Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (July 2022)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy, but to get these tweets in real time on CPI morning you need to subscribe to @InflGuyPlus by going to the shop at https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ , where you can also subscribe to the Enduring Investments Quarterly Inflation Outlook. Sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

The tweets below have some deletions and redactions from what actually appeared on the private feed. But this is most of it.

  • It’s #CPI Day again. I know we all get excited about #inflation day. Or maybe it’s just me.
  • This month is special because we’re taking the CPI ‘broadcast’ private. Non-subscribers will get many – but not all – of these tweets in a summarized form, a couple of hours from now. But you get the whole shebang.
  • Here’s how this will go: I will give my usual walk-up. Then at 8:30ET, when the data drops, I’ll be pulling that in and will post a number of charts and numbers, in fairly rapid-fire succession.
  • Then I will start putting ‘replies’ to the charts with some remarks where necessary. At the same time, I’ll be running a live commentary on Zoom. (That live feed will go live just before 8:30).
  • Here is the zoom link, for subscribers only: <<REDACTED>>   You’ll be muted and cameras will be blocked as well, assuming I remember to do that. 🙂 But you can put questions in the chat (or on Twitter) if you like.
  • If you prefer the phone, you can get to the conference line at (518) 992-1112, access code <<REDACTED>>. I’ll be on both. I’ll look better on the phone.
  • I’ll also be tweeting some of the charts that are slower to generate and giving you my impressions on the fly. I think the whole post-CPI bit will take about 30 minutes, and my Zoom only goes 40 so that’s a pretty solid estimate!
  • After my comments on the number, I will post a partially-redacted summary at https://inflationguy.blog and later will podcast a summary at https://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app.
  • But of course, you get it first, and you get some things others won’t. Starting with my thanks for subscribing!
  • With that, let’s start the walk-up. Going into last month, we’d seen a dramatic collapse of breakevens: -210bps on the 1y, -70bps on the 5y, -50bps on the 10y. Some of this was the decline in energy, but not all. Implied core inflation also fell.
  • This month has seen a bit of a rationalization, and stability returning. Short breakevens still contracted because of gasoline, but longer inflation swaps/breakevens actually rose a smidge.
  • Since gasoline ‘caught up’ in a way, core inflation implied by swaps increased a bit. Right now, the curve implies 3.7% core CPI over the next year, 3.2% the year after that, then 2.95%, and so on. Actually, NOT pricing in that core will get back to the Fed’s target.
  • As an aside, to me this still looks low. There should be asymmetry to outcomes (5% higher inflation is more likely than 5% lower inflation) that implies these should have some option value and trade above our raw expectations for inflation’s path. Still, it’s not horrible.
  • Although I think the 3.7% for the next 1y DOES look quite low. We’re at 6%-ish right now on both core and median. It isn’t just one thing that needs to revert to some mythical mean. It’s the whole dang distribution. That seems challenging.
  • Especially since rents, both primary and OER, continue to surge. I’ll be honest: when I first sat down to think about this month’s CPI, I thought there was a chance for a small deceleration in rents, which jumped from 0.6% to 0.7% m/m on OER and slightly more on Primary Rents.
  • That was a big part of the upside surprise in core last month. But when I look at it…I’m not convinced that was necessarily an outlier. Yes, rents will eventually decelerate. But not yet I think. The chart here is census for asking rents and Reis for effective.
  • The gap between them came about during the eviction moratorium. I thought it would close. But asking rents are moving higher, not converging back. (Some other private surveys suggest asking rents may sag, but it seems speculative at the moment).
  • There’s another reason I’m concerned about rents, and I’ll talk about it on Zoom after the number when I’m working through the charts.
  • For this number today, the consensus is for 0.5% on core and 0.2% on headline because of the decline in gasoline. The OTC market has core around 0.54% and economists are at 0.49%, basically; they both round to 0.5% but the market is more bullish.
  • I’ve mentioned why I don’t think the downside risks from rents will necessarily materialize. But there are a couple of other downside risks.
  • Airfares, which is essentially energy services because it tracks jet fuel (see chart), will very likely decline this month. Some of this is seasonal, though – I adjust for that in the chart – which means that raw airfares could fall and not bring down airfare CPI.
  • Used cars seems overextended too and I’ve been expecting a correction there. The Black Book index Jan-June was -2% vs CPI for Used Cars +3%. FWIW, the Black Book index was down this month. So that’s another potential drag.
  • But…all of that sort of seems to be ‘in the price’ as they say. The last 3 core CPIs were 0.57%, 0.63%, and 0.71%, and the consensus this month is around 0.5%. So some of that is in the pudding already. I don’t know that I’m short at 0.5%.
  • Reaction function? Well, a strong core…I think even an 0.6% may qualify…is going to be rough on stocks and bonds. Another 0.7% and you’ll hear talk about an intermeeting move (I don’t think that’s likely).
  • Softer core, 0.4% print, will be initially taken well by the market. But be careful about jumping in. If we get an 0.3% or lower and the market rallies, sell into it because most likely there is a one-off that is pushing it lower. Watch the real-time Median I produce, to tell.
  • The market’s currently pricing in lots of good news, which is why I’d be leery about riding a pop higher. After all, the next 2 core readings to roll out of the y/y will be 0.18% & 0.26%…core will keep rising, so Fed heads are safe to react hawkishly to a modest core surprise.
  • That’s all for the walkup. I have to go refresh my coffee and turn on the conference line and zoom. Good luck and thanks again for subscribing.

  • 0.313% on core…definitely a surprise and we have to see why.
  • m/m CPI: -0.0193%   m/m Core CPI: 0.313%
  • Last 12 core CPI figures
  • M/M, Y/Y, and prior Y/Y for 8 major subgroups
  • Here is my early and automated guess at Median CPI for this month: 0.53%
  • Core Goods: 6.98% y/y Core Services: 5.54% y/y
  • Primary Rents: 6.31% y/y OER: 5.83% y/y
  • Further: Primary Rents 0.7% M/M, 6.31% Y/Y (5.78% last) OER 0.63% M/M, 5.83% Y/Y (5.48% last) Lodging Away From Home -2.7% M/M, 1.2% Y/Y (10.1% last)
  • Primary rents were 0.78% m/m last month, so the 0.7% was a modest deceleration but not exciting. OER was 0.70% last month so also a deceleration.
  • Some ‘COVID’ Categories:
    • Airfares -7.83% M/M (-1.82% Last)
    • Lodging Away from Home -2.74% M/M (-2.82% Last)      
    • Used Cars/Trucks -0.41% M/M (1.61% Last)       
    • New Cars/Trucks 0.62% M/M (0.65% Last)
  • The big story for ‘why the tail’ in core comes mostly from here, and maybe a bit in apparel (down on the month). An 8% drop in airfares is a big deal. Lodging Away from Home. And Used Cars wasn’t really a surprise, as I mentioned in my walkup.
  • Used cars could have been down more. I expected a decline, but there was room for more underperformance than that.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy: 18.5% y/y  
  • Piece 2: Core Commodities: 6.98% y/y
  • Core commodities is where we find Used Cars and Apparel. New cars was still strong. We knew that as supply chain constraints cleared, this would moderate.
  • Piece 3: Core Services less Rent of Shelter: 5.26% y/y
  • Medical care was +0.44% m/m after 0.95% last month. Pharma +0.58% (0.38% last month). Doctors’ Services +0.27%, hospital services +0.49%.
  • Piece 4: Rent of Shelter: 5.76% y/y
  • Core ex-housing 6.04%, which is down from 7.6% in Feb, and dragged down by the same stuff the overall core was. But still pretty high.
  • a little surprised stocks holding as much onto their gains…this was soft for some really obvious reasons. It’s good news for the Fed but not GREAT. I guess it does take 75bps off the table probably.
  • It’s not time for a victory lap but I guess it does help to remove the sense of panic.
  • We’re still going to get higher core over the next couple of comps are easy and since the central tendency of this distribution is still strong, there’s no reason to think we’re going to keep getting 0s on core.
  • Checking my Median CPI. The median category as I said was Midwest OER, and since I manually seasonally adjust the OERs I could be a bit off. But looks like it will still be somewhere between 0.52 and 0.57 m/m…so again, no crash in the broad distribution.
  • Car and truck rental was also really weak, although a very small weight. Public Transportation, Lodging AFH, Misc Personal Goods, and on the Apparel side Infants/Toddlers and Men’s/Boys were all negative m/m.
  • Communication was also -0.33% m/m. Internet Services and electronic information providers was -0.81% m/m. That’s 1% of CPI, so that’s about 1bp of the core miss right there.
  • Also weak were various furnishings categories. Major appliances were -1.8% NSA m/m. Indoor plants and flowers…which has about the same weight as major appliances – check your understanding by answering why…were -1.2% NSA m/m.
  • “Other Furniture” was -4.3%! Other linens -1.8%. These are all NSA m/m figures. And this is where the supply chain squeeze lessening is going to show.
  • Here is major appliances PRICE LEVEL. Yes, they’re down, but they’re not going all the way back. The price level is permanently higher. What remains to be seen is how much of this is permanent and how much is ‘transitory’ due to supply constraints.
  • Same message from apparel – seasonally we tend to get a decline in July but this was larger than the normal seasonal which is why apparel was down m/m. And we import almost all apparel.
  • The message from the people who say inflation will go back down with recession is that unintended inventory accumulation is going to cause retailers to cut prices. Apparel is where you expect to see that first, because the seasons change quickly.
  • Here is the distribution of the CPI weights. There is more weight in the left tail, and that’s why core declined. But it’s REALLY in many cases that the weight in the left tail moved further left.
  • And here’s why I make that statement: the weight of categories inflating above 5% y/y went down only a tiny bit. So this is a left-tail event…which again is what median inflation is telling us.
  • The ongoing question is, “have inflation pressures peaked?” and “are we now in a disinflationary mode?” On the former, it’s too early to say but median at 0.53% rather than 0.7% is at least hopeful.
  • On the latter question, also too early BUT one small positive sign is that core inflation moved below median. It’s just one month, but remember: inflationary environments tend to have long upper tails (core>median), and v.v.. So watch this.
  • Median is going to get to about 6.27% y/y this month. And when the Quarterly Inflation Outlook comes out in a couple of days, you’ll see (if you are a client, or subscribe to it) that the midpoint of our 2022 median CPI forecasts have been moved WAY up to 6.3%. And 5.2% for 2023.
  • I think this is the last chart. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index remains very high, no real sign of retracement yet.
  • So wrapping up. Stocks at this hour remain ebullient, while bonds have retraced some of the initial spike. It makes sense to reduce the probability of 75bps at the next FOMC meeting, even though this was mostly a left-tail event. >>
  • To be sure, I think the Fed still needs to reduce its balance sheet an awful lot, but if it just levels off then the price level will eventually converge to the rise in money growth. There’s a lot more to go there, though, which is why we’re not going back to 2% core soon.
  • So, I understand why stocks are excited. But I would be loathe to jump aboard unless the S&P can get above 4200 decisively and/or stay there for a few days. There’s a lot of optimism priced in. And CPI was nice…but the IMPORTANT parts aren’t yet “good news.”
  • In any event, thanks very much for subscribing and if you have any feedback, please write me at <<REDACTED>> and let me know! Have a good day.

Stocks at this hour continue to celebrate, and not entirely without reason. The Fed is much less likely to tighten by 75bps this month than they were before the number. However, we have some doves scheduled to speak today (Evans and Kashkari) so be attentive and if they’re still talking about 75bps, and keeping in mind there’s one more CPI print before the next FOMC meeting – it’s a sign that they really are focused on the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is this: the economy is headed into a recession, but the signs on that will be unclear and/or people will be able to explain the signs away for a while. Meanwhile, inflation remains high and sticky, despite today’s number. I’m pleased that median CPI, which  exploded to 0.7% m/m in June, was back down to “only” 0.53% or so in July. But that’s still a 6.4% rate, and looking over the last several months you certainly can’t say there are any signs that inflation pressure is lessening or narrowing. At best, leveling off…and it’s even too early to be sure about that, given the continued acceleration in rents.

A year ago, I would have said that the Fed will take advantage of the weaker inflation data to back off of tightening some. But the Fed has been far more hawkish than I expected, and if they really do want to “get ahead” of inflation then they need to do it sooner rather than later since once core inflation starts to drop because of base effects, and the employment situation starts to weaken, there will be much more resistance to 75bp hikes. If Unemployment is at 5% and rising, they will not be hiking 75bps per meeting, no matter where inflation is.

So I’d repeat my admonition above – be careful jumping on board this equity rally. If stocks can sustain above 4200, then I have to reluctantly go along with the momentum. But I’d be careful about being too excited about inflation just because airfares dropped 8% this month.

Categories: CPI, Tweet Summary

Restructuring the Inflation Guy Content Offering

August 2, 2022 2 comments

For many years, I’ve been producing a blog and pushing free content. Before that, I wrote Sales and Trading commentary for Natixis, and before that Barclays, and before that Deutsche Bank, and before that, Bankers Trust. I never charged for any of that and neither did the banks, at least directly.

Writing, at least with respect to the blog itself, was part of my process of thinking through the economic and investing environment. I had to do that anyway, so distributing those thoughts was easy and the feedback/pushback I got was important and useful as well. It still is.

But over the years, my content offering (which is congruent to the set of Enduring Investments’ content offering) has widened to different channels and even different media. There is now an Inflation Guy podcast, an Inflation Guy mobile app, and even an Inflation Guy album of ‘80s hits. (Okay, not that one.) I’ve written two books and am contemplating a third. And then there’s Twitter. And as the number of content outlets and offerings metastasized, it has also become clear that I have gone way beyond just the idle penning of my musings and that this takes a lot of time. Some other things I would like to do would take even more time. So there needs to be a business purpose!

The hope has always been that some people who find these thoughts useful would become investing or consulting clients of Enduring Investments. Some have! And more will, in the future. But others may want some content and be willing to pay for the value, but not be willing or able to become clients. Consequently, I’ve been discussing with a bunch of my advisors how to capture the value that people are willing to pay, but not in the single avenue we presently offer (that is, becoming a client).

So I took a survey, and many of you participated. I want to tell you that I really appreciate the answers you gave and the time you took to answer the survey. It was well worth the two Visa gift cards (which, incidentally, haven’t yet been claimed – check your spam folders, folks, as I have written to two of you who are winners!). There were some very thoughtful comments and some good ideas. There was also some humor: one person put my address in for the raffle (I didn’t win). And then there was a bot! All of a sudden, one day I received a deluge of hundreds of responses. Some of these responses indicated that Inflation Guy content was worth $50,000 per month. I am flattered, robot, but money means different things to humans I guess. Fortunately, it was easy enough to cleanse the data of bot responses, which were fairly obvious…and, in retrospect, there is probably a thriving business out there of people pouring bot responses into raffles to tilt the odds. Live and learn.

On the basis of the responses, this is what we have decided to do with “Inflation Guy/Enduring Investments” content going forward.

First of all, free stuff:

  • The E-piphany Blog, which was at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and now can be reached at https://inflationguy.blog . It has always been free, and will remain free. You can subscribe to email alerts of the content. The monthly summary of my CPI-day tweets will continue to appear here, a couple of hours after the release.
  • Cents and Sensibility: the Inflation Guy podcast. Free wherever good podcasts are found. There may someday be advertisements but the podcast itself will remain free.
  • My weekly Investing.com column, which is unique to http://www.investing.com . They have subsidized it so that you don’t have to.
  • The Inflation Guy mobile app. While there may be “premium content” on the app, the app itself will remain free as well as will a goodly amount of its content.
  • @inflation_guy on Twitter will remain a free follow. My blog columns and podcasts and other free content will funnel through that channel. The monthly CPI tweets, though, will not (see below).

And now, the new offerings. These, and any others we add in the future, are available on the blog site at https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ . Please note that Enduring Investments clients pay nothing for these offerings.

  • Inflation Guy Plus on Twitter – Private Twitter account subscription. I am moving the real-time analysis of the CPI report to a private, subscription-only Twitter account. I will release my charts as soon as possible after the number, and will also have a private live audio broadcast as I comb through the charts and data. (I haven’t figured out whether this will be on Discord, Google meet, Zoom/Skype, but will probably start as a simple conference number). @InflGuyPlus will also have other daily/weekly charts and commentary not available on @Inflation_Guy. The cost of a monthly subscription will be $99/month with a discount for an annual subscription. This is in line with other private Twitter offerings. For example, Damped Spring offers a private Twitter feed for $80/mo with similar content though of course less concentrated on inflation. And the results of the survey we took suggested this price is not inappropriate for the people who require the real-time analysis to make trading decisions.

I do know that some people will be disappointed this isn’t cheaper. It’s an unfortunate characteristic of walls: unless there are people on both sides, you don’t need a wall. (Again, Enduring Investments clients are automatically catapulted over the wall. Although that is an unfortunate metaphor come to think of it.)

  • Quarterly Inflation Outlook – I have been writing the QIO for more than a decade now. It comes out on the ‘refunding’ cycle: February, May, August, and November, within a couple of days after the CPI reports in those months. I decided to make single-issue subscriptions available, at least for now, hoping that after trying an issue people will sign up for the discounted monthly subscription. The current issue is $80 (right now, you can buy the August issue, which will be delivered via email when it is published); the preceding issue is $70 (in this case, that is the May issue) for an immediate download; earlier issues may be made available once I have time to sort through them and find ones with staying power. To test whether there’s any demand, I listed the Feb 2022 issue for $50. I also listed the 2020Q4 QIO, in which I look prospectively at the incoming Biden/Harris Administration, for $40. A recurring subscription gets a discount to $75/issue, which seemed to be acceptable to most of the respondents to the survey.

We are going to start with those two paid offerings, and see how it goes. There seemed to be some interest in a $2.99 monthly subscription which would update your personally-weighted inflation index, and in a $20 monthly subscription to a collection of model portfolios, but we will see how the response is to these products before adding other options.

One other quick comment about the prices: being a markets person, I will be attentive to dynamics that suggest I should raise or lower the price. But for you, if the price is acceptable there is no reason to delay subscribing. That’s because if I raise the price, all existing subscribers will be grandfathered at the original price; if I lower the price, I will lower it for all existing subscribers as well. So there is no price risk to you in deciding to buy now.

Now, let me mention one final offering. This has a very narrow audience but which audience seemed, in the survey, to be enthusiastic about deeper access to Inflation Guy.

“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

Morpheus, The Matrix

Let’s call this “Inflation Guy Prime.” It is really for the institutional investors and traders who want regular forecast updates and detail, some relative-value metrics and possibly trading signals, subcomponent forecasts/curves, and two-way communication with the Inflation Guy. Because of the two-way communication bit, this offering is capacity-constrained and so will be capped at a yet-to-be determined number of subscribers; the price will increase as we get more subscribers who want to be “Prime.” The current price is shown on the shop.

And so now…we see what happens. Thanks again to everyone who participated in the survey and offered independent, helpful suggestions. The offering will change and hopefully improve over time. We will add other offerings for readers/investors who have different needs. And we will figure out the right price points, eventually…but we had to start somewhere. Please let me know of any questions and/or suggestions you may have!

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (June 2022)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • Here we go again. It’s #CPI Day. #inflation
  • Before I get started with the walkup: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at https://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app.
  • What sets apart this month from many over the last couple of years are two things.
  • First, economists are now fully in the inflation-liftoff camp, with forecasts that are starting to look more like the actual data. The consensus for Core CPI is 0.54%. The average core CPI for the last 8 months is…0.54%! Who says that Econ PhD isn’t worth the money.
  • Second, and more significantly: the market has completely erased the possibility of sticky inflation and reflects 100% confidence that the Fed will be immediately and dramatically successful in restraining inflation.
  • The interbank market is pricing in 1.2% headline CPI for this month, but a SUM of 0.3% for the next 3 months. Even if gasoline, which has recently plunged from $5/gallon to $4.66/gallon, goes to $3.50 and stays there, this implies core CPI immediately decelerating.
  • The decline in the inflation markets has been unprecedented. 1y CPI swaps have fallen more than 200bps over the last month. The real yield on the July-2023 TIPS as risen 220bps during that time. 10y breakevens are narrower by 47bps.
  • The 1y inflation swap of 3.75%, considering that core and median inflation – which move slowly – are currently rising at a 6%-7% rate, implies a massive collapse in core prices and/or gasoline.
  • And this is important to note: there is as yet almost zero sign of that. Could it happen? Sure. But the Fed just made a massive 7% screw-up on inflation. My confidence that they know exactly how to get it back to 2% is…low. And to do so quickly? Very low.
  • I mentioned earlier the consensus for core CPI is +0.54%, which would put y/y at 5.7%. The consensus for headline is +1.1% (interbank market is at 1.2%), putting y/y headline at 8.8% or 8.9%.
  • I don’t do monthly forecasts because I want you to respect me in the morning. But I will say that the SPREAD between core and headline this month seems very wide to me. Typically core vs headline is a function of gasoline prices in a pretty simple way (see chart).
  • Given where the monthlies have been trending, I think core could be a little higher than consensus and headline a little lower. But if headline surprises to the upside, I suspect that will be because core did also.
  • Rents will continue to be strong. Last month, primary rents and OER rose at >7% annualized pace, and that didn’t seem too out-of-whack. Used Cars will likely be close to flat, and we could get a drag from airfares (?). So I would shade the core forecast on the high side.
  • But unless core is a lot higher than that, 1.1% or 1.2% m/m seems a stretch.
  • Used Cars will likely be close to flat, and we could get a drag from airfares (?). So I would shade the core forecast on the high side, but I’m not hugely confident in that.
  • Later you will see a lot of headlines about that new high in y/y CPI, but core CPI will continue to slide from its recent high at 6.47% in March. But after this month, Core CPI has easy comps for the next 3 months. If we keep printing 0.5%, we’ll get a new high in September.
  • Like I said, that’s contrary to the market’s pricing at the moment.
  • As a reminder, I tend to focus on Median CPI partly for this reason – outliers in core can pollute interpretation. And the Median CPI y/y chart is unambiguous at this point: still accelerating. In fact, the m/m Median CPI is looking even more disturbing than this y/y version.
  • Which brings me to an announcement of sorts. I do all of these charts more or less manually from big spreadsheets. But this month I am trying something new with my Median estimate (the Cleveland Fed reports Median CPI around lunchtime).
  • This month I’m trying an experiment with that figure. It’s going to be produced automatically when the CPI data drops, within about 1 minute (fingers crossed). And tweeted automatically. Does that make me a bot??! If it works, I may do others of my charts.
  • The actual core and headline m/m changes will also be bot-tweeted. I hope.
  • Anyway – market reaction to this number will be very interesting. If CPI is higher than expected, I would anticipate a very negative reaction to stocks and bonds, and v.v. People will start talking about 100bps of tightening this month (I doubt we will get that though).
  • And if CPI is soft, we should get a positive reaction from nominal stocks and bonds…naturally.
  • But what of inflation markets? Traditionally, an upside surprise would be met by a rally in breakevens. However, if investors really believe the Fed is going to respond aggressively and sucessfully, with a chance of overdoing it, then breakevens may FALL with a high surprise.
  • I don’t think that would make sense, but it also doesn’t make sense for 5y breakevens to be at 2.52% with median CPI at 5.5% and rising, wages at 6.1% and rising, and rents at 5.1% and rising.
  • However, markets clear risk; they don’t forecast. The inflation markets are telling us that people believe they have far more exposure to declining prices than to rising prices, and so need to sell it. That seems nonsensical to me, but ::shrug::.
  • So it will be interesting to look at the reaction in breakevens, especially if it seems nonobvious with the number.
  • That’s all for now. Number coming up. Good luck.

  • well…the consensus got the spread right, if not the level!
  • m/m CPI: 1.32% m/m Core CPI: 0.706%
  • Here is my early and automated guess at Median CPI for this month: 0.731%
  • Hey, that worked.
  • So, Owners’ Equivalent Rent was +0.7% m/m; Primary Rents +0.78% m/m. Rents will eventually decelerate, although not decline, but this will take a while.
  • Largely as a result of rents, core services rose to 5.5% y/y; core goods fell to 7.2% y/y. Not actually good news, since services are stickier.
  • So airfares fell, -1.82% m/m after a 12.5% surge last month. Lodging away from home -2.82% m/m. Car and truck rental -2.2% m/m. But Used Cars and Trucks +1.6%; New cars and trucks +0.7%.
  • Baby food +1.1% (NSA), and 12.6% y/y. But the main plant that had been shutdown is reopening. So, we got that going for us.
  • With y/y core falling to only 5.9%, it makes it even clearer that we will hit new highs in September if not before. Especially with core services continuing to rise, the m/m figures just aren’t going to drop that fast. And the comps for the next 3 months are +0.31, +0.18, +0.26.
  • I kinda buried the lede that headline CPI rose to 9.06% y/y. However, that is going to be the high for a little while unless energy sharply and quickly reverses.
  • Babysitting the bot got me off my game a little. Forgot to post this chart of the last 12 core CPIs.
  • So, this was not the highest core CPI we have seen. We had bigger ones back in 2021. But those were driven by outliers – you know that because median CPI did NOT have those spikes. This 0.7% is much worse…it’s not from outliers.
  • In the major groups, Apparel was +0.79% m/m. medical Care was +0.67% m/m. “Other” was +0.47%. The rise in medical was broad, with Pharma (+0.38% m/m), Doctors’ Services (+0.12%), and Hospital Services (+0.26%) all contributing. Still lower than core CPI, but trending higher.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter did decline, though, to 6.1% from 6.4%. That’s good I guess?
  • 10y BEI +7bps. So remember I was concerned that an upside surprise could be met with LOWER breaks if investors really believe the Fed is in charge and is gonna go large. Well, they may go large (stocks getting killed), but inflation folks less sure they are “in charge.”
  • The median category looks to be Medical Care Services. And that bot chart actually matches my spreadsheet. It was just truncated until I clicked on it. Man, this looks ugly.
  • That would put median CPI at 5.952%, rounding up to 6%, y/y. Another record high.
  • Biggest increases in core categories were Motor Vehicle Maintenance and Repair (+27% annualized) and Motor Vehicle Insurance (+26%), both a function of rising parts and replacement costs. Used Cars/Trucks +21%. Footwear +21%. Jewelry +19%. Infants’ apparel +16%.
  • In median, the Cleveland Fed splits OER into four geographic categories. This month, “South Urban” OER was up at roughly 12.5% annualized (roughly, because I seasonally adjusted it differently than the Cleveland Fed does).
  • Biggest monthly decliners were lodging away from home -29% annualized; -23% car and truck rental. Public Transp -5%, Misc Personal Goods -4%.
  • OER at 5.5% is well above my combo model. But it’s actually a little below one component of the model, which is based on incomes. 6.1% annualized income growth means the REAL rent growth isn’t as big as it looks.
  • This is a disturbing chart. It shows Atl Fed wages minus median CPI. I’ve estimated the last point (Wages could still accelerate this month, but won’t as much as Median). For a while, the median wage was steadily ahead of inflation. No longer. That’s why cons confidence is weak.
  • Let’s do four-pieces. Piece 1. Food & energy up more than 20% over the last year. That’s the highest in many, many years. And it’s why Powell is suddenly interested in headline.
  • Piece 2: Core goods. Yay! This is the story they were all sellin’ back when we first started spiking. “Once the ports clear, inflation will collapse back.” Actually, they told ya that PRICES would collapse. That is not ever going to happen. But inflation in core goods will slow.
  • Part of the reason core goods inflation will slow is because of the persistent strength in the dollar. I don’t know that will last forever, but while it happens it will tend to pressure core goods inflation lower.
  • Piece 3, core services less rent of shelter. This is the scariest one IMO, because it has been in secular disinflation for a long long time.
  • Piece 4, rent of shelter. This is also a candidate for scariest. People keep telling me home prices and rents will collapse but there’s a massive shortage of housing and building is difficult. Real prices could fall and nominal prices still rise, and that’s what I expect. Later.
  • So, this is fun. I have run this in the past but had to shift the whole thing because most of the distribution was off the right side. So the left bar shows the sum of categories inflating less than the Fed’s 2% target. The right bar is the weight of categories inflating >10%.
  • The sum of the weights of categories inflating faster than 5% is now over 70%. This was essentially zero pre-Covid.
  • Well, I guess we can wrap this up with a look at the markets. S&P futures -60 just before the open. 10y yields +5bps. 2y yields +12bps. 10y breakevens +5bps. Actually less-severe than I’d have expected. This is an ugly number.
  • So, we keep being told tales that inflation is peaking. And it will. Surely it will. It’s just that there are things that are still going up.
  • Our problem is that we have trained our perception on a low-inflation world. When prices go up 10%, we expect them to fall back. That isn’t automatic in an inflationary world. Prices going up too fast are followed by prices still going up, but a little slower.
  • There is most definitely a wage-price feedback loop going on. The black line below is going to get to about 6% today. The red line – which is a better measure than avg hourly earnings – is not likely to fall under that pressure.
  • We are still in an inflationary world. We are still in an accelerating-inflation world. It won’t last forever. But it isn’t over yet.
  • That’s all for now. Remember to visit https://mikeashton.wordpress.com to get the tweet summary later. Try the free Inflation Guy mobile app to get lots of inflation content. Check out the Inflation Guy podcast. https://inflationguy.podbean.com Like, click, retweet, etc. Thanks for tuning in!

Okay, to be sure I have long been in the camp that inflation would go higher, and remain stickier, than most people thought. The early spikes in inflation, due to used cars, were to me a harbinger and not a one-off. This is not, and never has been, primarily a supply-side problem. Today’s inflation did not start on the supply-side. The shortages were caused by a sudden resurgence in demand, and that demand was entirely artificial. It was that demand that created the shortages. To call this a ‘supply side problem’ is either ignorant or disingenuous. In some rare cases, supply was permanently impaired. Refinery capacity, for example. But in most cases, it wasn’t. Real GDP is back on trend.

So then surely we can get inflation back down by destroying demand? No – that’s not how it works. If you destroy demand you will also destroy supply…because that’s how you destroy demand, by getting people laid off. Hiking interest rates will eventually do that – hurt demand and production, but not necessarily do anything to inflation.

To get demand down without destroying supply, you need to run the movie in reverse. You’d need to suck away excess money from the system. That’s not going to happen, of course; it’s easier to do a helicopter-drop than a helicopter-suck. At best, we can hope that money supply flattens out, and recently it has started to look like that’s happening. That would mean that inflation would continue until a new price level consistent with the new quantity-of-money level had been achieved. This is what we can hope – that even though the Fed isn’t draining marginal reserves, somehow money growth slows because demand for loans evaporates even though banks remains eager to lend.  

It might happen, but since we’ve never tightened policy in this way – rates only, not reserve restraint – we don’t really know how, how much, or if it will work. In the meantime, inflation continues to surprise us in a bad way.

The topic for the next couple of weeks is going to be whether the Fed decides to hike 100bps, as the Bank of Canada just did in a surprise move. The market had priced in 75bps, and then a deceleration. I expect they will not, although we need to be defensive against the same leaks-to-the-big-guys that happened last meeting. While the inflation numbers continue to be ugly, and employment has not yet rolled over in a big way, inflation expectations have collapsed. To a Fed that depends very much on the idea of anchored inflation expectations, those markets are saying “okay Fed, you win. Inflation is dead. Your current plan is sufficient.”

That’s not my view, of course. In my view, if you keep using the paddles and the patient doesn’t respond you either need to code him, or you need to find a different treatment. I rather think, though, that the FOMC will say “inflation lags monetary policy by 12-18 months, so we just haven’t seen our effect yet.” Then again, so far I have been completely wrong about the Fed’s determination to hike rates (to be fair, they haven’t yet been tested by a sloppy market decline or a rise in unemployment, but I didn’t think they’d even do this much so I am willing to score that as -1 for the Inflation Guy.)

What to do? With inflation markets fully pricing a return to the old status quo, and that right quickly, it would seem to be fairly low-risk to be betting that we don’t get there so quickly. It would be hard to lose big by buying short breakevens in the 3s, when it’s currently printing in the 9s. Possible, but I like that bet especially since it carries well. And since real yields have risen so much, and the inflation-adjusted price of gold has fallen so much, I’m even starting to like gold for the first time in years. I’m not nutty about it, but it’s starting to look reasonable. It has been a rough couple of months for just about every investment out there (except real estate!), but opportunities are coming back.

“The Great Demographic Reversal”

July 6, 2022 4 comments

I don’t often write book reviews and, strictly speaking, this isn’t one. I am not going to go into great detail about The Great Demographic Reversal, by Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan. And yet, if you are reading about inflation – and in particular, you’ve read what I’ve written about inflation – then I think this is a book that you should read. It is important.

One of the dilemmas that people who model inflation have is that any given model of inflation in the United States tends to have a state shift around 1992 or so. Any model that you design works at best on the pre-1992 period or the post-1992 period. I mention this a lot, because while modern-day economists and policymakers are very content with their models because they’ve worked well for nearly 30 years (until 2021-2022, when the Fed has been so befuddled that Chairman Powell last week admitted that “We’ve lived in that world where inflation was not a problem.  I think we understand better how little we understand about inflation”), in my view they don’t really understand the underlying dynamics of big inflation shifts unless they can explain the state shift in or around 1992.

The most popular explanation is that inflation expectations abruptly became anchored at that point, causing inflation to suddenly become mean-reverting in a way it never did before. There have been plenty of takedowns of this idea, most notably by the Fed’s own Jeremy Rudd. My theory for some time has been that the sudden globalization and expansion of Free Trade following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet sphere of influence in the late 1980s, most-aptly summed up in this chart from Deutsche Bank, gave us a better tradeoff of growth and inflation for a given amount of money supply growth, but that that game was coming to an end at about the time Donald Trump was elected.

Goodhart and Pradhan, in the book I’ve referenced above, provide some additional support for that view but also go much farther and highlight the massive demographic wave that was cresting over the last quarter-century. It isn’t just the Baby Boom generation in the United States, but also (and critically) the opening up of China and the movement of rural Chinese to the cities that caused a massive outward shift of the labor supply curve. Since the title of the book gives away the ending I don’t mind sharing the point they make that the China demographic is shifting into reverse (as a foreseeable consequence of the one-child policy) and many other demographics-related trends are also. One of their big conclusions is that “for the past few decades, central banks have given too much credit to their own inflation targeting regimes and too little to demography in accounting for the disinflation we have seen.” (p.189-190)

The authors discuss the changing demographic landscape, and how this leads to a resurgence of inflation. They address a number of counterarguments, including (thank heavens) the “Why Didn’t It Happen in Japan” argument, and examine whether there is likely to be sufficient contrary forces coming from (for example) automation and the continued growth of India and Africa. They tinker with various policy proposals. I should say that I disagree with many of their policy proposals, which are redolent of some of the redistributional schemes common on the left.

But while I don’t like their solutions, I agree that they’ve identified the right problems and supported those views with plenty of charts and data. The book was published in late 2020, before the current inflation spike makes them look prescient. It was written prior to the COVID crisis, and there is an addendum chapter where the authors discuss whether and how Coronavirus changes their views. However, I think the authors would admit that they weren’t writing about the inflation spike of 2021-202x. They are really looking farther out. In their view – which I share – the basic forces which made the disinflation of the last 40 years possible (and possibly even inevitable) are moving into reverse, and we will struggle for many years with the difficult choices an underlying inflationary dynamic forces upon us.

I highly recommend this book.

The Coming Rise in Money Velocity

June 28, 2022 2 comments

As M2 money growth soared throughout the COVID and post-COVID period of direct stimulus check-writing funded by massive quantitative easing (QE), monetarism novices thought that this would not result in inflation because money velocity simultaneously collapsed. Consequently, they argued, M*V was not growing at an outrageous rate.

There was precedence for such optimism. In the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, money supply grew rapidly with the onset of QE and money velocity declined, never to recover. The chart below shows in a normalized fashion the rise in M, the decline in V, and the relative quiescence of MV/Q, which is of course P by definition as long as you choose your Ms, Vs, and Qs right.

A similar thing happened in this episode, so why would this be any different?

There are many reasons why these episodes are different. To name a few:

  • The absolute scale of the rise in M2 was 2.5x the rise in 2007-2010, and that’s being generous since that measures the growth in 2007-2010 starting almost 2 years before the first QE in November 2008 compared to only 15 months in the second case.
  • As I’ve written previously, QE in the first case was directed at banks; at the same time that the Federal Reserve was adding reserves it was also paying banks interest on reserves – because the point was to strengthen banks, not consumers.
  • 5y interest rates came into 2008 at 3.44%; they came into 2020 at 1.69%. Since velocity is most highly correlated to interest rates, there was less room for this factor to be a lasting downward influence on velocity (after the crisis began in 2008, 5y Treasury rates never exceeded 3% again except for a few days in 2018).
  • Bank credit growth never stopped in the 2020 crisis, while it contracted at a 5% rate in the 2008 crisis (see chart, source Board of Governors of the Fed).

The monetarist novices (you can tell they’re novices because they say things like “Friedman said velocity was constant,” which is false, or “velocity is just a plug number [true] and has no independent meaning of its own [false]”) insisted that velocity was in a permanently declining state and that there was no reason at all to expect it to ever “bounce.” After all, it bounced only slightly after the GFC; why should it do so now?

But after 2008, as I noted, interest rates bounced only briefly before declining again…with the added phenomenon that some global debt came to bear negative yields, calling into fair question whether there was in fact any natural “bottom” to velocity if interest rates are the main driver! And velocity, obediently, dripped lower as well.

There is at least one other big driver to money velocity, although it is rarely important and almost never for very long. And that is economic uncertainty, which creates a demand to carry excess cash balances (implying lower money velocity). A model driven (mainly) by rates and a measure of uncertainty has done a pretty good job at explaining velocity over time (see chart, source Enduring Investments), including explaining the collapse in velocity during the COVID crisis out-of-sample.

Now, explaining velocity is a helluva lot easier than predicting it, because it isn’t easy to predict interest rates. Nor is it easy to predict the precautionary demand for money – but at least we can count on that being somewhat mean-reverting. The latest point from the model shown above uses current data, and suggests (largely because of the rise in interest rates, but also because precautionary balances are declining) that money velocity should bounce. Not that the model predicts it will happen this week, but it should not be surprising when it does.

A rise in velocity would be a really bad thing, because the money supply is very unlikely to decline very far especially while bank credit growth continues to grow. The only reason we have been able to sustain 6% or 8% money growth for a very long time has been because we could count on velocity to keep declining with interest rates. If money growth ticks up at, say, a mere 6% while money velocity rises 5%, then nominal GDP is going to rise 11%…and most of that will be in prices.

Now, this is a very slow-moving story. I mention it now for one specific reason, and that is that we are almost certain to see a rise in velocity in Q2 when the GDP figures come out in late July. That’s because money growth for the quarter has been very slow so far. So far, the Q2 average M2 is 0.06% higher than the Q1 average. My best wild guess is that we will end up with an 0.5% annualized q/q growth rate. The Atlanta Fed GDPNow model estimates 0.25% GDP growth in Q2 (the Blue Chip Consensus is still at 3%). And if the inflation market is right, Q/Q inflation in Q2 will be about 11.7%. That’s CPI, so let’s be generous and say 9%. We don’t know all of these numbers, but we know 2/3 of all of them. Let’s use the Blue Chip consensus for GDP and assume M2 doesn’t spike next month and the price level doesn’t collapse. Then:

If that happened, the increase would be the largest quarterly jump in money velocity – absent the reactionary bounce in 2020Q3 after the 20% plunge in 2020Q2 – since 1981. And here’s the rub: because of the mathematics of declines and recoveries, that would still leave us with velocity that prior to 2020 would have been an all-time record low.

Does this matter? Not if you believe the monetarism dabblers, who will say this is a mechanical adjustment that will soon be reversed as velocity continues its long slide to oblivion. Nor will it matter to the Fed, who at best will take executive notice of the fact before ignoring it since they aren’t monetarists any longer. But for those who think that inflation comes from too much money chasing too few goods? It’s scary.

One Experiment Ends and Another Begins

June 15, 2022 5 comments

Today the Federal Reserve hiked rates 75bps, the biggest single-meeting increase since 1994. Two days ago, the markets had incorporated an expectation for 50bps. After a well-placed Wall Street Journal article that somehow everyone on the Street knew was a warning from the Fed, the markets immediately priced 75bps. I’ve never seen anything so dramatic, nor as blatantly insider. Giving weight to a “Fed mouthpiece” journalist who is assumed to have great sources at the Fed is a time-honored tradition. But I have never seen the entire market re-price with a virtual 100% certainty overnight based on a news article (especially when the last thing the Chairman had said on the subject of 75bps was fairly dismissive, not long ago). Ergo, I’m fairly confident that the article was only the public whisper. We will never know, and they like it that way.

Cynicism aside, today marked an important moment when the central bank finally admitted that inflation is higher and likely will stay higher than they previously have assumed (gone from the statement was a note that “the Committee expects inflation to return to its 2 percent objective and the labor market to remain strong”), rates will have to go higher – although they still don’t anticipate raising rates above inflation, according to the ‘dot plot’ – and that they probably can’t make this omelette without breaking some eggs.

Powell still refused to cop to the fact that this was a total policy error, and completely identifiable in real time. It’s always amazing to me that when policymakers make massive errors they always seem to think that no one saw the mistake coming. Greenspan said that about the tech bust. Bernanke said that about the housing bust.

But this was more than just a mistake. This was an intentional policy decision that was driven by a seductive but completely idiotic theory: the idea, promulgated by Modern Monetary Theory acolytes, that if the economy is not at full employment the government can spend any amount of money and the central bank can print it, and it will not cause inflation. The last two years were an experiment, testing that proposition. Massive government spending, financed by bond sales that the Fed promptly bought, was nothing more than MMT and lots of people said so at the time, including this author. In January 2021, right after the first stimmy checks went out, I wrote this:

So I expect that as things go back to normal, inflation will rise – and probably a lot.

This is the test! Modern Monetary Theory holds you can print all you want, with no consequences, subject to certain not-really-binding constraints. The last person who offered me free wealth with no risk was a Nigerian prince, and I didn’t believe him either. I will say though that if MMT works, then we’ve been doing monetary policy wrong for a hundred years (but then, we also leached people to cure them, for hundreds of years) and all of our historical explanations are wrong – and someone will have to explain why in the past, the price level always followed the GDP-adjusted money supply.

…and I’d also said something like that in November 2020. And in March 2020. And I certainly wasn’t alone. The meme that “MMT” stood for “Magic Money Tree” was well-traveled.

So this is in no way unforeseen. The prediction in advance was that this behavior would provoke very high inflation. And the MMTers said “pshaw.” They were wrong, and that experiment is over. The next person who mentions MMT, you are entitled to run out of town on a rail.

That’s the good news. [I will say that I did not believe the Fed would get religion this quickly, but then they also haven’t been punished by asset markets yet for turning hawkish. Still, I didn’t really think the Fed would get to 1% before they’d start reversing course, and I was definitely wrong on that!]

But now the bad news. We are starting a new experiment, and unlike the last one this experiment isn’t as obvious. The Federal Reserve is now, for the first time, trying to control high inflation by changing only the price of money, with no pressure at all on the quantity of money. Always before, the Fed changed interest rates by putting pressure on reserves. Banks that wanted to continue to lend had to bid up those scarce reserves, and so interest rates rose. As I’ve written frequently (and even talked about in my book “What’s Wrong With Money?” six years ago!), that isn’t how it’s done today. Banks live in a world where lending is not reserve-constrained at all, and only capital-constrained.

Changing interest rates, without putting pressure on reserves to drag down money growth, is an experiment just like MMT was an experiment. The Fed has models. Oh yes, they have models. Gobs of models. Given what we’ve just gone through, how much confidence do you have in their models? Here’s the thing. Raising interest rates, if banks have unlimited lending power, probably[1] means more money and not less. That’s because banks are very elastic when it comes to making profitable loans. Give them more spread, or a higher yield over funding, and they will lend a bunch of money. On the other hand, borrowers tend to be less elastic. If you’re a consumer who has an 11% consumer loan, and it goes up to 12%, is that really going to make you borrow less? Mortgage origination is one place where you’d expect to see an elastic demand response to higher rates, but less than you might think when home prices are rising 15% per year. In short, if you don’t restrain banks by pressuring reserves, I suspect it’s very likely that you get more lending, not less, with higher interest rates.

But we don’t really know one way or the other.

What concerns me now is that at least with MMT, we knew it was an experiment. It may have been a stupid experiment, or merely an excuse to do ‘transformational’ things in response to the COVID recession, but we knew we were doing things we had never done before. When we talk about interest rate policy, though, there aren’t a lot of people who think the Fed is doing anything new. People think that the Fed always operates by raising interest rates, because we “know” that “tightening policy” is synonymous with rate hikes. The problem is, that’s a mental shorthand. That isn’t, in fact, the way the Fed has historically operated. When the Fed was doinking around with inflation between 1% and 3%, the precise mechanism didn’t really matter – the Fed’s actions probably didn’t have any meaningful effect one way or the other. Now, however, we are in a dreadfully important time. There’s a reason that NASA tests rockets without anyone aboard, before they strap anybody to it. We, though, are all involuntary participants in this experiment.

Hope it ends better than the last one.


[1] Fine, fine, this is speculation on my part too because I haven’t done it either. But my forecasting record is better than the Fed’s.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (May 2022)

June 10, 2022 2 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • It’s #CPI Day and, possibly, mea culpa day.
  • Last month I, & most everyone else, said the CPI peak was behind us as it dropped from 8.5% to 8.3%. In fact, I went out of my way to be sure people understand that peak CPI doesn’t mean peak PRICES (see my podcast at https://inflationguy.podbean.com/e/ep-28-this-month-s-cpi-report-peak-changes-not-peak-prices/ , e.g.)
  • We may have been premature. Today, while the consensus estimate is that headline will print 8.3% y/y the interbank market is exchanging that risk at 8.48%. And moreover, prices in the interbank market have the best guesses for headline CPI above 8.6% until October.
  • Of course that is because gasoline prices did NOT peak and kept on climbing. The national average is about to surpass $5/gallon. And this is keeping headline inflation bid.
  • Core CPI is still very likely to decline y/y. Consensus for the m/m is 0.5%, and the comp from May 2021 is +0.75%, so core should drop. The m/m consensus seems a little low, but 6 of the last 7 core prints have been between +0.5% and +0.6% so we are probably talking shading.
  • And I focus on Median CPI, which is still rising. It will keep going up for at least a few more months. And this is the salient point. Median is the best measure of the main thrust of the distribution – and while it’s rising, you can’t say price pressures have peaked yet.
  • Before I go on: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at https://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app.
  • In the bad news category this month, new cars and apparel are likely to continue to be contributors. Used cars are a little less clear. But these are three of the big “core goods”. So it isn’t just used cars. It was never just used cars, of course. That was just a foil.
  • Also in the bad news category for the general inflation outlook (although not for this month’s CPI perhaps) is that wages are still accelerating. The Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker is now up at 6.1% y/y.
  • The good news is those wages are maintaining a steady spread over median CPI. Bad news is that so far gasoline and food aren’t mean-reverting and so the wage slaves of the world (and that’s most of us) are still getting killed. But maybe apres le deluge things will be better.
  • Hey, more good news is that M2 is decelerating. It’s down to 8% y/y, and only 1-2% over the last 3 months. Problem is that prices still haven’t caught up with the money growth SO FAR, but at least maybe we’re stopping the digging of the hole. Early to say that yet.
  • Unfortunately, commercial bank credit is growing at 9.5% y/y. Which is exactly what you would expect when non-reserve-constrained banks are able to lend at higher market rates.
  • This is one of the mechanisms for velocity rising when rates go up: the supply of credit gets better, and the demand for credit is fairly inelastic (50bps means more to your bank than it does to you).
  • We have never ever tried to restrain inflation with rates alone. Repeat that to yourself: monetary policymakers have NEVER tried to restrain inflation anything like this level with just interest rates. In the past, they restricted reserves. Not this time. So, here’s hoping.
  • Pretty short walk-up today but that’s because all the stories are the same: rents, and breadth, and we are still looking for a peak. Rents still look strong, breadth is still wide, and the peak in headline and median appears to still be ahead.
  • Question to ponder is: if CPI hits a new high, how bad for equities is that? If inflation stays at 6% for 2022, how long can the Fed sell the idea that 2.75% is the highest they’ll need to hike? The Eurodollar curve doesn’t believe it, but it also thinks this is all over in 2023.
  • I’m still thinking the Fed will pause the first time stocks get sloppy or unemployment starts to rise, but maybe I’m wrong. So far no signs of that. Still, they’ve not been tested yet.
  • OK, number in a few. Good luck.

  • ok, well…I guess we weren’t at peak CPI yet. M/M headline +1%; Y/Y up to 8.6%. Core slipped, but not as far as expected. To 6.01%. The decline is base effects. Bad news is that this is the HIGHEST m/m core CPI since last June.
  • It wasn’t just gasoline helping the headline to new highs; Food & Beverages was +1.13% m/m, now up to +9.73% y/y. Again, that hurts the wage earners most.
  • Used Cars was +1.8% m/m. New cars +0.96% m/m. Airfares, after +19% last month, were +12.6% this month. And can I say, the quality of air travel is as bad as I can remember it, speaking anecdotally.
  • Remember how everyone said that when core goods inflation came down, this would pass? Well, it is! core goods fell to 8.5% y/y from 9.7%. But core services jumped to 5.2% from 4.9%.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent leapt +0.6% m/m and now at 5.1% y/y. Primary Rents +0.63%. I have to look back and see the last time we saw any m/m jump that big. Lodging Away From Home +0.9%. So Housing subcategory was +0.85% m/m, +6.9% y/y.
  • That was the biggest m/m change in OER since 1990. And it doesn’t look like it’s rolling over.
  • Doctors’ Services fell -0.14% m/m, and are at only +1.1% y/y. Amazing. Hospital Services +0.46% m/m, so y/y went to 3.87%. Overall Medical Care subcategory was +0.4% m/m, to 3.74% y/y.
  • Core inflation ex-housing declined to 6.4% y/y. Yay!
  • This is kind of what I was afraid of. Housing inflation is moving above our model. It’s more in line with one of the subcomponents of the model, which is income-driven. And since wage income is still rising rapidly, there’s no reason to expect rents to slow very much.
  • More good news is that alcoholic beverages inflation is only +4.04% y/y. We’re gonna need it.
  • Household energy was +3.96% m/m. Fuel Oil +11% on the month, +76% y/y. Piped gas +7.8% m/m, +30.2% y/y. Electricity +1.9% m/m, +12% y/y. Break out those sweaters.
  • (That was an allusion to Jimmy Carter telling folks to turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater, in the 1970s energy crisis).
  • So Communication was -3.5% on the month. No idea what that is all about. Misc Personal Services was -1.3% m/m. Tenants and Household Insurance -0.8% m/m. Without that 5% of the basket declining, this would have been WORSE.
  • Median also looks like it should be 0.63% m/m or so. If true, that would be the biggest median since 1982. And folks…pressures aren’t ebbing; they’re BUILDING. Core highest in a year (m/m); median highest in decades.
  • About 8% of the consumption basket inflated faster than 9% annualized this month (m/m * 12, not y/y). That’s ridiculous. Normally there are a handful of outliers.
  • Four Pieces charts. Food and Energy, no surprises.
  • Piece 2, core goods. Like I said, good news. Dollar strength doesn’t hurt, but this ebbing is mostly due probably to declining trucking/shipping. Still not exactly soothing.
  • Piece 3 is core services less rent of shelter. Highest in a very long time. Over the last few years, this has persistently been the one spot that was showing gradual disinflation. No more.
  • Piece 4 rent of shelter – I’ve already discussed. It’s taking the top off my model.
  • As predicted, stocks not loving this. Short end of the Treasury curve also less than pleased.
  • I forgot: CPI for baby food unchanged on the month, +12.75% y/y.
  • One more chart and then I want to wrap up. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index declined slightly this month, but still at a very high level. Those few weird negative categories might have rounded its edges a little. Nothing soothing though.
  • So, look. This was worse than even the pessimists were looking for. Housing accelerating to new levels, as a slow-moving category, is really, really bad news.
  • Headline inflation, thanks to continued rises in gasoline prices, may advance still further. Core inflation was down, and may be down again next month, but ONLY because of really rough comps. May-2021 (dropped off today) was +0.75%. June was +0.80%.
  • But then July, August, and September 2021, on core CPI, were +0.31%, 0.18%, and 0.26%. We’re going to shatter that. So core CPI probably doesn’t really peak until September…at best.
  • Meanwhile, Median CPI is still rising, months away from a peak also, and more importantly still setting new highs in m/m prints. That’s amazingly bad news.
  • We all know the Fed is behind the curve. And we know that their 2.75% terminal dot was based on the assumption that inflation would ebb to a level they think is the natural equilibrium around 2.25%.
  • That ain’t gonna happen. Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll hike rates to where they really need to be, but the choice between saving the nation from inflation on the one hand and saving the stock market on the other hand just got real.
  • Remember this chart. All of the models the Fed is using assume the canopener. They assume inflation is pulled by anchored expectations or some other potion to 2.25%. This is false.
  • Image
  • What am I saying? DEFEND YOUR MONEY. That’s all for today. You can catch this summary on https://mikeashton.wordpress.com later, and I’ll drop a podcast tonight. Stop by Enduring Investments if you feel so inclined. Thanks for tuning in.

Maybe we will look back on this day and say “that’s the day that everyone caught on that this inflation isn’t going to just gently fade away.” Every crisis has an inflection point where suddenly everyone realizes they’re on the wrong side of the boat – the day that our assumptions up to that point became plainly and obviously wrong. In the global financial crisis, the day that Lehman failed (without being merged into some other firm like Bear was) was the day when the last sleeping people woke up.

This isn’t quite so dramatic, but banks aren’t failing so it is what we have.

So, peak CPI isn’t yet behind us. Some of that is gasoline, of course. But the core CPI figures were also stronger-than-expected, and the strongest month in a year. Median CPI is still getting stronger every month, with new m/m records every month and y/y still rising. Rents are still accelerating. So not only are prices still rising, but inflationary pressures appear to still be rising even though in some cases (notably in core goods) there are some signs of improvement.

Those pressures should eventually ebb, if money supply growth remains flattish as it has over the last few months. But the price level has not yet caught up with prior increases in the money supply. Even after the microwave is turned off, the kernels in the popcorn bag still pop for a little while. That’s the best case at this point – that we are witnessing the final kernel pops.

Why Roughly 2.25% is an Equilibrium Real Rate

Recently, Fed officials have taken to discussing “long-term equilibrium” interest rates as a way of indicating to the market where interest rates might ultimately be heading. It is not exactly a terrifying prospect. The Fed seems to collectively believe that the “neutral” short-term nominal interest rate is in the 2.50%-2.75% range; some fear that the Fed funds target right may have to be lifted “modestly” above this level for a time. This seems hard to believe, with inflation running with an 8% handle – such an overnight rate would equate to an annual 5-6% incineration of purchasing power. The only way this could be considered “neutral” is if one begs the question by asserting contrary to evidence that the long-run equilibrium inflation rate is around 2%-2.25%.

I have noted repeatedly over the last year or so why it is unlikely in my opinion that the current equilibrium for inflation is in the 2% range; I feel it is closer to 4%-5% in the medium-term. But if an observer has a model which has been ‘trained’ on data from the last thirty years, the model will assuredly tell you that any time inflation deviates from 2%, it comes back to 2%. In fact, any model which did not produce that prediction would not have been considered a good model: it would have made predictions which, for 30 years, would have been noticeably incorrect from time to time. Ergo, all surviving models will view something like 2% as an attracting level for inflation, and we know the Fed continues to believe this. So, evidently, do many other economists. I keep showing this following chart because I think it’s delicious. Take today’s level; take the level your model says is a self-enforcing equilibrium, and draw a straight line. That’s your forecast. You too can be a million-dollar Wall Street economist.

Faced with awful predictions from this cadre of models, one solution is to consider why they had bad predictions, and attempt to develop models that would perform on data from the 1970s and 1980s as well. A more attractive solution, from an institutional perspective, is to blame model-exogenous events. That is, “the model is fine; who could have foreseen that supply chain issues would have triggered such a large inflation?” And so, we preserve the FOMCs ability to continue making terrible forecasts.

Similarly, Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari stated not too long ago that the Fed may have to “push long-term real rates into restrictive territory.”[1] This continues the Fed’s error of obsessing on the price of liquidity rather than its quantity, but that isn’t the point I am making here. Kashkari made a different error, in an essay posted on the Minneapolis Fed website on May 6th.[2] He claimed that the neutral long-term real interest rate is around 0.25%, which conveniently is where long-term real rates are now.

However, we can demonstrate that logic, reinforced by history, indicates that long-term real rates ought to be in the neighborhood of the economy’s long-term real growth rate potential.

I will use the classic economist’s expedient of a desert-island economy. Consider such an island, which has two coconut-milk producers and for mathematical convenience no inflation, so that real and nominal quantities are the same. These producers are able to expand production and profits by about 2% per year by deploying new machinery to extract the milk from the coconuts. Now, let’s suppose that one of the producers offers to sell his company to the other, and to finance the purchase by lending money at 5%. The proposal will fall on deaf ears, since paying 5% to expand production and profits by 2% makes no sense. At that interest rate, either producer would rather be a banker. Conversely, suppose one producer offers to sell his company to the other and to finance the purchase at a 0% rate of interest – the buyer can pay off the loan over time with no interest charged. Now the buyer will jump at the chance, because he can pay off the loan with the increased production and keep more money in the bargain. The leverage granted him by this loan is very attractive. In this circumstance, the only way the deal is struck is if the lender is not good at math. Clearly, the lender could increase his wealth by 2% per year by producing coconut milk, but is choosing instead to maintain his current level of wealth. Perhaps he likes playing golf more than cracking coconuts.

In this economy, a lender cannot charge more than the natural growth in production since a borrower will not intentionally reduce his real wealth by borrowing to buy an asset that returns less than the loan costs. And a lender will not intentionally reduce his real wealth by lending at a rate lower than he could expand his wealth by producing. Thus, the natural real rate of interest will tend to be in equilibrium at the natural real rate of economic growth. Lower real interest rates will induce leveraging of productive activities; higher real interest rates will result in deleveraging.

This isn’t only true of the coconut economy, although I would strongly caution that this isn’t exactly a trading model and only a natural tendency with a long history. The chart below shows (1) a naïve real 10-year yield created by taking the 10-year nominal Treasury yield and subtracting trailing 1-year inflation, in purple; (2) a real yield series derived from a research paper by Shanken & Kothari, in red; (3) the Enduring Investments real yield series, in green, and (4) 10y TIPS, in black.

The long-term averages for these four series are as follows:

  • Naïve real: 2.34%
  • Shanken/Kothari: 3.13%
  • Enduring Investments: 2.34%
  • 10y TIPS: 1.39%
  • Shanken/Kothari thru 2007; 10y TIPS from 2007-present: 2.50%

It isn’t just a coincidence that calculating a long-term average of long-term real interest rates, no matter how you do it, ends up being about 2.3%-2.5%. That is also close to the long-term real growth rate of the economy. Using Commerce Department data, the compounded annual US growth rate from 1954-2021 was 2.95%.

It is generally conceded that the economy’s sustainable growth rate has fallen over the last 50 years, although some people place great stock (no pun intended) on the productivity enhancements which power the fantasies of tech sector investors. I believe that something like 2.25%-2.50% is the long-term growth rate that the US economy can sustain, although global demographic trends may be dampening that further. Which in turn implies that something like 2.00%-2.25% is where long-term real interest rates should be, in equilibrium.[3] Kashkari says “We do know that neutral rates have been falling in advanced economies around the world due to factors outside the influence of monetary policy, such as demographics, technology developments and trade.” Except that we don’t know anything of the sort, since there is a strong argument against each of these totems. Abbreviating, those counterarguments are (a) aging demographics is a supply shock which should decrease output and raise prices with the singular counterargument of Japan also happening to be the country with the lowest growth rate in money in the last three decades; (b) productivity has been improving since the Middle Ages, and there is no evidence that it is improving noticeably faster today – and if it did, that would raise the expected real growth rate and the demand for money; and (c) while trade certainly was a following wind for the last quarter century, every indication is that it is going to be the opposite sign for the next decade. It is time to retire these shibboleths. Real interest rates have been kept artificially too low for far too long, inducing excessive financial leverage. They will eventually return to equilibrium…but it will be a long and painful process.


[1] https://www.reuters.com/business/finance/feds-kashkari-we-may-have-push-long-term-real-rates-into-restrictive-territory-2022-05-06/

[2] https://www.minneapolisfed.org/article/2022/policy-has-tightened-a-lot-is-it-enough

[3] The reason that real interest rates will be slightly lower than real growth rates is that real interest rates are typically computed using the Consumer Price Index, which is generally slightly higher than the GDP Deflator.

Categories: Economics, Economy, Theory Tags:

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (April 2022)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • It’s #CPI day and #inflation has peaked! Yay!
  • Well, in a few minutes it will be official: peak CPI has passed. Of course, that’s entirely a mechanical fact due to the fact that core CPI in April, May, and June last year was +0.85%, +0.75%, and +0.80%, and it (probably) won’t be that high this year.
  • It certainly doesn’t mean inflation pressures themselves have peaked. In fact Median CPI, which is a better measure of the central tendency of inflation pressures, is almost certain to rise to new y/y highs today. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a party.
  • The bigger issue I think is that people confuse peak INFLATION, which is a rate of change, with peak PRICES. Prices aren’t going to fall, even if the inflation rate falls. (Some prices will fall, of course, but not generally). Price level is here to stay.
  • Before I go on: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at http://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app. AND….
  • What is more, at 1:00ET I will be live with @JackFarley96 on @Blockworks_ to talk (for a long time) about inflation. It’s on YouTube and free, so tune in! https://youtube.com/watch?v=mrG8IHXzlQU  And he had a nice placard made up.
  • Back to the report walk-up. The consensus for CPI is +0.2% m/m, dropping y/y to 8.1%. Gasoline should actually be a small drag this month, but contribute again next month. Consensus for core is +0.4%/6.0% after 6.5% y/y as of last month.
  • The interbank market isn’t so sanguine; it has been trading today’s headline print at a level suggesting 0.3%/8.2% for the headline number, so a snick higher than economists’ estimates.
  • That’s my feeling too. There’s more risk to the upside than the downside in this number today, I think.
  • The good news is that truckload rates are coming down, and this tends to precede ebbing in core. Not sure that effect is being felt yet; the typical lead is pretty long and manufacturers I speak to are still assuming high shipping in their pricing.
  • And the strong dollar will bring down core goods eventually too (it should decline today but is still double-digits). That is also a long lead. Used cars should drag slightly today. They were -3.8% m/m last month and private surveys have them a smidge lower this month.
  • But again, the rate of increase in used car prices is declining mostly because of base effects, not because prices themselves are going back to the old levels. And they won’t. We have 40% more money than we had 2y ago; that’s not consistent with prices where they were 2y ago.
  • On the other side of the coin, primary rents surprised on the low side last month. I expect a bit of a retracement higher this month, and I’m still not sure we’ve seen the peak m/m OER rate. Those are the 500-lb gorillas and until they ebb we won’t get 2% CPI.
  • As longtime followers know, I’ve also been watching Medical Care for a while. This month I actually saw stories about nurses’ salaries starting to pressure hospital prices higher. So still attentive to that. It’s one of the only sectors that hasn’t really participated.
  • We are also eventually going to get a bump higher in college tuition CPI – saw a story y’day about BU raising tuition ~5% (I put the story on the Inflation guy app). But the NSA series mostly puts those adjustments in the summer so we shouldn’t see an inflection yet.
  • In the markets, the past month has seen a massive shift in interest rates higher, and breakeven inflation rates lower (the breakeven reversal coming mostly over the last few days). 1y inflation swaps are -58bps on the month. Only some of that is carry.
  • Stocks have obviously been under pressure from rising inflation and real rates. Over the last couple of days, the stock market debacle has caused some unwinding of the rate selloff but breakevens are still on the back foot.
  • Stocks today seem chipper, but most of that is coming from signs of lower COVID transmission in Shanghai and a sense that lockdowns there may end soon. We will see if they’re still chipper after CPI.
  • I still don’t see the Fed as hawkish as what is priced in, mainly because I think they’ll lose their nerve as asset prices fall. I don’t really care about them changing the price of money. I’m watching for a change in quantity of money. So far, not impressed.
  • Just 4 minutes to the figure. Good luck!

  • Oh, snap.
  • Headline CPI fell to 8.3% y/y, not as far as expectations. Bigger deal is that core CPI was several ticks higher than expected. 0.57% m/m
  • I am scrunching up my eyes but I can’t see a decline in inflation pressures here.
  • Well, let’s see. Used Cars -0.38% m/m, small drag. New cars +1.14%, though. The spread Used:New needs to close but most of that spread probably will be new car prices coming up. After all, new price level as I said.
  • Owners’ Equivalent Rent 0.46% to 4.78% y/y from 4.54%. That’s in line with where it has been. But Primary Rents jumped back up after the surprise last month: 0.56% m/m to 4.82% y/y from 4.45% y/y.
  • COVID recovery continues: Lodging Away from Home +1.7% m/m; airfares +18.6%!
  • Now, I have been seeing a lot of stories about this one. It’s only 0.04% of the consumption basket but it really hits viscerally. Baby Food, +3.05% m/m, +12,9% y/y.
  • Food and Beverages as a whole, +0.84% m/m, +9.00% y/y. Ow!
  • Now, I don’t know if this is good news or not but core inflation EX HOUSING declined to 6.8% y/y from 7.5%. Good news is that means some of the outliers are coming back. Bad news is that means the big slow categories are carrying most of the upward momentum.
  • I guess looking at the chart, I probably shouldn’t get very excited about that last point.
  • Of note is that Apparel was -0.75% m/m. Apparel is only 2.5% of the basket these days (yet still a major subgroup), but it is Core Goods and one of the categories that you’d expect to see a dollar effect in. Core goods y/y dropped under 10%. But still a long ways to go.
  • …in that chart you can also see core services up to 4.9% y/y, which is the highest since 1991. So there’s part of the economy that’s not inflating at 40-year highs. And it’s not a small part of the economy. But, 5% isn’t exactly great news.
  • Turning to Medical Care – it was +0.44% m/m, up to 3.23% y/y. Led by Hospital Services, +0.48% m/m. Still not alarming and below the price pressures we’re seeing everywhere else. Weird.
  • Within food, here are some of the m/m NSA changes that people are seeing. This is why they’re yelling, Joe. Putin’s arm is long: Dairy +2.4% m/m. Meats poultry fish and eggs +1.7%. Cereals/bakery products +1%. Nonalcoholic beverages +1.4%.
  • Biggest losers in core (annualized monthly rate): Jewelry/Watches -19%, Footwear -15%, Women’s/Girls’ Apparel -10%.
  • Biggest winners in core (annualized monthly rate): Lodging away from home +23%, Motor Vehicle Parts and Equipment +15%, New Vehicles +15%, Car/Truck Rental +10%. Shorter list than we’ve seen in a while, anyway.
  • My guess at Median CPI is not good news: 0.53% m/m is my estimate, 5.23% y/y. That’s a better sense of where the inflation pressures are. We’ll revert to something like 4.5%-5% just on y/y effects, but until the monthly Median CPI is not hitting 0.5%, we’re not out of the woods.
  • There’s also this. I’d want to see core below median as a sign inflationary pressures are ebbing. In disinflationary environments tails are to the low side (so avg<median). In inflationary environment, tails to the upside (median<avg). We are still in inflationary world.
  • Quick check of them there markets…whoops, it appears equity investors don’t like this number.
  • By the way, for everyone thinking that rents have to stop going up because people can’t afford these levels. Again, the price level has changed. And wages are keeping up with rent increases, on average. There is no obvious sign to me that rents are overextended at all.
  • Here are the four-pieces charts, and I think we’re going to see the same story in the diffusion calculations. The stickier stuff is coming along for the ride. Here is piece 1, food and energy. No surprise here. And gasoline will be back as an addition next month.
  • Core goods. This is where the dollar effect, and the decline in the cost of shipping, will eventually be felt. And at some level actually is (see Apparel).
  • But now we get to core services less rent of shelter. This has been inert for years until just recently. This is the second-stickiest of the four pieces.
  • And rent of shelter. The stickiest. Rising, and not yet showing signs of slowing (although I think 5-6% is where it flattens out for a while). There’s just not a lot of great news here.
  • Tying up one loose end here – used cars was a small drag. But look at how the y/y plunged. Again, this is because even with little change in the PRICE LEVEL of used cars the rate of change will decline.
  • Couple of quick diffusion charts and then I’ll wrap up. Here is the proportion of the consumption basket that is inflating faster than 4%. It’s at 76% and actually just reached a new high. No sign of peak inflation here.
  • And finally, the Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index…actually declined slightly. Last few months it has rocked back and forth a little bit at a very high level. No real sign of peak inflation here either.
  • Summing up. The peak y/y CPI print is now behind us, at least for now. Expect a victory lap from policymakers talking about how their policies are winning. But there’s no sign of peak inflation pressure yet.
  • The core and headline numbers actually fell less than expected. And let’s face it, this month’s Core CPI figure annualizes to almost 7%.
  • In fact, 6 of the last 7 core CPI numbers have been between 0.5% and 0.6%, which would annualize of course to 6%-7.2%. If that’s what we’re celebrating with “peak CPI” behind us, I guess I’ll bring the whiskey but I’m not sure I’m celebrating.
  • And FWIW, the “peak” is because we dropped off 0.86% (core m/m) from April 2021. We have 0.75% to drop next month, then 0.80%. But then we see 0.31%, 0.18%, and 0.25%. In other words, apres le deluge, more deluge.
  • Core CPI is likely to still be 5%-6% at year-end! The sticky categories are still accelerating, and there will be other long tails to the upside. That’s just what an inflationary environment looks like. Watch Median CPI, which will be lower but no less concerning.
  • Will the Fed keep hiking raising the price of money? Probably, although I think the swagger might leave them when stocks are another 20% lower.
  • Will the Fed actually decrease the QUANTITY of money, which is what matters? They can’t, because banks are not reserve-constrained any more. So it’s up to loan demand and supply, and recently loan demand has been increasing, not decreasing. Chart is source Fed, h/t DailyShot
  • Bottom line, folks, is that this might be a clearing in the woods but there’s a lot of woods ahead. Eventually inflation will ebb to 4%ish, but it will take time. I don’t see 2% for quite a long time, and not until interest rates are quite a bit higher.
  • Thanks for tuning in. Don’t forget to check the summary later on the blog https://mikeashton.wordpress.com , and http://inflationguy.podbean.com  where I’ll have a podcast on this later. AND tune in at 1:00ET for Inflation Guy live with@JackFarley96 on @Blockworks_

The theme of the day is that “peak inflation” means different things to different people. To economists, and policymakers, and Wall Street brokers trying to get you back into the meme stocks, “peak inflation” means “the year/year rate of inflation will decline from here.” We already knew that was happening, before this number ever showed up on screen. Yes, the drop was less than expected, but the peak is still there in March 2022!

“Peak inflation” means something different to the average consumer, who isn’t a trained economist. Consumers tend to conflate “inflation” with “high prices”, rather than rising prices. That is, they tend to confuse the level of prices with the rate of change. So the consumer hears “peak inflation is here!” and expects that prices themselves should go back to the old levels. To some extent, this version is reinforced by the price they see most often: gasoline, which goes up and down. But most prices do not go up and down. They go up more quickly, and they go up more slowly, and sometimes they stay the same. Most prices don’t go down. The average consumer, thinking he has just been promised that used car prices, meat prices, gasoline prices, and rents are going to go back down is going to be even more upset when that doesn’t happen. (This is why politicians ought to be very careful about talking about “peak inflation” as a good thing. To the average consumer, prices that go up more slowly is just less-bad than prices that go up quickly…and they think you’ve promised them something good.)

And the inflation specialist doesn’t mean either of these things when he/she says “peak inflation.” The inflation specialist is looking at pressures, and whether those pressures are increasing, abating, or staying the same. For now, those pressures are staying about the same, with m/m core and median CPI in basically the same range they have been in for 6 months. There is not yet any sign that those pressures are ebbing. Yes, they are ebbing in some items, such as in Used Cars, and in some goods where supply chains are clearing (at higher prices). In general, we would expect goods and services which have reached a new equilibrium price level to stop going up so fast. But those are just the goods and services that moved first. With 40% more money and an economy that’s only 5% or 10% bigger, we should expect prices to eventually rise about 30%. Some more, some less, of course, and if money velocity stays down forever then it will be 20% and not 30%. But this is the point. Peak inflation does not mean peak prices. Prices continue to rise at a rapid rate, and there is as yet no sign that the pressure to do so is ebbing.

Inflation is a Tax

We all have heard it said before: “inflation is a tax.” It seems that when most people say it, they seem to mean that it’s painful, like a tax is. That both inflation and taxes hurt the little guy, more than the big guy. That the other political party is responsible for bad things, and these are both bad things, so they imply the same thing: vote for me!

When Milton Friedman said it, he meant inflation is a tax.

We recently have seen in an uncommonly explicit way just what this means. It isn’t something vague but an actual tax. It takes money from you, but it doesn’t stop there – it transfers that money to government coffers. I thought of this recently when I saw a headline about how government receipts were breaking records. The headline seemed to think this was great news, but I am a taxpayer so my natural reaction was: dang it. Indeed, receipts at all levels of government are way up for a bunch of reasons. Incomes are higher, so income taxes are higher. Corporate earnings are higher, so corporate taxes are higher. Retail prices are higher, so sales tax collections are higher. And real estate prices are higher, so real estate taxes are higher. To the extent that these things are higher because of higher real activity, it isn’t a bad thing – but at least part of the increase in receipts is due to inflation. Buy the same item today as you did last year and the price is going to be roughly 8-9% higher on average, which means that your sales tax will also be 8-9% higher. If your restaurant bill is 10% higher this year; so is the tax…and the tip, which is income. So it shouldn’t be a terrible surprise that overall federal receipts over the last twelve months are up. By about 27%, actually, compared to the twelve months ended in March 2021.

To be sure, the 12 months ended in March 2021 included a lot of the shutdown, although you can see in the chart that the shutdown didn’t really hurt receipts that much. But to make a better comparison: the first three months of 2022, compared to the first three months of 2021, federal receipts were +18.8%. It’s good to be the king, in inflationary times. At least until the rabble figures out where their money is going.

How much of the overall increase in tax collections is inflation? Over a long period of time, most of it although you are correct in your visceral sense that the pound of flesh has become more like 2.5 pounds of flesh over time.

The chart above shows rolling 12-month tax receipts, indexed to 12/31/1980. The red line is nominal receipts; the blue line is taxes adjusted for inflation. Since 1980, taxes have still gone up about 150% in real terms, about 2.25% per year. That’s not far from what the real growth rate of the economy has been, although to be fair about 22% of that is since the beginning of 2021.

[As an aside: if the “inflation truthers” are right about inflation really being about 5-6% higher per year than the government admits to, since the early 1980s, then either tax burdens have been going dramatically lower in real terms or the government is also lying about government receipts which must actually be orders of magnitude higher. You see how absurd this argument gets?]

So the government gets more revenue when you produce more, but it also gets more just because prices go up. Inflation is a tax.

While it isn’t directly illustrated in the charts above, this is one way that inflation contributes to inequality. It takes more from the less-well-off than it does from the well-heeled. Inflation is not only a tax – it is also a very regressive tax.

Categories: Government, Politics Tags: ,
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