January HICP and CPI

There are seasonals in the price indices, and they happen to matter when comparing January with December. Both HICP and CPI ‘should’ fall by about 0.7% in Jan. HICP sa changed little from Oct to Nov, but dipped about 0.5% in Dec. It has dipped about 0.1% further sa in Jan. CPI, mainly due to declining mortgage costs, fell almost 1% sa in both Nov and Dec, and has fallen a further 1% in Jan. The main difference between the two is owner-occupied housing costs, excluded from the HICP. It would be nuts to annualise the sa CPI fall of the last three months, would imply minus 12% or more for the year. Interest rates can decline only a little further.

The annual % change in CPI is now about zero. But the last three months sa has shown an average CPI drop of 1% per month. The (preferable, in my view) HICP seems to be dropping about 0.3% per month for the last two months, would give an annual fall about 4%. The twelve-month HICP figure (meaningless) is still showing +1.1%. I reckon, for what it is worth, that HICP could begin to drop (sa) a bit quicker than CPI over the next few months. There is more sterling pass-through on the way, but maybe not much more from ECB.

These January figures are consistent with recent forecasts of significant price declines for 2009 over 2008. Numbers like minus 3 or 4% for 2009 over 2008 are plausible, even though it is early days. There are obvious implications for indirect tax revenue, and for informally index-linked income variables.

Household Savings Rate Rising Sharply?

The CSO Index of Retail Sales had been rising to mid-Summer 2007, flattened for a few months and has been falling since October 2007, which was (just marginally) the sa peak. November 2008 was 8.1% off the peak, and October plus November combined down just under 8% on the same two months of 07. Today’s Sunday Business Post reports a survey by Retail Excellence Ireland and CBRE for the full fourth quarter. They believe that value of sales was down 10.7% over Q4 2007, and that the figure would have been even worse (14%) if the DIY and electrical sectors had been included in their survey, which seems to have a somewhat narrower coverage than the CSO’s inquiry. Nonetheless, the survey confirms anecdotal evidence that December was dire, and that Q4 volumes could be down anything up to 10% on Q4 2007. Some sales were brought forward into December, and the January figures could well be pretty poor too.

Notwithstanding the diversion of trade into NI retailers, consumer spending must be falling faster than household disposable income. There will have been a hit to income in Q4 from job losses, but not yet from tax increases. Pay rates (outside the construction sector) were still rising in Q4 so far as I can see, although they may fall in the private economy overall in Q1 2009. The implication is that the household savings rate rose sharply in Q4 08, and that the marginal propensity to save must be high. This is also consistent with the historic lows in the consumer confidence indices.

If the consumer has decided that it’s time to repair the balance sheet, the case for fiscal stimulus is even weaker than normal, which in Ireland is pretty weak to begin with. The corrolary is that fiscal tightening has even less output cost than the macro models indicate.

(Cliff, an SBP headline today contains the coinage ‘oversaturated’. Is this overexaggerated? When will the slaughter cease?).

How fast is Irish inflation falling?

The twelve-month CPI and HICP rose 1.1% and 1.3% to December, and these numbers were duly headlined. But both indices have been falling in recent months, and it beats me why people use 12-month numbers in the middle of a big macroeconomic correction. Karl Whelan made a similar point here recently in the context of the quarterly national accounts.

There are small but significant seasonals in the CPI and HICP. The CSO does not adjust, but the following is based on up-to-date factors (an Excel file with the data and factors is available from john.lawlor@dkm.ie). Unadjusted, HICP showed small monthly changes in Sept, Oct, Nov, then fell 0.73% in Dec. The adjusted pattern was similar, but the fall in December lower, at 0.46%.

For unadjusted CPI, Sept and Oct showed only small changes, but then big falls of 0.93 and 1.21 in Nov and Dec. The adjusted falls were again smaller at 0.84 and 1.09 (but these are still very large month-on-month numbers).

Thus for the last two months, and seasonally adjusted, the CPI has dropped almost 1% per month. The HICP has been falling only for a month, and more slowly. The difference between the two is mostly about mortgage interest (see my paper in ESRI QEC for September 2007), and I think the HICP is a better index. When I expressed this view in 2007, the CPI was rising faster than the HICP, and my argument was described as academic (ie wrong) by ‘certain parties’ keen on compensation for inflation. A change of horse by these parties is confidently predicted (difficult manoeuvre at speed unless you are a Cossack).

Recent forecasts of FY 2009 CPI inflation are minus 2% (ESRI) and minus 2.5% (Pat McArdle of Ulster Bank). These numbers look well within range, but HICP could show a smaller fall than CPI if mortgage interest rates continue to drop. Either way, we are a long way away from mid-September, when the pay deal was negotiated. At that time, inflation looked set in a band around plus 4%. 

There is a big shift in the price index seasonals from December to January – if the adjusted trend is zero, the unadjusted shows a significant drop. If anyone quotes the unadjusted drop next month, they incur four faults.

Monday’s Conference ‘Responding to the Crisis’.

There has been a big response and Stefanie Feicke will be emailing all those who sought places today. There is almost no capacity left.

Authors are preparing papers late, and we will not be able to photocopy and distribute at the conference. However, the presentations will be posted on this website as they become available.

Should Ireland Try a Fiscal Stimulus?

Responding to Labour leader Eamon Gilmore’s suggestion of a fiscal stimulus at his party’s recent conference in Kilkenny, Jim O’Leary argued in yesterday’s Irish Times that the option is unattractive. I would like to expand on some of Jim’s points and offer a few more.

The first is that the Government’s fiscal targets for 2008-2011 will in all likelihood be over-shot significantly in 2008 and 2009, and will be hard to hit in the terminal year of 2011. The targets are (as per the Budget Stability Update), GGB deficits for the years 2008 to 2011 at 5.5%, 6.5%, 4.7% and 2.9%. The gross debt grows from 36% through 43.4%, 47.5% to 47.8%, while net debt starts at 25% and grows through 31% to stabilise at 34% for both 2010 and 2011. 

To begin with, the out-turn for 2008 will be a GGB deficit of maybe 6.5%: the NPRF vauation was 10% of GDP at end-June, but can only be 9% at best now; and GDP for 2008 will probably come in under the figure assumed in this table. At end 2008, gross and net debt ratios will likely be 2 to 3 points higher for these reasons. But borrowing in 2009 could be in the 8 to 9% zone, rather than the 6.5% target, and the assumed growth in NPRF value in 2009 may not happen. There could be bank bail-out costs not included in the budgetary arithmetic. At end 2009, gross debt will likely breach 50% (of nominal GDP below the 2008 outcome), and the net debt ratio could approach 40%. These would be the numbers before the fiscal consolidation begins!

There is a casual assumption being made by some commentators, and possibly some Governments, that the sovereign debt markets will pony up whatever is required, at least for developed countries and certainly for Eurozone members. But Germany struggled with a bond issue during the week, secondary markets are illiquid, spreads have widened and the weakest Eurozone member (Greece) trades 1.65% above bunds at ten years. The second-weakest is Ireland at 1.35%, and some Eurozone countries with worse debt ratios are trading on narrower spreads than us.

Martin Wolf argued in the FT during the week that a weaker Eurozone member could, in principle, default. There cannot be a currency crisis, but there can be a credit crisis instead. Greece is the current bookie’s favourite, but Wolf described Ireland as ‘…a dramatic case’, noting the speed of the fiscal deterioration and the over-leveraged private sector. The system as a whole needs to de-leverage, and there is no point offsetting a necessary balance-sheet improvement in the private sector with a public borrowing explosion. Indeed, de-leveraging the public sector through liquidation of the NPRF at some stage, and crystalising the painful losses, will need to be addressed. If you can’t easily sell debt, you may have to sell equities, as many hedge fund managers have discovered.

Any attempt by Government to stimulate will run up against Ricardian Equivalence anyway, even more so in the UK version, where the tax reductions are accompanied by specific commitments to increase taxes later. If the private sector is determined to improve its balance sheet through cutting consumption and investment spending, fiscal easing will either fail, in which case it is pointless, or ‘succeed’ at the cost of frustrating the unavoidable private sector adjustment.

Finally, Mr. Gilmore proposed specific capital spending initiatives, such as school building. These may be better projects than some other components of the capital programme, but it is notoriously difficult to fine-tune with capital spending.