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Thanks to the Ukraine War, the challenge of figuring out whether and exactly how greatly inflation-prone the U.S. economy has become – and therefore what to do about it – has become more complicated than ever. In fact, it might have become impossible, at least for the foreseeable future. And the latest evidence comes from the most recent official report on the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of price changes – the price indexes for personal consumption expenditures (PCE) put out by the Commerce Department.

This quandary matters decisively because the main conflicting views of today’s inflation support two equally conflicting policy responses by Congress and the administration, but mainly by the Fed — which has the authority to put anti-inflation measures into effect faster than the rest of the federal government.

Simply put, let’s suppose that current, and multi-decade record, inflation mainly stems from government policies that injected too much money into the economy, through massive spending, rock-bottom interest rates, or some combination of the two. Then the remedy is starting to “tighten” such policies by raising interest rates further and selling the bonds bought by the Fed through its quantitative easing program, or by cutting federal spending, or some combination of all these. Strengthening this case is the magnitude of this policy support for the economy – which ballooned due to the emergency created by the CCP Virus pandemic that finally seems on the wane for good.

But if today’s inflation stems mainly from one-time shocks to the economy that by definition don’t have staying power (which is why for quite a while, the Fed was calling elevated inflation “transitory”), then such tightening moves either could have little effect whatever on prices, and/or backfire by dramatically slowing growth and even causing a recession.

To date, that’s been my interpretation, with the main one-time shock being the pandemic. First the virus produced abnormally low inflation readings when its spread and the lockdowns and behavioral changes that resulted crashed the economy briefly. The rapid recovery that followed wound up producing abnormally high inflation readings as economic activity – choppily – returned to quasi-normal (the “baseline effect” I keep writing about).

Moreover, that stop-start nature of the recovery – which stemmed from the fluctuations in CCP Virus waves and consequent mandates and business curbs – fouled up global supply chains that led to widespread shortages, and therefore pushed up prices, as companies struggled to figure out future demand for the goods and services they supplied.

Last month, I wrote that the baseline effect seemed to be disappearing for the Labor Department’s inflation measure — the Consumer Price Index, or CPI), and a few weeks later, predicted that it fading for the overall PCE in March and for core PCE in April.

But of course, since then have come more outside shocks – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the unexpectedly long conflict that’s followed, and the sanctions- and war-related disruptions in global supplies of fossil fuels and grain from both countries. All these closely related developments are certain to send prices to yet another level, and the effects will be felt throughout the entire economy, since more expensive fuels affect any business that transports its products or uses oil or gas to power its operations. As a result, the distinction drawn by both inflation measures between overall inflation rates and “core” inflation rates (which leave out food and energy prices because they’re so vulnerable to outside shocks) will become inceasingly academic.

So where do the new PCE data fit in? In brief, they show that, only a monthly basis, overall inflation hit 0.6 percent in February, and core inflation came in at 0.4 percent. The former monthly inflation rate hasn’t risen since October, and January’s initially reported 0.6 percent result has been revised down to 0.5 percent. The latter figure, meanwhile, was the lowest since September. So no speed-up in inflation is apparent from these statistics.

The annual figures are where the acceleration can be seen. February’s year-on-year PCE inflation rate of 6.4 percent – the fastest rate since 1982, and a meaningful increase over January’s six percent. In fact, overall annual PCE inflation pierced the Fed’s two percent target last March and have risen every single month since.  Core PCE has followed an almost identical pattern, though at slightly lower absolute levels.

Yet as explained previously, both surging annual PCE inflation rates have much to do with the price increases of 2019-2020 that were pushed down so low by the virus’ arrival that they took more than a year to recover even as the economy bounced back (unevenly, to be sure).

Specifically, in February, 2021, the annual overall PCE inflation rate was only 1.6 percent, and the annual core rate was only 1.5 percent.

As mentioned above, the return of annual inflation rates above the Fed target – in March, 2021 for overall PCE and April for the core – meant that this baseline effect looked set to end soon. But the Ukraine war has upset these calculations.

As a result, the big question facing the Fed now is whether inflation – whatever its causes – has become so high, and could last so long, that it needs to be reduced significantly even at the risk of triggering recession. That seems to be the central bank’s stance right now, but color me skeptical. After all, slowing growth to a near-halt during an election year would look like an awfully political move, and one I have difficulty believing would be taken by an institution that touts itself as resolutely non-political.

BTW, as if all this wasn’t bewildering enough, there’s a school of thought that supports major Fed tightening even if recession does result – and has supported it for many years. It holds that the super-low interest rates of recent decades have dangerously distorted the economy and indeed sapped its productivity by creating “moral hazard” – incentivizing foolish and indeed wasteful investments by reducing the costs of failure, and leaving less capital over for spending that fosters greater efficiency and technological progress.

I’ve long found these arguments compelling, especially since the global financial crisis of 2007-09 made the dangers of such moral hazard clear. But there’s no sign of concern about this problem anywhere in Washington. The focus there is — somehow — coping with inflation. The next statistics will be out on Tuesday, and the only certainty is that they won’t make the task look any easier.