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Normally, a 5.28 percent annual U.S. inflation rate for July reported today by the Labor Department wouldn’t be seen as good news. Ditto a comparable 4.24 increase in prices excluding food and energy (the so-called core rate, which strips out these categories supposedly because they’re so unusually volatile and don’t necessarily reflect the forces influencing prices overall).

Since these times aren’t normal, due to the CCP Virus pandemic, and since they may well not return to normal for quite a while, due to alarm over the latest, highly infectious Delta strain, times may not become normal any time soon, “We’ll take it for now” strikes me as the only reasonable reaction.

In terms of how U.S. leaders, including the Federal Reserve, should react, tentativeness is justified, too. But the new figures add to the evidence that the recent surge in U.S. inflation is likely to be a “transitory” phenomenon (as Fed-speak calls it) that doesn’t warrant any significant monetary policy moves to cool off the economy (like raising interest rates or moderating or reducing the central banks’ monthly bond purchases – the so-calle Quantitative Easing, or QE, program).

As I’ve argued previously (see, e.g. here), the year-on-year numbers actually prove little – because the virus and the recession and curbs on economic activity it prompted weakened prices to such a remarkable degree, and because the relatively quick reopening starting in late spring, 2020, and the historically explosive growth it ignited, generated such strong catch up. Think of a coiled spring getting released.

Skeptical? From February through July, 2020, overall prices in America dropped on net, and such deflation marked core prices from February through June.

That’s why I look instead at the month-to-month price increases this year. And they definitely point to a significant recent slowing inflation by both measures. Here are the sequential numbers for the overall rate reported today (known as the “Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers,” or CPI-U for short);

December-January: 0.26 percent

January-February:   0.35 percent

February-March:     0.62 percent

March-April:           0.77 percent

April-May:              0.64 percent

May-June:               0.90 percent

June-July:                0.47 percent

What’s at least as important as recent signs of inflation slowing is the absence of signs of inflation taking off. They matter because expectations of inflation themselves can become major inflation fuel by causing businesses to boost purchases of inputs above normal rates to avoid greater expenses down the road. The resulting spiral effect can be difficult to halt without the Fed literally slamming the brakes on the entire economy and even producing a recession.

Now here are the monthly increases for core inflation:

December-January: 0.03 percent

January-February:   0.10 percent

February-March:     0.34 percent

March-April:           0.92 percent

April-May:              0.74 percent

May-June:               0.88 percent

June-July:               0.33 percent

The pattern isn’t identical to that for overall inflation, but it’s pretty similar.

The other main body of evidence arguing for abnormally high inflation turning out to be temporary has to do with some of the main engines of the recent price increases. As noted in last month’s post, the surge-y June inflation figures were led by products and services like used cars and trucks (up 10.5 percent month-to-month), vehicle rentals (up 5.2 percent), and hotel and motel rates (up 7.9 percent). These results could be traced either to the stop-start nature of the economy during the pandemic period and consequent bottlenecks and shortages, or to the arrival of the vacation season to a nation long afflicted with cabin fever and hoping that the virus was being beaten.

The July monthly price changes for these items? Used vehicle prices inched up a bare 0.2 percent, vehicle rental prices actually sank by 4.6 percent, and hotel and motel room prices cooled to 6.8 percent. Clearly the latter remain high. But airline fares, whose monthly price increases had already fallen from 10.2 percent in April to seven percent in May to 2.7 percent in June became 0.1 percent cheaper in July.

There’s no guarantee of course that the July numbers will continue the inflation-slowdown trend. But the bad news is that the main reason is anything but good. It has to do with the distinct possibility that the rapid Delta-induced increase in CCP Virus cases will keep prompting a return to business restrictions and behavior curbs that will undermine economic growth. In turn, that would greatly complicate business’ efforts to pass on whatever cost increases they’re dealing with.

If this pattern takes hold, the rising price spiral dynamic could shift into reverse, bringing the economy back to the deflationary days of 2020. And even worse – this kind of spiral can be harder to break than inflationary spirals. For in these circumstances, consumers and businesses hold off on many purchases because they believe prices will drop even further – and production and hiring therefore fall off, too.

In addition, if robust growth continues, along with inflation it views as unacceptably high, the Fed could seek to stabilize prices by slamming on those economic brakes.   

For now, though, the July inflation numbers should be seen as encouraging.  They may amount to favors that are small (and transitory themselves), but they’re still worth being grateful for.