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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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