Broad based softness points to a retail price squeeze: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Broad based softness points to a retail price squeeze: Westpac's Justin Smirk
Broad based softness points to a retail price squeeze: Westpac's Justin Smirk


The rise in the CPI was well below expectations ... 

Regarding the headline, the CPI rose 0.5% in Q3, well below expectations. The annual rate was flat at 1.5%yr and only marginally up on the recent low of 1.3%yr in the March quarter. 

When you compare the chart of expected contributions to the Q3 CPI with the chart of actual contributions you can see there was widespread weakness or dissapointment. The one upside surprise is motor vehicles where prices rose slightly rather than falling as expected.

... & the ABS estimates a significant positive seasonality ... 

The ABS estimates significant positive seasonality for the Septmember quarter of –0.4ppts. That is prices tend to see a larger rise in Q3. As such, the seasonally adjusted CPI rose just 0.1%qtr in the September quarter. 

... so core measures softer at 0.3%qtr.

The core measures, which are seasonally adjusted, came in at an average of 0.3%qtr, softer than expectations for a 0.5%qtr print. In the quarter, the trimmed mean rose 0.28%qtr while the weighted median lifted 0.29%qtr.

The annual pace of the average of the core inflation measures is now 2.2%yr, which is below the mid-point of the RBA’s target band. In addition, the six month annualised pace is just 2.5%yr, a moderated from the recent peak of 2.7%yr in Q1. Before that, the peak for the six month annualised pace of core inflation was 3.1% in 2013Q4. 

Is retail competition holding back traded goods inflation? 

What was particularly interesting was the very modest rise in food prices of just 0.1%qtr. There was a softer than expect 0.2% rise in fresh fruit & vegetables due to the mix of a 8.2% rise in fruit mostly offset by a 5.9% fall in vegetables. Also falling in price in the quarter were bread & cereal products, dairy & related products, other food products and non-alcoholic beverages. We know that Australia’s grocery chains have been under increasing competition from new entrants who have been improving their domestic supply chains, opening new stores and openly competing with the incumbents on price. We suspect that this is not only holding prices down, despite rising wholesale prices associated with seasonal conditions and the weaker AUD, but actually pushing prices lower.

We were surprise in Q2 by the soft 0.3%qtr rise in meals out & take away foods; in Q3 there was the more normal rise of 0.6%qtr. 

Other areas where we are saw ongoing deflationary pressures in tradable goods in the quarter was in telecommunications equipment & services (–2.0%), clothing & footwear (–1.1%), fuel (–1.7%), audio visual & computing equipment (–1.4%) and somewhat surprisingly, domestic holiday travel & accommodation (–0.9%). The later followed a surprising 5.4% fall in domestic holiday prices, which was much weaker than what the airfare data was suggesting. Was the correction or transfer into the CPI data delayed until the December quarter?

We had expected that sometime weaker AUD impact on international holiday prices to appear sometime in 2015 but in the June quarter we were surprised with the fall of 1.3%. We may now be seeing the start of the AUD depreciation impact of the with the 4.6% rise in the September quarter.

Non-traded prices are steady 

The pace of non-traded inflation remains modest with a 0.4% gain in Q3 holding the annual pace flat at 2.6%yr, up from the recent low of 2.3%yr in the December quarter 2014.

Helping to hold back momentum in non-traded inflation this quarter were ongoing modest gains in housing costs. This is due, in part, to a moderation in dwelling prices (0.7%qtr/4.3%yr) as the pace eased back in Sydney (1.1%qtr/7.0%yr from 2.4%qtr/8.1%yr in Q2) and we saw the first outright fall in Perth (–0.3%qtr/1.9%yr) since June 2009.

Dwelling costs inflation is starting to ease in Sydney as it has been doing for some time in the other capital cities. In addition, rental inflation continues to moderate, as does utility price inflation. This all matters. Where housing inflation goes, so too goes non-traded inflation.

Looking forward it is housing remains key but watch the spread of price increases

For Q4, as long as crude oil prices don’t surge again from here, or the AUD collapses, then transport fuel should be a modest drag on the CPI. To some extent, the magnitude of the drag will depend on the refining margin for Singapore gasoline, which we don’t expect to narrow in any meaningful way between now and year end.

We are surprised that the weaker AUD has not shown up more in some price resetting for clothing & footwear, household furnishings and, possibly, audio visual and computing equipment. As such, we have tempered our view on AUD pass through this year. We are also closely watching what is happening to motor vehicle prices; the lower AUD is a positive for prices but the Free Trade Agreements we have signed with major auto producers represent a meaningful offset. Was the 1.1% rise in Q3 just a one off price reset or the start of a more meaningful adjustment for Australian auto prices. We expect to see a little more in Q4.

For non-traded inflation, rents continues to ease and dwelling prices have moderated a touch as Sydney prices come off the boil. 

Of course after seasonal adjustment and the trimming of the more extreme moves, housing inflation remains a key factor determining the outlook for core inflation. Our preliminary estimate for the average of the core measures for Q4 is 0.6%qtr/2.2%yr with more negatives trimmed out.


Justin Smirk is ‎senior economist, Westpac Group and can be contacted here.


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