Pandemic puts inflation into reverse as prices plummet

Inflation has gone backwards for the first time in four-and-a-half years, new figures show, driven by the plummeting price of petrol and accommodation. 

Even some products in hot demand - like toilet paper - failed to go up in price, and rent freezes also put the brakes on.

Overall, the Consumer Price Index fell 0.5 percent - the first drop since December 2015.

"International lockdown restrictions and global economic uncertainty have greatly reduced international demand for crude oil, driving prices down at the pump," said Statistics NZ prices senior manager Aaron Beck.

The cost of oil went negative in April - as lockdowns across the world drove demand down, producers began paying buyers to take their product away. At the pump, this resulted in a price drop from $2.09 a litre of 91 the previous quarter to $1.83 in June - the lowest it's been since 2017. 

Public transport also helped reverse inflation, with many services "offered for free". Overall, the cost of public transport dropped 2.9 percent. Some zoos also let people in free, Statistics NZ said, dropping 2.5 percent. 

Stripped of international tourists - and for a time, domestic too - prices at motels and hotels slid 14 percent.

"Domestic accommodation prices tend to fall in the June quarter after rising over summer. However, the fall this June was larger than usual, coinciding with travel restrictions," said Beck. "These falls coincided with a campaign to entice domestic tourism within New Zealand once non-essential travel resumed in mid-May."

Airlines had so little revenue however Statistics NZ chose not to publish data to "prevent disclosing confidential information" about Air New Zealand. It also excluded bus, taxi and rental car data - which falls in the same category as domestic airfares - so people couldn't figure it out via subtraction. 

The inexplicable rush to buy toilet paper ahead of the lockdown didn't push prices up - the average cost of a 12-pack rising only 2c to $6.37. Cleaning products went up 1.3 percent - higher prices for surface cleaners offset by the lowered cost of laundry detergent. 

Other personal care items were up 0.3 percent.

"Rising prices for soap, toothpaste, disposable nappies, and toilet paper were offset by falling prices for foundation, sanitary pads and tampons," Statistics NZ said.

Food rose 1.1 percent in the June quarter, driven by vegetables - particularly tomatoes, capsicum, courgettes and cucumber. Tomatoes on average cost $7.81 a kilogram, 48 percent more than last year, and courgettes topped $21/kg.

Rents were up year-on-year, but appeared to be flat over the quarter - the rent freeze on existing tenancies keeping prices in check. It didn't apply to new tenancies, landlords able to up the price if they got new tenants in. 

"This made estimating rent change more difficult than usual and we are working to understand the full impact," the agency said. 

"Excluding the full impact of the rental freeze, rent prices rose 0.6 percent over the quarter. This is lower than the 1.2 percent rise in the March 2020 quarter.  Regionally, Wellington had the biggest price rise, up 1 percent. In Canterbury, prices rose 0.2 percent."

Looking at the past 12 months, inflation was up 1.5 percent - down from the 2.5 percent in the year to March. 

Excluding "extreme price movements", "underlying" inflation might be a bit higher than that, Statistics NZ said. Excluding transport - the biggest contributor to the drop - would see annual inflation rise to 2.4 percent, almost exactly what it was in the previous quarter. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of volatility and uncertainty," said Beck. "These have resulted in some large price fluctuations as well as several measurement challenges."