Category Archives: Inflation

New Zealand vegetables prices spike in March with bad weather

Tomato, lettuce, cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli prices rose sharply in March 2018, boosting vegetable prices 9.5 percent in the month after adjusting for typically seasonal changes.

“Vegetable crops have been affected by a run of storms in recent weeks – lower supply (supply curve to the left) due to bad weather usually means higher prices,” consumer prices manager Matthew Haigh said.

“In February, we saw rising prices for lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower, due to a combination of humid weather and cyclone Gita. As expected, that wet weather has affected vegetable prices in March too.”

Tomatoes rose more than 60 percent in March to $4.65 a kilo. In March last year, tomatoes were 83 cents cheaper at $3.82 a kilo.

 

Wages in the English Premier League – Demand-Pull Inflation

You are no doubt are well aware of the staggering wages that the English Premier League player receive especially when you consider other occupations.

What ultimately the salary explosion has been driven by the huge amounts of money that is now at the disposable of some of the top clubs. In economics this refers to the concept of demand-pull inflation where the supply has not kept apace with the demand for world-class players. Below is graph showing both demand-pull and cost-push.

Is the Natural Rate of Unemployment in the US lower than economists think?

The natural rate of unemployment is the difference between those who would like a job at the current wage rate – and those who are willing and able to take a job. In the above diagram, it is the level (Q2-Q1).

Source: economicshelp.org

The natural rate of unemployment will therefore include:
Frictional unemployment – those people in-between jobs
Structural unemployment – those people that don’t have the skills that fit the jobs that are available.

It is also referred to as the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU) – the job market neither pushes up inflation nor holds it back.

US Labour Market – tight but little wage growth.

The recent (February 2018) US Federal Reserve Monetary Policy Report stated that the US labour market appears to be near or a little beyond full employment. In theory this should suggest major labour shortages which ultimately end in higher wages for workers. Although employers report having more difficulties finding qualified workers, hiring continues apace, and serious labour shortages would likely have brought about larger wage increases than have been evident to date. The unemployment rate appears to be below most estimates of the natural rate.

January US unemployment rate = 4.1%
Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) current estimate of the natural rate = 4.6%

The Unemployment Gap


The unemployment rate gap is the unemployment rate minus the CBO’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. The shaded bars indicate periods of business recession.

The median of Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants’ estimates of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment and the CBO’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment have both been revised down by about 1% over the past few years, one indication of the substantial uncertainty surrounding estimates of the “full employment” rate of unemployment.

The US Fed have suggested that with many advanced economies experiencing such low inflation that more persistent factors may be restraining price growth therefore the NRU could be lower in some countries than many economists think. Prices in many industries have been subdued due to technological changes – internet shopping which allows easy comparison – which restricts businesses ability to demand higher prices.

What could be the reasons for less wage growth?

• Employees need less compensation as the inflation rate has been low
• An increase in part-time employment
• Spare capacity in the labour market
• Employees keen on job security so put less emphasis on wage bargaining
• Increasing number of people participating in the labour force.
• Shorter working week
• Ageing and declining working age population

Although in the US there have been labour shortages in some areas of the economy, this hasn’t flowed through into the aggregate labour market. However speculation of higher inflationary pressure through higher wages has alerted markets that the US Fed may increase interest rates although they will remain reluctant to tighten too aggressively.

Source: US Federal Reserve Monetary Policy Report – February 2018.

Venezuela’s hyperinflation and collapsing currency

I have blogged in the past about the ongoing problems in Venezuela of hyperinflation, food shortages and social unrest. One of the consequences of hyperinflation is the loss of confidence in its economy which leads to an outflow of money and a lack of foreign investment. The result of these events is the fall in the Venezuelan currency – the bolívar. One way of monitoring its decline is the use of The Economist’s Big Mac index – it is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, the notion that a dollar should buy the same amount in all countries. The Big Mac PPP is the exchange rate that would mean hamburgers cost the same in America as abroad – the video explains PPP and shows how undervalued / overvalued an exchange rate is relative to a Big Mac exchange rate.

According to the Big Mac index the price of Big Mac in
Caracas = 145,000 bolívars
USA = US$5.28

Purchasing Power Parity
Purchasing power parity (PPP) is when an amount of money in one country can be exchanged for a quantity of foreign currency, and the two amounts will buy identical baskets of products in both countries. So if we take the above example the PPP exchange rate is:

145,000 bolívars ÷ US$5.28 = 27,462 bolívars

However the Big Mac index seems to underestimate the slide in the Venezuelan currency as the black market is estimated to be around 260,000 bolívars. A US based website called DolarToday provides black market exchange rates that are updated daily for Venezuelans who cannot exchange currencies with the Venezuelan government for the dwindling supply of the US dollar. According to DolarToday, the estimated exchange rate is 230,228.36 VEF/USD in Venezuela’s free market as of 21 February 2018, which makes it the least valued circulating currency in the world – see graph from Wikipedia. Notice the reduced time for the bolívar to lose 90% of its value.

The company bases its computed exchange rates of the Venezuelan bolívar to the Euro or the United States dollar from the fees on trades in Cúcuta, Colombia, a city near the border of Venezuela. Currently, with no other reliable source other than the black market exchange rates, these rates are used by Reuters, CNBC, and several media news agencies and networks.

Therefore traders in Caracas check the DolarToday rate before presenting the bill to their customers. But local goods have no reference price and don’t keep up with the collapsing value of money – a monthly mobile phone tariff is 38,000 bolivars = 15 cents and a haircut is 25 cents. The minimum wage has increased regularly and it now stands at 800,000 bolívar = less than US$4 at the black market exchange rate.

If wages were perfectly indexed, it would serve only to speed up inflation. But their slow and uneven adjustment means the pain of hyperinflation is shared haphazardly. As Juan Perón of Argentina supposedly said, if prices take the lift, wages cannot take the stairs.

Sources:
The Economist – Hyperinflation in Venezuela – January 27th 2018
Wikipedia – Venezuelan bolívar

Fed might tighten but emerging markets could ease.

From the Espresso app by The Economist I came across a useful graph showing inflation figures in emerging economies. I used this with my NCEA Level 2 class when we discussed inflation and how if the inflation rate is below the target rate there may be room to loosen monetary policy and cut interest rates. This should stimulate demand in the economy and increase output and employment.

In America investors are experiencing the novelty of an inflation scare. But in many emerging economies, including several of the biggest, price pressures are at unusual lows. In China and Indonesia inflation is below target. In Brazil, for the first time this century, it has remained under 3% for seven straight months. And in Russia, where the central bank is meeting today, prices are rising at their slowest pace since the fall of the Soviet Union. This lack of inflationary pressure gives central bankers some welcome room for monetary manoeuvre. Even if America’s Federal Reserve turns hawkish, emerging markets need not slavishly follow its lead.

2017 review of Consumer Price Index in New Zealand

The consumers price index (CPI), New Zealand’s best known measure of inflation, measures the rate of price change of goods and services purchased by households. The CPI consists of a basket of goods and services that represent purchases made by households. The goods and services in the basket, and their relative importance, are reviewed every three years to ensure the basket remains up to date.

There are about 690 goods and services included in the basket. They are classified into 11 groups:

  • food
  • alcoholic beverages and tobacco
  • clothing and footwear
  • housing and household utilities
  • household contents and services
  • health
  • transport
  • communication
  • recreation and culture
  • education
  • miscellaneous goods and services.

These groups are then broken down further into 45 subgroups and then into 107 classes. The CPI is reported each quarter down to the class level. Each good or service in the basket is assigned an expenditure weight (see definitions under ‘Statistical calculations’) that represents its relative importance in household spending patterns.

As a result of the 2017 CPI review:

  • in-car satellite navigation systems have been removed (they were added to the basket in 2008)
  • DVDs and Blu-ray discs have gone (added to the basket in 2006 and 2011, respectively) along with the hire of DVDs, set-top boxes, and external computer drives
  • MP3 players are out (they were added to the basket in 2006).

“At the same time, we’re seeing increased spending on technology accessories like headsets and cellphone cases. We’ve added these items to the CPI basket as part of the latest review.”

“The CPI basket is really a reflection of New Zealand society and how it has changed over time,” Mr Attewell said.

“We added the electric lightbulb to the basket in the 1920s, televisions and record players in the 1960s, microwaves and car stereos in the 1980s, and MP3 players and digital cameras in the 2000s. As these items go out of fashion they are removed from the basket.”

Housing and food remain the most important items in the basket, accounting for almost half of people’s spending. Housing includes rent, new builds, and other house improvements.

 

Eurozone growth faster than US but not in good shape for the long-term.

According to the OECD the rate of growth in the eurozone has surpassed that of the US, UK and Japan and has surprised many with its resilience. However is the EU in a position of strength to cope with the challenges of another recession? The Economist ‘Free Exchange’ looked into this issue and identified some shortcomings. The crisis in the EU was severe and the impact financially was was around €1.4trn as this would have been the amount of GDP lost since 2007, assuming that most economies grow at 2% per year.

The damage was compounded by the fact that the EU’s monetary policy which has 3 main weaknesses:

1. Within the EU the printing of money is centralised through the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Therefore countries who wanted to print more money to bail themselves out and stimulate the economy could no longer do it. Furthermore as there is no central fiscal budget it meant that individual countries were responsible for their own fiscal solvency. So if they ran up big deficits the risk of default was great and made markets react negatively to any concerning news on a country’s fiscal prudence. In reacting to this scenario the ECB said, as a last resort, that it would step in and buy government bonds to help ailing economies. On this news bond yields dropped as the ECB has brought about some stability.

2. In 2014 the EU was still struggling but was constrained by its inflation mandate. When economies go through major economic downturns they loosen monetary and fiscal policy – cut interest rates and increase government spending respectively to make up for the lost private spending. Although the ECB cut interest rates to 0% and government increased spending there was the problem of its mandate. The ECB was curbed by the 2% inflation ceiling unlike the 2% target for most other countries and by the fact that its strongest economy, Germany, was paranoid about inflation – memories of the post-war hyperinflation years. Only with the threat of deflation did stimulatory asset purchases start to happen.

3. This is the mismatch between the scope of its economic institutions and its political ones. No European institution enjoys the democratic legitimacy of a national government. The crisis meant greater reform in the financial sector but also led to increased authority of unelected institutions like the ECB. The frustration has been that countries in the eurozone have suffered significant amounts of pain by unaccountable European politicians. Countries don’t want to lose their sovereignty but it seems that any further integration is a catalyst to its demise.

The return to improving growth levels has been brought about by increasing export volumes – with a weaker euro. With consumer spending and investment on the decline foreign consumers have been the saviour of the EU. However this is dependent on global growth which cannot last forever and the euro area needs to be prepared politically to get through the next recession.

Source: The Economist – Free Exchange – The second chance. 2nd December 2017

Where is global inflation?

The Economist had an article in its Finance and Economics section on the fact that after record low interest rates and extended quantitative easing global inflation seems stubbornly low – see graph. In order to explain this you need to consider the model that central banks use to explain inflation. There are three elements to this model:

1. The price of imports. As the price of imports increase whether it is raw materials or finished products, the price of local goods become more expensive which increase the general price level. Also if a country finds that its exchange rate depreciates the price of imports rises. Oil is a very inelastic import and with a barrel of oil below $30 in 2016 there was little pressure on the CPI. Where inflation has been higher is in those countries that have withdrawn price subsidies and also had sharply falling currencies – Argentina 24% and Egypt 32%.

2. Public Expectations. In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.

Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves. In Japan firms and employees have become conditioned to expect a lower rate of inflation. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for companies to raise wages by 3% to try and kick start inflation.

3. Capacity pressures. This refers to how much ‘slack’ there is in the economy or the ability to increase total output. If capacity pressures are tight that means an economy will find it difficult to increase output so there will be more pressure on prices as goods become more scarce. Unemployment is the most used gauge to measure the slack in the economy and as the economy approached full employment the scarcity of workers should push up the price pf labour – wages. With increasing costs for the firm it is usual for them to increase their prices for the consumer and therefore increasing the CPI. However many labour markets around the world (especially Japan and the USA) have been very tight but there is little sign of inflation. This assumes that the Phillips curve (trade-off between inflation and unemployment) has become less steep. Research by Olivier Blanchard found that a drop in the unemployment rate in the US has less than a third as much power to raise inflation as it did in the mid 1970’s.

This flatter Phillips curve suggests that the cost for central banks in higher inflation of delaying interest-rate rises is rather low. See graph below showing New Zealand’s Phillips Curve

AS Economics – Inflation Revision

With the Cambridge AS and A2 multiple-choice papers on Wednesday here are some revision notes on inflation and a diagram that I have found useful. As well as cost-push and demand-pull inflation remember:

Inflationary Expectations

In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.

Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves.

Have Central Bankers’ got it wrong?

Below is very good video from the FT – here are the main points:

  • Central Banks – by lowering interest rates they could make savings less attractive and spending more attractive
  • After GFC low interest rate and asset purchases increased lending and avoided a global depression.
  • Now the world economy is not behaving as the central bankers’ said it would
  • Their theory was that with lose credit (lower interest rates) the economy would grow and inflation would rise.
  • Inflation is stagnant (unlike the 1960’s – see graph below) and this is worrying as a little inflation is required to lubricate the economy. It allows prices to fall in real terms.
  • The missing inflation may mean that the bankers’ theories are wrong.
  • Cheap money may have encouraged high asset prices and debt levels but it may undermine the economy without doing much for growth.

Inflation Unemployment.png