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.


Over-stretching the case for inflation

I continue to think it makes more sense to fear inflation than deflation, but I cringe when I read “inflationists” who continue to over-state the case for inflation. Two recent pieces that appeared in Project Syndicate are case in point: “When Inflation Doves Cry” by Allan Meltzer and “The Ghost of Inflation Future” by Brigitte Granville.

Allan Meltzer wrote “A History of the Federal Reserve” and is considered an expert on the Federal Reserve. He wrote recently to complain about a cover story in the Wall Street Journal that declared victory for the inflation doves over the hawks. Meltzer essentially called the doves lucky. He insisted that the lack of inflation despite the Federal Reserve’s massive growth in its balance sheet was something no one on either side of the divide predicted. I actually seem to recall plenty of deflationists from 2008 to this very day who have scoffed at the notion that the Fed can do anything to stop an eventual deflationary collapse. So, I think Meltzer is too broad in trying to excuse himself for being wrong all these years about the immediate inflationary consequence of quantitative easing (for Meltzer’s dire warnings on inflation early in the crisis see his 2009 interview on EconTalk).

Even more problematic for me is that Meltzer calls on the Federal Reserve to stop paying interest on reserves, the very thing that is containing the kind of increase in the monetary supply that will surely boost inflationary pressures. Meltzer also seems to imply that the Fed should simultaneously raise interest rates and work down the reserves on the balance sheet. These two prescriptions strike me as deflationary. I suppose there is some formula whereby all these can be done in a harmony that can spur non-inflationary growth and avoid deflation, but Meltzer does not make it specific. (It is also possible that the strict limits on article length in Project Syndicate made it impossible for him to clarify).

In 2010, Mletzer wrote in the Wall Street Journal that eventually banks would start loaning out the money currently held in reserves. The only reason to do this would be if banks felt they could make more money than simply accepting the free money from the Fed. Meltzer did not say what would motivate such lending except to suggest that the Fed would get the rate on reserves wrong. Now, three years later, to advise that the Fed drop the rate altogether is to ask for a free pass to make a prophecy come true.

Mind you, I am sympathetic to the case that says the Fed will not be able to contain inflation when it finally starts up again, but the specific mechanism for a reignition of inflation is still not quite clear yet in my opinion. The Fed seems inclined to maintain an accomodative stance well into an economic recovery in order to ensure that the recovery has firm roots. That bias is certainly the seed from which inflationary pressures can (will) grow…but we need that recovery first!

Brigitte Granville wrote “Remembering Inflation” which makes the case for establishing inflation targets as a tool for maintaining the inflation-fighting credibility that central banks need to foster stable prices (see summary at Princeton University Prcess). In her piece on Project Syndicate she concludes by warning that Europe will soon go from depression to high inflation. It is a bewildering prediction given she acknowledges that the European Central Bank cannot raise its inflation target, and its program of “outright monetary transactions” must be accompanied with tight fiscal policies. In many ways, the ECB is acting as if it fears inflation more than deflation. Moreover, Granville notes that as a consequence heavily indebted nations in the eurozone will eventually be forced to restructure their debt with creditors (instead of attempting to inflate away the debt with a devalued currency). Without a devlation in the currency, I have a hard time understanding how such restructuring will trigger inflation. Instead, it is likely to make it even more difficult for borrowers in these countries to access the credit markets, sterilizing an important inflation-generating mechanism.

We inflationists have been premature and even wrong on our inflation expectations. Here on Inflation Watch, I finally acknowledged back in June that it was time to cool my inflation expectations. I still promise to maintain vigil and write related pieces, but it just does not make sense to write in such expectant tones…at least not until something fundamentally changes in the inflation picture. In the meantime, inflationists would do well to avoid predictions of inflation until they (we) can specifically describe exactly how (and when?) the inflationary threat will manifest itself. The odds for an imminent inflationary spiral are NOT 100%, probably not even 80%…


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


Land prices have doubled in Iowa over the past few years

Land prices have doubled in Iowa over the past few years. The team at Planet Money conclude that the land boom throughout the agricultural U.S. Midwest is being driven by “real” economic forces. They identify low interest rates, grain traders, and government subsidies for ethanol as key drivers of this boom. Low interest rates are enabling land purchases. Grain traders and the demand for ethanol are driving up corn prices which in turn make land for growing corn more dear. Starting with auctions in Iowa, Planet Money takes us to a part of the country that is booming while much of the rest of the country is stagnating.

Finally, one “seasoned farmer” warns that this boom is indeed a bubble and points to the crash in land prices in the 1980s after a similar period of exuberance.

Listen to “The Tuesday Podcast: The Land Boom


Bullard recommends targeting monetary policy at headline, not core, inflation

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis just published an article written by James Bullard, a non-voting member of the Federal Reserve and President of the St. Louis Fed, called “Measuring Inflation: The Core Is Rotten.” It is based on a speech Bullard delivered two months ago to the Money Marketeers of New York University. It is a refreshing perspective on the use of core inflation for guiding monetary policy; it is also a bit surprising coming from someone on the Federal Reserve!

Bullard starts and ends with a critique familiar to those of us who insist food and energy prices should not be excluded from measures of inflation:

“One immediate benefit of dropping the emphasis on core inflation would be to reconnect the Federal Reserve with households and businesses who know price changes when they see them. With trips to the gas station and the grocery store being some of the most frequent shopping experiences for many Americans, it is hardly helpful for Fed credibility to appear to exclude all those prices from consideration in the formation of monetary policy…

…The headline measures of inflation were designed to be the best measures of inflation available. It is difficult to get around this fact with simple transformations of the price indexes. The Fed should respect the construction of the price indexes as they are and accept the policy problem it poses. To do otherwise may create the appearance of avoiding responsibility for inflation…”

(Compare and contrast this to Governor Frederic S. Mishkin’s insistence in 2007 that the Federal Reserve should care about headline inflation but focus on controlling core inflation in its public stance on monetary policy.)

I love the recognition that average consumers and businesspeople “know price changes when they see them.” This is Inflation Watch’s reporting philosophy and helps explain my emphasis on reporting the price changes of a broad range of products and services.

Bullard makes some key points to argue that headline inflation can and should be the focus of monetary policy. While I agree with his overall thesis, I do take issue with some of the points (my comments in bold):

  1. Monetary policy can be adjusted to accommodate the extra volatility in headline inflation by, for example, focusing on year-over-year changes.
  2. The relationship between core and headline inflation is unclear and even changes over time, making it more difficult to comprehend the optimal policy response. Me: This was an interesting point since the Federal Reserve’s statements usually imply the Federal Reserve tunes policy for core, not headline, inflation anyway. Currently, Ben Bernanke has all but absolved monetary policy of any impact on commodity prices.
  3. The Federal Reserve cannot directly influence supply and demand dynamics for any particular product in the inflation index, so it is not sufficient to ignore prices that are supposedly out of the Federal Reserve’s control. Me: I understand Bullard’s point, but I also think providing cheap money that traders can easily borrow to bid up the prices of goods and services is a strong and sufficient influence. The Federal Reserve definitely thinks it can directly influence housing demand and prices given its targeted efforts at lowering mortgage rates.
  4. When the price of one good goes up, another goes down as consumers adjust their demand to stay within their budgets. Increasing food and energy prices can thus force other prices down in the core index and further understate true inflation.

Bullard further notes that their is promising research into directing monetary policy at a specific subset of prices that households care most about, but it is too early to use.

Of particular interest to me was Bullard’s identification of a changing world where commodity prices will join the prices of medical care (and education) in outpacing the overall average inflation rate.

“…much of the contemporary worry about commodity prices is that relative price changes may be much more persistent going forward than they have been in the past…

…it is at least a reasonable hypothesis that global demand for energy will outstrip increased supply over the coming decades as the giant economies of Asia, particularly India and China, reach Western levels of real income per capita. If that scenario unfolds, then ignoring energy prices in a price index will systematically understate inflation for many years.”

(See “Preparing for Profits in a Resource-Constrained World” on implications for investing).

Given the limitations and blind spots of core inflation, Bullard makes a convincing case for directly targeting headline inflation with monetary policy. Otherwise, the Federal Reserve remains at risk for maintaining monetary policies that are too loose for too long.


Bank of England Governor King continues to bet on inflation taking care of itself

On June 15, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King spoke at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet for Bankers and Merchants of the City of London at the Mansion House. The speech covered very familiar themes for King and the Bank of England.

King begins by acknowledging the squeeze on the current economy:

“The challenge facing monetary policy is obvious – the combination of high consumer price inflation and weak economic growth. Both of these might seem surprising given the large amount of spare capacity in the economy. But the rise in world energy and other commodity prices, and the need to reduce both the external and budget deficits, are squeezing real living standards, pushing up on consumer price inflation and slowing domestic consumption.”

Over the years, King has consistently hammered on the theme of rebalancing in the UK’s economy: a transition away from domestic consumption and toward exports and the business investment required to support this shift. King indicated that the rebalancing underway will continue for several more years. This process has necessitated the devaluation of the currency. Interestingly, King cleverly attributes the devaluation to market forces while indicating the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) chose not to counter-act the pressures on the currency:

“A necessary precondition for that rebalancing was a fall in the real exchange rate. Markets anticipated that need. The nominal effective sterling exchange rate fell by around 25% between the start of the crisis in 2007 and the beginning of 2009, since when it has been broadly stable…

…We could have raised Bank Rate significantly so that inflation today would be closer to the target. But that would not have prevented the squeeze on living standards arising from higher oil and commodity prices and the measures necessary to reduce our twin deficits. And it would have meant a weaker recovery, or even further falls in output…”

In other words, the MPC decided to focus on the implications of a weak economy over the implications of high inflation, judging the former to be the greater threat. In doing so, King has frequently noted that today’s high inflation is temporary, thus rationalizing on-going accomodative monetary policy and low interest rates in the face of high inflation. The primary blame for high inflation has shifted from hikes in taxes (the Value Added Tax or VAT) to commodity and energy prices, both presumably out of the control of monetary policy. Internally, conditions do not exist for sustaining “domestically generated” inflation:

“So far, subdued rates of increase in average earnings, as well as remarkably – some might say disturbingly – low growth rates of broad money have provided strong signals that inflation will fall back in due course. Banks are still contracting balance sheets and reducing leverage. Spreads between Bank Rate and the interest rates charged to many borrowers remain at unprecedentedly high levels, if indeed borrowers are able to access credit at all.”

King really caught my attention when he provided two key conditions that would actually compel rate hikes:

  • A pickup in domestically generated inflation
  • A contraction in the spreads between Bank Rate and the interest rates charged to many borrowers

Given the dour outlook for the economy and an on-going reblancing in the economy, I continue to assume that rate hikes in the UK are somewhere off in a very distant future. King has proven quite adapt in coming up with reasons for maintaining loose monetary policy, and I continue to see strong evidence that he is reluctant to tighten for fear it could upset the rebalancing he so deeply desires. Indeed, King notes that there is no way to tell when the MPC may hike rates:

“Uncertainty inevitably surrounds both the speed of the rebalancing and the impact of today’s consumer price inflation on tomorrow’s domestically generated inflation. So it is simply impossible to know now at what point monetary tightening will begin.”


The Federal Reserve May Choose to Ignore the Inflation Expectations of Households

(Originally appeared in “One-Twenty Two“)

First, Bernanke made it clear he thinks gold is not a good indicator of inflation expectations. Now, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has produced research that could convince the Fed to insulate itself from the inflation expectations of average Americans in “Household Inflation Expectations and the Price of Oil: It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again” by Bharat Trehan (thanks to Bill Fleckenstein for calling this article to my attention).

Household inflation expectations have risen to 4.5% from 3% at the end of 2010. Fortunately for the Federal Reserve, its empirical research seems to show that household expectations have become inaccurate and irrelevant for monetary policy:

“This Economic Letter argues that the jump in household inflation expectations is a reaction to the recent energy and food price shocks, following a pattern observed after the oil and commodity price shocks in 2008. The data reveal that households are unusually sensitive to changes in these prices and tend to respond by revising their inflation expectations by more than historical relationships warrant. Since commodity price shocks have occurred relatively often in recent years, this excessive sensitivity has meant that household inflation expectations have performed quite badly as forecasts of future inflation.”

Trehan admits that the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center shows that households had been pretty good indicators of future inflation from the 1970s to 2000. However, over the past several years, the increased volatility in the prices of food and energy have misled consumers to anticipate more future inflation than is warranted given low levels of existing core inflation:

“The recent jump in the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan measure of household inflation expectations appears to be related to increases in the prices of energy and food, similar to the jump observed in 2008. The size of this response to noncore inflation cannot be justified in terms of the historical relationships in the data. This disproportionate response is probably the reason why household inflation expectations have not done well as forecasts of future inflation in recent years, a period of volatile food and energy inflation. The poor forecasting performance argues against reacting strongly to the recent increases in household inflation expectations.”

Moreover, recent increases in inflation expectations are not justified by changes in monetary policy. Trehan speculates that…

“It’s also possible that households’ sensitivity to noncore inflation goes up following substantial, sharp increases in the price of energy and food items, such as those that occurred in the 1970s and over the past few years…This similarity to the 1970s is unsettling because it suggests that consumers are not accounting for the ways monetary policy has changed over this period.”

I assume this claim means that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies have improved since the 1970s. In my opinion, we have seen even less reason to trust in the Federal Reserve’s policies to the extent that these policies “fix” economic problems in such a way to help set up the next crisis. These crises build while the Federal Reserve tends to reassure that it has everything under control and/or there is nothing happening to cause concern.

I would challenge the historical record and related regressions to suggest we need to consider whether the structural underpinnings of inflation are changing in ways that the Federal Reserve will be slow to recognize. Whether the Federal Reserve can do anything about these changes is another question.