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I’m still in the “U.S. inflation is transitory” camp and still not overly worried about recent price increases because they look to be products of the CCP Virus and the sudden stop-start pattern is produced in the economy and not stronger, more lasting changes. But it’s important to note that my arguments have been based on only one of two major groups of official statistics – the consumer price index (CPI) kept by the Labor Department. (See, e.g., here.) 

The continuing growth of inflation worries among economists and the public indicates that this is a good time to look at that other data set – the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index tracked by the Commerce Department. Another good reason: This is the inflation measure preferred by the Federal Reserve, one of whose two main missions is preventing hot inflation (the other being maintaining employment), and of course this central bank’s monetary policy decisions are central to the nation’s success at keeping prices under control.

My bottom line: The PCE figures seem to support the transitory viewpoint as well.  The Fed believes this, too. But many other serious students of the economy, as indicated above, have taken exactly the opposite interpretation of the latest PCE results, so let’s try and identify what’s troubling them, and in the process, see how they differ from their CPI counterparts.

A big part of the answer comes from these side-by-side comparisons. The table below shows how both gauges have measured month-to-month price increases this year so far (through August) in percentage terms.

                          CPI                          PCE

Jan.                    0.3                            0.3

Feb.                   0.4                            0.3

March               0.6                             0.6

April                 0.8                             0.6

May                  0.6                             0.5

June                  0.9                             0.5

July                  0.5                              0.4

August             0.3                              0.4

Interestingly, although the PCE changes are steadier, they show that, at least on a monthly basis, inflation’s momentum displays no signs of speed-up – which matters greatly because inflation is a problem that can so easily feed on itself (as expectations of ongoing price increases spur businesses and consumers to increase their purchases more, boosting demand and thus pushing prices yet higher). In fact, the PCE numbers reveal deceleration, too on this basis.

Also worth stipulating: both these inflation measures include food and energy prices, which often have little to do with the economy’s underlying inflation prone-ness (but which certainly do impact price changes overall). And as known by anyone who’s gassed up a vehicle lately, energy prices in particular have been surging recently.

But inflation watchers also look closely – often more closely – at year-on-year price increases, and that makes sense because data over longer timeframes is less susceptible to random or otherswise misleading fluctuations than data over shorter timeframes. So here are those year-on-year results for both inflation indices in percentage terms for the first eight months of this year:

                          CPI                          PCE

Jan.                    1.4                            1.4

Feb.                   1.7                            1.6

March               2.6                             2.5

April                 4.2                             3.6

May                  4.9                             4.0

June                  5.3                             4.0

July                  5.3                              4.2

August             5.6                              4.3

These numbers clearly are the cause of the inflation concerns, as they do show not only strong but accelerating momentum.

But they don’t show it conclusively or, in my view, in any way that undermines the transitory school of thought. And the reason is that inflation was so low in pandemic-dominated 2020 that a combination of mean reversion and virus-induced supply chain disruptions and consequent shortages was bound to generate higher than normal price increases.

This table makes the point, by showing how low the yearly inflation increases in percentage terms were for the bulk of last year, and especially during the early spring, when the economy fell into a deep (but short) recession.

                          CPI                          PCE

Jan.                    2.5                            1.9

Feb.                   2.3                            1.8

March               2.6                             1.3

April                 0.3                             0.5

May                  0.2                             0.5

June                  0.7                             0.9

July                  1.0                             1.1

August             1.5                             1.4

It’s still possible to argue that, however low 2019-2020 inflation became, it quickened to some extent starting in June (according to both measure). And because the 2020-2021 results also show increasing post-June momentum, inflation is still worsening.

My rejoinder – the post-June inflationary momentum this year so far is much slower than last year’s. Between June and August, 2019, for the PCE, the yearly inflation rate increased by 55.56 percent (from 0.9 percent to 1.4 percent). Between this June and August, that increase was just 7.5 percent (from four to 4.3 percent).  For the CPI, you can see that this difference was even bigger.

Moreover, even this year’s modest post-June inflation speed-up has only lasted for two months.

But don’t think for a minute that the inflation news is all good. Principally, even the optimistic Fed now believes that the transitory developments that have pushed inflation higher this year will last longer than it had been expecting. Just last week, Chair Jerome Powell said it was “frustrating to see the bottlenecks and supply chain problems not getting better — in fact at the margins apparently getting a little bit worse. We see that continuing into next year probably, and holding up inflation longer than we had thought.”

In other words, “transitory” may be pretty long-lasting, and the longer it lasts, the more pressure the Fed will face to cool the economy off faster, probably slowing job creation and wage increases, whether it holds to its diagnosis or not.