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As if the new monthly and yearly numbers for March per se weren’t high enough, they were far from the only bad news, or even the worst news, in today’s Labor Department report on its inflation measure – the Consumer Price Index or CPI.

The new data also made clear that the baseline effect is definitely gone — especially for the overall CPI — which means that prices in America are no longer rising at annual rates not seen in decades partly because they were rising so slowly in the pandemic period 2020 and very early 2021.

Now their year-on-year jumps are resulting from their more recent and current momentum. And with much more in the way of surging food and energy costs coming in the next few months due to Ukraine war-related global supply disruptions and anti-Russia sanctions, that means Americans will be contending with sky-high and even hotter inflation rates for the foreseeable future.

The rise and fall of the baseline effect becomes clearest from looking at the annual overall inflation rates by month starting in January, 2021, and comparing them with their counterparts from the year before. (Starting with the January, 2022 figures, the baseline year of course is 2021.)

The admittedly complicated table below shows (from left to right) the originally reported annual inflation figures by month for this period, the revised results, and the same annual figure for that month from the previous, CCP Virus-ridden year. Where only one inflation rate is presented, the original figure has remained unrevised:

Jan. 2021:       from 1.37 percent to 1.36       from 2.47 percent to 2.46

Feb: 2021:      1.68 percent                            from 2.31 percent to 2.32

March 2021:  from 2.64 percent to 2.66        from 1.51 percent to 1.53

April 2021:    from 4.16 percent to 4.15        from 0.34 percent to 0.36

May 2021:     from 4.93 percent to 4.94        from 0.22 percent to 0.24

June 2021:     from 5.32 percent to 5.34        0.73 percent

July 2021:      5.28 percent                            from 1.05 percent to 1.03

Aug 2021:     from 5.20 percent to 5.21        from 1.32 percent to 1.33

Sept 2021:     from 5.38 percent to 5.39        from 1.41 percent to 1.40

Oct 2021:      6.24 percent                             from 1.19 percent to 1.18

Nov 2021:     from 6.88 percent to 6.83        1.14 percent

Dec 2021:     from 7.12 percent to 7.10        from 1.31 percent to 1.28

Jan 2022:      7.53 percent                             from 1.37 percent to 1.36

Feb 2022:     7.91 percent                             1.68 percent

March 2022: 8.56 percent                            from 2.64 percent to 2.66

The baseline effect was strongest between March and July, 2021. That year, the annual overall (or “headline”) inflation rate went from 2.64 percent to 5.28 percent. But the annual rates for those months the year before dropped from 1.51 percent to 1.05 percent. Given that the Federal Reserve’s target rate for annual inflation (which helps determine how loose or tight it will keep the supply of credit to the economy and therefore – roughly – how much growth and job creation will be generated) is two percent (albeit for the slightly different gauge it uses), you can see how weakly prices were rising in deeply recessionary spring of 2020, and how those levels distorted the annual rates for the following year, as the economy returned — choppily — to normal growth. 

But a major baseline effect also shows up between September, 2021 at least through January, 2022. During that period, the annual inflation rates rose fom 5.38 percent to 7.53 percent. Yet their counterparts from the year before dipped from a still low 1.40 percent to 1.36 percent.

Starting in February, 2022, though, signs of a baseline fade began appearing, as the that month’s annual rate increased considerably over the January figure and its 2021 predecessor worsened to its highest level since the previous February – not so coincidentally, just before the virus’ arrival in force.

And last month’s big jump in the annual inflation rate came off a March, 2021 result that was significantly higher than the Fed target, and that also pierced that level for the first time since February, 2020.

The core inflation rate, which strips out food and energy because their price levels are supposed to be unusually volatile for reasons having little to do with the economy’s underlying vulnerability to inflation, shows a similar pattern, but with a recent wrinkle. The table below follows the same format as that for overall inflation, although as you’ll see, the absolute levels generally are somewhat lower.

Jan 2021:        from 1.40 percent to 1.39        2.26 percent

Feb 2021:       from 1.28 percent to 1.29        from 2.36 percent to 2.38

March 2021:  from 1.65 percent to 1.66        from 2.10 percent to 2.12

April 2021     from 2.96 percent to 2.97        from 1.44 percent to 1.46

May 2021:     from 3.80 percent to 3.81        from 1.24 percent to 1.25

June 2021:     4.45 percent                             1.20 percent

July 2021:      from 4.24 percent to 4.20        from 1.56 percent to 1.54

Aug 2021:      from 3.98 percent to 3.96        from 1.70 percent to 1.71

Sept 2021:      4.04 percent                            1.72 percent

Oct 2021:       from 4.58 percent to 4.59       1.63 percent

Nov 2021:      from 4.96 percent to 4.95       from 1.63 percent to 1.64

Dec 2021:      from 5.49 percent to 5.48       from 1.61 percent to 1.60

Jan 2022:       6.04 percent                            1.39 percent

Feb 2022:      6.42 percent                            1.29 percent

March 2022:  6.44 percent                            1.66 percent

Again, from March through July, 2021, the annual core inflation rate increased from 1.66 percent to 4.20 percent. But the comparable figures for the year before decreased for 2.12 percent to 1.54 percent. Also as with the headline inflation numbers, the baseline effect appeared later in the year, too. But it’s lasted longer. From September, 2021 through February, 2022, the yearly core inflation rate accelerated from 4.04 percent to 6.42 percent. For the same period from the year before, however, it sank from 1.72 percent to 1.29 percent.

Yet the new March, 2022 data indicate that the core’s baseline effects are numbered, as annual inflation inched up to a still very high 6.42 percent, but March, 2021’s version rose at a much faster clip – from that 1.29 percent to 1.66 percent. Yes, that’s still well below the Fed target, but the increase was the biggest in relative terms since July, and April, 2021’s annual rate had zoomed up to 2.96 percent – nearly doubling.

A glass-half-full result from the new CPI report came from the monthly change in the core figure. Not only did it tumble all the way from 0.51 percent in February to 0.32 percent. But the sequential decrease was the second straight, and the biggest in relative terms during the entire pandemic period and the level was the lowest for a single month since August’s 0.24 percent.

Unfortunately, Ukraine-related disruptions seem likely to reverse this trend, and this regression could well be reinforced by supply chain snags generated by China’s decision to lock down several enormous cities and industrial centers by responding to a recent rebound in CCP Virus cases with a return to its Zero Covid policies.

Moreover, since energy prices in particular eventually feed into price levels for every U.S. economic actor that uses energy, the headline-core inflation distinction will surely look more academic than ever in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, the red hot monthly headline CPI increase of 1.24 percent in March was the biggest such jump since 2005, and a huge speed-up over February’s 0.80 percent. For me, the big takeaway is that the U.S. economy now clearly faces a danger not only of the Federal Reserve creating a recession by tightening monetary policy enough to bring inflation under the control, but of such tightening producing that recession while still leaving inflation far too high.

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