Anthony B. Kim, Breakeven Inflation Rate, Brian Dunn, Consumer Price Index, Core CPI, corporate taxes, Cost-Push Inflation, Dunkin’ Donuts, Energy Policy, Federal Reserve, Jen Psaki, Joe Biden, Labor Force Participation, Mark Theisen, Median CPI, Non-Pharmaceutical interventions, Overton Window, Patrick Tyrell, Semiconductors, Stagflation, Supply Chains, Trimmed CPI, Unemployment By State, Vaccine Mandate, Work Disincentives
Price inflation is getting more attention now than it has in many years, but not everyone is convinced it will persist, most conspicuously bond investors. The Biden Administration’s initial narrative was plausible even if there were seeds of doubt: a price spike was to be expected relative to the low-ebb of price changes during the pandemic. However, the inflation data has come in strong since the spring, and events point to continuing price pressures and the potential for expected inflation to drive escalations in contract pricing. Once embedded like that, the phenomenon broadens and gets harder to squeeze out.
Broadening Price Hikes
The evidence at hand is never enough to take much comfort in predictions, and the uncertainties now are similar to those I discussed in June. At the time, the price moves had been pronounced only in the prior month or so, and there was no evidence of any breadth. Now, it’s at least clear that increases in the so-called “core” Consumer Price Index (CPI), which excludes food and energy prices, have escalated. In addition, the growth in the median component of the CPI basket reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has begun to jump. So has the “trimmed CPI”, which excludes the most extreme 8% of prices changes in both directions within the index. The chart below shows one-month changes in these gauges:
So the recent upward price trends have expanded in breadth, and their persistence is making it a little harder to argue that the changes are transitory rebounds from pandemic weakness.
Bond Investors Still Nonchalant
Investors are by no means convinced that the recent price pressures will persist. They have an incentive to bid-up bond yields to compensate for expected inflation, so these yields can be used to infer inflation expectations. The chart below from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows the five-year “breakeven” inflation rate, which is derived from inflation-indexed versus unindexed Treasury securities.
The pattern does not suggest that a meaningful change in inflation expectations has taken place. In fact, the implied five-year inflation forecast has edged down a bit. Of course, we’re still worrying about a fairly short period of high month-to-month changes in prices, and five years is a long time in that context.
This “casual” reaction of interest rates to the inflation spike undoubtedly reflects investors’ belief that the Federal Reserve will tighten policy in an effort to contain inflation. Some of us have strong doubts about the Fed’s inflation-fighting resolve, however. There is little the Fed can do to relieve supply-side problems, and many would argue that the Fed should take an accommodative stance in an attempt to minimize output and job losses, but that would reinforce the inflationary effects. There is no easy way out. Risks loom in both directions, and though I might regret it, at recent yields, I’m not buying Treasury bonds.
Sources of Price Pressure
Economists have tended to divide price pressures into those driven by demand and those driven by supply. Sometimes the terms “demand-pull” and “cost-push” inflation are used for shorthand. The former is usually associated with economic growth, where rising prices indicate that demand is outpacing gains in capacity. With cost-push inflation, however, rising prices indicate that production snd supply is somehow impeded. You get higher prices and lower output. This is so-called “stagflation”. Today we seem to have a combination of those inflationary forces in play: demand has rebounded from the pandemic lows of 2020, while breakdowns in the supply chain have choked production, with a consequent need for more severe price rationing. If the latter forces win out, we will have entered a stagflationary episode.
Unfortunately, administration policies are exacerbating supply-side inflationary pressures. Officials first insisted that the jump in inflation measures would be transitory. More recently they’ve said that it really only hurts “the rich”, an assertion that is decidedly false. Biden flaks are doing their level best to put lipstick on a pig. “Peppermint” Psaki says it shows that people just want to buy things! On the other hand, the Washington Post encourages us to “lower our expectations”. Um, yeah… I think we’re there!
Burning Energy Producers and Consumers
Energy policy is an obvious case: while a hurricane moving through the Gulf of Mexico took a big bite out of domestic oil production, Biden took several steps to hamstring the domestic fossil fuel industry at a time when the economy was still recovering from the pandemic. This included revoking permits for the Keystone pipeline, a ban on drilling on federal lands and federally-controlled waters in the Gulf, shutting down production on some private lands on the pretext of enforcing the Endsngered Species Act, and capping methane emissions by oil and gas producers. And all that was apparently just a start.
As Mark Theisen notes, when you promise to destroy a particular industry, as Joe Biden has, by taxing and regulating it to death, who wants to invest in or even maintain production facilities? Some leftists with apparent influence on the administration are threatening penalties against the industry up to and including prosecution for “crimes against humanity”! This is moronic, of course, but perhaps these extremists are just trying to move the Overton Window. Fossil fuels have been and still are a miracle in terms of human well-being, and renewable (but intermittent) energy sources are simply not capable of replacing the lost power, as Germans, Californians, and Texans are learning. Furthermore, the effort to kill fossil fuels amounts to a war on the poor. Americans are facing steep increases in their utility bills and blackouts during the times when power is needed most. Now, Biden is actively trying to wheedle more oil production out of OPEC, as if it’s okay for those nations to extract it, but not for us to do so!
Have you heard it’s hard to get help these days? You’ll notice it pretty fast if you have regular occasion to deal with service establishments. Goods are getting scarce on the shelves as well. Food and paper goods are getting pricier. The semiconductor shortage has been prominent, impacting production and pricing of electronics, computers, and new cars, with a big cross-effect on the used car and rental car markets. Everywhere you look, sellers seem short of inventory. This year it might be tough to fill the space under the Christmas tree for lack of availability.
This isn’t just about cargo ships unable to unload at the ports, although that’s significant. Patrick Tyrell and Anthony B. Kim note the difficulty of overcoming the supply chain breakdowns even with 24/7 operations at the ports. Tyrell snd Kim offer this quite from the Financial Times:
“The US is facing a shortage of warehouse space and truck drivers, and shifting to 24/7 operation will require enormous co-ordination between the publicly operated ports and private sector groups, including large retailers and freight companies.”
There are several reasons for the labor shortage: a few workers and businesses might still be living in fear of COVID, especially in “blue” states and urban areas where the fear factor seems to have been more palpable. That’s where the high unemployment is. There has also been an apparent wave of retirements among late baby-boomers who were already on the cusp of hanging up their skates. However, the Biden Administration has instigated a set of ill-advised policies that blunt work incentives, leading to reduced labor force participation: the repeated extensions of pandemic-related unemployment benefits; increased child and dependent care tax benefits; the moratorium on evictions from rental property; the elimination of work requirements for expanded Medicaid coverage; and increased EBT and SNAP benefits. This is not hard to understand: if you pay people to stay home, they will stay home, even as you suffer through an interminable wait for your fast food. But there might not be a wait at Dunkin’ Donuts, because they’ve been running short on donuts due to “supply chain issues”!
Destructive Public Policy
COVID policy contributed to the early plunge in demand in 2020. Economic output declined, and ramping-up production is not always a simple thing. In this case, it was hindered by repeated non-pharmaceutical interventions and confused messaging from public health authorities. These are issues I’ve felt compelled to address too many times on my blog over the past 18 months. The negative economic effects of these policies continue to linger, and it should surprise no one.
The Democrats’ so-called “social infrastructure” bill, which looks mercifully unlikely to pass without major curtailments in scale and scope, would exacerbate many of the problems cited above. As I’ve noted recently, it’s more of an “infra-shackle” bill for the private economy than an infrastructure bill. For $3.5 trillion (an understatement based on budget gimmickry), we get heavy regulation and taxes, particularly on fossil fuels, subsidies for uneconomic technologies, assorted entitlements with no means testing, wage- and job-killing (and inflationary) hikes in corporate taxes, and other tax disincentives to private investment. The bill would represent a huge reallocation from the private to the public sector via coercion and public competition for scarce resources.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, now Biden has issued his legally dubious vaccine mandate, which has been met with outrage among many workers, from Chicago cops and other public servants, health care workers, truckers and workers at such corporate giants as Boeing, Southwest Airlines, and many others. Unions are furious. People are walking out. This represents a negative “supply shock”, an unexpected event that hinders production and boosts prices. Joe Biden looks to be well on his way to earning the title of “The Stagflation President”.
I’ll leave you with this gem from Brian Dunn: