Latest UK inflation data – March 2017

Inflation appeared largely unchanged today with CPIH (and CPI) remaining at 2.3% and RPI declining slightly to 3.1%.

There were two main reasons why inflation did not continue increasing. The first is the early timing of Easter in 2016, which has impacted some of the year-on-year comparisons. In particular, air fares were significantly higher in 2016 than in 2017 due to this factor and it also affected some other services. Secondly, the temporary drop in crude oil prices in February fed through to lower petrol prices in March 2017. This contrasts to the previous year when they had started to rise from their extreme lows in January/February 2016.

The above said, positive inflation was apparent in every single one of the categories that ONS measure – the first time this has happened for nearly three years. The impact of the recent rises in input prices (17.9%) and factory gate prices (3.6%) is now feeding through to the retail world. Goods inflation rose sharply to 2.5% (1.9%) and it exceeded service inflation for the first time in 5 years.

The rise in goods inflation was partly as a result of genuine rises in categories such as food. Food prices normally decline between February and March, but they increased this year. Rises were seen fairly broadly across the food sector and mainly reflects higher import prices.

However some of the increase in goods prices are probably erroneous and will fall out the calculation next month. For example, the sharp rises in alcohol and tobacco prices have more to do the with timing of the ONS data collection and the budget this year vs last year. In addition, the highly volatile ONS clothing and footwear index saw a rise this month which may well be reversed in April.

Therefore predicting next month’s inflation figure is going to be tricky. On the positive side, there are hikes in council tax and gas/electricity prices to factor in, as well as higher air fares over Easter. But this will be balanced out by reversals in the erroneous factors this month such as the apparent budget rises and clothing gyrations. In addition, this time last year, petrol prices rose sharply, whilst they are declining in 2017. The best guess is that inflation will remain around the same level or decline very slightly in April.

Indeed looking at the inflation stats elsewhere in Europe, shows that February numbers marked a high point and levels have come down a little for most countries. But the future path for UK and worldwide inflation very much depends a lot on crude oil and other commodity prices. Since the big decline in nearly all commodity prices in 2014/5, they have stabilised at historically low levels. If the next move in commodities was upwards, it would trigger a significant burst in worldwide inflation.

The full ONS analysis can be found here.