Inflation is at a 55-year low: CommSec's Craig James

Inflation is at a 55-year low: CommSec's Craig James
Inflation is at a 55-year low: CommSec's Craig James


The main measure of consumer prices in Australia – and a key guide to the cost of living for families – is the Consumer Price Index. In the March quarter the CPI was unchanged in original terms, the lowest result in three years. And the annual rate of inflation eased from 1.8 per cent to a 2½-year low of 1.3 per cent. 

While the cost of living has slowed markedly in the latest quarter, this is a trend that has been operating for quite some time. Over the last five years, annual inflation has averaged just 1.74 per cent – the lowest equivalent result since late in 1963. If 20-year averages are used, you would have to go back to 1952 to find a lower outcome. 

While wage growth has slowed over time, so has inflation – and to a greater extent. Aussie consumers have rarely had it better. 

But while the CPI provides a broad gauge of the cost of living, in practice living costs will vary across demographic groups and across regional areas. It all depends on the relative importance of the good or service in your household budget. Clearly younger people purchase markedly different items to those purchases by aged pensioners. 

The other important point is that living costs should be tracked in relation to incomes. For instance if wages are growing at a faster rate than prices, purchasing power will have increased, and, more broadly, the standard of living. Of course the standard of living is more subjective and may include things like traffic congestion and access to medical services. 

The other complication is the time period for measurement. The cost of living may have improved in recent times, but that may have occurred after a long period where living costs were soaring. 

The bottom line is that purchasing power has continued to improve for Australian consumers. For average wage earners, wage growth has exceeded growth of prices over the past five years and over the past decade. Quite remarkably the prices of 26 of the 87 expenditure class items tracked by the ABS are actually lower now than a decade ago. Only 16 of 87 expenditure class items have recorded faster price increases than wages over the past decade.

Living cost indexes 

The Consumer Price Index measures “price inflation for the household sector as a whole”. But to measure purchasing power for different groups in the economy, the Bureau of Statistics compiles living cost indexes. The March quarter figures were issued yesterday. The living cost index (LCI) changes were: employees (flat; +1.4 per cent annual); aged pensioners (up 0.3 per cent; +1.4 per cent annual); self-funded retirees (down 0.2 per cent; +1.6 per cent annual); ‘other government transfer recipient households’ (up 0.2 per cent; +1.6 per cent annual); pensioner and beneficiary households (up 0.3 per cent; +1.6 per cent annual). 

Over the past decade, arguably employee households have had more to celebrate than other groups. The LCI for employees lifted by only 19.3 per cent, followed by self-funded retirees (up 22.8 per cent); age pensioners (up 23.8 per cent), pensioner and beneficiary households (up 25.1 per cent) and ‘other government transfer recipient households’ (up 26.1 per cent).

Prices and incomes

Over the past five years the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose by 8.3 per cent. And over the past decade, prices rose by 23.4 per cent. The main measure of wages is the wage price index. But data on the WPI is only available to December 2018. Still, the WPI has grown at a faster rate than prices over the past five and ten years. Wages have grown by 11.3 per cent over the past five years and grown by 30.9 per cent over the past decade. 

Using a different measure of wages – average ordinary time earnings for full-time adults – wages rose 11.7 per cent in the five years to November (December quarter) and lifted 38.6 per cent over the past decade. 

The maximum standard rate of the aged pension has lifted by 10 per cent over the past five years and increased by 53 per cent over the decade. The maximum partnered rate of the aged pension increase by 10 per cent over the past five years and increased by 38 per cent over the past decade. 

Cheaper prices 

Most Aussie consumers would be surprised at the breadth and depth of goods that have become cheaper over time. Together with items like clothes, shoes and electrical goods, cars are cheaper than a decade ago – down by over 9 per cent. And then there are staples like eggs (-0.8 per cent), bread (-0.9 per cent) and milk (-14.4 per cent).

Clothing, footwear, cars and a raft of electrical goods have become cheaper over time. In part, this is a global trend, reflecting more efficient production techniques for large scale manufactured goods. Consumers across the globe have benefitted from the greater availability of higher-quality/lower-priced goods. 

Internet purchases have also proven beneficial. Consumers can buy goods whenever they want and wherever they are. In economics, this can be explained as an expansion of supply or choice of goods – putting downward pressure on selling prices. Dearer prices

 When people bemoan the rising cost of living, they are primarily thinking about utilities, child care, education and medical services such as health insurance. The prices of these items have lifted notably over both the last five years and the past decade. 

The good news is that governments have been successful in reducing utility prices with both gas and electricity now cheaper than a year ago. Child care costs have also fallen over the past year. But health insurance fees have lifted by 4.1 per cent over the past year, well ahead of the rate of inflation.

What are the implications?

The conventional wisdom is that the cost of living is soaring. The reality is that the cost of living is growing at the slowest pace in a generation. Now while the cost of living is rising as it always does in a growing economy, annual inflation has actually eased – not just in the past five years but on far longer timeframes.

Our parents and grandparents would been accustomed to inflation rates near 2 per cent and indeed current-day inflation is more akin to that seen in the 1950s and 1960s. 

A raft of goods and services has become cheaper – not just over the past year but many items are cheaper than a decade ago. Thank technology, thank the efficiency and productivity of businesses across the globe.

While price growth has eased, so has wage growth. In a globalised world, businesses are finding it harder to lift prices of their finished products or services. So it is harder for companies to give out pay increases similar to those awarded a decade ago.

Importantly, incomes are growing at a faster pace than prices, so many goods and services have become more affordable.

In the globalised world, businesses needs to stand out. That is, businesses need to find that point of difference with their competitors or their ‘uncommon offering’. Aussie businesses not only can win more market share at home, they can tap into the global marketplace.

Craig James is the chief economist at CommSec.

Craig James

Craig James

Craig James is the Chief Economist at CommSec, interpreting ‘big picture’ economic and financial trends.

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