Consumer Price Index, Core CPI, Cryptocurrencies, Deficits, Energy Policy, Federal Reserve, Financial Velocity, Fisher Effect, Helicopter Money, Housing Costs, Import Prices, Inflation, Inflation Premium, Irving Fisher, M1, Median CPI, Monetary policy, Monetization, Shrinkflation, Trading Volume, Trimmed CPI, Velocity of Money
There’s a big disconnect between recent news about escalating inflation and market expectations of inflation. In fact, there’s a big disconnect between market expectations and what we’re hearing from some conservative economists. The latter are predicting more inflation based on the recent spurt in prices and the expansionary policy of the Federal Reserve. Can these disparate views be reconciled?
Market interest rates are considered pretty good predictors of inflation, at least relative to surveys and macroeconomic models. That’s because a fixed interest return is eroded by inflation, and fixed income investors will bid up interest rates to incorporate a premium to compensate for perceptions of increased inflation risk. This is known as the Fisher Effect, after the economist Irving Fisher. In fact, investors should bid rates up more than one-for-one with expected inflation, because the inflation premium will be taxed. A higher return must compensate for both higher expected inflation and taxes on the increased inflation premium.
After rising by about 1.2% from last summer through mid-March, interest rates on Treasury notes have declined slightly. The earlier run-up anticipated a strengthening economy, but if the increase was due to higher expected inflation, we could say it represented an added premium of about 1%, and that’s roughly in-line with changes in some other market-based gauges of expected inflation (ignoring pandemic lows).
Recent Inflation News
Meanwhile, measured inflation certainly has increased in 2021. I say “measured” because 1) “true” price changes are measured imperfectly, and 2) there is a difference between real inflation, which is a continuing process, and month-to-month changes in prices. Here, we’re really talking about the latter and hoping it doesn’t turn into a bad case of the former!
The green line in the chart below is the percent change in the consumer price index (CPI) from a year earlier. After declining during the pandemic, it rebounded sharply this year to almost 5% in May. The purple line is the increase in the CPI excluding food and energy prices, otherwise known as the “core” CPI. The jumps shown in the chart are well in excess of the market’s assessment of inflation trends.
Both versions of the CPI have jumped in the past few months, but it turns out that durable goods like washing machines, TVs, and (probably) Pelotons have jumped the most sharply. Most of the weakness in prices during the pandemic was in non-durable goods, which stands to reason because so many activities away from home were curtailed. Also noteworthy about these price movements: when measured over a span of two years, prices excluding food and energy have risen at an annualized rate of only 2.6%.
There are two other lines in the chart above that demonstrate much less alarming changes in prices: the orange line is so-called “median” inflation, which is the price change in the median component of the CPI. That is, half of all price components included in the CPI rose faster and half rose slower than the median. It has barely accelerated this year and stood at only about 2.1% higher in May than a year earlier. The blue line is the so-called “trimmed” CPI, or the average price change of the middle 84% of all CPI components. While it has accelerated in 2021, the year-over-year increase was only 2.6% in May.
Thus, the breadth of the jump in prices was limited. The Federal Reserve and a lot of market participants insist that the uptick is narrow and temporary — a transitional phenomenon related to the sluggish recovery of supplies in the post-pandemic environment.
But again, the accuracy of price measures is always in question. For example, the housing cost component of the CPI was up only 2.2% in May from a year ago, but it is calibrated to actual survey data only twice a year, the survey is a weak data source, and we know home prices and rents have risen aggressively. Quality and quantity adjustments are always in question as well. An old approach for businesses dealing with rising costs is to reduce package size, which has been called “shrinkflation”. It seems to be back in vogue.
It’s not yet clear how much wage pressure is occurring now. The economy-wide average hourly earnings data has been distorted over the past 15 months by the changing mix of employment, first shifting toward greater concentration in high-wage (work-at-home) occupations and now shifting back toward lower-wage jobs as the economy reopens. But we know many employers are facing a labor shortage, due in large part to extended unemployment benefits and other pandemic-related aid, so this puts upward pressure on wages. In 2021, minimum wage rates are undergoing substantial increases in 17 states, and a number of large employers such as Amazon have increased their minimum pay rates. That creates competitive pressure for smaller employers to boost pay as well.
The fundamental cause of an “honest-to-goodness” inflation is “too much money chasing too few goods”. The Federal Reserve has certainly given us enough to worry about in that regard. The basic money stock (M1) increased by four-fold in the late winter and early spring of 2020, just as the pandemic was spreading. Today, it is almost five times greater than in early 2020, so growth in the money stock remains quite fast even as the recovery proceeds. No wonder: the U.S. Treasury is issuing about $1 trillion of new debt every four-to-six weeks, and the Fed is essentially monetizing these deficits by purchasing a huge chunk of that debt.
That’s a lot of “helicopter” money… new money! But are there too few goods for it to chase? Or is it really chasing anything? Is it just sitting idle? First, GDP is likely to exceed its pre-pandemic level in the second quarter, despite the fact that private payrolls are still down by about 7 million employees. Of course, that doesn’t eliminate the ostensible imbalance between money and goods, and one might expect a veritable explosion in price inflation under these circumstances.
So far that seems unlikely. The so-called velocity of money (its rate of turnover) has plunged since the start of the pandemic, with no discernible rebound through the first quarter of 2021. That means a lot of the cash is not being used in transactions for real goods, but financial transaction volume has been quite strong in 2020-21. Daily stock trading volume was up by more than 50% in 2020 from 2019, and in the first quarter of 2021 it stood another 34% higher than the 2020 average (though volume tapered in April). This is to say nothing of the increased frenzy in cryptocurrency trading. So, while some money is turning over, the expansion of the money stock remains daunting and pressure might well spill-over into goods prices.
Caution Is a Virtue
So long as the Fed keeps printing money, and assuring investors that it will keep printing money, the equity markets are likely to remain strong. There are mixed signals coming from Fed officials, but the over-riding message is that the recent uptick in prices is largely temporary and limited in scope. That is, they assert that certain prices are being squeezed temporarily by rebounding demand for goods while suppliers play catch-up.
Market expectations of inflation seem to agree with that view, but I have strong trepidations. There are cash reserves held in the private sector to support more aggressive spending. Large companies, consumers, and banks are still holding significant amounts of cash. The Biden Administration is doing its best to spend hand-over-fist. This administration’s energy policy is causing fuel bills to escalate. Home prices and rents are strong. The dollar is down somewhat from pre-pandemic levels, which increases import prices. Finally, the Fed is reluctant to reverse the huge increase in the money supply it engineered during the pandemic. If the recent surge in prices continues, and if higher inflation embeds itself into expectations, it will be all the more difficult for the Fed to correct.
The market and the Fed might be correct in predicting that the spike in measured inflation is temporary. The recent data show that these worrisome price trends have not been broad. Just the same, I don’t want to hold fixed income investments right now: if higher expectations of inflation cause market interest rates to rise, the value of those assets will fall. Stock values should generally keep pace with inflation barring stronger signals of tightening by the Fed. Unfortunately, however, many would suffer in an inflationary environment as wages, fixed assets, and benefits are devalued by rising prices.