Inflation is a key macroeconomic variable and governments typically aim for both low and stable rates of inflation. In the UK there are two main measures of the rate of inflation in the UK – the CPI and the RPI. Over the past few years there has been a growing gap between the two measures and this has led to consultations about how the RPI could be adapted to allow it to rise more slowly in the future. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The RPI and CPI measure inflation in different ways – they don’t measure the same basket of goods. The RPI measure includes the costs of housing, whereas the CPI does not include this. Furthermore, the RPI is an arithmetic mean and the CPI is a geometric mean, which will be lower than the arithmetic mean. The ONS says that a key advantage of using the geometric mean (i.e. the CPI) is that:
…it can better reflect changes in consumer spending patterns relative to changes in the price of goods and services.
Typically the RPI has been about 1% higher than the CPI and governments can benefit from this by linking state benefits to the CPI (the lower rate) and payments they receive to the RPI, thus maximising the difference between earnings and expenditure.
However, the gap between these two measures of inflation has been growing and this has been causing concern for the ONS and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). This has led to the consultative process regarding making changes to the RPI. However, any change made to the RPI would put certain groups at a disadvantage. One such group is pensioners – many pensioners in the private sector have their pensions linked to the RPI and if a change were made to bring it more in line with the CPI (i.e. lower it) they would suffer. Ros Altman, director general of SAGA said:
After 30 years of retirement, someone who receives 0.6% lower inflation uprating will end up with a pension nearly 20% lower…Therefore, over time, pensioners will be able to afford less and less and pensioner poverty will increase once again.
There would be some beneficiaries of any change to the RPI – the government would benefit in some areas; company pension schemes might also see gains made; some students might benefit and even rail travellers.
An announcement was made by the National Statistician, Jil Matheson, on the 10 January. Much to the surprise of most experts, she has decided to keep the RPI measure unchanged. She did recommend, however, that a new index be introduced that would be published alongside RPI and CPI. The new index would better meet international standards.
The following articles look at the arguments for and against changing the RPI measure.
Articles prior to announcement
Pensioner backlash expected over pension reform The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (9/1/13)
Inflation: Changes to the calculation of RPI expected BBC News (9/1/13)
RPI review ‘may hit pensioners’ Express and Star (9/1/13)
Q&A: Inflation changes BBC News (9/1/13)
Pension holders and savers: beware of an RPI inflation change The Economic Voice (9/1/13)
Pensioners and savers face ‘stealth attack’ on their income from change to the inflation index Mail Online (9/1/13)
Articles following announcement
Relief for pensions as ONS says leave RPI unchanged The Telegraph (10/1/13)
RPI review recommends new inflation index The Guardian (10/1/13)
Inflation: No change to RPI calculation BBC News, 10/1/13)
The ONS puts consistency first BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (10/1/13)
Q&A: Inflation changes BBC News (10/1/13)
Announcement by National Statistician
National Statistician announces outcome of consultation on RPI ONS (10/1/13)
- How are the RPI and CPI measured?
- Why is the RPI typically higher than the CPI?
- What changes to the RPI were suggested? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
- Who would have benefited from each of the proposed changes to the RPI?
- Who would have suffered from each of the proposed changes to the RPI?
- Why has there been a growing divergence between the two measures of inflation?
- Do interest rates affect the RPI and CPI measures of inflation to the same extent?
- Which measure of inflation is used for the Bank of England’s inflation target? Has it always been the measure used?
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 700 items, with 180,000 individual prices collected each month.
In recent years, items such as lip gloss have been added to the basket of goods and in the latest adjustment, the ONS has added tablet computers, amongst other things. This is a market that has seen enormous growth. It has been added to the basket as a means of giving a more accurate representation of the price changes faced by the average consumer. The ONS has made it clear that items are not added simply because they are new or removed simply because spending on them has fallen.
‘In each of these cases, the item has not been added because spending has increased or because the product is new on the market … It is purely as part of the rebalancing of the basket to improve its representation of overall price change.’
It is essential that these changes are made each year, as consumer buying habits do fluctuate considerably. One area in particular has been consumer responses to changes in technology. For example, developing and printing colour film has been removed as, with the development of digital cameras, this is no longer reflective of what a representative household spends its money on. Further to this, some items that have previously been used in calculating the RPI have now been added to the CPI, again to give a clearer picture of household spending in the UK. The following articles consider what’s in and what’s out.
Teenage fiction and iPads now in official UK shopping basket Guardian, Julia Kollewe (13/3/12)
Tablet computers added to UK inflation basket BBC News (13/3/12)
New items used to calculate inflation BBC News, Emma Simpson (23/3/12)
Tablet Computers Enter ‘Inflation Basket’ Sky News, Darren Morgan (ONS) (13/3/12)
Inflation basket of goods 2012: full list of what’s out and what’s in Guardian, Simon Rogers (13/3/12)
Tablet computers added to inflation basket of goods Telegraph (13/3/12)
How has the UK’s ‘inflation’ basket has changed? Metro, Ross McGuinness (27/3/12)
iPad and Galaxy added to inflation index Financial Times, Norma Cohen (13/3/12)
- What is the difference between the CPI and RPI? Which is usually higher? Explain your answer.
- How is the CPI calculated and hence how is inflation measured?
- 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 should be included in the CPI? Are they truly representative?
- In the second Guardian 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!
While inflation is a concern in the UK and is making the Bank of England think twice about keeping interest rates at their all time low of 0.5%, inflation in Japan is being celebrated. The Japanese economy has been plagued by deflation for over a decade and for the past 2 years inflation has never been above 0%. However, in April the consumer price index (CPI) rose to 0.6% from the previous year, fuelled by petrol prices. Strangely it might be the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that helped this situation, as Japan was unable to generate sufficient electricity and hence had to import fuel from abroad.
A typical question from non-economists is always about why deflation and hence falling prices is such a bad thing. Surely, it’s great for consumers? For those shopping for bargains, perhaps it is helpful – after all, if prices fall, a consumer’s real income will be higher. However, the problem with falling prices is that people start to hold off buying. If you want to buy a car, but expect prices to be lower next month, then it’s a rational decision to delay your purchase until next month when prices are lower. However, next month, you still expect prices to be lower in the following month and so delay purchasing again. And so the process continues. When people expect prices to fall they put off their purchases, this reduces demand and so prices do indeed fall. There are also costs for businesses: as consumers delay buying, sales begin to fall. And businesses are also consumers, and so they start delaying their purchases of inputs.
While many central banks across the world have begun to tighten monetary policy, the Japanese central bank seems inclined to keep monetary policy loose and has even considered expanding the emergency lending programme. As Azusa Kato, an economist at BNP Paribas, said:
“The bank will probably add stimulus if it sees more signs of weakening demand”. “If you strip out energy and food costs, consumer prices are basically flat now.”
Despite this inflationary pressure, many believe that it is unlikely to continue and deflationary pressures may appear once again in the near future. The following articles consider the Japanese deflationary situation.
Japan ends 25 months of deflation Bloomberg, Mayumi Otsuma (27/5/11)
Japan consumer prices log first rise in 28 months Associated Press (27/5/11)
Japan beats deflation for the first time in two years BBC News (275/11)
Japan overcomes deflation for first time in two years Guardian, Julia Kollewe (27/5/11)
Japanese consumer price rise (including video) BBC News (27/5/11)
Japan April core CPI rises 0.6 pct yr/yr Reuters (26/5/11)
Japan experiences inflation for first time in over two years Telegraph (27/5/11)
Japan Inflation Rate Trading Economics
Consumer Price Index (Japan) Japanese Statistics Bureau
Inflation Rate and Consumer Price Index (CPI) (for USA, Canada, Australia, UK and Japan) Rate Inflation
Statistical Annex, Preliminary Version OECD
- What are the main costs of deflation? Think about the wider effects on consumers, businesses and the government.
- What has caused the increase in inflation to 0.6% in Japan and why was there an expectation that inflation would re-appear?
- What explanation can be given for the belief that deflation will soon re-emerge?
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain the process by which consumers delaying their consumption will lead to prices falling continuously.
- What is the best policy for the Japanese central bank to pursue in light of the new data?
As the new tax year begins, many changes are taking place. In order to cut the large budget deficit, sacrifices have to be made by all. The tax and benefit changes could make households worse off by some £2bn this year – definitely not good news for those households already feeling the squeeze. However, the Coalition say that the poorest households will be made better off relative to the rich.
Personal allowance is increasing by £1,000, which is expected to benefit £800,000 people who will no longer pay any tax. At the same time, the 40% tax bracket is being reduced from £43,875 to £42,475, which will bring another 750,000 people into this higher tax bracket, bringing in much needed revenue for the government. Employee’s national insurance contributions will rise by 1% and according to Credit Action, this will leave households £200 worse off per year. Benefits do rise with inflation, but they are to be indexed against the CPI rather than the RPI. The RPI is usually higher and hence benefits will not increase by as much, again leaving some people worse off. Child benefit will be frozen for all and will then be removed for higher rate tax payers from 2013. According to the Treasury, it is the top 10% of households who will lose the most from these needed changes. However, as Justine Greening, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said:
‘Labour left behind a complete mess with no plan to deal with it, apart from to run up more debts for the next generation to pay off.’
In order to cut the deficit, which stands at an estimated £146bn, spending must fall and tax revenue for the government must rise. The government argues that if cuts are not made today, even higher cuts will be necessary in the future and this will harm the poorest even more. Whilst the Treasury have accepted that there was a ‘marginal loss’ across the population, it is the highest earning households that will suffer the most.
Wednesday of woe as the taxman bites: Changes could leave you £600 worse off Daily Mail, Becky Barrow (6/4/11)
Benefit cuts: Labour warns of ‘Black Wednesday’ BBC News (6/4/11)
Tax and benefit changes: row over financial impact BBC News (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday will hig millions in tax changes and cuts Metro, John Higginson (5/4/11)
Taxman to take extra £750 from families this year Scotsman, Tom Peterkin and Jeff Salway (6/4/11)
Tax and welfare changes will hit women and children hardest, says Ed Balls Guardian, Helene Mullholland, Polly Curtis and Larry Elliott (6/4/11)
Black Wednesday for millions of British families Telegraph (6/4/11)
Majority of households ‘better off’ The Press Association (6/4/11)
- Where does the term ‘Black Wednesday’ come from?
- What is the likely impact of the 1% rise in NICs? Think about the income and substitution effects. Can you illustrate the effect using indifference analysis?
- Why are Labour arguing that women and children will be hit the hardest and the coalition arguing that it is the highest income households who will lose the most? Can both parties be right?
- What are the arguments (a) for and (b) against bringing in tax and benefit changes today rather than in a few years?
- How might these changes affect the economic recovery?
- Is it equitable that child benefit should eventually be removed from those paying the higher rates of income tax?
- Why has the government indexed benefit payments to rise in line with the CPI rather than the RPI?
In two recent blogs we have analysed the headache facing the Monetary Policy Committee, given the persistence of inflationary pressures in the UK economy, in deciding whether to raise interest rates. In Food for thought, Elizabeth Jones describes how, despite the weakness of aggregate demand, cost pressures have fuelled inflation while John Sloman in Time for a rise in Bank Rate looks at the difficult judgement call for the MPC in risking a marked dampening of aggregate demand by raising rates while, on the other hand, failing to dampen inflationary expectations by not raising rates. In this blog Dean Garratt analyses some of the latest inflation figures as detailed in the latest Consumer Price Indices Statistical Bulletin. In particular, he focuses on the inflation rates within the overall consumer price inflation rate.
You might be wondering what we mean when we refer to inflation rates within the overall inflation rate. In answering this we need to consider how the Office for National Statistics goes about estimating the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the CPI inflation rate (further details are available in Consumer Price Indices – A Brief Guide produced by the ONS). In order to compile the Consumer Price Index (CPI), each month an organisation collects on behalf of the ONS something in the region of 110,000 prices quotations for around 560 items. But, the key point is that these goods and services fall into one of 12 broad product groups which are referred to as level 1 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. Once the price information for our representative goods and services has been collected, the prices are compared with their levels in the previous January and the change recorded. These changes are then aggregated in both each product group and across all groups. The price changes are aggregated by weighting them according to the typical share of household spending that each good or service represents. This process is repeated each month in the year so as to always calculate the aggregate change in prices since January. The final step is to link the price changes with those from earlier years to form one long price index, both for each product group and for the overall shopping basket, so that at one arbitrary moment in time the index takes a value of 100.
Once we have our price indices we can calculate annual rates of price inflation. The annual rate of CPI inflation in December 2010 is recorded at 3.7%. This means that the Consumer Price Index was 3.7% higher in December 2010 than it was December 2009. Similarly, the annual rate of CPI inflation in November 2010 of 3.3% means that consumer prices rose by 3.3% between November 2009 and November 2010. Across 2010 as a whole the CPI rose by 3.3%, so in excess of the Bank of England’s inflation rate target range, and significantly up on the 2.2% across 2009. The Bank has a symmetrical inflation rate target of 2% plus or minus 1 percentage point (you may want to read more about the Bank’s Monetary Policy Framework).
Let’s look to delve deeper because price indices are also available for product groups at two lower levels known as level 2 and level 3 product groups. For example, from within the food and non-alcoholic beverages group there is a price index wholly for food and within this one for vegetables. Again annual rates of price inflation can be found for level 2 and level 3 product groups.
If we consider food and non-alcoholic beverages we find an annual rate of price inflation for December of 6.1%. This was its highest annual rate since May 2009. Across 2010 as a whole we find that prices rose by 3.4%, very much in accordance with the overall CPI inflation rate. Inflationary pressures within this category are not new with 2008 seeing prices rises by 9.1% as compared with 3.6% for the overall CPI inflation rate. Over the past 5 years, food and non-alcoholic beverage inflation has typically been running at an annual rate of 5% while overall consumer price inflation has been running at 2.8%.
If we now focus on food alone, we find an annual rate of food price inflation in December of 5.7%. While this is a little lower than with the inclusion of non-alcoholic beverages, it is nonetheless a full 2 percentage points above the overall CPI inflation rate. Across the year as a whole food price inflation comes in bang on 3% highlighting the extent of the inflationary pressures in more recent months. This, however, still falls some way short of the pressures seen in 2008 when food prices rose by 10.1%. If we drop to level 3 to focus on groups within the food category we find inflation rates for oils and fats of 11%, for fish of 9% and for fruit of 8.6%.
Within the 12 broad groups the highest annual rate of price inflation is currently to be found for transport where the annual rate of price inflation in December was 6.5%. Across 2010, transport prices rose by 8.3% which compares a tad unfavourably with the 0.8% increase seen in 2009. If we drop down to the level 3 groups within this category we can trace the source of the price pressures more readily. The cost of air passenger transport in December was up over 12 months by 13.5% and, you may not be surprised to learn, the cost of fuel and lubricants was up by 12.9%.
We finish by noting the only level 1 category to see prices fall across 2010: clothing and footwear. This product group saw prices fall by 1% in 2010. But, even here price pressures have emerged. Between April 1992 and August 2010 clothing and footwear consistently recorded annual rates of price deflation. Since September this has ceased with positive annual rates of inflation. The annual rate of inflation for clothing and footwear in December was estimated at 1.5%. Perhaps those socks in my bottom drawer really will have to last me just a little bit longer!
Inflation is a blip says Bootle BBC News (21/1/11)
Fuel prices could rise by 4p in April BBC News (22/1/11)
Paul Lewis: Why inflation is starting to buy BBC News (20/1/11)
High levels of inflation remains a worry for Beijing BBC News (20/1/11)
Inflation ‘biggest money worry for families’ BBC News (19/1/11)
UK inflation rate rises to 3.7% BBC News (18/1/11)
Inflation hysterics Financial Times (19/1/11)
Top investors raise alarm on inflation Financial Times, Richard Milne, Dan McCrum and Robert Cookson (21/1/11) )
Inflation hits 3.7% after record monthly increase Guardian UK, Graeme Wearden (18/1/11)
We knew inflation would be bad, but not this bad Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/11)
The mystery of clothes inflation and the formula effect The Economist (21/1/11)
Latest on inflation Office for National Statistics (18/1/11)
Consumer Price Indices, Statistical Bulletin, March 2010 Office for National Statistics (18/1/11)
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
- Describe the process of compiling the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Are we comparing the cost of the same basket of goods and services across years? What about within a given year? (Further details are available in Consumer Price Indices – A Brief Guide).
- Explain the difference between an increase in the level of prices and an increase in the rate of price inflation. Can the rate of price inflation fall even if price levels are rising? Explain your answer.
- 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 pressures on; (i) food prices; (ii) clothes prices; and (iii) transport prices? How would your answers help to inform how you would vote on interest rates if you were on the Monetary Policy Committee?
- The following are the consumer price index values for all items, food and non-alcoholic beverages, clothing and footwear and transport in 1988, 2009 and 2010. Use these values to calculate the percentage change between 1988 and 2010 and those between 2009 and 2010. Comment on your findings.
All items: 1988= 63.5; 2009= 110.8; 2010= 114.5
Food and non-alcoholic beverages: 1988= 68.2; 2009= 123.2; 2010= 127.4
Clothing and footwear: 1988= 163.8; 2009= 79.6; 2010= 78.8
Transport: 1988= 55.4; 2009= 112.7; 2010= 122.1
- How serious an economic issue do you think inflation is? Illustrate your answer drawing on real-world examples of the impact of inflation.