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 first link below is to an excellent article by Noriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Roubini was one of the few economists to predict the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. In this article he looks at the current problem of substantial deficiency of demand: in other words, where actual output is well below potential output (a negative output gap). It is no wonder, he argues, that in these circumstances central banks around the world are using unconventional monetary policies, such as virtually zero interest rates and quantitative easing (QE).
He analyses the causes of deficiency of demand, citing banks having to repair their balance sheets, governments seeking to reduce their deficits, attempts by firms to cut costs, effects of previous investment in commodity production and rising inequality.
The second link is to an article about the prediction by the eminent fund manager, Crispin Odey, that central banks are running out of options and that the problem of over-supply will lead to a global slump and a stock market crash that will be ‘remembered in a hundred years’. Odey, like Roubini, successfully predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Today he argues that the looming ‘down cycle will cause a great deal of damage, precisely because it will happen despite the efforts of central banks to thwart it.’
I’m sorry to post this pessimistic blog and you can find other forecasters who argue that QE by the ECB will be just what is needed to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone and allow it to follow the USA and the UK into recovery. That’s the trouble with economic forecasting. Forecasts can vary enormously depending on assumptions about variables, such as future policy measures, consumer and business confidence, and political events that themselves are extremely hard to predict.
Will central banks continue to deploy QE if the global economy does falter? Will governments heed the advice of the IMF and others to ease up on deficit reduction and engage in a substantial programme of infrastructure investment? Who knows?
An Unconventional Truth Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/2/15)
UK fund manager predicts stock market plunge during next recession The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (30/1/15)
- Explain each of the types of unconventional monetary policy identified by Roubini.
- How has a policy of deleveraging by banks affected the impact of quantitative easing on aggregate demand?
- Assume you predict that global economic growth will increase over the next two years. What reasons might you give for your prediction?
- Why have most commodity prices fallen in recent months? (In the second half of 2014, the IMF all-commodity price index fell by 28%.)
- What is likely to be the impact of falling commodity prices on global demand?
- Some neo-liberal economists had predicted that central bank policies ‘would lead to hyperinflation, the US dollar’s collapse, sky-high gold prices, and the eventual demise of fiat currencies at the hands of digital krypto-currency counterparts’. Why, according to Roubini, did the ‘root of their error lie in their confusion of cause and effect’?
The eurozone is certainly in trouble and, despite the efforts of world leaders to create confidence, it appears that most announcements are having the opposite effect. The risk of deflation has now emerged to be very true; the powerhouse of Europe ‘needs to do more’ and the euro has fallen following Mario Draghi’s recent comments. So, just how bad are things in the eurozone?
Mario Draghi suggested that as a means of stimulating the eurozone economies, a process of quantitative easing may soon need to begin. However, rather than reassuring investors that action was being taken to improve the economic performance in the region, it appears to have had the opposite effect. Following his comments, the euro fell to its lowest level since the middle of 2010.
Quantitative easing has seen much use in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the aim in the eurozone would be to put a stop to the continuing price decreases. The eurozone has now entered deflation and, while the aim of this economic area has always been low prices, deflation is not good news. The downward pressure on prices has been largely driven by oil prices falling and prices in other areas remaining relatively stable.
Quantitative easing would inject money into the eurozone, thus creating growth (or at least that’s the idea) and pushing up prices. One of Mario Draghi’s comments was:
‘We are making technical preparations to alter the size, pace and composition of our measures in early 2015.’
So, while it’s not certain that the QE policy will be used, it seems pretty likely, especially as this policy has been floating around for almost a year.
A key question is, will it work? The quantity theory of money does suggest that an increase in the money supply will lead to inflationary pressures, unless its velocity of circulation falls. But will it actually stimulate aggregate demand and economic growth? If there is more money in the banking system and hence more money available for lending then it may well stimulate investment and consumption. However, if consumers and firms are not confident about the effectiveness of the policy or about the future of the economy, then will the fact that more money is available for lending actually encourage them to borrow? In this case will there merely be a fall in the velocity of circulation?
The comments by Mario Draghi have also caused the euro to fall to its lowest level since 2010. The graph included in the CNBC article provides an interesting view of the path of the euro. Marc Chandler, from Brown Brothers Harriman said:
‘I’d say there’s a good chance it [the euro] gets there [parity with the dollar] before the election next November (2016) … We know the Fed’s going to be raising rates sooner or later, and the ECB is going to be easing sooner or later. I just see a steady grind lower.’
The outlook of the euro therefore doesn’t look too good by all accounts. It is now a waiting game to see if the policy of quantitative easing is implemented and whether or not it has the desired effect. The following articles consider this topic.
Eurozone economy slows further BBC News (6/1/15)
Eurozone falls into deflation for first time since October 2009 Financial Times, Claire Jones (7/1/15)
Eurozone officially falls into deflation, piling pressure on ECB The Telegraph, Marion Dakers (7/1/15)
Eurozone consumer prices fall for first time in five years Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone and Paul Hannon (7/1/15)
Draghi comments send euro to lowest level since 2010 BBC News (2/1/15)
Oil slump drags Eurozone into deflation The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (7/1/15)
Eurozone prices fall more than expected in December Reuters (7/1/15)
Eurozone lurches into deflation after oil price crashes Independent, Russell Lynch (7/1/15)
German inflation hits five-year low as Eurozone prepares for QE The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (5/1/15)
Euro slide could take it to parity with dollar CNBC, Patti Domm (7/1/15)
- Why is deflation a cause for concern when normally the main problem is inflation that is too high?
- What is the quantity theory of money and how does it suggest an increase in the money supply will affect prices?
- If quantitative easing is implemented, is it likely to have the desired effect? Explain why or why not.
- Why has the euro been affected by Mario Draghi’s comments? Use a diagram to help your explanation.
- How will quantitative easing help to stimulate economic growth across the Eurozone? Are there any other policies that would be effective?
- Oil prices have had a big influence on the deflationary pressures in the Eurozone. If oil prices increased again, would this be sufficient to create inflation?
The eurozone is made up of 18 countries (19 in January) and, besides sharing a common currency, they also seem to be sharing the trait of weak economic performance. The key macroeconomic variables across the eurozone nations have all seemingly been moving in the wrong direction and this is causing a lot of concern for policy-makers.
Some of the biggest players in the eurozone have seen economic growth on the down-turn, unemployment rising and consumer and business confidence falling once again. Germany’s economic growth has been revised down and in Italy, unemployment rose to a record of 13.2% in September and around 25% of the workforce remains out of work in Spain and Greece. A significant consequence of the sluggish growth across this 18-nation bloc of countries is the growing risk of deflation.
Whilst low and stable inflation is a macroeconomic objective across nations, there is such a thing as inflation that is too low. When inflation approaches 0%, the spectre of deflation looms large (see the blog post Deflation danger). The problem of deflation is that when people expect prices to fall, they stop spending. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. After all, if you think prices will be lower next week, then you are likely to wait until next week. This decision by consumers will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. This is the problem facing the eurozone. In November, the inflation rate fell to 0.3%. One of the key causes is falling energy prices – normally good news, but not if inflation is already too low.
Jonathan Loynes, Chief European Economist at Capital Economics said:
“[the inflation and jobless data] gives the ECB yet another nudge to take urgent further action to revive the recovery and tackle the threat of deflation…We now expect the headline inflation rate to drop below zero at least briefly over the next six months and there is a clear danger of a more prolonged bout of falling prices.”
Some may see the lower prices as a positive change, with less household income being needed to buy the same basket of goods. However, the key question will be whether such low prices are seen as a temporary change or an indication of a longer-term trend. The answer to the question will have a significant effect on business decisions about investment and on the next steps to be taken by the ECB. It also has big consequences for other countries, in particular the UK. The data over the coming months across a range of macroeconomic variables may tell us a lot about what is to come throughout 2015. The following articles consider the eurozone data.
Euro area annual inflation down to 0.3% EuroStat News Release (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation weakens again, adding pressure on ECB Nasdaq, Brian Blackstone (28/11/14)
Eurozone inflation rate falls in October BBC News (28/11/14)
Eurozone recovery fears weigh on UK plc, says report Financial Times, Alison Smith (30/11/14)
€300bn Jean-Claude Juncker Eurozone kickstarter sounds too good to be true The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/11/14)
Eurozone area may be in ‘persistent stagnation trap’ says OECD BBC News (25/11/14)
Euro area ‘major risk to world growth’: OECD CNBC, Katy Barnato (25/11/14)
OECD sees gradual world recovery, urges ECB to do more Reuters, Ingrid Melander (25/11/14)
- What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
- Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
- What policies are available to the ECB to tackle the problem of deflation? How successful are they likely to be and which factors will determine this?
- To what extent is the economic stagnation in the Eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and US? Explain your answer.
- How effective would quantitative easing be in combating the problem of deflation?
Over the past three months oil prices have been falling. From the beginning of September to the end of November Brent Crude has fallen by 30.8%: from $101.2 to a four-year low of $70.0 per barrel (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). The fall in price has been the result of changes in demand and supply.
As the eurozone, Japan, South America and other parts of the world have struggled to recover, so the demand for oil has been depressed. But supply has continued to expand as the USA and Canada have increased shale oil production through fracking. As far as OPEC is concerned, rather than cutting production, it decided at a meeting on 27 November to maintain the current target of 30 million barrels a day.
The videos and articles linked below look at these demand and supply factors and what is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming months.
They also look at the winners and losers. Although falling prices are likely in general to benefit oil importing countries and harm oil exporting ones, it is not as simple as that. The lower prices could help boost recovery and that could help to halt the oil price fall and be of benefit to the oil exporting countries. But if prices stay low for long enough, this could lower inflation and even cause deflation (in the sense of falling prices) in many countries. This, in turn, could dampen demand (see the blog post, Deflation danger). This is a particular problem in Japan and the eurozone. Major oil importing developing countries, such as China and India, however, should see a boost to growth from the lower oil prices.
Some oil exporting countries will be harder hit than others. Russia, in particular, has been badly affected, especially as it is also suffering from the economic sanctions imposed by Western governments in response to the situation in Ukraine. The rouble has fallen by some 32% this year against the US dollar and nearly 23% in the past three months alone.
Then there are the environmental effects. Cheaper oil puts less pressure on companies and governments to invest in renewable sources of energy. And then there are the direct effects on the environment of fracking itself – something increasingly being debated in the UK as well as in the USA and Canada.
Oil price at four-year low as Opec meets BBC News, Mark Lobel (27/11/14)
Opec losing control of oil prices due to US fracking BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (4/12/13)
How the price of oil is set – video explainer The Telegraph, Oliver Duggan (28/11/14)
How Oil’s Price Plunge Impacts Wall Street Bloomberg TV, Richard Mallinson (28/11/14)
Oil Prices Plummet: The Impact on Russia’s Economy Bloomberg TV, Martin Lindstrom (28/11/14)
Oil prices plunge after Opec meeting BBC News (28/11/14)
Crude oil prices extend losses Financial Times, Dave Shellock (28/11/14)
Oil price plunges after Opec split keeps output steady The Guardian, Terry Macalister and Graeme Wearden (27/11/14)
Falling oil prices: Who are the winners and losers? BBC News, Tim Bowler (17/10/14)Hooray for cheap oil BBC News, Robert Peston (1/12/14)
Russian Recession Risk at Record as Oil Price Saps Economy Bloomberg, Andre Tartar and Anna Andrianova (28/11/14)
Rouble falls as oil price hits five-year low BBC News (1/12/14)
Brent Spot Price US Energy Information Administration (select daily, weekly, monthly or annual: can be downloaded to Excel)
Spot exchange rate of Russian rouble against the dollar Bank of England
- Use a diagram to illustrate the effects of changes in the demand and supply of oil on oil prices.
- How does the price elasticity of demand and supply of oil affect the magnitude of these price changes?
- Explain whether (a) the demand for and (b) the supply of oil are likely to be relatively elastic or relatively inelastic? How are these elasticities likely to change over time?
- Distinguish between the spot price and forward prices of oil? If the three-month forward price is below the spot price, what are the implications of this?
- Analyse who gains and who loses from the recent price falls.
- What are the effects of a falling rouble on the Russian economy?
- What are likely to be the effects of further falls in oil prices on the eurozone economy?