Thursday, September 10, 2009

Economics 10/09/09: A dive into CPI discovers ESB and B Gais monsters

Consumer prices posted the first increase in August - up 0.4% mom on July or double the consensus forecast. This is the first monthly rise since September 2008. Prices rose helped by the nasty predictables, though:
  • mortgage repayments were up 3.4% on average - although mortgage repayments are still down 48.2% yoy, the latest tick up is a clear sign that the banks are starting to 'repair' their margins and are driving cost of mortgage financing up - bad news for already demoralized consumers;
  • the above trend is likely to accelerate: Irish banks' mortgage rates were the third lowest in the EU in June 2009 (only Portugal and Finland had lower average rates), but this is somewhat simplistic of a comparison as majority of current borrowers in Ireland are taking or holding variable rate or tracker mortgages. In contrast, in other countries of the Eurozone, much higher percentage of mortgages issued are in fixed terms of much longer duration than those in Ireland. But one has o be also concerned with the riskiness of Irish mortgages to the banks - Irish banks spot 173% average loans/deposits ratios and this is a mad level of leveraging for the sector, comparable to the worst 'offenders' - the poorly performing UK banks;
  • a bit more on housing costs: "In the month, price increases were recorded for liquid fuels (i.e. home heating oil) (+9.4%) and mortgage interest (+3.4%). Price decreases were recorded for rents (-2.4%) and bottled gas (-0.4%)." Rents falling - bad news for housing markets then;
  • ex-mortgages (HICP) was up 0.2% in August in mom terms (yoy term we are still in deflation at -2.4%, for comparison Euro area overall HICP is down 0.2% yoy in August - 12 times less than Ireland's);
  • but this August things still were worse than a year ago - back in August 2008 mom inflation was 0.5%, this August it is lower at 0.4% despite a massive deflation since then.
In addition to the above main points, other worrying things are in the pipeline for inflation.

Transport costs rose 1.1% mom due to higher cost of fuel (as some analysts claimed in their rushed notes). Alas, CSO detailed sub-indices show that it was not petrol that was the main culprit: "In the month, price increases were recorded for air fares (+7.0%), bus fares (+3.8%), petrol (+1.7%), maintenance & repair (+1.4%), diesel (+1.2%), other vehicle costs (which includes parking fees and car rental charges) (+0.8%) and motor cars (+0.4%). Price decreases were recorded for other transport (-4.3%), spare parts & accessories (-1.8%), sea transport (-1.6%) and bicycles (-0.7%)." So in short - private sectors are still competing on price, but state bus monopoly is ripping off the customers, while airlines are scrambling to cover losses.

"Education costs decreased by 0.3% in the month and increased by 3.9% in the year to August 2009. This compares to an increase of 6.5% for the year to August 2008. A price decrease was recorded for other education & training (-0.7%)." No savings on third level or any level education in sight then which means - wait, CSO won't tell you this in their summary -
  • cost of primary education in this country has gone up by 7.6% yoy in August 2008-August 2009 period;
  • cost of secondary education went up 7.1% yoy;
  • cost of third level education is up 4.5%
We really are doing everything possible to increase the level of educational attainment for kids and adults in Ireland, aren't we?

Of course there was no easing of costs of our two grand state monopolies: ESB and Bord Gais. Year on year, the former dropped 10.9% and the latter rose 6.5%, so given their weights in expenditure, the basket of these two energy sources lost roughly 5.2% of its value. But in the same period of time, oil dropped 36% and gas dropped 63%, so the actual spot market price savings on the basket should have been around 44.9%. Ok, allow for a profit margin of a whooping 10% (we are in a recession) and a cost margin of 15%. Still, you get something to the tune of 25-27% savings that is not being passed onto consumers by ESB and Bord Gais.

Ah, the costs of our glorious state monopolies. I know, some will stop reading here, but - folks, the Exchequer (the same one who is 'protecting' taxpayers interests in Nama, allegedly) is the sole owner of these rip-off monopolies! Shouldn't Brian Lenihan 'protect' taxpayers from their abuses? That would give him at least some credibility in claiming that he actually acts in the interest of this country's people...

I must confess - after Pat McArdle's retirement, I stopped quoting from the Ulster Bank notes. But here is a rare exception: "For the year as a whole we expect an average consumer price fall of 4.2% [CPI, I presume], which would represent the greatest decrease since the 6.4% drop in 1931". A nice piece of history, folks, and possible a good forecast target too.
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