Between December 2007 and March 2009, the Bank of England reduced Bank Rate on several occasions in order to stimulate the economy and combat recession. By March 2009, the rate stood at a record low of 0.5%. Each month the Monetary Policy Committee meets to decide on interest rates and since March 2009, the members’ decision has consistently been that Bank Rate needs to remain at 0.5%.
Although the UK economy has been making tentative steps towards recovery, it is still in a very vulnerable state. Last month, the Bank of England extended its programme of quantitative easing to a total £325bn stimulus. This, together with the decision to keep interest rates down and with the shock fall in manufacturing output contributing towards first quarter growth of just 0.1%, is a key indication that the UK economy is still struggling, even though the central bank thinks it unlikely that the UK will re-enter recession this year.
Monetary policy in the UK has been very much geared towards stimulating economic growth, despite interest rates typically being the main tool to keep inflation on target at 2%. The problem facing the central bank is that economic growth and inflation are in something of a conflict. Low interest rates to stimulate economic growth also create a higher inflation environment and that is the trade-off the economy has faced. Inflation has been well above its target for some months (a high of 5.2% in September 2011), and the low interest rate environment has done little to deflate the figure. After all, low interest rates are a monetary instrument that can be used to boost aggregate demand, which can then create demand-pull inflation. However, inflation is now slowly beginning to fall, but this downward trend could be reversed with the sky high oil prices we are recently experiencing. If inflation does begin to creep back up, the Monetary Policy Committee will once again face a decision: keep Bank Rate low and continue with quantitative easing to stimulate the economy or increase Bank Rate to counter the higher rate of inflation.
The data over recent months has been truly inconsistent. Some indicators suggest improvements in the economy and the financial environment, whereas others indicate an economic situation that is moving very quickly in the wrong direction. A key factor is that the direction the UK economy takes is very much dependent on the world economy and, in particular, on how events in the eurozone unfold. The following articles consider some of the latest economic developments.
UK economy grew 0.1% to avoid recession, says NIESR Guardian, Katie Allen (5/4/12)
UK interest rates held at 0.5% BBC News (5/4/12)
UK just about avoided recession in Q1, NIESR says Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (5/4/12)
Bank of England keeps interest rates on hold at 0.5pc Telegraph (5/4/12)
UK economy ‘weak but showing signs of improvement’ BBC News (3/4/12)
Bank of England holds on quantitative easing and interest rates Guardian, Katie Allen (5/4/12)
Faith on Tories on economy hits new low Financial Times, Helen Warrell (6/4/12)
- Which factors will the Monetary Policy Committee consider when setting interest rates?
- Using a diagram to help your answer, illustrate and explain the trade-off that the MPC faces when choosing to keep interest rates low or raise them.
- What is quantitative easing? How is it expected to boost economic growth in the UK?
- Which factors are likely to have contributed towards the low growth rate the UK economy experienced in the first quarter of 2012?
- Explain the trends that we have seen in UK inflation over the past year. What factors have caused the figure to increase to a high in September and then fall back down?
- What do you expect to happen to inflation over the next few months? To what extent is your answer dependent on the MPC’s interest rate decisions?
- Although the official figures suggest that the UK avoided a double-dip recession, do you agree with this assessment? Explain your answer.
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.
The prices of grains and other foodstuffs are rising rapidly. Wheat prices rose some 40 per cent in July and have continued to rise rapidly since. In June wheat futures were trading at around 450 US cents/bushel. By early September, they were trading at around 700 US cents/bushel. Global food prices generally rose by 5% over the two months July/August. And it’s not just food. Various other commodity prices, such as copper and oil, have also increased substantially.
At the beginning of September there were three days of food riots in Mozambique in protest against the 30% rise in the price of bread. Seven people were killed and 288 were injured. On 2 September Russia announced that it was extending a ban on wheat exports for another 12 months following a disastrous harvest. In Pakistan, the floods have destroyed a fifth of the country’s crops. Drought in Australia and floods in the Canadian prairies have reduced these countries’ grain production.
In response to the higher prices and fears of food riots spreading, the United Nations has called a special meeting on 24 September to bring food exporters and importers together to consider “appropriate reactions to the current market situation”. And yet, although global cereal production is down by some 5% on last year, it is still predicted to be the third largest harvest on record.
So what is causing the price rises? Is it simply a question of the balance of supply and demand and, if so, what has caused the relevant shifts in supply and/or demand? And what role does speculation play? The following articles look at the issues and at the outlook for commodity prices over the coming months.
Clearly changes in commodity prices affect the rate of inflation. The news item (Bank of England navigates choppy waters) amongst other issues looks at the outlook for inflation and the various factors influencing it.
Commodity prices soar as spectre of food inflation is back Guardian, Simon Bowers (6/8/10)
Food inflation is a rumble that won’t go away Telegraph, Garry White (8/8/10)
Global wheat supply forecast cut BBC News (12/8/10)
Commodity crisis sparks fear of food inflation on high street Independent, James Thompson and Sean O’Grady (10/8/10)
Should we be concerned about high wheat prices? BBC News, Will Smale (6/8/10)
Commodity prices: Wheat The Economist (12/8/10)
Interactive: What’s driving the wheat price spike? Financial Times, Akanksha Awal, Valentina Romei and Steven Bernard (20/8/10)
Wheat pushes world food prices up BBC News (1/9/10)
UN to hold crisis talks on food prices as riots hit Mozambique Guardian, David Smith (3/9/10)
Grain prices spark global supply fears CBC News, Kevin Sauvé (3/9/10)
GRAINS-US wheat firms after Russian ban extension Forex Yard (3/9/10)
Global food prices reach 20 year high BBC News, John Moylan (3/9/10)
Speculators ‘not to blame for higher food costs’ BBC Today Programme, David Hightower (4/9/10)
Q&A: Rising world food prices BBC News (3/9/10)
Don’t starve thy neighbour The Economist (9/9/10)
Commodity prices Index Mundi
Commodity prices BBC market data
Energy prices U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate (a) what has been happening to wheat prices (b) what is likely to happen to wheat prices over the coming months?
- How relevant is the price elasticity of demand and supply and the income elasticity of demand to your analysis?
- What factors have caused the shifts in demand and/or supply of wheat and copper?
- What has been the role of speculation in the price rises? Is this role likely to change over the coming months?
- What is likely to happen to food prices in the shops over the coming months? Would you expect bread prices to rise by the same percentage as wheat? If so, why; if not, why not?
- If commodity prices generally rose by 5 per cent over the coming year, would you expect inflation to be 5 per cent? Again, if so, why; if not, why not?
With the majority of developed countries now moving out of recession, many people will think the worst is over. But for some countries and some people, there may be worse to come. The single currency in the eurozone was introduced in 1999 and in December 2009, the eurozone saw its highest level of unemployment at 10%. There are now 23 million people unemployed across the 16 countries that make up the eurozone and many of those people reside in Spain, where unemployment has reached a 12-year high of 18.8% and is even expected to reach 20%.
Interest rates in the eurozone and in the UK have been maintained at 1% and 0.5% respectively, and inflation has seen a rise in both places. Whilst in the eurozone inflation remains well below the inflation target, in the UK there has been a rapid rise to 2.9% to December 2009 (see Too much of a push from costs but no pull from demand)
While Spain is suffering from mass unemployment, Greece is struggling with the burden of a huge budget deficit. The former European Central Bank Chief Economist, Otmar Issing, has said that any bailout of Greece would severely damage the Monetary Union and “The Greek disease will spread”. With concern that Greece will not be able to service its debt, there is speculation that the country will be forced out of the currency bloc. However, the chair of the single currency area’s finance ministers said that Greece will not leave the eurozone and does not believe that a state of bankruptcy exists.
So, what’s behind rising unemployment, rising inflation and rising budget deficits and how are they likely to affect the eurozone’s recovery?
Eurozone inflation rises to 0.9% BBC News (15/1/10)
Unemployment sector remains beat in Eurozone pressuring price levels FX Street (29/1/10)
greek bailout would hurt Eurozone – Germany’s Issing Reuters (29/1/10)
Eurozone unemployment rate hits 10% BBC News (29/1/10)
Greece will not go bust or leave Eurozone Reuters, Michele Sinner (27/1/10)
Eurozone unemployment hits 10% AFP (29/1/10)
New rise in German job loss total BBC News (28/1/10)
Spain unemployment nears 12 year high Interactive Investor (29/1/10)
- How do we define unemployment? What type of unemployment is being experienced in the eurozone?
- Why do you think unemployment levels have risen in the eurozone and in Spain in particular? Illustrate this on a diagram.
- What are the costs of unemployment for (a) the individual (b) governments and (c) society?
- What explanation can be given for rising levels of both unemployment and inflation?
- Inflation in the eurozone increased to 0.9%. What are the factors behind this? Illustrate the effects on a diagram.
- Greece’s forecast budget deficit for 2009 is 12.7% of GDP, but Greece has said it will reduce it to 8.7% of GDP. How does the Greek government intend to do this and what are the likely problems it will face?
- Why could bailing out Greece hurt the eurozone?
Inflation’s rising again! After a year of falling inflation, with CPI inflation being below the Bank of England’s target of 2% since June 2009, inflation began rising again in October 2009 and then shot up in December. In the year to November 2009, CPI inflation was 1.9%. In the year to December it had risen to 2.9% – well above the 2% target. As the National Statistics article states, however:
This record increase is due to a number of exceptional events that took place in December 2008:
the reduction in the standard rate of Value Added Tax (VAT) to 15 per cent from 17.5 per cent
sharp falls in the price of oil
pre-Christmas sales as a result of the economic downturn
These exceptional events led to the CPI falling by 0.4 per cent between November and December 2008 (a record fall between these two months). The CPI increase between November and December 2009 of 0.6 per cent is far more typical (the CPI increased by 0.6 per cent between November and December in both 2006 and 2007). These exceptional events also affected the change in the RPI annual rate.
So what should the Bank of England do? 2.9% is well above the target of 2%. So should the Monetary Policy Committee raise interest rates at its next meeting? The answer is no. Although inflation is above target, the Bank of England is concerned with predicted inflation in 24 months’ time. Almost certainly, the rate of inflation will fall back as the special factors, such as the increase in VAT back to 17.5% and earlier falls in VAT and oil prices, fall out of the annual data.
What is more, the sudden rise in CPI inflation is almost entirely due to cost-push factors, not demand-pull ones. Rises in costs have a dampening effect on demand. Raising interest rates in these circumstances would further dampen demand – the last thing you want to do as the economy is beginning a fragile recovery from recession.
The Bank of England’s policy recognises that the prime determinant of inflation over the medium term is aggregate demand relative to potential output. For this reason it doesn’t respond to temporary supply-side (cost) shocks.
Avoid false alarm over UK inflation Financial Times (20/1/10)
Oh dear. Inflation is back again Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (19/1/10)
Mervyn King confident on inflation target Times Online, Grainne Gilmore (19/1/10)
How should we remember 2009? As the year the Bank of England’s inflation target died Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (20/1/10)
An embarrassing bungee-jump The Economist (21/1/10)
Priced in BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders’ blog (19/1/10)
This MPC is not fit for purpose New Statesman, David Blanchflower (21/1/10)
Jobs joy takes sting out of inflation misery Sunday Times, David Smith (24/1/10)
For CPI inflation data, see Consumer Prices Index (CPI) National Statistics
- For what reasons might inflation be expected to fall back to 2% later in the year?
- Does the rise in inflation to 2.9% put pressure on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to raise interest rates? Explain why or why not.
- What factors is the MPC likely to consider at its February meeting when deciding whether or not to embark on a further round of quantitative easing?
- What effects has the depreciation of sterling had on inflation? Explain whether this effect is likely to continue and what account of it should be taken by the MPC when setting interest rates.
- What is meant by ‘core inflation’? Why did this rise to 2.8% in December 2009?
- What is the role of expectations in determining (a) inflation and (b) real GDP in 24 months’ time?
- Why, according to David Blanchflower, is the MPC not ‘fit for purpose’?