Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Inflation watch intenisfies. Let's see if it's still on by Fall

Looks like it’s time for another CPI report, and it’s therefore time to crank up the “inflation watch” again.
The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.9 percent in June on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.6 percent in May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. This was the largest 1-month change since June 2008 when the index rose 1.0 percent. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 5.4 percent before seasonal adjustment; this was the largest 12-month increase since a 5.4-percent increase for the period ending August 2008.

The index for used cars and trucks continued to rise sharply, increasing 10.5 percent in June. This increase accounted for more than one-third of the seasonally adjusted all items increase. The food index increased 0.8 percent in June, a larger increase than the 0.4-percent increase reported for May. The energy index increased 1.5 percent in June, with the gasoline index rising 2.5 percent over the month….

The all items index rose 5.4 percent for the 12 months ending June; it has been trending up every month since January, when the 12-month change was 1.4 percent. The index for all items less food and energy rose 4.5 percent over the last 12-months, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending November 1991. The energy index rose 24.5 percent over the last 12-months, and the food index increased 2.4 percent.
President’s Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors clearly were worried about the perception of higher inflation, as they sent off a series of tweets explaining some of the reasons for the jump in CPI.

While some of this is definitely spin, I do think it's appropriate to look at the 2-year trend in this case, because this accounts for the drop/flattening in prices that existed in the first few months of COVID and the snapback since then. You put that together and you get a rise of 6.1% between June 2019 and June 2021, or 3% a year. Slightly elevated but not horrifying, and June 2020 is when prices started to rebound off their COVID bottoms, so we should have a more accurate picture of where this is going next month.

The stock and bond markets responded to the news of higher inflation with maybe one raised eyebrow, if not an outright shrug.
Markets, which have in recent months grown wary of rising prices and whether they will cause the Fed to act, appeared to keep their cool over inflation on Tuesday.

The S&P 500 was essentially unchanged shortly after the open and the 10-year Treasury yield actually fell, not the reaction one would expect from such a hot inflation report on the service.
Although the 10-year yield did rise later in the day, it's still well below where it was 3 months ago, and the 3-month note is below where it was at the start of 2021. This is despite inflation being on the rise over that time period.

So those investors clearly aren’t worried about prices being on the rise, because they’ll take a microscopic rate of return that would be a loser of value if inflation was really running.

It does seem that the inflation is uneven, with much of the increases confined to a few industries having large jumps that are being compared to when these same industries were in depression in June 2020.

But I do sense that there are inflationary effects from the adjustments that the economy is making due to the post-COVID world. There seems to be a huge inability for the stimulated increase in demand to be matched by restaurants and other businesses to hire back enough staff after large layoffs when the pandemic first broke out. The June jobs report revealed that hourly wages continue to rise higher, and this number never snapped back down, even as previously lower-wage jobs came back in the 2nd half of 2020.

I’m not worried too much at this point, and it’s a good thing to see workers be able to have better choices in jobs and wages. To me, that's "good inflation". But these adjustments are still working themselves out, and let’s see where the ride takes us.

The key is whether the rising costs and shortage disruptions that we’ve seen in the first half of 2021 actually do settle down, or if input-related inflation is starting to feed onto itself. If it's the latter, then we might need outside measures like interest rate increases and fiscal restraints to change the pattern, and that would likely blunt the Biden Boom that is currently going on and expected to continue as long as COVID can stay under control and demand stays high.

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