Are consumer prices going to keep on rising?
No sooner had the first Covid-19 vaccine jabs been administered when talk turned to the risk of price inflation accompanying an impending recovery in economies globally from the pandemic.
It all started in the US where incoming President Joe Biden was keen to hit the ground running with a series of stimulus programmes amounting to trillions of dollars of spending over several years.
Warnings of a risk of overheating were initially dismissed, but soon alarm bells were being raised from inside the President’s Democratic Party with former Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, warning that the stimulus plans might cause “inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation.”
Very quickly the talk spread to this side of the Atlantic. Talking to the Irish Times in March, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar warned that we were overdue a period of price inflation here and that it was something that we should at least be talking about.
A ‘transitory’ phenomenon
For the months that followed, the inflation debate was largely confined to economists and market analysts.
Stock markets see-sawed on the ‘will they, won’t they’ question on whether the US Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, would attempt to control inflation by raising interest rates sooner than expected and if it might start cutting back on the huge amounts of cheap money that it was injecting into the financial system every month.
But the concept quickly moved from the realms of market speculation to reality. In May, consumer prices in the US were found to be rising at an annual rate of over 5% – well in excess of the 2% mark that Central Banks aim to keep the inflation rate below.
In the eurozone, the rate of price increases hit and then breached that 2% threshold (reaching 3% in August), but the European Central Bank was not worried, branding the inflationary trend ‘transitory’, adding that it had more to do with the reopening of economies in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“There is nearly zero connection between any kinds of spikes under the reopening of the economy and what goes into the inflation trend,” Philip Lane, ECB chief economist and former Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland told an online event hosted by the Dublin-based Institute of International and European Affairs in May.
The regulator believes that over the longer term it’s actually going to struggle to meet that 2% inflation target, so it’s prepared to let the current inflationary period run its course.
“Reaching the inflation target should be lasting and not just be the result of short-lived forces that lead to one-time increases in prices that are unlikely to lead to persistently higher year-over-year inflation,” Mr Lane wrote in a blog in recent weeks.
Price rises biting
Over the past few months, inflation has started to hit consumers and householders in the pocket and especially so in areas that would not be considered ‘discretionary spending’.
In July, Central Statistics Office figures captured consumer prices here rising at an annual rate of 2.2% before rising to 2.8% in August – the highest rate of inflation in a decade.
In both months, the bulk of the inflation was accounted for by price rises in the areas of transport, energy, and housing – so, the cost of a car, the cost of getting around, the price of housing and the costs associated with running a home.
And that latter area is one that householders are really going to notice in the months ahead as the temperatures drop and the evenings get longer.
Every energy provider in the market – both gas and electricity – has raised prices, some of them twice or even three or four times, in the last few months.
And the individual hikes have been quite spectacular – as high as 26% in the case of one electricity provider.
Daragh Cassidy, Head of Communications with the price comparison website, bonkers.ie, said such price hikes were unprecedented in the market.
“Taking the price increases together, you’re looking at around €300 or more being added to the average annual household bill, so it’s not an insignificant amount at all,” he said.
And that’s just one area of household spending. Car prices were up 7% in the year to August and the cost of running a car increased with petrol prices up 12.5% and diesel 13% higher than the same time a year ago.
Rental costs – a persistent inflationary bugbear – were up 4.5% in the year, with the bulk of that being felt outside of the capital, data from property website daft.ie indicates.
This is one area where inflation is likely to persist given the shortfall of properties available to rent.
Food price hikes ahead
The pandemic precipitated a massive slowdown in the flow of goods around the world.
Naturally, it was always going to take time for that supply chain movement to get back to more normalised levels.
Shortages inevitably mean higher prices for the goods that are in short supply.
Initially, that impacted areas such as construction with the price of materials like timber, steel and aluminium rising steeply, but that’s slowly making its way into other areas too.
Just this week, the agribusiness professional services group Ifac warned of food price increases coming down the tracks and it all stems from higher costs that farmers and food businesses have been encountering and are subsequently passing onto consumers in various forms.
“For food companies, it’s around packaging and ingredients. For agribusinesses, steel and timber are very much increasing and the costs are being felt by the consumer or the farmer customer,” David Leydon, Head of Food and AgriBusiness at Ifac explained.
“We expect higher food prices and higher prices for farmers across a range of areas,” he added.
The price of food and non-alcoholic beverages was one area where inflation had registered at a very low level in the latest CSO figures.
However, the price of food in restaurants, cafes, fast food and take-aways had risen by close to 3% with more increases likely in the coming months.
Where to next?
If the ECB’s expectations are fulfilled, consumer price inflation should start to moderate as we go into next year.
However, as Austin Hughes, chief economist with KBC Bank Ireland points out, there is now growing concern that the inflationary trend may not reverse as fast or as far as previously thought.
“A ‘noisy and nasty’ upward trend in Irish consumer price inflation is now well established and the short-term dynamics imply pressures are building faster and further,” he pointed out.
The sense of weakening ‘bang for buck’ among consumers could intensify, he cautioned.
“With higher heating costs eating into spending power, a notable rise in living costs could become a more important feature of the economic climate in the coming months,” he said.
And that will likely translate into demands for higher wages, which may already be coming through as the CSO’s earnings figures appear to indicate.
Average weekly earnings rose by almost 4% in the second three months of this year, the data showed, although the figures were complicated by Covid-related changes to the workforce and their earnings.
In addition, it must be noted that these figures are averages and there are workers across many industries that will not be in a position to command higher pay and they will have to grin and bear the price increases that are eroding the value of their hard-earned euro.
Those reliant on social welfare payments are especially vulnerable to increases in the cost of living, particularly in those areas where cutbacks are not an option, such as the cost of running a home and getting around.
As the group Social Justice Ireland pointed out in its pre-budget submission this week, core social welfare rates have not been increased for the past two budgets.
On top of dealing with a host of pandemic-related issues, inflation is another factor that the Ministers for Finance and Expenditure may now have to contemplate as they draw up next month’s budget.