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

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Relative, not absolute, oil prices impact the economy

James Hamilton posted a quick study of the impact of oil prices on car sales in “Oil prices and the U.S. economy” in EconBrowser. Hamilton demonstrates from recent history that once the economy has made an adjustment to high oil prices, a subsequent price run will not impact the economy until it reaches new highs. In other words, oil prices must force the economy (consumers and businesses) to make new adjustments before a significantly negative impact occurs. Auto sales already greatly favor more fuel efficient vehicles, thus blunting the traditional drag on the auto sector as consumers shun bigger, gas guzzlers.

Oil’s relative share of consumer expenditures is another factor to consider. Amazingly, energy’s overall share of consumption has declined as gas prices have soared in recent months.

For more detail and data see “Oil prices and the U.S. economy


General Mills fighting food inflation with innovation

Tom Hudson from the Nightly Business Report just tweeted the following: “how @generalmills is fighting food inflation with innovation on @bizrpt exclusive CEO interview.”

Sounds interesting! I will try go post a summary of the interview and/or point to the transcripts and video.


Prices going up yet again at the company lunch counter

Last year, my company raised prices 4-5% on food in its cafeterias. With the ink on those price hikes only 10 months old, my fellow employees and I are getting hit with another substantial price hike. The planned 4% hike is once again well ahead of the general (reported) rate of inflation.

To add insult to injury, the cafeteria will now be charging by the ounce for frozen yogurt. I am sure this is a “Dr. Duru” policy given I am guilty as charged for piling on the chocolate good stuff as high as I can.

The inflation accountants may be relieved to know that we have also received expanded meal service in recent months. Perhaps a hedonic adjustment evens everything right out…


Despite declining coffee prices, Starbucks ($SBUX) hiking some prices by 1%

Although agricultural prices have generally decreaed for several months, coffee included, Starbucks (SBUX) announced today that it will hike the prices of some beverages by about 1% in the Northeast and the Sunbelt regions of the U.S. SBUX cites “the prices reflect competition in certain markets and higher costs for coffee, fuel and other commodities.”

Note that Starbucks stock was actually down today while the major indices experienced strong rallies.

For more detail see “Starbucks to raise prices in certain regions

Starbucks had a great 2011. Did today's news end the coffee run for now?

Starbucks had a great 2011. Did today's news end the coffee run for now?


Source: FreeStockCharts.com

Coffee prices have been sliding for months and ended 2011 down from 2010

Coffee prices have been sliding for months and ended 2011 down from 2010


Agflation finally slowing down

Global supplies of agricultural products are expanding, perhaps in response to past shortages. These forces are driving down prices and discouraging hedge funds from making bullish bets in agricultural commodities. According to Bloomberg in “Funds Reduce Bets on Rising Food Costs to Lowest in 27 Months: Commodities“, the bullishness of hedge funds has reached lows not seen in over two years.

Here is a key quote that describes the situation:

“World food prices tracked by the United Nations retreated for a fifth consecutive month in November, the longest decline in more than two years. The U.S. government said Dec. 9 that combined global inventories of corn, soybeans and wheat will be 3.2 percent larger than anticipated a month earlier. Cocoa capped its longest slump in 50 years last week on increasing supplies from Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest producer.”

DBA, the PowerShares DB Agriculturae Fund ETF, tells the story. the ETF has now sunk to 14-month lows. Today’s price marks the previous post-recovery high in 2009.

After going straight up for nine months starting in 2010, DBA has now gone nearly straight down since its April highs

After going straight up for nine months starting in 2010, DBA has now gone nearly straight down since its April highs


When is it really cheaper to make your food at home?

On Thanksgiving Day, NPR’s Marketplace included a follow-up segment to a story from 2009 on Jennifer Reese, a San Francisco woman who set out to determine when it is really cheaper to make things at home versus buying in the store. She has now published a book about her experience called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch — Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods.

Her general conclusion is that it is cheaper to do the “non-glamorous” things at home, but glamorous activities like raising chickens, goats, and turkeys cost too much in infrastructure to make it worthwhile. It is definitely cheaper to make your own bread and muffins but more expensive to make candied ginger. It is cheaper to buy lemonade than make it – not to mention all the effort it takes to squeeze the lemons. Reese also addresses convenience, food quality, and moral choices.

The book looks like a worthwhile read for those considering to beat higher food costs with homegrown and homespun creations.