We’re still well off letter-writing territory, but inflation saw a significant jump from 1.8% year-on-year in January to 2.3% last month. This is the highest rate of inflation since September 2013 and marks the arrival of the consumer price rises that the Ulster Bank NI PMI has been flagging for some months. The main driver is the acceleration in the price of consumer goods – everything from new cars to newspapers – where inflation was virtually non-existent just four months ago.
We have also seen big rises in transport costs, with motor fuel up almost 20% over the last 12 months, and transport insurance up close to 10% in the same period. Energy costs in some areas are also on the rise, most notably liquid fuels, such as home heating oil, which is up over 60%. This impacts disproportionately on Northern Ireland, which a higher proportion of households heat their homes with oil. Meanwhile electricity and gas bills, as of February, were still lower than the corresponding period a year ago. However, this is set to change in the months ahead, with double-digit price hikes already announced by some gas suppliers locally yet to come into effect.
Food price inflation remains weak at 0.3% but this comes off the back of 31-consecutive months of falling prices, and the expectation is that food price inflation will be sustained, marking a return to more normal conditions after a freak period of prolonged food price deflation. Overall, inflation has breached the 2% target. Whether it breaches 3%, and therefore triggers a ‘Dear Chancellor’ missive from the Bank of England Governor, remains to be seen. What is for sure, is that worker pay demands, which have been relatively subdued in recent years, will intensify as the purchasing-power of their pay-packets gets eroded. To coin a phrase from the fashion world, the consumer sweet spot is so last year.