Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk
Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk


The headline CPI lifted 0.4 percent in Q4 compared to Westpac’s and the market’s 0.3 percent forecast. The annual rate is reported as 1.7 percent/yr compared to 1.5 percent/yr in Q3.

The core measures, which are seasonally adjusted and exclude extreme moves, rose 0.5 percent/qtr on par with the market’s expectation (Westpac was slightly higher at 0.6 percent/qtr). In the quarter, the trimmed mean gained 0.57 percent while the weighted median lifted 0.47 percent. The annual pace of the average of the core inflation measures is now 2.0 percent from 2.1 percent in Q3 (Q3 was revised from 2.2 percent).

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Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Of note in Q4 was some signs of pass through from a weaker AUD in the stronger than expected rise in clothing & footwear (1.6 percent/qtr). However, in the quarter this was more than offset by the weaker than expected print from housing (0.1 percent/qtr). 

The March quarter brings solid “knowns” but many ‘unknowns’ linger.

The March quarter will bring the usual inflationary pressure from health and education. We also see meaningful seasonal increases in tobacco. Another solid known is the significant offset from the fall in automotive fuel prices. But, as always, a large number of unknowns remain. We don’t have access to a lot of the data the ABS uses and, in many cases, it is not possible to replicate the survey process the ABS uses causing many small errors along the way. We use many alternative sources and surveys to guide our forecasts but in the end a large part of the forecast remains a judgement call.

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Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Automotive fuels are again a significant negative.

One of the most obvious events in the last few quarters has been the extreme volatility in the pump price of automotive fuels. From a peak at the start of the quarter of $1.20/l, the pump price fell to a low of $1.04/l by the end of February before finishing the quarter around $1.12/l. In terms of the quarterly averages, we forecast that the price of automotive fuels will fall around 11percent producing a significant —0.39ppt drag on the CPI. Fuel is again the most significant negative we have found for the December quarter CPI.

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Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk

We have noted before that the fall in Australian pump prices has lagged behind the Australian dollar price of Singapore gasoline. But at the end of the March quarter there was a lift in the AUD value of Singapore gasoline that was not reflected in the pump price. We previously had wondered if Australian prices had room to fall further, even with no additional fall in Singapore prices, as the spread returned to more normal levels. For now, at least, that spread has been normalised by rising Singapore prices.

Fruit & vegetables set to be a modest drag.

This quarter our forecast for a 3 percent rise in vegetable prices is more than offset by the 7 percent fall in fruit prices. All up the 2.4 percent fall in fruit & vegetable prices will provide a 0.07ppt drag on the CPI.

There are the usual seasonal rises in cereal products, pork and food additives. However, we are careful to contrast the ongoing price discounting we are seeing in the very competitive groceries space against the ongoing pass through of the weaker AUD to import foodstuffs. Our forecasts see food & non-alcoholic beverages contribute less than 0.1ppt to the CPI.

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Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Seasonal rise in tobacco prices.

There is no indexing of tobacco in the March quarter but historically this quarter has tended to see strong rises anyway. We have taken the view that there is a clear risk of a strong rise in tobacco prices again this March quarter. We also note that the Inflation Gauge also reported solid price rises for tobacco in Q1.

Holiday travel costs will be reversed in Q3.

Holiday travel was a touch stronger than expected in Q4 following on from a weaker than expected print in Q3. So it would be tempting to put in a softer than usual forecast for Q1 but BITRE (Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport & Regional Economics) data on best price economy airfares is pointing to just a modest decline, as good as flat. So with the Inflation Gauge highlighting some modest gains in domestic holiday travel we have pencilled in a 2percent rise in domestic holiday costs, added to the small 0.5percent rise in international holidays. The rise in international holidays is due to the trickle through impact of the depreciation of the AUD offsetting the usual out of season discounting.

Dwelling prices have moderated.

Dwelling prices have been very volatile of late. Melbourne dwelling prices were particularly volatile in 2015 but as the year ended we were surprised by a 0.2percent decline in Sydney dwelling prices - the softest print since Q4 2011. Just as we saw in Melbourne in 2014, we don’t expect this to be repeated and, in fact, a bit of a bounce 

Sydney dwelling prices is very likely.

Westpac is expecting dwelling prices to hold their more modest pace in Melbourne and Brisbane with the mix of outcomes in the other cities pointing to a 0.6percent gain in Q4.

Housing overall makes a positive contribution of 0.11ppts.

Rents are expected to remain on a very benign path with a gain of just 0.3percent (was 0.2percent in Q1 so there are downside risks to this forecast) with modest gains in other housing costs and utilities.

AUD depreciation will have a modest impact.

We also expect to see more, if still modest, pass through of the inflationary impact of the AUD depreciation. This will appear as a moderation to the usual seasonal discounting of household contents and services; our forecast for a 0.7percent fall follows on from a 0.6 percent rise in Q4 and an average fall of 1.1 percent in the previous three March quarters. We also expect to see more modest than usual discounting for clothing & footwear, –1.1 percent/qtr compared to –2.5 percent/qtr in the last three March quarters.

Overall seasonality tends to be negative in Q1.

Despite the usual seasonal rise in pharmaceutical, heath services and education in Q1, the ABS now reports Q1 with a seasonal negative as our seasonally adjusted estimate, using the current ABS seasonal factors for March 2016, is 0.1ppt stronger at 0.5 percent than our headline CPI forecast. In fact rounding hides the full impact of the seasonal adjustment, 0.15ppts at two decimal places. Seasonal discounting in clothing & footwear and household contents are now having a greater impact on seasonality in the survey than the annual price resetting in administrative prices.

There is an important caveat however: the ABS conducts concurrent seasonal re-analysis and the revisions to the seasonal factors can sometimes be quite significant. As such, we caution that we can’t be sure what the ABS will estimate as the seasonal impact in Q1. This matters as the components of the CPI are seasonally adjusted before they are trimmed for the core measures. As such, revisions to the seasonal factors can impact not just the current estimate of core inflation but also historical estimates.

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Australian Q1 CPI preview: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Core inflation to remain at the bottom of the band, just.

Westpac is forecasting the average of the core measures to rise 0.6percent in Q4 with the annual pace holding flat at 2.0percentyr.

Traded goods & services are forecast to fall 1.3 percent/qtr moderating the annual pace to 0.7 percent/yr from 0.8percentyr; non-traded prices are also forecast to rise 1.2 percent/qtr lifting the annual pace to 2.5 percent/yr from 2.3 percent/yr. Non-traded prices remain the key source of inflationary pressures with the focus still on housing and recreation.

Risks balaced for headline, downside for core.

A seasonally soft March quarter is a recent phenomena that emerged during the time of a very robust AUD which appears to have inspired greater post-Christmas sales discounting. This March, we are expecting some modest pass through from the weaker AUD but falling petrol prices and modest gains in housing costs will keep the lid on both headline and core inflation. While the Melbourne Institute Inflation Gauge points to a robust Q1 CPI print, we acknowledge downside risks to our core inflation forecast as core inflation has recently tended to surprise us on the soft side. 


Justin Smirk is ‎senior economist, Westpac Group and can be contacted here.\

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