ICAEW chart of the week: Consumer Prices Index

My chart this week looks at how price rises have accelerated over the last few months, with consumer price inflation reaching 4.2% in October, the highest it has been for a decade.

Line chart showing how the Consumer Prices Index has increased from 106.7 in Oct 2018 to 107/6 in Apr 2019 to 108.3 in Oct 2019 (a +1.5% increase over a year earlier) to 108.5 in Apr 2020 to 109.1 in Oct 2020 (up 0.7% over the year) to 110.1 in Apr 2021 to 113.6 in Oct 2021 (a 4.2% annual increase).

The Office for National Statistics published its latest estimates for inflation on Wednesday 17 November, reporting a 12-month increase in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) of 4.2% and a 12-month increase in the Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ house costs (CPIH) of 3.8%, both of which are the highest they have been since November 2011 when CPI was 4.8% and CPIH was 4.1%.

CPI and CPIH are calculated using a basket of goods and services to assess the level of inflation experienced by consumers, with the current index set to 100 in July 2015.

The ICAEW chart of the week shows how CPI fell before increasing from 106.7 in October 2018 to 107.6 in April 2019 and 108.3 in October 2019, an annual increase of 1.5% that was within the 1% to 3% Bank of England target range. This was followed by smaller increases to 108.3 in April 2020 and 109.1 in October 2020, a 0.7% annual increase in CPI driven in part by the pandemic. The index hovered around that level for several months until starting to increase more rapidly from March onwards as the economy started to re-open, reaching 110.1 in April 2021 and continuing to increase sharply to 113.6 in October 2021, an annual increase of 4.2%.

The Governor of the Bank of England is required to write to the Chancellor of the Bank of England whenever inflation is more than 1% above or below the 2% target and he did so on 23 September when inflation reached 3.2% and he will again now that it has reached 4.2%. Part of the explanation he has given and will give are ‘base effects’, where price discounting during 2020 at the height of the first and second waves of the pandemic suppressed some of the inflation that is being experienced now.

Further letters are likely over the next few months as even if prices don’t rise any further, given how the index bounced around the 109 level between September and March 2021. This means inflation should continue to stay substantially above 3% for the next four months or so unless prices were to fall again, which is unlikely given how global commodities and supply constraints continue to feed into rising domestic prices. A 12-month CPI-inflation rate of 5% appears more than likely at some point in the next few months.

The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) isn’t panicking at this stage given that the annualised rate of inflation over the last three years (comparing October 2021 with October 2018) is an almost on-target 2.1% and their expectation that inflation rate will come down once the flat inflationary period of a year ago starts to drop out of the comparison. However, they are sufficiently concerned about the steep slope in the CPI in the last few months to signal that interest rates may need to rise if prices continue to increase at the pace seen in recent months.

The MPC’s original plan was to hang tight through what they hoped would be a short inflationary spurt as the economy emerges from the pandemic. In the event it looks like they won’t be able to hold that line, with higher interest rates a distinct possibility in the coming months.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: UK inflation

This week’s chart takes a look at UK inflation following news that the annual rate of inflation more than doubled in April to 1.5%, more than twice the 0.7% reported for the previous month.

Chart: CPI increasing from less than 0.5% in Apr 2016 to over 3% in Oct 2017 before falling to close to zero in Oct 2020, zigzagging to 0.7% in Mar 2021 and then jumping to 1.5% in Apr 2021. 

Compared with five year annualised rate gradually increasing from 1.5% in 2016 to close to just under 2% now.

The headline rate of inflation doubled this week from 0.7% to 1.5%, giving rise to concerns about the economic recovery. Economists aren’t getting worried just yet, but are they right to be so sanguine? 

This scale of this jump partly reflects the timing of the first and current lockdowns, as inflation is typically measured by comparing prices with the same month a year previously, with significant changes both this year as the UK started to emerge from its third lockdown and a year ago as it was entering its first. Some commentators have pointed out that the temporary cut in VAT on restaurant food and leisure activities help prevent the jump from being even higher.

Our chart compares the annual rate of Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation with a more stable measure, which is the annualised rate of CPI inflation over a five-year period. This is less susceptible to short-term swings in the economy, but as the chart shows, medium-term inflation has been gradually rising over the past five years even as headline rates on an annual basis fell over the last four years before the pandemic.

This perhaps explains some of the relaxed responses from economists about the sudden burst in inflation in the last month, given the annual rate of increase still remains below the medium-term trend, despite the current extraordinary economic circumstances.

Of course, that is not to say that inflation might not become a problem as the UK emerges further from lockdown. Many businesses have closed over the last year, particularly in the retail sector, while those that have survived will be looking to repair their balance sheets – a recipe for higher prices as constrained supply meets higher post-lockdown demand from consumers. Only time will tell whether this will feed into sustained higher levels of inflation or will jump be a temporary adjustment that falls out of the headline rate again in a year or so’s time.