Inflation May Be Dead, But Inflation Watch Is Not

Things have been pretty quiet around here. Every now and then I see a story about rising prices somewhere in the world and think the story would make a great quick post for Inflation Watch. However, I usually do not feel the same sense of urgency I had from 2008 through about 2011 when I felt that rapid inflation was the imminent result of extremely accomodative monetary policy. Everywhere I look, commodities continue to decline in price. Most commodities reached a peak in 2011 and that peak of course had me convinced more than ever that inflation was soon to be a big problem.

Now, thanks to a friend, I am ever closer to accepting that inflation may not be a problem for an even longer time than I expected. He sent me a link to an article called “The Fed won’t taper as long as inflation is low” (by Rex Nutting at MarketWatch) that makes the convincing case that not only is inflation low, but the Federal Reserve has so far seemed powerless to generate the inflation it wants. (I recognize the limitations of government data on inflation, but I do not subscribe to theories that they are concocted specifically to hide true inflation). Incredibly, core inflation is apparently at its lowest point since 1959 (the core PCE price index):

Rex Nutting uses this graph to make the point that all the Fed's QE have failed to go reflate according to the Fed's goals

Rex Nutting uses this graph to make the point that all the Fed’s QE have failed to go reflate according to the Fed’s goals

Nutting also links to a paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York called “Drilling Down into Core Inflation: Goods versus Services.” In this paper, authors M. Henry Linder, Richard Peach, and Robert Rich demonstrate that more accurate inflation forecasts come from breaking out CPI into a services and a goods component. Nutting uses this as reference for the claim that the Fed is failing because of global disinflation. This global disinflation is responsible for a decline in the prices of the goods component. Services inflation is much more sensitive to domestic forces (we all know about skyrocketing healthcare and education costs). However, I am not sure where housing sits on this spectrum. It seems to provide a crossroad of forces given housing is not tradeable but foreigners are certainly free to overwhelm a housing market with cash. Foreign demand is reportedly helping to drive up housing prices in some of America’s hottest housing markets like in California and some parts of Florida.

All this to say that, for the moment, inflation is all but dead. But “Inflation Watch”, this blog, is NOT dead. I remain vigilant because I believe that when inflation DOES come, the Federal Reserve will either be ill-equipped to handle it and/or unwilling to snip it early for fear of causing a severe economic calamity. I am a gold investor, and I am eager for another chance to invest in the midst of a commodity crash (I am LONG overdue for an update to my framework for investing in commodity crashes/sell-offs).

The chart below from the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) shows that commodity prices remain at historically high levels, mostly thanks to rapacious demand from China. The current relative decline is what is helping to drive goods inflation down. The 2011 peak was well above the pre-crisis peak where prices have fallen now. Also note that prices are much more volatile. I suggest that this chart should remind us that commodity prices are a tinder box that can flare up at anytime. Aggressive rate-cutting by the RBA should also help keep prices aloft.

From the Australian perspective, commodity prices remain historically high although they have returned to their pre-crisis peak.

From the Australian perspective, commodity prices remain historically high although they have returned to their pre-crisis peak.

So stay tuned. Just when everyone finally concludes that the world has reached a golden age of disinflation where surpluses abound across the planet…that could be the exact moment the tide turns.

Be careful out there!

Full disclosure: long GLD


Australian mining companies struggle with higher labor costs

Australia’s mining sector has done extremely well, largely from exports to a rapidly growing China, especially for commodities like iron ore and coal. This rising wealth helped Australia emerge from recession earlier than most other developed economies and prodded the Reserve Bank of Australia to hike interest rates multiple times.

This amazing growth has come with costs, primarily in the form of higher labor costs. In “Lovesick Miners Raise Costs for Rio, BHP,” Bloomberg describes how the isolation of work in the remote mining areas makes these jobs very unattractive. Mining companies like BHP Biliton (BHP) and Rio Tinto (RIO) not only have to pay extremely high wages as compensation, but they also must include other perks to help miners deal with the isolation. For example, work schedules for miners can include extended trips to major cities in between extended shifts. Still, major shortages of labor exist in many skills. Australia will likely need to rely more and more on foreign workers to do these jobs – the isolation THOSE workers will feel will likely be many times what Australian miners feel. So, this dynamic will be important to watch.

Overall, this article is a fascinating look into the lives of Australian miners and how their work impacts their ability to gain and maintain relationships.


Wages in Australia Continue to Rise Strongly

In “Australia Boom Pays Men Without Degree More Than Bernanke“, Bloomberg uses a gimmicky title to call attention to the tremendous gains in Australian wages during the current boom in commodities:

“Wages grew 3.9 percent in the three months through December from a year earlier, the fastest pace since the first quarter of 2009, according to government figures. When the central bank decided March 1 to keep its official cash rate at 4.75 percent, it said wage growth had returned to levels reached before a 2009 decline.”

Bloomberg also reports that Australian unions are seizing this opportunity to press for higher wages:

“The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Australia’s biggest in the building industry, sought pay increases in February of as much as 24 percent over four years. The Communications, Electrical and Plumbers Union is seeking annual pay rises of 5 percent over the next three years, almost double the inflation rate.”

The article speculates that tight labor conditions and rising wages could place additional pressure on the Reserve Bank of Australia to restart its rate-hiking campaign. Such speculation could explain the Australian dollar’s rapid rise to new all-time highs against the U.S. dollar.

Australian dollar makes new all-time highs against the U.S. dollar

Australian dollar makes new all-time highs against the U.S. dollar


Source: dailyfx.com charts

Disclosure: author is long FXA (Rydex Currency Shares Australian Dollar Trust ETF)


Reserve Bank of Australia tightens proactively to fight unwanted inflation

The economy in Australia continues to perform extremely well…so well, that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) now feels compelled to take proactive steps to ward off higher than desired inflation risks:

“…the moderation in inflation that has been under way for the past two years is probably now close to ending…the economy is now subject to a large expansionary shock from the high terms of trade and has relatively modest amounts of spare capacity. Looking ahead, notwithstanding recent good results on inflation, the risk of inflation rising again over the medium term remains. At today’s meeting, the Board concluded that the balance of risks had shifted to the point where an early, modest tightening of monetary policy was prudent.”

Australia’s terms of trade are now around 60 year highs. The RBA also felt free to act given its assessment that “…concerns about the possibility of a larger than expected slowing in Chinese growth have lessened recently…The turmoil in financial markets earlier in the year has abated, though sentiment remains fragile.”

After holding interest rates steady for many months, it seems the RBA is getting ready for a series of fresh tightenings to maintain a lid on inflation pressures.

(Note: author owns FXA, the Rydex CurrencyShares Australian Dollar Trust ETF)