Archive for October, 2016
Followers of the UK’s business media will have noticed coverage of an unfamiliar subject this week. On Tuesday we discovered that the annual rate of CPI inflation had rocketed up to 1%. Last week this blog opined that it was actually input prices which would merit close attention; this did not happen so detail on those shortly. First, however, let us deal very quickly with the headline rates.
1% on the CPI is indeed “the highest rate of inflation for nearly two years”. But that is not saying terribly much for two reasons:
- Over the longer term 1% is an insignificant number. Before the recent period of energy-driven disinflation CPI hadn’t fallen as low as 1% since September 2002, when the world was still recovering from the collapse of the TMT bubble. Its average over the past 20 years has been 1.9%. Exactly five years ago it peaked at 5.2%. So it ought to be difficult to become too excited by the print on Tuesday (which was broadly in line with expectations anyway).
- The “core” CPI measure, which cuts out energy, food, alcohol and tobacco, had already hit a level of +1.5% this March. What we observed this week was the continued closure of the gap between core CPI and the headline rate. In other words, the pickup in headline inflation tells us more about the dwindling influence of cheap oil than it does about, say, the weakness of sterling.
This is not to dismiss the significance of the CPI data entirely. But if we are looking for the fingerprints of the pound we will not find them here.
And so to PPI: producer price inflation.
There has been a little more drama here. Input prices were again up by more than 7% on the prior year – not at quite as high a rate as for August but nonetheless, this measure is showing more heat now than at any other time since 2011. And this time we know sterling has something to do with it since the core measure of input price inflation, which strips out oil among other things, has also reached levels not matched in almost five years. We should expect this to be the case: with the pound down by over 20% on a trade weighted basis in the past year it is a matter of the “basic laws of economics”, as one of the better comment pieces had it this week (it always a pleasure to find that one has friends in common with people).
That piece also carried a forecast from Lord Haskins, former scion and chairman of Northern Foods, that food price inflation in particular is on track to hit about +5% in a year or so. Again, those “basic laws” do tend to repeat themselves. The last time we had a comparable fall in sterling was during the years 2007-8 when the trade weighted index shed nearly 30%. By mid-2008 that input price inflation had peaked not at +7% but at +35%. Back then the food component of the CPI hit a ceiling only at +14.5% making Lord Haskins’ prediction seem quite mild.
Of course in 2008 this didn’t last. The currency found a level and input price inflation fell away again. The domestic economy was contracting, and output would not fully recover until Q3 2013. Unemployment had already started to rise – though it would take three years to reach its peak of 8.5%. And the housing market was in a state of freefall. (It was not until mid-2014 that the average UK price would recover its 2007 high.)
Back to the present.
Should sterling hold its current level the inflationary impact on producer prices will persist, to a greater or lesser extent, into the summer of next year. And nowadays the position of the economy could hardly be more different.
GDP growth of +2.1% is precisely in line with its 20-year average rate and though such estimates are fertile grounds for analytical controversy is likely to be near or at its trend rate. Similarly unemployment of 4.9% could well be regarded as “full employment” and nationwide house price inflation is still running at over 8%.
Given that Britain’s circumstances are so very different today, what is curious is that the policy response to all this is exactly the same as it was in 2008: interest rate cuts and QE from the Bank of England, and if he can get away with it in next month’s Autumn Statement, fiscal largesse from the Chancellor (gilt yields suggest he might be able to fiddle his way to justifying it despite the lousy borrowing numbers out this morning).
Something about this is not quite right. Perhaps the Bank’s expectations that Brexit will see labour market slack and falling output will be met. But even the Bank acknowledges those Basic Laws. And in only a few months’ time, the clear signs of price inflation simmering away at the bottom of the pot could very easily have erupted into a vigorous boil.
At midnight last Thursday, the pound fell by more than 6% against the dollar. Its intraday (intranight?) low was 1.1841. Since then, cable has stabilized somewhat. It currently prices at about 1.22, up from a closing low of 1.2123 reached on Tuesday. So what does the pound’s latest “31-year low” – or even “168-year low” – signify, if anything?
First let us consider the very straightforward economic consequences, which are twofold.
On the positive side, the cost of buying British goods and services from abroad, from JCBs to tour bus tickets, falls. This is growth positive. It is also why currency devaluation is one of the most obvious and best understood forms of monetary easing.
On the negative side, the cost of buying foreign goods and services in Britain, from rice to Ritalin, increases. This is growth negative since it compresses margins for importers and makes consumers poorer. This is also why currency devaluation is a risky and unpredictable means of monetary easing.
One key question for the British economy is: which of these two effects will predominate? That depends purely on the inflationary impact. If this is relatively modest then devaluation will increase growth without hitting people’s pockets, or firms’ margins, too forcefully. If it is significant, however, then the devaluation will depress overall economic activity since domestic demand accounts for a far more substantial part of output than exports (62% versus 30% on Q2 GDP data).
It is hazardous to speculate as to which outcome Britain will face. On the one hand, supranationalist media sources are sure the export benefits will be slight and the inflationary impact severe. On the other, Brexiteering sources seem not to have considered the inflation question at all.
One thing we can do is examine the scale of the pound’s recent fall with some detached perspective.
Cable has fallen by 29% since the high of 1.7166 it reached in early July 2014. Its all-time closing low was posted on 26 February 1985 at 1.0520. However the pound has not yet broken through its December 2008 low against the euro (€1.025) or its more recent (2011) low against the yen. Looking at the Bank of England’s trade weighted index, which pits the pound against a basket of other currencies, this week’s low was barely through the previous record level reached in 2008 (73.3 versus 73.4 back then).
It is understandable that the focus of the media should be on the sterling exchange rate which has moved the most dramatically. However, again with some detachment we ought to observe that cable’s recent history has been affected by dollar strength as well as sterling weakness. The Federal Reserve’s trade weighted dollar index has risen by more than 21% since its 2014 low. Indeed, while the pound has fallen by 29% against the greenback the euro has not been far behind, dropping 21% since its own 2014 high point (from $1.39 to $1.10 today). Without wishing to overdo the point about press coverage one does not see headlines in The Economist about “votes of confidence” in the single currency.
Some sources have taken things further, with Bloomberg claiming that the pound has become an emerging market currency: “the new Mexican peso”. Now at the time of the “tequila crisis” back in 1994 the peso more than halved in value against the dollar in under three months. More recently, the Brazilian real almost halved in value as commodity markets collapsed in 2014-15. Again, a little more perspective would be nice.
This is not to downplay the risks arising from imported inflation. The UK’s next CPI and RPI prints will come out on Tuesday. PPI input prices in particular will merit close attention. Year on year they have already rocketed up from -15% to +8% in the space of 12 months. That inflation has to go somewhere: again, either into shrunken margins or consumer’s pockets (and if it persists, most likely both). Back in 2007, RPI inflation rose at around 4-5% and food prices were making tabloid headlines. Inflation also means higher pensions, higher gilt yields and higher public sector wages, all of which is bad news for Britain’s strained fiscal arithmetic.
Furthermore, Mark Carney today confirmed the Bank of England’s insouciant attitude to inflation at a “public roundtable”, saying that while he appreciated that it could cause problems he was willing to see the Bank miss its target to protect against the supposed loss of jobs into next year. (Readers of this blog will know that the MPC officially abandoned its founding mandate back in August). Markets are less complacent: expectations for a further cut in the base rate have evaporated, and the ten year gilt yield has risen to 1.1% from the record low of 0.52% it established only a couple of months ago.
Now price increases were back in the tabloids again just this week. If imported inflation does cause problems, and the Bank does nothing to stop it, then the ugly devaluation scenario may well end up playing out. Looking at the bigger picture for sterling, and not just the cable rate, we ought not perhaps to panic overmuch. But even at a princely 1.1% the gilt market is not remotely priced either for an uncomfortable patch of price behaviour or the policy normalization required to deal with it. There could be some interesting developments ahead.