Inflation Washes Ashore

Ever since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, the stock market has gone into a “Trumpflation” mode of trade. The early evidence of inflation may have finally washed ashore.

U.S. January prices rose 0.6% and core prices rose 0.3% month-over-month. Both were slightly higher than expected, and the rise was the highest since February, 2013. Year-over-year the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 2.5%, the highest since march, 2012. The CPI incorporated some particularly strong price hikes:

“Clothing prices jumped 1.4 percent, the most since February 2009. Men’s apparel surged by the most on record. New vehicle prices climbed 0.9 percent in January, the biggest advance since November 2009.”

The price hikes were enough to push real hourly wages down by 0.5% form December and unchanged year-over-year.

This is just one month of data, yet it precedes any of the policy changes or fiscal stimulus measures which promise to introduce inflationary pressures into the U.S. economy. InflationWatch is officially back on alert for the U.S.!

https://www.bloomberg.com/api/embed/iframe?id=f020e8cd-257d-4519-85a0-ddbdd3bf1339

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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.


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.


Mismeasuring inflation

When home prices plunged  from 2007 to early 2009, some bloggers noted that the Consumer Price Index had done a lousy job of incorporating the decline. The problem, these bloggers pointed out, was the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ use of “owners’ equivalent rent”–the estimated costs that homeowners would assume if they rented their homes instead of owning them–to represent home prices.

Tim Iacono wrote back in 2007: “OER is one of the poorest proxies the world has ever seen as demonstrated by the comparison below with the Case Shiller Home Price Index.”

Source: Tim Iacono

Andrew Jeffrey made a similar point earlier this year:

The statistical alchemists, err, experts, at the Bureau of Labor Statistics use something called “owners equivalent rent,” OER, to measure consumer housing expenses. OER tries to approximate the cost to rent the country’s typical home, and according to the Wall Street Journal makes up 24% of the CPI and 31% of the core CPI, which backs out food and energy costs.

And since even as property values have slid in record-breaking fashion rents remained buoyant, OER has vastly understated the drop in home prices. This means the CPI–were it to reflect some sort of economic reality–would have fallen more than it actually has.

Of course, times change.  Although home prices are still well below their peak, and some observers continue to talk of an ongoing crash in home prices,  the housing market has been on the mend since the spring of 2009–at least if you believe the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. As was the case in 2007-08, there is a discrepancy between the Case-Shiller index and the owners’ equivalent rent component of CPI, but this time the mismatch causes inflation to be under-reported rather than over-reported.

Let’s look at the numbers. Between April 2009 and August 2009 (the latest month available for the Case-Shiller index), the Case-Shiller index rose from 139.2 to 146.0–an increase of 4.9 percent. By comparison, the owners’ equivalent rent component of the CPI rose from 256.6 to 257.2 during the same period–an increase of just 0.2 percent.  In other words, the rate of home price inflation was nearly 25 times higher than that shown by the CPI.

The CPI as a whole increased from 213.2 to 215.8 — a rise of just 0.1 percent. But if we replace owners’ equivalent rent with the Case Shiller index, CPI would have increased 2.4 percent during this four-month period–an annualized rate of 7 percent.

For simplicity, these calculations are based on seasonally-unadjusted numbers. The results might be slightly different if they were based on seasonally-adjusted figures, but the basic point would not change, i.e.,  reported inflation since April 2009 would be much higher if not for the CPI’s use of owners’ equivalent rent.

Admittedly, the picture is very different if one looks at year-over-year inflation. The Case-Shiller index declined 11.3 percent between August 2008 and August 2009, whereas owners’ equivalent rent increased 1.7 percent. So CPI significantly overstates year-over-year housing inflation. This  overstatement will  gradually get smaller before disappearing entirely in mid-2010, unless housing prices begin to fall again. (Recent reports indicate that housing prices are continuing to rise.)