/Inflation is not necessarily due to excessive spending

Inflation is not necessarily due to excessive spending

Yesterday’s data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (October 28, 2020) – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the September-quarter 2020, illustrates what a lot of people do not fully grasp. Inflation can be driven by administrative decisions and can be curtailed or restrained by varying those decisions. No tax rises or cuts to government spending are needed. The data also reflect on the reasons that predictions from mainstream (New Keynesian) economic models fail dramatically. Mainstream economists claim that monetary policy (adjusting of interest rates) is an effective way to manage the economic cycle. They claim that central banks can effectively manipulate total spending by adjusting the cost of borrowing to increase output and push up the inflation rate. The empirical experience does not accord with those assertions. Central bankers around the world have been demonstrating how weak monetary policy is in trying to stimulate demand. They have been massively building up their balance sheets through QE to push their inflation rates up without much success. Further, it has been claimed that a sustained period of low interest rates would be inflationary. Well, again the empirical evidence doesn’t support that claim. The Reserve Bank of Australia has now purchased more than $50 billion worth of federal government bonds and a smaller amount of state and territory government debt. And yet inflation is well below the lower bound of the RBA’s inflation targetting range. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations are flat and below the RBA’s target policy range.

The summary Consumer Price Index results for the September-quarter 2020 are as follows:

  • The All Groups CPI rose by 1.5 per cent after falling by 1.8 per cent in the June-quarter.
  • The All Groups CPI rose by 0.7 per cent over the 12 months to the September-quarter 2020, compared to the annualised fall of -0.4 per cent over the 12 months to June-quarter 2020.
  • The Trimmed mean series rose by 0.4 per cent in the September-quarter 2020 and by 1.2 per cent over the previous year (steady).
  • The Weighted median series rose by 0.3 per cent in the September-quarter 2020 and by 1.3 per cent over the previous year (steady).

The ABS Press Release notes that:

In the September quarter child care fees returned to their pre-COVID-19 rate having been free during the June quarter. This was the largest contributor to the CPI rise in the September quarter. Excluding the impact of child care, the CPI would have risen 0.7 per cent.

Which is the point.

The negative 1.9 per cent result in the June-quarter was all down to the federal government’s decision early in the Pandemic to provide free child care to both help families who had lost income and to help the child care centres who were at risk of insolvency due to the lockdowns.

And then when the decision was reversed – without good reason in my view – the price spike pushes up the inflation rate.

So it was an administrative decision not related to the balance between aggregate spending and the productive capacity of the economy to meet that spending through the provision of goods and services.

Which means that all those who argue that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is fatally flawed because the only defence against any inflationary effects of fiscal deficits are tax hikes, which might be politically difficult to introduce at certain times, haven’t really understood the full array of tools available to a government that is intent on controlling an inflationary outbreak.

The other point to note is that inflation has not surged in Australia, despite the Reserve Bank of Australia purchasing $A52,250 million worth of federal government bonds in secondary markets and $A11,098 million worth of state/territory government debt.

In other words, the central bank has been significantly funding government spending at both federal and state levels.

No inflationary pressures evident.

Which accords with the historical record where central banks in Europe, the UK, Japan, the US have been engaged in large-scale bond purchases and inflation is benign, and, in Japan’s case, has been for 30 years.

What is apparent from yesterday’s inflation figures and the most recent labour market data is that there is plenty of room for further fiscal stimulus to help the economy create more jobs to reduce unemployment and underemployment.

Trends in inflation

The headline inflation rate increased by 1.6 per cent in the September-quarter 2020 and 0.7 per cent over the 12 months to September (down from -1.9 per cent in the previous quarter).

The following graph shows the quarterly inflation rate since the March-quarter 2008.

The big negative spike in the June-quarter was mostly due to the free child care, which was reversed in the September-quarter.

The next graph shows the annual headline inflation rate since the first-quarter 2002. The black line is a simple regression trend line depicting the general tendency. The shaded area is the RBA’s so-called targetting range (but read below for an interpretation).

The trend inflation rate is quite steeply downwards.

Once we take out the so-called ‘volatile’ items (such as, food and fuel), the annual inflation rate is only 1.2 per cent. Well below the RBA’s target range.

What is driving inflation in Australia?

The following bar chart compares the contributions to the quarterly change in the CPI for the September-quarter 2020 (blue bars) compared to the June-quarter 2020 (green bars).

Note that Utilities is a sub-group of Housing.

The ABS say that:

  • Furnishings, household equipment and services rose in all capital cities due to child care, following the end of free child care on 13 July. Differences in the capital city movements at the All groups level can largely be explained by differences in the weight of child care in each city.
  • Transport rose in all capital cities due to price rises in automotive fuel as global demand saw a partial return, and global production fell. Automotive fuel increases ranged from (+0.1%) in Darwin to (+11.1%) in Melbourne. Hobart was the only city to record a fall (-1.5%).

“Education rose in most capital cities due to preschool and primary education following the discontinuation of free childcare, affecting before and after school care.”

The next graph provides shows the contributions in points to the annual inflation rate by the various components.

Here is another example of the administrative pricing effect.

You can see that the ‘Alcohol and tobacco group’ contributed 0.62 points towards the annual inflation rate of 0.69.

The ABS note that:

A rise of 3.2% in tobacco was the main contributor, due to the 12.5% annual excise indexation

That is, a government policy decision.

Inflation and Expected Inflation

I mentioned at the outset, the on-going inflation obsession among market players.

If you examine the market trends in speculative trades then it is clear that the traders were betting on a major shift in the RBA policy upwards after 2016 because they have been punting on a substantial rise in inflation.

They have been systematically wrong on that front.

More recently, it is clear their expectations have been falling as the RBA holds to its low interest rate regime.

Significantly, it is this misplaced fear of inflation, that, in place, drives the misplaced preference by New Keynesians for counter-stabilising monetary policy instead of fiscal policy.

If we went back to 2009 and examined all of the commentary from the so-called experts we would find an overwhelming emphasis on the so-called inflation risk arising from the fiscal stimulus. The predictions of rising inflation and interest rates dominated the policy discussions.

The fact is that there was no basis for those predictions in 2009 and nine years later no major inflation outbreak is forthcoming.

The following graph shows four measures of expected inflation expectations produced by the RBA – Inflation Expectations – G3 – from the June-quarter 2005 to the September-quarter 2020.

The four measures are:

1. Market economists’ inflation expectations – 1-year ahead.

2. Market economists’ inflation expectations – 2-year ahead – so what they think inflation will be in 2 years time.

3. Break-even 10-year inflation rate – The average annual inflation rate implied by the difference between 10-year nominal bond yield and 10-year inflation indexed bond yield. This is a measure of the market sentiment to inflation risk.

4. Union officials’ inflation expectations – 2-year ahead.

Notwithstanding the systematic errors in the forecasts, the price expectations (as measured by these series) are trending down in Australia, which will influence a host of other nominal aggregates such as wage demands and price margins.

The market economists’ one-year and two-year ahead expectations are well above the Break-even 10-year inflation rate. Even Union officials have fallen for the accelerating inflation outlook.

It is well known that the ‘market economists’ systematically get movements in the economy wrong and one wonders if their organisations actually bet money on their analysis!

The most reliable measure – the Break-even 10-year inflation rate – is now at 1.3 per cent, well below the lower bound of the RBA targetting range

It has been at or below the lower bound of the RBA’s policy target range since March 2016.

The other expectations are still lagging behind the actual inflation rate, which means that forecasters progressively catch up to their previous forecast errors rather than instantaneously adjust, a further piece of evidence that refutes the mainstream economics hypothesis that decision makers use ‘rational expectations’ (that is, on average get it right).

Implications for monetary policy

What does this all mean for monetary policy?

Clearly, the market economists were punting on a rise in the interest rate and have only started to realise in the last few quarters that this is unlikely to happen any time soon (as disclosed by their inflationary expectations above).

The inflation trends highlighted in yesterday’s data release provide no basis for any expectation that the RBA will hike interest rates anytime soon.

In fact, if anything, the pressure is now on the RBA to cut rates again and probably expand their QE program, which started in March 2020.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is designed to reflect a broad basket of goods and services (the ‘regimen’) which are representative of the cost of living. You can learn more about the CPI regimen HERE.

Please read my blog – Australian inflation trending down – lower oil prices and subdued economy – for a detailed discussion about the use of the headline rate of inflation and other analytical inflation measures.

The RBA’s formal inflation targeting rule aims to keep annual inflation rate (measured by the consumer price index) between 2 and 3 per cent over the medium term. Their so-called ‘forward-looking’ agenda is not clear – what time period etc – so it is difficult to be precise in relating the ABS data to the RBA thinking.

What we do know is that they do not rely on the ‘headline’ inflation rate. Instead, they use two measures of underlying inflation which attempt to net out the most volatile price movements.

To understand the difference between the headline rate and other non-volatile measures of inflation, you might like to read the March 2010 RBA Bulletin which contains an interesting article – Measures of Underlying Inflation. That article explains the different inflation measures the RBA considers and the logic behind them.

The concept of underlying inflation is an attempt to separate the trend (“the persistent component of inflation) from the short-term fluctuations in prices. The main source of short-term ‘noise’ comes from “fluctuations in commodity markets and agricultural conditions, policy changes, or seasonal or infrequent price resetting”.

The RBA uses several different measures of underlying inflation which are generally categorised as ‘exclusion-based measures’ and ‘trimmed-mean measures’.

So, you can exclude “a particular set of volatile items – namely fruit, vegetables and automotive fuel” to get a better picture of the “persistent inflation pressures in the economy”. The main weaknesses with this method is that there can be “large temporary movements in components of the CPI that are not excluded” and volatile components can still be trending up (as in energy prices) or down.

The alternative trimmed-mean measures are popular among central bankers.

The authors say:

The trimmed-mean rate of inflation is defined as the average rate of inflation after “trimming” away a certain percentage of the distribution of price changes at both ends of that distribution. These measures are calculated by ordering the seasonally adjusted price changes for all CPI components in any period from lowest to highest, trimming away those that lie at the two outer edges of the distribution of price changes for that period, and then calculating an average inflation rate from the remaining set of price changes.

So you get some measure of central tendency not by exclusion but by giving lower weighting to volatile elements. Two trimmed measures are used by the RBA: (a) “the 15 per cent trimmed mean (which trims away the 15 per cent of items with both the smallest and largest price changes)”; and (b) “the weighted median (which is the price change at the 50th percentile by weight of the distribution of price changes)”.

Please read my blog – Australian inflation trending down – lower oil prices and subdued economy – for a more detailed discussion.

So what has been happening with these different measures?

The following graph shows the three main inflation series published by the ABS since the March-quarter 2009 – the annual percentage change in the All items CPI (blue line); the annual changes in the weighted median (green line) and the trimmed mean (red line).

The RBAs inflation targetting band is 2 to 3 per cent (shaded area). The data is seasonally-adjusted.

The three measures are all currently below the RBA’s targetting range:

1. CPI measure of inflation – 1.6 per cent and below the RBAs target band for the last two years.

2. The RBAs preferred measures – the Trimmed Mean (1.2 per cent and stable) and the Weighted Median (1.3 per cent and stable) – are also below the lower bound of the RBAs targetting range of 2 to 3 per cent.

How to we assess these results?

First, there is clearly a downward trend in all of the measures – even before the pandemic. The “core” measures used by the RBA have been benign for many quarters even with an on-going significant fiscal deficit, record low interest rates, and the newly introduced QE program.

Second, inflationary expectations are benign and trending downwards, although the ‘market’ sector seems to think there will be a rise in inflation. I would discount that expectation.

Third, in terms of their legislative obligations to maintain full employment and price stability, one would think the RBA would have to change its monetary policy tack.

It clearly cannot cut interest rates much and will avoid negative rates.

I think it is time they dropped their prima donna position and announced they would fund all deficits – federal and state – for the foreseeable future to allow governments to deal with the pandemic without the unknowing claims in the media that public debt is out of control.

We don’t need those diversions any longer.

Conclusion

Just before the pandemic hit all the macroeconomic policy talk in Australia was about getting the fiscal position into surplus to reduce public debt and ensure that inflation didn’t accelerate.

Given what has happened since, one wonders if they will ever be able to prosecute that nonsense into the future.

The problem is that the effort to cut public net spending created the circumstances such that the economy was already in trouble even before the pandemic hit.

Now we have large deficits, low interest rates and a central bank engaging in QE.

Inflation will not be an issue.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.