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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.