China's inflation problem

Producer and consumer prices are diverging - which could spark trouble in the future.

China’s economic data have long been looked upon with a hint of suspicion. Inflation data is considered to be one of the better economic indicators produced by the China’s National Bureau of Statistics, however, recent outcomes have raised some questions. The producer price index (PPI) is considered to be a relatively reliable leading indicator of the consumer price index (CPI), as upstream price pressures, including the effect of higher commodity prices and raw materials, eventually trickle down and feed through to consumer prices. History has shown that it is broadly the case for China, with the CPI and PPI moving roughly in line with each other.

However, comparing the recent inflation outcomes at the consumer and producer level suggest a wide divergence in price pressures: rising consumer prices and falling producer prices in annual terms. The PPI has trended sharply downwards over the past year, down in deflationary territory for two consecutive months in April, while consumer prices have moderated more slowly. Growth in the CPI was 3.4 per cent in April 2012, moderating from a high of 6.5 per cent in July 2011, while the PPI which measures the selling price of goods and services sold at the wholesale level fell by 0.3 per cent in annual terms down from 7.5 per cent annual growth.

To some extent, the large recent falls in the PPI relates to a base effect; previously strong monthly increases in the index in late 2010 to early 2011 would reduce the magnitude of change in the index this year. But looking at the index rather than the growth, producer prices have also been subject to deflationary pressure in monthly terms – causing the index to fall slightly in late 2011, before more recently picking up.

The moderation in the PPI also reflects slackness in the manufacturing industry, where prices in the sector have fallen in annual terms for four consecutive months to be lower by 2.2 per cent in April 2012 compared to a year ago. This is in line with the continued moderating trend in industrial production, down to below 10 per cent annual growth in April – representing the weakest growth since the 2008-09 slowdown. Meanwhile, consumer prices have been driven largely by high food prices, which accounts for around one-third of the consumer basket.

The divergence between consumer and producer prices also highlights different operating conditions for upstream and downstream manufactures. Input prices have risen significantly, suggesting that profit margins for upstream manufacturers are taking a hit. Commodity prices have remained elevated; wage pressures have intensified with minimum wages rising by around 20 per cent annually in many provinces, while exchange rate appreciation has also cut into manufacturer’s profit. Anecdotes suggest that many exporters are declining large overseas orders, given the lack of skilled workers, tight credit conditions stemming from the government’s ‘prudent monetary policy’ and uncertainty over the pace of renminbi appreciation.

On the other hand, however, downstream manufacturers, which are less vulnerable to higher input prices, appear to be experiencing an improvement in their profit margins due to the positive gap between consumer and producer price inflation. Looking at reported profits across industries, consumer-related sectors appear to be best performers. In the three months to March, profits of automobile manufacturers increased by 6.3 per cent annually, while profits in the sectors of raw chemical and chemical products fell by 23.1 per cent and even further for ferrous metal mining and processing (down 83.5 per cent).

Looking ahead, it is expected that the gap between producer and consumer prices will eventually close in the coming months on the back of an improvement in manufacturing demand and possible relaxation of government credit restrictions. As per the government’s inflation target, consumer price inflation is set to average 4 per cent in 2012, which would mean relatively strong monthly growth of around 0.4 per cent over the remainder of this year. Should this be achieved, producer prices will need to rise at a much faster pace in accordance with the consumer and producer price relationship.

Until the figures get back on track, it is not unreasonable to expect the concerns felt in many countries about the accuracy of inflation numbers might well spread to China. Trying to get representative prices for a basket of goods that reflects the experiences of the majority is increasingly hard in complex economies prompting many to question the accuracy of one of the most important economic variables.

Chinese workers assemble electronics. Photograph: Getty Images

Niloofar Rafiei is China economist at Timetric, provider of economic data visualisation and analysis.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496