Inflation - an inconvenient truth

Inflation - an inconvenient truth
Inflation - an inconvenient truth

The key economic event next week will be the release of the September quarter Consumer Price Index. 

Westpac’s forecasts are: 0.74% for headline; 0.27% for Trimmed Mean; and 0.32% for weighted median. 

The jump in the headline is largely driven by sharply rising electricity prices. They are expected to increase by 18% in Sydney; 5% in Melbourne; 12% in Brisbane; 10% in Perth and 20% in Adelaide. The more modest increase in Melbourne is due to the increases being spread over the September and March quarters while Perth is not on the national grid. In the other states energy prices are generally adjusted in the September quarter. 

The direct impact of the rise in electricity prices adds 0.46 percentage points to the headline inflation measure. 

Of course, policy is impacted by the movements in the underlying measures: the Trimmed Mean and the Weighted Median. 

Our estimates indicate that momentum in these core measures is slowing. The six month annualised rate would slow from 2.1% three months ago to 1.7%. Underlying inflation for the first 9 months of the year would be printing 1.3%, making it likely that the actual result will settle below the mid- point of the Reserve Bank’s forecast range of 1.5%-2.5% (already 0.5% below the mid- point of the target range). 

Key assumptions behind our forecasts include the expectation that margins in food retailing; clothing and footwear ;household goods; and recreation will remain under pressure. Health costs are expected to continue to fall while the softening in the Sydney and Melbourne housing markets is likely to take some pressure off housing construction costs (usually the largest component of the Trimmed Mean). 

We also note that in the minutes of the October meeting of the Reserve Bank Board it was noted that "liaison with businesses had suggested that a number of firms, particularly in the retail and manufacturing sectors, were largely absorbing increases in energy costs into margins rather than passing them through to final prices.” 

The surprise 0.6% fall in nominal retail sales in August and the downward revision to the July number (0% to -0.2%) also point to subdued price pressures in the retail sector in the September quarter. 

The other issue challenging the outlook for inflation is the expected revisions to the weights to be used in the Consumer Price Index. The revised weights (reviewed every 6 years) are aimed at a more accurate mix of the expenditure patterns of consumers. The net impact is typically negative since consumer spending tends to rise for items where relative prices have declined and vice versa. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that previous changes in weights have lowered the CPI by around 0.2 percentage points. 

Our preliminary estimates point to a reduction in the measure of the CPI of a little more than this benchmark with the headline rate being reduced by up to 0.4% and the underlying by 0.3%.

So, if momentum in underlying inflation is slowing into 2018 and there is a technical need to lower the forecasts then the Bank will face a challenge in credibly maintaining its 1.5-2.5% forecast for underlying inflation in 2018 and its 2-3% forecast for underlying inflation for 2019. 

Recall the last time the Bank was confronted with the need to significantly revise inflation forecasts. In April 2016 the Bank was expecting an underlying CPI print of around 0.6% and the result was 0.2% and internally the Bank lowered its underlying forecast from 2.5% ( 2-3%) to 1.5% ( 1-2%). It cut rates in May by 0.25%. That move was followed by another cut of 0.25% in August. 

The result of that “pure” response to the inflation shock was to reignite house prices. Macro prudential policies , largely targeting investors, and a rate hike from the banks successfully deflated the booming housing market in 2015. House price inflation in Sydney slowed from 25% (6 month annualised) to -4.4% (April 2016).In response to the subsequent rate cuts house price inflation in Sydney lifted to 22.4% (January 2017). The recent “second round” of macro prudential policies has since slowed house price inflation in Sydney to 1.7% in September 2017. Comparable but less volatile trends were apparent in Melbourne. 

This would be a definitive lesson for the new Governor that rigid adherence to an inflation targeting policy is likely to create disturbances in asset markets if inflation is structurally slowing. 

We have seen central banks offshore take a similar approach by tending to look through the immediate data on inflation and pitch policy towards a medium term view (although the Bank of England seems poised to make a policy mistake). This is why we are confident that the FED will raise rates in December despite core PCE running at 1.4%. 

Chair Yellen continues to voice confidence in the medium term “achievability” of the 2% target, with a particular aim of holding up inflationary expectations. 

The FED also has a more difficult task in balancing risks around asset markets than we have in Australia. 

Consider the cumulative increases in the various national house price indices since 2010. 

Case Schiller (US): 35%; Core Logic (Australia) 43%; CREA (Canada): 68%. 

Australia has an effective macro prudential policy approach for dealing with housing markets. Four banks control around 90% of the housing assets and there is a central regulator ( APRA). In the US, the housing market is much less concentrated with the unregulated sectors also playing a significant role. 

The policy mix which the RBA has enunciated of targeting asset markets with macro prudential and growth/inflation with interest rates is, arguably, unavailable to the FED and policy needs to be set with an “eye” on asset markets. 

That does not mean that the RBA would risk financial stability in the light of a stubbornly low inflation print but it does mean that raising rates while growth and inflation underperform is also not an attractive or necessary option. Recall that in the October minutes the RBA Board specifically noted that moves towards higher interest rates in other economies did not have” mechanical implications” for the setting of policy in Australia. The timing of any changes in interest rates would be dependent on developments in domestic economic conditions. 

So, in conclusion, there is a significant risk that inflation falls short of the RBA’s current forecasts in 2018 and 2019. However financial stability risks preclude cutting rates. On the other hand raising rates in such an environment seems equally unnecessary while effective macro prudential tools are available to deal with unwelcome developments in asset markets.

Bill Evans is chief economist at Westpac.

Electricity Cost Inflation

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