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October inflation hits 16-year high of 3.6%

Figure surprises economists, who say Govt may do more to cool economy

CONSUMER prices rose at their fastest pace in 16 years last month as food, housing and transport costs all accelerated their rate of increase.

Inflation hit 3.6 per cent, resuming an upward trend after September’s 2.7 per cent breather.

Yesterday’s figure caught out virtually every economist in town – ‘I almost fell off my chair,’ said DBS Bank’s Irvin Seah – and sent them scrambling to raise forecasts.

Last month’s number beat all estimates in a Bloomberg News survey of economists. ‘We thought we had a high forecast at 3 per cent as the market was at 2.8 per cent,’ said HSBC’s Robert Prior-Wandesforde.

Analysts said the Government may do more to cool the red-hot economy, but the pain of rising living costs will be felt for some time as these measures do not have an immediate effect.

‘This is way beyond market analyst expectations,’ said Mr Seah. ‘We knew inflation would go up. We just didn’t know it would come so quickly.’

Monthly inflation figures going forward are likely to track last month’s figure, as prices seldom fluctuate sharply unless there is a significant change in the economic environment. For instance, noodle prices that were raised last month are unlikely to come down any time soon.

Yesterday’s Department of Statistics figure follows Monday’s new inflation figure from the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

It forecast inflation to hit 3.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent next year, up from an earlier estimate of 2 per cent to 3 per cent. The figure is expected to be 2 per cent this year.

Inflation is rising across Asia as oil and food prices increase. China, for instance, reported that prices last month rose the fastest in a decade.

In Singapore, a 2 percentage point hike in the goods and services tax in July is bumping up prices even more.

Food costs, which make up the biggest part of the consumer price index, surged as dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry became more expensive. Eating out was 3.2 per cent more costly, too.

Transport and communication, the next big item, rose as spiralling oil prices lifted petrol costs for cars and buses.

High energy prices have also sent electricity rates up twice since July. This and higher rentals bumped up housing inflation to 2.3 per cent.

Health-care costs, which make up just 5 per cent of the index, were up 6.2 per cent.

Mr Prior-Wandesforde said the Government may consider more cooling measures after recent initiatives to dampen the housing market and delay several major construction projects.

If inflation does hit 5 per cent early next year, as suggested recently by Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang, the MAS may move to let the Sing dollar strengthen even faster, as it did last month. A stronger local currency can help counter price rises in imported goods.

But these measures take time to kick in, said Mr Seah. He suggested that the Government provide more help to low-income families in next February’s Budget.

But Mr Prior-Wandesforde said help may not come as wage growth may be strong enough to enable the poor to cope with the price rises.

For people like freelance publisher Chiam Choon Yong, it is belt-tightening time. The 44-year-old father of four has been hit by increases in petrol costs – up about 10 per cent to $500 a month – and utility rates – up from $140 a month to $160.

‘We just have to be more economical and stay away from things like seafood and exotic fruits,’ he said.


Source: The Straits Times 24 Nov 07


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