Archive for the ‘Inflation’ Category

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As far as the Bank of England is concerned, the inflation panic is over for now. You may recall that many feared that one of Mark Carney’s first acts as governor of the Bank of England would be to put pen to paper and knock off a quick letter to George Osborne explaining why he was doing such a bad job at keeping inflation close to target. If inflation moves by more than one percentage point above the 2 per cent target, the UK’s most powerful central bank is required to write a letter of explanation to the chancellor.

As it turned out, inflation was 2.8 per cent in June – less than was feared and 0.2 percentage points down on the level that would have triggered a letter. This week the data for August was out, and this time inflation was just 2.7 per cent.

Will it continue to fall? Answer: unless something odd happens, surely yes. For one thing sterling is up, and recently rose to its highest level against the euro and dollar since January. For another thing, past movements in commodity prices suggest food inflation should fall sharply.

But thirdly, sheer maths seems to make it inevitable. Last autumn the UK saw prices rise quite sharply – up 1.5 per cent between August and December. Between May and August, prices rose by just 0.2 per cent. If the inflation rate we have seen over the last three months continues for the next three months, annual inflation will fall to just 1.3 per cent.

Now look at house prices and apply the same approach.

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According to the ONS, house prices rose by 3.1 per cent in the year to July. But between August and December last year, houses prices fell slightly. If house prices rise at the same pace seen in the past five months over the next five months, then that will mean house price inflation will be running at 9.4 per cent by December.

Yesterday’s ‘Daily Mail’ headlined: “Property price bubble is a MYTH”, and described the latest 3.3 per cent house price inflation rate as “modest”. But simple maths shows why this will change very soon and a bubble is, in fact, being created in our midst.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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You may remember the ads – it must have been around 20 years ago. They were for a magazine called ‘Fast Forward’ and for a few months they were on TV all the time – or so it seemed. Jeremy Beadle features in the ads and the jingle went “fast, fast forward, forward forward’ and the tune went like this laa, laa, la, la, la. Okay you may not remember the ads, maybe you have subconsciously blocked them from your memory, but if you do remember them apologies. You may now hear that tune in your head every time you hear the phrase ‘forward guidance’. And so, forward guidance is out and now it appears we have an inkling about how long rates will stay at 0.5 per cent.

The latest inflation report, out yesterday, came with a section talking about forward guidance. The Bank of England says that monetary policy will remain ultra-loose for as long as UK unemployment is greater than 7 per cent.

In forward guidance, if inflation does this, and jobs do that, says the Bank of England we will do as follows.

Accept that it’s forward guidance that may change as we move forward. The 7 per cent unemployment rate does not necessarily represent the end of the line for record low rates; rather it is, as Mark Carney called it, a ‘way station’.

Based on Bank of England predictions, for UK unemployment, it appears the first rate hike will be in late 2015.

Then again, if inflation picks up, and even if unemployment is still quite high, Mr Carney suggested the bank may change policy.

So it is a kind of forward guidance, based on current thinking. Well, Carney is human. He can’t do much more than that, but it does leave you wondering what the fuss is about.

It is tempting to say that forward guidance is little more than PR; a communication tool. But then again, the markets seem to be taking to it like proverbial ducks to water.

It does rather seem that forward guidance means the bank does not need to engage in any more QE. If you see QE as kind of weapon of mass financial destruction, then the threat that you may use it means that it is not necessary to do so.

© Investment & Business News 2013

Back in May 2010, increases in average wages were less than the rate of inflation. It has been that way every month since. Consumers may be feeling more confident, retail sales may be up, but one thing is sure, the improvements in sentiment are not down to rising wages. But in the latest data from the ONS there was a whiff of hope. Is it possible that wages are at last set to rise faster than prices?

In May 2010 inflation was 3.4 per cent. Wages (that’s including bonuses, by the way) rose by 2.5 per cent. Ever since then it has just got worse. The gap peaked in October 2011, when inflation was 5 per cent, and averages wages rose by 2 per cent, and until very recently the gap was almost as large. In March, for example, inflation was 2.8 per cent, while average wages rose by just 0.6 per cent. But since then things have begun to look better – that’s despite inflation getting worse. In May inflation was 2.9 per cent, but wages rose by 1.9 per cent. This was the highest level of annual increase in average wages since January 2012.

Looking forward, inflation may pick up over the next few months, but it is likely to fall later in the year.
So, if the rate of increase in average wages can carry on rising for a little longer, within a few months we might once again find wages are rising faster than inflation.

Many economists believe that a sustainable recovery in the UK economy can only occur once wages rise faster than inflation.

That, by the way, has been the snag with recent reports pointing to rising house prices and retail sales. How can they rise, if real wages – that is wages relative to inflation – are falling? Answer: they can only rise if household debt increases, and as it was told here the other day, UK housholds have enough debt as it is. See: What will happen to households as rates rise? 

In fact the hard data provides the evidence. UK households have been saving a lot less of late and borrowing more.

 

And so returning to wages and inflation, if it is the case that at last wages can rise faster than inflation then that is reason to celebrate.

It is just that in the long run, wages can only rise faster than inflation if productivity is improving. Alas there seems to be precious little evidence of that occurring at the moment.

© Investment & Business News 2013

Phew, that was close. UK inflation was 2.9 per cent in June, which was 0.1 percentage points less than expected and 0.2 percentage points less than feared, and some might say it was a relief.

If inflation had been 3.1 per cent, as some dreaded, then poor old Mark Carney, new in his job, would have been obliged to write a letter to the chancellor.

Even so, 2.9 per cent isn’t very good. In fact it is the highest rate of inflation since April 2012.

So here is the dilemma. The Fed is slowly moving towards tightening monetary policy. If it does this, the pound may come under pressure. The Bank of England has made it clear that it is in no hurry to follow the Fed, but can the UK afford inflation of around 3 per cent, and then for the pound to fall?

Remember, between February 2013 and April 2013 total pay (including bonuses) rose by just 1.3 per cent year on year, which was much less than inflation. If the pound falls, inflation will rise, and real wages will fall even further.

A cheap pound may help the UK’s long awaited export led recovery, but the UK also needs households’ real income to rise.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The threat posed by debt just won’t die down. Last week we reported that the Bank of England’s figures suggest that the UK cannot afford much higher interest rates. New figures from the Resolution Foundation suggest that the situation is even worse than the Bank of England suggested.

“If interest rates rise 1 per cent,” said the Bank of England in its latest Financial Stability Report, “households accounting for 9 per cent of mortgage debt would need to take some kind of action — such as cut essential spending, earn more income (for example, by working longer hours), or change mortgage — in order to afford their debt payments if interest rates rise…If interest rates rise by 2 per cent,” continued the Bank, “ditto, except that that it will be households accounting for 20 per cent of mortgage debt who will be so cursed.”

The Resolution Foundation has also taken a look at the story of the UK’s household debt, and its conclusions are even more disturbing.

Before the crisis of 2008 household debt across much of the developed world was worryingly high. Some countries, such as Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway had it worse. Nonetheless with a ratio of household debt to gross house disposable income of 174, it was worryingly high in the UK. The good news is that it has since fallen, and the ratio at the end of 2012 was 146.

Alas, according to estimates from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) it is set to rise again – not by much, for sure, but any rise is worrying. The OBR does in fact project that there will be a household debt to disposable income ratio of 151 by 2017 . To put that in context the ratio was just 112 in the year 2000. In the US, at the end of 2012 the ratio was 106.

According to the Resolution Foundation, at the end of 2012 no less than 3.6 million households were spending more than a quarter of their disposable income on debt repayments. Debt levels, however, are expected to rise as the government attempts to kick life into the UK housing market by encouraging greater mortgage lending.

But in its most recent report the Resolution Foundation looked at households whose debt repayments make up more than half of disposable income, or those in so-called debt peril. Right now, around 2 per cent of all households are in this position. If things carry on the way they are supposed to, and rates rise in line with Bank of England projections and real wages increase in line with projections for GDP, the Resolution Foundation estimates that the percentage number of households in debt peril will rise to just under 3 per cent by 2017. This is similar to the level seen in 2007, in fact.

If rates rise by 2 percentage points more than expected, the foundation estimates that the percentage number of households in debt peril will rise to 4 per cent. If, in addition to this, wages fail to rise with GDP, but rather – as has been the case in recent years – increases in wages continue to be outstripped by inflation the Foundation estimates that the number of households in debt peril will rise to 5 per cent.

Okay, you might say, but if this is the case then the Bank of England may not let interest rates rise. Unfortunately, central banks may have less say over the matter than is generally thought. See: The Great Reset 
There are all sorts of combinations and permutations.

But the points to remember are these: as rates rise in the US, the Bank of England may be forced to either up rates, or let the pound fall. If rates rise, debt levels in the UK will increase. If the pound falls, inflation will pick up, real wages may fall, and once again debt to income may fall.

In short, we may be in big trouble whatever happens.

But just bear this in mind. Debt does not matter if the percentage interest on debt is less than the percentage increase in income. What the UK really needs is for incomes to rise, and for this to happen it needs improving productivity, which comes from more investment.

© Investment & Business News 2013

It’s not long now. Mark Carney will be settling into his new job as the governor of the Bank of England in a few weeks’ time. Alas, if the latest inflation data is any guide, one of his first tasks may be to write to George Osborne explaining why inflation is more than a whole percentage point over target.

According to the ONS, UK inflation was 2.7 per cent in May, from 2.4 per cent the month before. The largest upward contributions to the change in the rate came from transport and clothing. In fact airfares’ inflation rose from 0.8 to 21.3 per cent.

The largest downward contribution came from food.

Core inflation – that’s with food, energy and tobacco taken out – was 2.2 per cent in May, higher than in April but lower than in February and March.

But there was good news. Between April and May total input prices fell 0.3 per cent, compared with a fall of 2.3 per cent between March and April. Between April and May factory gate prices were unchanged, compared with a fall of 0.2 per cent between March and April.

Over the next few months, headline inflation will probably rise and may well rise over 3 per cent, eliciting Mr Carney’s first Dear George letter. But as the data on producer prices demonstrate, the underlying pressures are downwards, meaning inflation is expected to fall back later in the year, although of course we have heard this many times before.

Here is a theory for you to ponder, and by the way not one you will read elsewhere.

What impact has the internet had on inflation, do you think? By promoting such fierce price competition, it may have been a far more important factor behind the low inflation of the last ten years or so, than it is generally acknowledged. Take the internet effect on air flights, for example. It was surely pretty significant.

But was the internet effect a one off? Has the price competition it has enforced run its course? The fact that airfares have risen so sharply may suggest it has.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Be under no doubt, record low interest rates and quantitative easing are the main reasons why equities are riding high at the moment. There is this view that central banks control interest rates; that they can determine flows of money. So why panic about rising rates spoiling the party? Central banks will only do this once the economy is back on its feet. It is just that there are reasons to think this analysis is wrong.

It is remarkable how, in this post financial crisis era, central banks still seem to operate under a kind of halo. The media and organisations such as the IMF still suggest that these central bankers are like mini gods, moving the pieces of the economy around. They are like Zeus in one of those old Hollywood movies, in which the gods of Olympus (played by the likes of Lawrence Olivier), controlled the movements of mortal man in much the same way a croupier moves chips across a roulette board.

Maybe the truth is that central banks have about as much power as Zeus does in the real world, which is to say that the sense of the central bank’s omnipotence is based on a myth.

So did central banks create the financial crisis of 2008 by letting interest rates fall too low, or were their actions largely irrelevant? Maybe the real reason why inflation fell during the 1990s and noughties was that the Internet helped to promote price competition and globalisation – in particular the rise of China – meant cheaper manufactured goods.

At the same times, ageing in Japan, China’s policy of protecting the yuan, and rising corporate profits led to a global savings glut, meaning there was lots of money sloshing around the system, pushing down interest rates. Alan Greenspan himself alluded to it when he was chairman of the Fed and he talked about long-term interest rates set by the markets being lower than short-term rates set by central banks.

But supposing things went into reverse. The Ernst and Young ITEM Club recently forecast that inflation will rise later this decade as wages increase in China, which will lead to rises in the price of manufactured goods. It also forecast that UK bank rates will be increased to 1 per cent in 2015 and to 2 per cent in 2016. On the back of rising interest rates, it forecast that mortgage interest payments will jump 15 per cent in 2015 and by a massive 23.4 per cent in 2016.

But is it possible that it is underestimating the changes that may occur?

Zeus is a myth. We now know that bankers’ hubris gets punished, and maybe central bankers have an Achilles heel. And that heel is that actually, there are forces at work – underlying forces – that are far more important than what members of monetary policy committees say and do.

Alan Greenspan once said it is the job of central bankers to take away the punch bowl as the party gets started. Maybe changes across the global economy will do this anyway, no matter how much gin and vodka central bankers pour into the QE punchbowl.

© Investment & Business News 2013