Sorry to be the bearer of bad news on the U.S. inflation front, especially considering even the modest cheers (at least in early Wall Street trading) that greeted this morning’s official data on rising prices. But I see the new figures confirming that inflation has entered a worrisome new phase, and mainly because they show that annual living costs are no longer soaring largely because they increased so feebly the year before. Instead, that “baseline effect” is unmistakably gone, and inflation has acquired its own momentum.
The yearly inflation figures by month are the strongest evidence. As noted last month, the baseline effect was most prominent from March through July of last year. During that stretch, the annual headline growth in the overall (or “headline”) Consumer Price Index (CPI) sped up from 2.64 percent to 5.28 percent. But this acceleration owed much to the fast (but choppy) economic recovery from the deep CCP Virus-induced recession of mid-2020, when the annual inflation rate actually fell fom 1.51 percent to 1.05 percent. That’s considerably below the two percent inflation target set by the Federal Reserve, the U.S. government agency with the greatest responsibility for keeping prices stable.
Moreover, from September, 2021 at least through January, 2022, the baseline effect made a major comeback. During those months, the annual inflation rates increased from 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 – still below the Fed target.
As I also wrote in March, the February CPI report contained signs that the baseline effect was fading, and today’s April numbers leave no doubt that it’s gone. Headline CPI that month worsened on year much faster than the comparable January rate, 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 annual increase in prices that was significantly higher than the Fed target.
It’s true that April’s 8.22 annual overall inflation rate was a little slower than that March figure of 8.56 percent. But the March cost surge came off a 2.66 percent annual increase for March, 2021. The April result is coming off an April, 2020-2021 jump of 4.15 percent. That was more than twice the Fed target.
In other words, inflation was already hitting disturbing levels last year, and now it’s advancing nearly twice as fast.
Much the same story emerges from the so-called core inflation rate, which strips out food and energy prices supposedly because they’re volatile for reasons having nothing to do with the economy’s underlying vulnerability to high inflation. Since energy prices in particular affect the cost of everything whose production requires energy (i.e., everything) the distinction tends to become pretty artificial after a while. But even playing along with this claim reveals grounds for concern.
As with the headline rate, April’s annual core CPI inflation of 6.13 percent was a moderation from March’s 6.44 percent. But the March result was coming off a March, 2020-2021 period when core inflation rose by 1.66 percent – again, well below the Fed’s two percent target. April’s number followed annual core inflation for the previous April of 2.97 percent – again, much higher than the Fed target.
Meanwhile, the month-to-month CPI data released today don’t bolster the case for inflation optimism emphatically, either. Glass-half-full types will correctly point out that the 0.33 percent sequential rise in the headline April CPI was the lowest since last August, and shrank dramatically from March’s 1.24 percent.
But in April, core CPI advanced on-month by 0.57 percent, a noteworthy increase from March’s 0.32 percent. And the recent rise in gasoline prices will surely push the May headline CPI back up.
Tomorrow, Washington will provide another clue on inflation’s future – the report for the Producer Price Index (PPI) for April. Unlike the CPI, which measures the prices of what businesses sell to consumers, the PPI tracks what businesses themselves pay for the goods and services they need in order to turn out their whatever they sell to consumers. Think of it as gauging wholesale inflation versus measuring retail inflation.
The March PPI hit a new record high, and since in a U.S. economy like this one, where consumer demand remains strong, businesses generally can pass on rising costs to consumers, this result made today’s hot CPI almost inevitable. Unless tomorrow’s April PPI comes way down (which may happen soon since growth looks to be decelerating markedly — ironically because some indications of consumer inflation fatigue are appearing), the CPI will stay far too strong in May And that news would surely boost the odds that the Fed sees no choice but to tame inflation by crippling demand further — possibly enough to induce a recession.