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

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.

Hong Kong Property Market Defies Tame Inflation

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority just published its Quarterly Bulletin on economic conditions in Hong Kong and around the planet. The HKMA concludes that inflation is tame overall:

“Inflationary pressure eased further, as the underlying inflation rate tapered to a year-on-year 3.8% in October from 4.5% in June. The sequential pressure moderated slightly to an annualised 3.1% on a three-month-on-three-month comparison. This reflected waning food price inflation and moderation in price increases for other major CPI components.”

The slowly growing economy is expected to continue to keep inflation at bay. However, this calm surface masks a still roiling property market. Indeed, the HKMA believes the property market is well ahead of the economy given meager gains in income:

“In the property market, the disconnect between housing prices and economic fundamentals appeared to have become more acute. In contrast to tepid income growth, housing prices surged by a cumulative 23.2% in the year to October. Housing affordability deteriorated as a result, with both the price-to-income ratio and the mortgage payment-to-income ratio rising to their post-1997 highs.”

This is likely a matter of cheap money finding a home somewhere. In this case it is the property market. The government has responded to the growing problem with a series of taxes that seem to be moderating demand.

The HKMA places partial blame for inflationary pressures in the property market on the the Federal Reserve’s recent rounds of quantitative easing:

“Risks to inflation have also increased with additional quantitative easing in the US, through its potential impact on global commodity prices and local property prices.”

Note that the HKMA recognizes that QE in the U.S. will drive commodity prices higher. This dynamic is something Ben Bernanke has refused to acknowledge. With the Federal Reserve adding a “stealth” QE4 in the December statement, I will look to commodity prices to catch bids in 2013…and for central banks to work to try to counter-act the moves of the Federal Reserve.

Wages on the rise in China

Several reports have been published this year documenting rising wages in China. In “Wage Rises in China May Ease Slowdown“, the WSJ notes that these increases may help lower the impact of a slowdown in China as workers have more money to purchase goods (although it is not clear to me how much this helps if a lot of the money goes into buying foreign goods as the article suggests could happen).

The current and projected jumps in labor costs are dramatic:

“…wage income for urban households rose 13% year-on-year in the first half, and average monthly income for migrant workers rose 14.9%, according to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics. A labor ministry survey of 91 cities in the first quarter showed demand for workers outstripping supply by a record amount, pointing to low unemployment…

…At current rates, China’s private-sector manufacturing wages will double from their 2011 levels by 2015, and triple by 2017, eroding competitiveness and denting the exports that have played a key part in China’s early growth.”

These wage hikes are coming off low levels. For example, as of February of this year, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, the company that manufactures Apple (AAPL) iPads, reported a 10% increase in base salary for its factory workers to 2,200 yuan ($345) per month.

Moreover, the supply of new, young workers will decrease thanks to China’s one-child policy:

“In 2005, there were 120.7 million Chinese people aged 15-19, according to United Nations estimates. By 2010, that had fallen to 105.3 million, and by 2015 it is expected to dip to 94.9 million.”

Finally the government is forcing the minimum wage and benefits higher:

“China is committed to sharply raising minimum wages, which puts pressure on employers to raise salaries for higher skilled workers. Beijing also has increased requirements for severance payments, which discourages layoffs unless business drops severely.”

It will be interesting to watch what happens to China’s economy as its manufacturing competitiveness declines slowly but surely with the increase in wages.

KB Home faces rising input costs

In its latest earnings report, KB Home (KBH) reported rising input costs. Prices for labor, material, and land are all on the increase. In “KB Home ‘On Offense’ As Its Housing Markets And Pricing Power Strengthen“, I reported the following, including quotes from the Seeking Alpha transcript:

“While KBH is bullish about its business, it is wary about its costs. Costs increased about $1,200 a house, but KBH was able to offset that with pricing. I was a bit surprised that business is strong enough that KBH can actually wield some pricing power, passing on increased costs to its customers. Here is how KBH described the source of the cost increases and their likely impact:

‘We are starting to experience higher costs for labor and direct construction materials such as lumber, concrete and drywall. Through the end of the second quarter, the impact of these higher costs has been offset by sales price increases, which we have implemented in a majority of our communities during the first 6 months of the year. We believe incremental price increases can continue to offset any further cost increases for the remainder of 2012, which should not result in margin erosion but maybe a headwind in relation to our margin expansion plans.’

Moreover, land prices are also on the rise. KBH says that land sellers were the first to detect the improvement in the housing market and they are now able to exert some pricing power:

‘While there’s no question the housing markets are getting better, the land sellers figured it out first. So land prices are going up every bit as fast, if not faster, than home prices are.’

These are signs that the housing market is finally starting a sustained recovery, starting in select markets. For more details on earnings for KBH see “KB Home ‘On Offense’ As Its Housing Markets And Pricing Power Strengthen.”

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.