Highest headline inflation in 5½ years: Ryan Felsman

Staff reporterApril 29, 20200 min read


Inflation: The Consumer Price Index – the main measure of inflation in Australia – rose by 0.3 per cent in the March quarter (consensus: 0.2 per cent). In seasonally adjusted terms the CPI rose by 0.4 per cent. The annual rate of headline inflation lifted from 1.8 per cent to 2.2 per cent – the strongest pace in 5½ years. 

Underlying measures: The Reserve Bank monitors three measures to derive the underlying inflation rate. The trimmed mean rose by 0.5 per cent in the March quarter (1.8 per cent annual); the weighted median rose by 0.5 per cent (1.7 per cent annual) and the CPI less volatile items rose by 0.5 per cent (2.1 per cent annual). Overall, underlying inflation rose by around 0.5 per cent in the quarter and by around 1.7 per cent over the year. Market goods and services less volatile items rose by 0.3 per cent in the quarter to be up 2.1 per cent on the year.

Main changes: The most significant price rises in the March quarter were for food and non-alcoholic beverages (+1.9 per cent), alcohol and tobacco (+1.6 per cent), education (+2.6 per cent) and health (+1.7 per cent). The most significant offsetting price falls this quarter are automotive fuel (-6.0 per cent), domestic holiday travel and accommodation (-3.1 per cent) and international holiday travel and accommodation (-3.0 per cent).

What does it all mean?

Aussies venturing out to buy essentials at supermarkets during the peak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis would’ve noticed that food had become more expensive. In fact, prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages surged by an annual growth rate of 3.2 per cent in the March quarter – the strongest rate in 5½ years – propelling overall headline consumer prices higher. Why? Supply shortages due to the drought and bushfires – fruit and vegetable prices lifted sharply. 

The Bureau of Statistics said, “There were some price effects of COVID-19 apparent in the March quarter due to higher purchasing of certain products towards the end of the quarter, as restrictions came into effect. Most notably, rises were seen in, other non-durable household products (+3.4 per cent), which includes toilet paper; personal care products (+2.2 per cent), which includes soap and hand sanitiser; and other cereal products (+4.4 per cent), which includes rice and pasta.”

The lift in grocery prices broadly aligns with Coles’ sales report today. The supermarket chain not only reported a record 12.9 per cent lift in sales to $9.2 billion during the March quarter, but it also announced that its grocery and food prices rose by 2.6 per cent during the quarter, or by 1.8 per cent excluding tobacco and fresh foods. Why? COVID-19 panic buying saw a surge in shopper demand so the company scaled-back promotional activity with consumers preferring to purchase smaller grocery pack sizes in the frenzy.

But before anyone gets too excited about the headline annual inflation rate hitting the lower end of the Reserve Bank’s 2-3 per cent target band, the demand shock from the virus crisis is about to plunge Australia into the deflationary world, a world experienced by Japan and Europe in recent years. In fact, Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe warned last week that, “it is quite likely that year-ended headline inflation will turn negative in June. If so, this would be the first time since the early 1960s that the price level has fallen over a full year.”

 A sharp decline in crude oil and petrol prices, supportive government measures to cap and reduce prices - such as free childcare – tepid wage growth and weaker home rental prices are all likely to be disinflationary. Given the size of the housing cost basket within the consumer price index - around 23 per cent – falling home prices, higher vacancy rates and weaker rents could persist for the rest of 2020, weighing on consumer prices. 

Slow wage growth and falling prices of consumer goods – such as electronics, clothing and footwear – have been a feature of low-inflation for several years now. And businesses have been reluctant to pass on the rising cost of imported goods (due to the weaker Aussie dollar) amid consumer spending caution and intense competition. The huge impact of the economic shutdown will see deflation persist for a few quarters. In fact, Commonwealth Bank Group economists are forecasting the annual headline rate to fall to just 0.5 per cent in 2020 after turning negative in the June quarter. But the annual underlying inflation measure (trimmed mean) is estimated to hold up at 1.3 per cent in 2020.

RYAN FELSMAN senior economist at CommSec

Staff reporter

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