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Call me a cockeyed optimist, but today’s official U.S inflation figures (for November) still leave me uncertain as to how lasting recent strong price increases are going to be. One obvious (at least to me) reason: Whereas the release of the October Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures showed major month-to-month acceleration of inflation, the November results show some easing.

That’s the case, moreover, both for the overall inflation numbers and for so-called core inflation, which strips out food and energy prices supposedly because they can be volatile for reasons unrelated to the economy’s overal prone-ness to inflation (like bad weather or the policies of foreign cartels).

Acceleration was still displayed by the annual results for both inflation gauges. But the speedup between October and November was somewhat slower than that between September and October. And here we get to the second reason for my continued (though tempered) optimism: This year-on-year pickup still looks partly due to baseline effects created by the unusually weak price increases of last year, when the CCP Virus pandemic was holding back economic activity more than this year. In other words, inflation may still be playing catch-up, and even more frustrating, this kind of distortion could affect the inflation figures for a few more months.

So let’s take a look at the data to see the basis for my arguments. First, this year’s monthly increases in overall inflation:

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

Oct.-Nov:                     0.78 percent

As is clear, the November rise is still high, but it’s down not trivially from October’s rate – which was the fastest since June, 2008’s 1.05 percent.

The same pattern is apparent for core inflation:

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

Oct-Nov:                     0.53 percent

As mentioned, the year-on-year overall CPI continues to accelerate, though November’s speedup was smaller than October’s. Here are those statistics:

Jan:                             1.37 percent

Feb:                            1.68 percent

March:                       2.64 percent

April:                         4.16 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

Nov:                           6.88 percent

Ditto for annual core inflation:

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

Nov:                          4.96 percent

But for me, those baseline effects make both annual inflation rates look a good deal less alarming. Here are the monthly year-on-year overall CPI inflation rates for 2019-2020:

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

Nov:                         1.14 percent

November’s read was the lowest since August, and represents the third straight month of slowdown that year. And as I wrote last month, percentages with “ones” in front of them had last been seen in the summer of 2017, and these were well above 1.50 percent. So yes, the total annual inflation figures for this year have been rising each month, but these percentage change continue to result partly from 2019 rates that were abnormally low.

And those previous annual rates remained abnormally low in December (1.30 percent) and even into January (1.37 percent). So the baseline effect will start fading, but won’t be reduced to insignificance until March (because by then the previous annual rate had hit 2.64 percent).

The same baseline argument holds for core inflation. Here are its 2019-2020 annual rates of change for each month:

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

Nov:                         1.63 percent

Most of the absolute numbers are higher, but you see the same very low figures starting in April. And if you still doubt that they’ve been out of the ordinary, as also noted last month, these increases had stayed above two percent since March, 2018. Moreover, similar to the overall CPI, the annual baseline for the core won’t pierce that level until spring (in this case, in Apri. Indeed, before then, this baseline’s set to drop even furtherthrough Febuary, as shown here:

Dec:                         1.61 percent

Jan:                          1.40 percent

Feb:                         1.28 percent

March:                    1.65 percent

April:                      2.96 percent

Please don’t get the idea that I’m slighting the seriousness of recent inflation. There are plenty of reasons for Americans to be angry. The particularly high levels of overall CPI indicate that inflationary pressures are concentrated significantly in food and energy – categories that are not only highly visible to consumers, but essential.

In addition, the cumulation effect has to be kept in mind. Whether it comes to monthly or annual inflation rates, when they come down, that doesn’t mean that prices are actually falling in absolute terms. It simply means that they’re rising more slowly – and for most of this year from levels that are high by recent standards. For example, if prices are up one percent sequentially one month and half a percent the next, they’ve risen a total of 1.505 percent in a two-month span alone. That can really add up over time.

Finally, due to the fall in real wages, the typical American is seeing his and her purchasing power and living standards drop. In fact, in addition to issuing the CPI figures, the Labor Department also came out with the inflation-adjusted wage numbers. In November, they declined by 0.45 percent for all private sector workers, and by 0.41 percent for production and non-supervisory workers. (As known by RealityChek regulars, the Labor Department doesn’t monitor wage data for government workers because their pay is set largely by politicians’ decisions, not by economic fundamentals.)

And since January, real wages for the entire private sector are down 2.45 percent, and for latter, down 1.93 percent.

Warnings that inflation tends to feed on itself certainly shouldn’t be discounted. But even though today’s inflation has stayed higher for longer than many leading economists and analysts (like Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell) have expected, the November numbers increase my confidence that the economy is moving closer to its ebbing.  And this progress should be reenforced by the end of stimulus payments individuals and families, signs that the supply chain crisis is (slowly, to be sure) coming to an end, the diminishing likelihood that Congress will pass President Biden’s Build Back Better spending bill, and the Fed’s own decision to reduce the stimulus it’s long been injecting into the economy in the form of bond buying. 

Further, as noted just above, the much-feared wage-price spiral, which fueled damaging inflation most recently in the 1970s, hasn’t taken off.

But a waning of inflation could well be accompanied by some genuinely bad news – involving a waning of growth. And sustaining an economic expansion strong enough to keep employment and wages at healthy levels but that doesn’t depend heavily on artificial government crutches is a test that U.S. leaders haven’t passed in decades.