inflation series goes back to January 1989 and this is the first time it has fallen to zero. Its average over this period is in fact 2.7 per cent. The recent fall is quite stark with the rate of CPI inflation in June 2013 close to the top-end of the Bank of England’s target range at 2.9 per cent.
Of the 12 product groups, five constitute 10 per cent or more of the overall weight of the CPI index. These weights are dependent on the relative level of expenditure comprised by each division.
Chart 2 shows the annual rates of inflation for these five groups (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). The most heavily-weighted component is transport (14.9%), which includes the price of fuel and passenger transport. Here we observe deflation with prices 2.7 per cent lower year-on-year in February. This is the fourth consecutive month where its annual rate of price inflation has been negative.
The second most heavily-weighted component within the CPI index is recreation and culture (14.7%), which includes games, toys and audio-visual equipment. Here too we see the emergence of deflation. In February 2015 prices were 0.8 per cent lower than in February 2014. Deflation is most prevalent in the fifth most heavily-weighted component (11.0%): food and non-alcoholic drinks. The price for this division of the CPI was 3.3 per cent lower in February 2015 as compared with February 2014. In nine of the last ten months the price of food and non-alcoholic drinks, helped by aggressive price competition in the grocery sector, has been lower year-on-year.
February also saw a negative annual rate of inflation emerge for the first time in the CPI division capturing furniture and household equipment and appliances (-0.3 per cent). Further, miscellaneous services, which include personal care and personal effects (e.g. jewellery) saw an annual rate of deflation for the eight consecutive month. The annual rate of inflation for miscellaneous services stood at -0.4 per cent in February. However, February did see an upturn in price inflation for clothing and footwear with prices 1.7 per cent higher than a year earlier while the price of alcohol and tobacco was 3.8 per cent higher year-on-year.
The detailed inflation numbers do reveal the extent to which many CPI divisions are already characterised by deflation. It is interesting to note that in A Comparison of Independent Forecasts published monthly by HM Treasury, the forecast for the final quarter of 2015 is for the annual rate of CPI inflation to be running at 0.8 per cent. An important reason for this is that the effect of falling fuel prices from November 2014 will begin to drop out of the year-on-year inflation rate calculations. The removal of this effect should help to prevent the specter of deflation provided that peoples’ inflationary expectations remain anchored, i.e. exhibit stickiness. If these were to be revised down, however, this would further contribute to downward pressure on prices since input price inflation – including wage inflation – would again be expected to fall.
U.K. on Brink of Falling Prices as Inflation Rate Drops to Zero Bloomberg, Tom Beardsworth (24/3/15)
UK inflation rate falls to zero in February BBC News (24/3/15)
Britain sees no inflation in February for first time on record Reuters, David Milliken and Andy Bruce (24/3/15)
Inflation hits a record zero boosting household incomes Independent, Clare Hutchinson (24/3/15)
Inflation Hits 0% As Food Costs Fall Further Sky News (24/3/15)
Inflation falls to zero in February as Britain heads to deflation Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (24/3/15)
UK inflation hits zero for the first time on record Guardian, Angela Monaghan (24/3/15)
Consumer Price Inflation, February 2015 Office for National Statistics
Consumer Price Indices, Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
- Explain the difference between a decrease in the level of prices and a decrease in the rate of price inflation. Can the rate of price inflation rise even if price levels are falling? Explain your answer
- Explain what is meant by deflation.
- In what ways might deflation affect the behaviour of people? What effect could this have on the macroeconomy?
- Why do you think policy-makers, such as the Monetary Policy Committee, would be interested in the inflation rates within the overall CPI inflation rate?
- What factors do you think lie behind the fall in the transport component of the CPI?
- Explain why the rate of inflation would be expected to rise in the late autumn, a year on from when the transport component of the CPI began falling.
- Does the possibility of deflation mean that inflation rate targeting has failed?
The rate of inflation in the UK is measured using the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). This is made up of a basket of goods and the ONS updates this ‘basket’ each year to ensure it is representative of what the average UK household buys. The basket contains 703 items, with 110,000 individual prices collected each month.
In past years, items such as lip gloss have been added to the basket of goods, together with tablet computers and teenage fiction. In the recent update by the ONS, e-cigarettes have been added, together with specialist ‘craft’ beers and music streaming. On the other hand, other items have been removed, as the world changes. For example, during the recession, champagne was removed as an item that the representative household was no longer buying. In other cases, items are removed as they become outdated or obsolete with technology changing. This is the case with satellite navigation systems. As people turn to using their smartphones to navigate their way from A to B, satellite navigation systems are no longer seen as an item bought by the representative household.
The UK inflation rate is at an all-time low of 0.3% and there have been concerns that it may become negative, meaning we enter the world of deflation. However, if this does occur, many suggest that it is not bad deflation, as it is being driven by the extremely low oil prices. No matter what the inflation rate, the ONS will always continue to update the basket of goods that calculates inflation. It is therefore essential that these changes are made each year, as consumer buying habits do fluctuate considerably, as income changes, technology changes and general tastes change. The following articles consider what’s in and what’s out.
From craft beer to e-cigarettes, inflation basket reflects Britain’s changing shopping habits The Guardian, Katie Allen (17/3/15)
Inflation-measuring basket of goods adds protein powder, e-cigarettes The Grocer, Andrew Don (17/3/15)
E-cigareets and craft beers in updated inflation basket BBC News (17/3/15)
E-cigs added to inflation basket Mail Online (17/3/15)
Craft beer, e-cigarettes and protein shakes dded to price basket used to calculate inflation Independent, Hazel Sheffield (17/3/15)
U.K. hipsters and gym junkies win approval in new price basket Bloomberg, Tom Beardsworth (17/3/15)
Spotify in and sat navs out: take a look at the new inflation basket The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (17/3/15)
E-cigarettes, craft beer and Spotify enter UK inflation basket Reuters, Toby Melville (17/3/15)
Craft beer and e-cigarettes added to CPI basket Financial Times (17/3/15)
- What is the difference between the CPI and RPI? Which is usually higher? Explain your answer.
- Explain why champagne was removed from the basket of goods during the recession. What is sensible?
- How is the CPI calculated and hence how is inflation measured?
- Why has there been a movement towards chilled pizzas and away from frozen pizzas? Is the change likely to affect their relative price? Use a diagram to support your answer.
- What impact has technological progress had on the basket of goods that the representative household purchases? Do you think that technological progress make it more or less important for the basket of goods to be reviewed annually?
- Do you think products such as the iPad and e-cigarettes should be included in the CPI? Are they truly representative?
- In the BBC News article, you can access a list of the products that are ‘in and out’. Is there anything on there that you think should be in or that should be out? Be sure to justify your answer!
At the end of January 2014, we looked at the problem of deflation and in particular at the fortunes of Japan, as its CPI was rising. As the blog explained, the Japanese economy, rather than being plagued by high inflation has been plagued by deflation and many suggest this is even worse.
In December 2013, Japan’s core consumer prices were growing faster than expected. The data gave the economy a much needed boost, following increases in government spending aimed at stimulating aggregate demand. This in turn pushed up prices, such that they achieved their fastest rate of growth in 5 years. Now, more recent date from May 2014 shows that the trend has continued. Prices in Japan have now increase at their fastest rate in 23 years, rising 3.2% and beating the forecasts of 3.1%. This means that prices have no risen in Japan for 11 consecutive months. Numerous policies have contributed towards this impressive trend for an economy plagued by deflation for 2 decades. Boosts in the money supply, increases in government spending, a rise in sales tax are just some of the contributing factors.
Although the economy is certainly over the problem of deflation, some are now concerned that such price rises may reduce consumer spending. An ironic twist, given that barely a year ago the concern about low consumer spending was due to deflation. The next 12 months will be a key indicator of how consumers will respond to this unusual inflation data – after all inflation and high prices have been pretty uncommon. The following articles consider the update on the Japanese economy.
Japan inflation rate hits 23 year high (including video) BBC News (30/5/14)
Japan April core CPI rises to 23-year high after sales tax rise Reuters (29/5/14)
Japan inflation accelerates Wall Street Journal, Takashi Nakamichi (30/5/14)
Japan’s consumer inflation set to reach five year high The Guardian (18/4/14)
Japan’s inflation at highest rate for 23 years The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (30/5/14)
Japan inflation quickens to fastest since 1991 Bloomberg, Toru Fujioka (30/5/14)
Japaense inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years at 1.3% in December 2013 Independent, Russel Lynch (31/1/14)
- Why is deflation a problem?
- Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
- Japanese policies have helped create a rise in the CPI. Which policies have been effective in creating rising prices?
- Explain how the sales tax has contributed towards higher prices.
- With prices rising, there are now concerned that consumer spending may decline. Using a diagram, explain why this may be the case.
- In the previous blog, we analysed the Indian economy and said that high inflation was something that was contributing towards lower growth. How is that low inflation or deflation can also contribute towards low growth?
Rising inflation: not normally a cause for celebration, but that’s not the case for Japan. Having been subject to the spectre of deflation for many years, the 22-year high for the CPI at 2.7% is a welcome figure, even it is slightly lower than expected. This surge in prices is partly the result of a growth in domestic demand and a sign, therefore, that output will expand in response to the rise in demand.
The Japanese economy has experienced largely stagnant growth for two decades and a key cause has been falling prices. Although consumers like bargains, this has been problematic for this large economy. Deflation creates continuously falling prices and this means consumers hold back from purchasing durable goods, preferring to wait until prices have fallen further.
In the blog, Japan’s recovery, we looked at inflation data showing Japanese consumer prices growing at a faster rate than expected. This ‘positive’ trend has continued.
When it comes to inflation, expectations are crucial. If people think prices will rise in the future, they are more likely to buy now to get the lower price. This can therefore help to stimulate aggregate demand and it is this that has been the target for Japan. Part of the growth in the CPI is down to the sales tax rise from 5% to 8%. This was the first time in 17 years that the sales tax had increased. Further increases in it are expected in 2015. There were concerns about the impact of this rise, based on the depression that followed the last rise back in 1997, but so far the signs seem good.
Monetary easing was a key component in ending the downward trajectory of the Japanese economy and, following the sales tax rise, many believe that another round of monetary easing may be needed to counter the effects and create further growth in the economy and in the CPI. As the Bank of Japan Governor said:
There are various ways to adjust policy. We will decide what among these measures is appropriate depending on economic and price developments at the time … For now, we can say Japan is making steady progress toward achieving 2 per cent inflation.
One of the ‘three arrows‘ of the government’s policy has been to boost government spending, which should directly increase aggregate demand. Furthermore, with signs of the CPI rising, consumers may be encouraged to spend more, giving a much needed boost to consumption. The economy is certainly not out of the woods, but appears to be on the right path. The following articles consider the Japanese economy.
Japan CPI rises less than expected Wall Street Journal, Takashi Nakamichi (25/4/14)
Japan inflation may beat BOJ forecast Reuters, Leika Kihara (22/4/14)
Tokyo consumer price growth at 22-year high BBC News (25/4/14)
Japan inflation quickens to over 5-year high, output rebounds Reuters, Leika Kihara and Stanley White (31/1/14)
Japan’s consumer inflation set to reach five-year high Guardian (18/4/14)
Tokyo inflation hits 22-year high, inching toward BOJ goal Reuters, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Leika Kihara (25/4/14)
Tokyo’s core CPI got 2.7% lift in April from tax hike The Japan Times (25/4/14)
Is Japan winning the war against deflation? CNBC, Ansuya Harjani (25/4/14)
- Why is deflation a problem?
- Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
- Use the same diagram to explain how expectations of rising prices can help to boost AD.
- Why is the sales tax expected to reduce growth?
- Why is another round of monetary easing expected?
- What government policies would you recommend to a government faced with stagnant growth and falling prices?