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By now you’ve surely seen or heard – or should have seen or heard – that the new U.S. official figures (for April) show that inflation is back big time and could all too easily spin out of control. The emphasis should be on “could,” because, as also widely observed (including by the Federal Reserve, which is a major U.S. government line of inflation defense), the recent price rises arguably stem from developments that are temporary byproducts of America’s utterly unprecedented economic circumstances these days – reopening in fits and starts, but overall quickly, from lengthy government-mandated shutdowns aimed at fighting the CCP Virus.

I’m pretty firmly convinced that the inflation optimists are right, even though the pessimists make strong points in observing that (a) prices have been rising faster on a monthly basis with each passing month this year; and (b) inflation tends to generate its own momentum. That is, the expectation of rising prices typically encourages households and businesses alike to step up their purchases in order to avoid paying more for the same goods and services later on. Further, more expensive inputs for specific businesses can easily prompt those companies to compensate by raising the prices they charge their customers, while at the same time generating the same reactions from other businesses that are their customers, and so on.

I’ll also grant that the pessimists shouldn’t be dismissed when they contend that even temporary inflation can cause serious damage to an economy, especially when we’re talking about price increases that only come to an end after, say, a year or longer rather than after two or three months. Therefore, it’s important to note that the optimists’ case depends heavily on the relatively rapid end to the price-boosting combination of sudden increases in consumer demand resulting from the reopening, and of all the supply bottlenecks that have emerged as businesses struggle to catch up with that demand – which of course is being buoyed by the immense doses of stimulus being injected into the economy, and that may be increased in the near future.   

Indeed, the prolonged shipping backups at West Coast ports should be making clear that the more optimistic definition of “temporary” might rest on some pretty dicey assumptions. In addition, we’re unlikely to see a quick end to the global semiconductor shortage that’s shut down considerable automobile production and thinned inventories all over the world – curbing supply and of course driving up prices.

So why am I optimistic? Largely for a reason that’s been generally overlooked in the inflation uproar. (One major exception has been CNBC’s Steve Liesman, whose segment yesterday partly inspired this post.) When you look at where prices actually are now in the economy as a whole, and even in particularly hot sectors, you find that they’re not much higher than they were just before the pandemic hit (in February, 2020, which will be the baseline month I’ll use). And that’s because they had been falling or weak for so many months while much of the economy was closed.

This methodology, to start, puts an entirely different shine on the news that the overall April inflation rate of 4.2 percent year-on-year was the strongest such surge since September, 2008. But from February, 2020 to April, prices by this broadest measure increased by just 3.1 percent. That’s much higher than the 1.3 percent increase during the previous comparable period (February, 2019-April, 2020). Remember, however: April, 2020 was the depth of the virus-related lockdowns and consequent recession.

During the February-April period before that, prices rose 2.4 percent – and that’s with none of the stop-start distortions currently being experienced. The period before that it was 2.6 percent. And the period before that – also a normal stretch – it was 2.9 percent. And in comparable (also normal) 2011-2012 timespan, it was 3.3 percent. So the new 3.1 percent doesn’t seem all that exceptional when you consider all the abnormalities of this post-virus recovery.

Another widely watched inflation gauge is called “core inflation.” It strips out food and energy prices because they can be volatile over whatever timeframe examined for reasons having nothing to do with the economy’s fundamentals – and supposedly fundamental vulnerability to inflation (e.g., unusual weather that impacts agriculture, or oil price decisions by the OPEC cartel and other major foreign producers).

On a monthly basis, they advanced by 0.9 percent, and year-on-year they were up three percent in April. The former figure was the worst since 1982, and the latter is on the high side as well. But let’s look at the February-April numbers. Between 2020 and 2021, core inflation was 2.6 percent. It was just two percent during the previous comparable period, but again, those numbers are distorted by deflationary April, 2020. The period before it was 2.6 percent – the same as this year, but without the reopening issues. And as recently as 2016, it was even higher – 2.7 percent – even with no virus-related confusion.

As they say in the investment advice world, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Nor should it be forgotten that many economists still find inflation frustratingly difficult to measure, and criticisms of the U.S. government’s methodology abound as well. (See, e.g., here.) But the official American figures are still widely followed, and certainly lie at the heart of the latest bout of inflation angst. And until these data start showing outsized price gains compared with pre-CCP Virus levels that haven’t been affected by virus-era abnormalities, I’m going to stay pretty relaxed about the U.S. inflation picture.*

Please note: This inflation analysis should not be used as investment advice, because I’m not in that business and don’t feel qualified to be in that business. Also, what I do know of that business teaches that asset prices are much more profoundly influenced by what investors as a whole think about the economy than by what I think about it.