The Fed Asks “What Inflation?”

Last week, headlines and pundits were hot and bothered about the potential for the Federal Reserve to fall behind the curve on inflation. While my on-going assumption is that the Fed will indeed chose much higher inflation rather than risk ending the economic recovery with higher rates, I think the current hand-wringing by some is premature. In fact, it seems more the result of either boredom with the Fed’s business as usual policy stance and/or the anxiety on the part of some stock market bears looking for any kind of catalyst to shake the market out of its low volatility slumber

I was so surprised at all the hand-wringing over a “business as usual” policy statement that I rolled the tape on the press conference. I was wondering what I missed, I actually listened to the conference call a second time (yes, it was painful). The experience made me even more convinced the market over-reacted just as much as it did when Yellen carelessly suggested rates might increase earlier than the late 2015 market projection.

Recent inflation numbers apparently increased expectations that the Fed might show a more hawkish tone. This is reflected best in the first question of the press conference from Steve Liesman of CNBC:

“Is every reason to expect, Madam Chair, that the PCE inflation rate, which is followed by the Fed, looks likely to exceed your 2016 consensus forecast next week? Does this suggest that the Federal Reserve is behind the curve on inflation? And what tolerance is there for higher inflation at the Federal Reserve? And if it’s above the 2 percent target, then how is that not kind of blowing through a target the same way you blew through the six and a half percent unemployment target in that they become these soft targets?”

 

This was a leading question, especially considering that Yellen made it very plain in her introduction that the inflation readings remain benign. Moreover, long-term expectations for inflation remain tame (also see the Fed’s latest projections). Most importantly, the year-over-year change in the PCE, the Personal Consumption Expenditure, reached the 2.0% target in early 2012 only to quickly plunge from there. Not only might it be premature to project a 2% reading for next week’s release, but there is nothing to suggest that this time is different. The Federal Reserve has the least control over the non-core prices of food and energy, so the escalation of violence and turmoil in Iraq is definitely not the kind of event that the Fed would try to offset with monetary policy.

 

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The Fed still can’t tease the market into sustaining pre-recession inflation levels…
Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

Perhap’s Yellen’s poor response ignited the flames of disappointment. Yellen did not address PCE directly and instead talked about the noise in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) while reiterating the Fed’s standard guidance on inflation:

“So, I think recent readings on, for example, the CPI index have been a bit on the high side, but I think it’s–the data that we’re seeing is noisy. I think it’s important to remember that broadly speaking, inflation is evolving in line with the committee’s expectations. The committee it has expected a gradual return in inflation toward its 2 percent objective. And I think the recent evidence we have seen, abstracting from the noise, suggests that we are moving back gradually over time toward our 2 percent objective and I see things roughly in line with where we expected inflation to be.”

Ironically, Yellen could have just pointed to the longer-term trend in the CPI. This view dominates any shorter-term noise….

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The overall trend on CPI continues to point downward
Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

The most bizarre part of the buzz on the Fed’s supposed willingness to ignore inflation is that Yellen re-affirmed, re-emphasized that the Fed is all about meeting its price target. It will not tolerate deviations in EITHER direction for long:

“…we would not willingly see a prolonged period in which inflation persistently runs below our objective or above our objective and that remains true. So that hasn’t changed at all in terms of the committee’s tolerance for permanent deviations from our objective.”

This was Yellen’s response to Liesman asking about the Fed’s tolerance for higher-than-target inflation.

I feel irony in my skepticism about a Fed ignoring a budding inflation threat: this is the core scenario that has kept me long-term in the gold (GLD) and silver (SLV) trades. My thesis/assumption back in 2009/2010 was that the Federal Reserve would be extremely reluctant to tighten policy even as the economy strengthened out of fear that rate hikes would quickly kill the economy. By the time the Fed was ready to hike rates, the “inflation genie” would already be out the bottle. Granted, I am not nearly as rabid about this view, especially since I have come to appreciate the deep entrenchment of the lingering post-recession deflationist psychology in the economy.

 So, overall, I am very skeptical that this episode is the long-awaited lift-off of inflation and a lagging Fed. I actually think the Fed is right to look through the current “warming” in inflation readings, and I think it will find vindication just as the Bank of England did during a similar episode under former Governor Mervyn King. When the Fed asks “what inflation”, I find myself surprisingly agreeing for now…

To me, the data do not support the notion that broad-based inflation is taking hold in the economy. We do not even have wage pressures, not to mention all the slack that remains in the economy as evidenced in part by extremely low levels of housing production. Just do a web search or read mainstream financial magazines to see anecdotally how many people are still worried about the sustainability of the so far very weak housing recovery. I find it hard to believe we will get strong inflation with all this weakness and deflationary fears. On the commodity side, copper and iron ore have experienced major price declines in recent months that also fly in the face of any kind of sustained inflationary pressure in the economy.

Full disclosure: long GLD, SLV.

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The UK’s CPI inflation to remain stubbornly high for the next two years

On February 7th, The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England (BoE) decided to leave interest rates at the rock bottom rate of 0.5%. In doing so, the MPC acknowledged that it was assuming that the current stubbornly high inflation would eventually return to the target 2%. The MPC is expecting productivity gains and the reduction in external price pressures to do the trick.

“Inflation has remained stubbornly above the 2% target. Despite subdued pay growth, weak productivity has meant no corresponding fall in domestic cost pressures. And increases in university tuition fees and domestic energy bills, largely resulting from administrative decisions rather than market forces, have added to inflation more recently. CPI inflation is likely to rise further in the near term and may remain above the 2% target for the next two years, in part reflecting a persistent inflationary impact both from administered and regulated prices and the recent decline in sterling. But inflation is expected to fall back to around the target thereafter, as a gradual revival in productivity growth dampens increases in domestic costs and external price pressures fade.”

I took particular interest in the claim that external price pressures will fade. To do so, the global economy would have to remain weak. If so, then it is unlikely that growth in the UK will fare much better, even at the projected “slow but sustained” pace. The other possibility is that the British pound or sterling – CurrencyShares British Pound Sterling Trust (FXB) – appreciates enough that external prices go back down. If so, then Mervyn King’s hopes of rebalancing the economy with a reduction in demand for imports and an increase in exports surely will not be realized.

Adding to this conundrum for the UK economy is the stubborn persistence of weak economic growth (mainly flat) along with strong employment growth. The UK economy is getting less and less productive and thus less and less capable of offsetting inflationary pressures. This is a dynamic that I will be watching ever more closely given the BoE projects a two-year horizon over which the economy will continue to suffer high inflation and weak economic growth (aka stagflation). The implication for the currency is mixed, and I continue to expect “more of the same” for the pound.


The costs of raising children in the U.S. continue to climb

On June 14th, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its 2011 cost estimates for raising children in the U.S. (see “A Child Born in 2011 Will Cost $234,900 to Raise According to USDA Report“). According to this report, the average cost of raising a child in the U.S. rose 3.5% from 2010 and rose 22.5% from 1960 (in 2011 dollars), the first year these data were collected. (Note the USDA cautions that its methodology has changed over the years so comparisons between now and 1960 are not “precisely comparable). The share of expenditures has changed dramatically in certain categories like child care and education, food, and health care. The following chart is from the end of the publication (click image for a larger view), and it demonstrates the big differences in how children are raised now versus 50 years ago:

Expenditures on a child from birth through age 17, total expenses and budgetary component shares, 1960 versus 2011

Expenditures on a child from birth through age 17, total expenses and budgetary component shares, 1960 versus 2011

The amount families spend on children varies greatly based on household income, so these averages hide even more interesting stories. For example:

“A family earning less than $59,410 per year can expect to spend a total of $169,080 (in 2011 dollars) on a child from birth through high school. Similarly, middle-income parents with an income between $59,410 and $102,870 can expect to spend $234,900; and a family earning more than $102,870 can expect to spend $389,670.”

It is clear from the report that the costs increase according to income because of choices families make. Thus, it is not quite accurate to say child-rearing gets more expensive with income. Instead, families tend to choose to spend more on their children the more income at their disposal.

Read/download the full report here.


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


U.S. workers missing out on the “reflation celebration”

Several times on these pages, I have “celebrated” various confirmations of reflation as indicated by the soaring salaries of CEOs, largely through stock-based compensation. On October 10th, the New York Times printed the results of a study that confirmed what many of us already knew from informal observation: the wages of U.S. workers have fallen at a faster rate than they did during the recession. This “deflation” is working in the exact reverse of the trend for those who who hire these workers and run their companies! From “Recession Officially Over, U.S. Incomes Kept Falling” (NY Times via CNBC):

“Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income fell 6.7 percent, to $49,909, according to a study by two former Census Bureau officials. During the recession — from December 2007 to June 2009 — household income fell 3.2 percent.”

This is a sobering statistic that has potentially dire implications for the economy in general. Compare this situation to that in China where an on-going study in the New York Times concludes that China’s government has propped up its banks and large corporations at the expense of Chinese workers (see “As Its Economy Sprints Ahead, China’s People Are Left Behind.”):

“Under an economic system that favors state-run banks and companies over wage earners, the government keeps the interest rate on savings accounts so artificially low that it cannot keep pace with China’s rising inflation. At the same time, other factors in which the government plays a role — a weak social safety net, depressed wages and soaring home prices — create a hoarding impulse that compels many people to keep saving anyway, against an uncertain future.

Indeed, economists say this nation’s decade of remarkable economic growth, led by exports and government investment in big projects like China’s high-speed rail network, has to a great extent been underwritten by the household savings — not the spending — of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

This system, which some experts refer to as state capitalism, depends on the transfer of wealth from Chinese households to state-run banks, government-backed corporations and the affluent few who are well enough connected to benefit from the arrangement.”

Neither system, in the U.S. or China, appear stable to me. With China dependent on the income (or rising debt) of U.S. workers to keep its exports alive, these systems of increasing inequity actually start to look increasingly unstable. I will be monitoring these processes even more closely going forward. They are certainly deflationary, not inflationary.


Reflation celebration for corporate executives in Arizona and Georgia

The spotlight is shining bright these days on executive pay. I have cited several stories regarding the tremendous increases in executive pay that occurred in 2010 that resoundingly reversed (and then some) stagnation and sometimes declines in executive pay in 2009. (See for example, “Pay rises 13% for CEOs at Canada’s top 100 public companies” and “CEOs recover all the pay they lost during the recession” or review articles under the category “Salaries“).

This weekend, I noted two state-based stories on executive pay that demonstrated how dramatic a turn-around has occurred in the pay for specific executives.

In “Lucrative paydays for corporate chiefs“, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports:

“Here’s one measure of just how good it was: $232.9 million.

That’s the total compensation that the chief executives at Georgia’s 25 most-valuable public companies took home last year, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s review of the annual disclosures required by the Securities and Exchange Commission…

Here’s another measure of just how lucrative 2010 was: 29 percent. That’s the average pay raise the 25 executives saw last year.”

In “Arizona CEO’s median compensation surged 48% in 2010“, The Arizona Republic reports:

“Sparked by rising profits and rebounding stock prices, the median compensation for chief executive officers and chairmen at Arizona-based public companies surged 48 percent in 2010, hitting a statewide record of $1.54 million.

Plus, hefty pay packages were shared more broadly by other top officials at 43 corporations based in the state. Some 74 senior executives below the CEO level earned at least $750,000, up from 63 who earned that much the year before.”

In both cases, compensation swelled partially thanks to a strong rebound in the stock market, meaning that corporate executives have greatly benefited from the reflation generated by economic stimulus and/or monetary easing. As I have mentioned in previous posts, strong corporate profits have supported all forms of equity-based wealth and effectively beat back the ghosts of deflation in 2010.

Of course, the huge irony is that poor employment reports and stagnating personal income data tell a different story. For example, after Friday’s awful jobs report and the on-going dire news coming from the housing market, you would be excused for assuming the entire country had dipped back into a poverty-stricken recession. Such is definitely not the case for the big winners of 2010.


China’s inflation could be worse but stimulus money sitting in investments, not consumption

Nightly Business Report produced a short video segment describing China’s inflation woes (transcript included) called “China’s Inflation Battle.” The commentator identifies China’s RMB¥ 4 trillion stimulus program (about $585B USD at the time) as the original source of the inflation and takes us to Pengshui, 1000 miles from Beijing, to see some of the examples of how inflation is impacting the lives of the average Chinese person.

The most interesting quote came from Associate Professor Patrick Chovanec of Tsinghua University, School of Economics and Management:

“When you see over 50 percent growth in the money supply, the question isn’t, why is there inflation? The question is, why isn’t there more inflation? Why haven’t we seen it sooner? The reason is because a lot of that money didn’t go into a consumption boom. It went into an investment boom.”

It is a scary thought to think inflation problems could (will?) get even worse once the Chinese figure out how to make use of all this massive investment.

http://www-tc.pbs.org/video/media/swf/PBSPlayer.swf

Watch the full episode. See more Nightly Business Report.