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At first glance, this morning’s U.S. inflation report almost had me throwing in the towel in the debate between those (like me) believing that recent price hikes will peter out sooner rather than later, and those believing that they’ll be much longer lasting.

My pessimism stemmed from the indisputable facts not only that by all the major month-on-month and year-on-year measures, the numbers for October were terrible in their own right. They also showed inflation gaining momentum. My case for optimism focused on a loss of momentum I’d identified through September.

Today’s statistics definitely shifted the weight of the evidence in favor of the pessimists. But I still see one possible reason for continued optimism – though the accent is on “possible.” Specifically, the year-on-year numbers may again be partly functions of unusually weak inflation last year, when the CCP Virus pandemic was undermining the economy even more than this year.

Let’s review the main monthly and annual numbers for this calendar year first, though, because it’s worth seeing just how bad they are and how much inflation momentum they reveal. First, the monthly results for overall inflation (as measured by the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, or CPI). As you can see, whereas sequential price increases between July and September had been coming in considerably lower than their June peak, in October they shot up past the June peak – to the highest level since June, 2008 (1.05 percent).

Dec-Jan:                          0.26 percent

Jan-Feb:                          0.35 percent

Feb-March:                     0.62 percent

March-April:                  0.77 percent

April-May:                     0.64 percent

May-June:                      0.90 percent

June-July:                      0.47 percent

July-Aug:                      0.27 percent

Aug-Sept:                      0.41 percent

Sept.-Oct:                      0.94 percent

The recent acceleration in the monthly changes in so-called core inflation was even stronger. (This gauge strips out food and energy prices, because however vital these commodities are to daily life, their price levels can be influenced by developments like bad weather or the decisions of the OPEC oil-producing countries’ cartel that supposedly say little about how fundamentally inflation-prone the economy is or isn’t.)

As of October, core inflation is still well below its peak in early spring. But it’s much highe than it’s been in the last three months:

Dec-Jan:                      0.03 percent

Jan-Feb:                       0.10 percent

Feb-March:                  0.34 percent

March-April:                0.92 percent

April-May:                   0.74 percent

May-June:                    0.88 percent

June-July:                     0.33 percent

July-Aug:                     0.10 percent

Aug-Sept:                    0.24 percent

Sept-Oct:                     0.60 percent

The case for acceleration is at least as strong for annual overall inflation. As I wrote last month, the rate of change had been more or less plateauing since May, but clearly shifted into a higher gear in October. Indeed, last month’s yearly increase was the biggest since December, 1990’s increase of 6.25 percent.

Jan:                             1.37 percent

Feb:                            1.68 percent

March:                       2.64 percent

April:                         4.15 percent

May:                          4.93 percent

June:                          5.32 percent

July:                           5.28 percent

Aug:                           5.20 percent

Sept:                          5.38 percent

Oct:                            6.24 percent

The same speed-up can be seen in the annual core inflation figures. And they’ve just hit their highest level since September, 1991 (4.60 percent).

Jan:                            1.40 percent

Feb:                            1.28 percent

March:                       1.65 percent

April:                         2.96 percent

May:                          3.80 percent

June:                          4.45 percent

July:                          4.24 percent

Aug:                          3.98 percent

Sept:                          4.04 percent

Oct:                           4.58 percent

But now the data providing (some) cause for optimism. They cover the annual inflation figures for 2019-2020, and the reason for examining them is that if inflation that year was unusually low, then whatever price hikes are recorded the year after will be unusually – and to some extent, artificially – high.

As clear from the below numbers, those 2019-2020 inflation rates became rock bottom as the CCP Virus began spreading, the economy began locking down, and consumers turned super cautious. From June through September, they rose again as the reopening after that first virus wave proceeded. But numbers like those, with one handles, hadn’t been seen recently since the summer of 2017, and even these were all well above 1.50 percent.

But October saw a sizable dropoff – from 1.41 percent to 1.19 percent.

Jan:                            2.47 percent

Feb:                            2.31 percent

March:                       1.51 percent

April:                         0.34 percent

May:                          0.22 percent

June:                          0.73 percent

July:                          1.05 percent

Aug:                          1.32 percent

Sept:                         1.41 percent

Oct:                          1.19 percent

And possibly as interesting: The November, 2019-2020 overall inflation rate (below) was even lower. December’s was higher, but not by much. So I’d argue that caution is warranted in reading too much into the latest big annual CPI increase.

Nov:                          1.14 percent

Dec:                           1.30 percent

The story told by the core inflation data is similar. Annual price hikes below two percent didn’t reappear until March, 2018 and stayed above that level until the depths of last year’s short but steep pandemic-induced recession. Following that first wave and its dramatic impact, annual 2019-2020 core inflation rates came back, but never approached two percent. And in October, fell back to 1.63 percent.

Jan:                           2.26 percent

Feb:                          2.36 percent

March:                      2.10 percent

April:                        1.44 percent

May:                         1.24 percent

June:                         1.20 percent

July:                         1.56 percent

Aug:                         1.70 percent

Sept:                        1.72 percent

Oct:                          1.63 percent

How did they perform through the end of 2020? Cumulatively, they drifted down further.

Nov: 1.65 percent

Dec: 1.61 percent

In this vein, it will be especially interesting to see how the annual 2021-2022 statistics look when they begin coming in early next year. My bet right now is that they’ll decline simply because this particular CCP Virus effect will be wearing off. And hopefully, progress toward untangling knotted global supply chains will help moderate the monthly numbers. (Until then, though, the holiday shopping season could well keep propping them up.) But if those logistics and transport troubles remain serious, all bets come off. Ditto for energy prices if they stay up.

None of this is to minimize the pain that recent and current inflation have inflicted on Americans, and especially lower income Americans. And the October results suggest that even if these price hikes prove to be a transitory development due largely to one-off CCP Virus-related disruptions, there’s no doubt that the definition of “transitory” keeps expanding chronologically – and possibly making this debate look pretty moot.