Inflation? Worry about Deflation instead.

16 12 2008
John Lewis , Oxford St., London

John Lewis , Oxford St., London

It was announced today that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) fell by 0.4% from 4.5% in October to 4.1% in November. The CPI is the official measure of inflation used by the Government. The biggest factor for this fall is being attributed to the fall in crude oil prices. The average price of petrol was 95.2p. On the other hand, prices of fresh fruit and vegetables and non-alcoholic beverages is said to have risen compared to last year.

Although the drop is good news, the rate of inflation is still twice the official target of 2%. So, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the Government explaining why the rate of inflation had not hit the target. The governor of the Bank of England is required to write a letter to the Government whenever the rate of inflation is either 1% above or below the target and explain the possible action the BoE might take to solve it. However, Mervyn King feels that the next time he has to write a letter to the Government, it may not be about the reasons for inflation, but deflation instead.

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What are Inflation and Deflation?

Inflation is regarded to be a bad thing since it means a rise in prices, which is a bad thing for shoppers. Then, deflation must be a good thing, right? In the short term, yes it is. In the long term though, its a dreadful thing. To understand why a drop in prices is such a bad thing, one has to understand the meaning of the terms “inflation” and “deflation” and its causes. Inflation is the general increase in prices or, it is the decrease in the purchasing power of money. There are two possible causes; either the cost of production has increased, like the cost of raw materials or labour, or demand is out stripping supply. Take for example a rise in price of a NintendoWii games console. This may be due to a rise in the cost of materials and parts and workers who produce it. Or it could be that the number of units available is less than the number of people wanting to buy it, so the price goes up. Around Christmas, it is likely for the latter to be true. It wouldn’t be unusual around this time to find a NintendoWii on eBay at twice its retail price.

Deflation is the persistent decrease in prices. This happens when supply outstrips demand which could happen due to a surge in productivity. Or, like in the current climate, consumers rein in their spending which means that shops have to cut prices to entice customers to spend. If this happens a couple of times, it creates an anticipation of further cuts in the future. So, although consumers may have the purchasing power, they postpone certain purchases since they would be cheaper in the future. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy where consumers postpone their spending thinking that there would be price cuts, and sure enough, shops cut the prices to persuade shoppers to loosen their purse strings. Good news for shoppers, bad news for businesses. Businesses experience cash flow problems and their staff would have to accept a pay cut or even lose their jobs. So, debt becomes expensive because one owes the same amount of money, but has less income to meet it. Signs of deflation can already be seen on the high-street. Retailers are offering massive discounts, the likes of which are usually seen after Christmas, because they are desperate to clear their stock. And the consumers know this and know that further discounts will follow eventually.

It will be interesting to see how Mervyn King and the Government will go about coaxing the shoppers to spend their money.

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Retailers embrace VAT cut

2 12 2008

The cut in the VAT announced last week by the Chancellor initially didn’t receive the reception that he might have been perhaps hoping for. News reports, newspapers and websites were filled with comments against the idea of the VAT cut, some being funny, and some downright ironic. Most were along the lines of “10p saving! Whoopee!”

However, over the weekend, it looks like many retailers are whole-heartedly embracing the VAT cut. Not because they like to go through the trouble of having to change the prices and labels and the IT systems. But because it gives them another reason to slash their prices, much more than the 2.5% VAT cut. But, why do they need a something like a VAT cut to give them a reason to slash prices? Surely, they can do it without that.

Yes they can. And many, like M&S and Debenhams, did a fortnight ago when they had a one-day only “spectacular” sale. Having yet another “spectacular” sale nearly three weeks before Christmas would give the impression that they have a lot of left over stock which they are desperate to sell. Although many shoppers would flock the stores to bag the bargains, which many have been doing due to the ongoing sales, many would stand back and wait for the prices to drop even further – a clear sign of deflation.

Hence, the cut in VAT, although not significant on its own, has provided the retailers with a timely reason to slash their prices further, using the VAT cut as a “mask” for doing so. Some companies, however, like BT and Virgin Media have decided to pass only the 2.5% cut to their customers.

But, how do single price retailers like Poundland, 99p Stores, or numerous other independent single price retailers pass on the VAT cut to their customers? After the VAT cut, an item costing £1 would then cost:
117.5% = 100p (The VAT is already added to the final selling price)
1% = 0.85p
115% = 97.87p (new price)
Poundland wouldn’t be able to rename itself as 97pLand for a period of 13 months, and the slogan “Everything’s £1” would then be deemed misleading. The only other option is for such businesses to increase their profit margins, which is not a bad thing, but they cannot take the advantage of being able to advertise the fact that they are passing on the VAT cut to their customers. Or, they could sell products that they wouldn’t have been able to in the past, as it would’ve been priced above £1, but can now since the cut in VAT allows the price to be £1.