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Why has the UK RPI / CPI inflation gap surged?

August 20, 2021 by Simon Ward

The fall in UK CPI inflation in July reported this week will be of limited comfort to policy-makers – a decline had been expected because of a large base effect and will be more than reversed in August. A bigger story was the further widening of the RPI / CPI inflation gap to an 11-year high. RPI inflation could top 5.5% in Q4 2021, boosting interest payments on index-linked gilts by a whopping £15 billion relative to the OBR’s Budget forecast.

CPI inflation fell from 2.5% in June to 2.0% in July but RPI Inflation eased by only 0.1 pp to 3.8%. RPIX inflation – excluding mortgage interest – was stable at 3.9%.

The RPI / CPI inflation gap, therefore, widened to 1.8 pp, its largest since June 2010. The RPIX / CPI inflation gap of 1.9 pp is the biggest on record since the inception of CPI inflation data in 1989 – see chart 1.

Chart 1

The widening gaps mainly reflect surging house prices, driven partly by Chancellor Sunak’s stamp duty holiday. House prices enter the RPI via the housing depreciation component*, which is linked to ONS house price data with a short lag – chart 2. This component has a 9.0% weight and rose by 9.9% in the year to July, contributing 0.9 pp to RPI inflation of 3.8%. The CPI omits owner-occupier housing costs.

Chart 2

Note that the housing depreciation weight has risen from 5.8% in 2014, i.e. the sensitivity of the RPI to house prices has increased by more than 50% since then.

The RPI / CPI and RPIX / CPI inflation gaps, however, have widened by more than implied by house prices alone – chart 3.

Chart 3

A likely additional influence has been the ONS decision to depart from its normal procedure and base 2021 CPI weights on 2020 rather than 2019 expenditure data. As previously explained, this has lowered the weight of categories hit hardest by the pandemic but now experiencing a rebound in demand and prices. An alternative calculation carrying over 2020 weights (based on 2018 expenditure data) to 2021 produces an annual inflation number for July of 2.5% rather than 2.0% – chart 4.

Chart 4

The RPI has been less affected because the normal procedure was followed of basing weights on expenditure shares in the 12 months to June of the previous year. 2021 weights, therefore, reflect spending in the year to June 2020 – the impact of the pandemic was smaller over this period than in calendar 2020.

So weighting effects are likely to have had a larger negative impact on CPI than RPI inflation.

The phase-out of the stamp duty holiday is being reflected in a slowdown in housing market activity but estate agents expect a shortage of supply to support prices, according to the RICS survey. Recent strength may not yet have fed through fully to the RPI housing depreciation component – the annual rise in the latter of 9.9% in July compares with a 13.2% increase in the ONS house price index in the year to June.

Assume, as a reasonable base case, that that the annual increase in the housing depreciation component moderates to 8.0% in Q4 2021 while other influences on the RPI / CPI inflation gap are stable. This would imply a decline in the gap from the current 1.8 pp to 1.6 pp. The Bank of England’s August forecast of CPI inflation of 4.0% in Q4 would then read across to RPI inflation of 5.6%.

The OBR’s March Economic and fiscal outlook projected a 2.4% rise in the RPI in the year to Q4 2021. According to its debt interest ready reckoner, a 1% rise in the RPI boosts interest costs on index-linked gilts by £4.8 billion in the following year. The suggested Q4 overshoot of 3.2 pp, therefore, implies a spending increase of £15.2 bn – or 0.6% of annual GDP – relative to Budget plans.

*House prices also feed into the mortgage interest component, as well as estate agents’ fees and ground rent.