Today the U.S. government delivered the best report on consumer inflation Americans have seen since this past summer. That said, that’s a pretty low bar, and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures released by the Labor Department (for November) still leave some big questions unanswered.
The biggest: Do the signs of improvement mainly stem from a major slowdown in the economy? Even assuming (as I do), that bringing price increases way down from current levels must be the nation’s top economic priority, (as I’ve written before, e.g. here) slashing inflation rates by tightening credit enough to kneecap consumer spending (through a combination of stagnant growth, higher borrowing costs, and mounting joblessness) takes no special expertise. And it certainly deserves no particular applause.
As I’ve also written, if that’s the case, then in principle, all else equal, inflation will rise again as soon as growth and all its benefits return to acceptable levels.
But first, the good news, which came in the data on core inflation. Those are the price advances that leave out energy and food, because they’re supposedly volatile for reasons having nothing to do with the economy’s underlying vulnerability to inflation.
Core prices climbed just 0.20 percent sequentially in November – the weakest such result since February, 2021’s 0.15 percent. Moreover, this new core CPI figure marks the first time since the stretch between last December and this past March that this monthly number has improved – which could signal that this measure of living costs is losing significant momentum.
Of course, after this past March, monthly core inflation popped right back up – until it hit 0.71 percent in June. Core inflation rebounded after February, 2021, too. So unless the economy’s current expansion really is winding down, as they also say on Wall Street, this kind of past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.
The headline CPI results weren’t as noteworthy, but the 0.10 percent sequential advance in November did break a three-month streak of accelerating consumer inflation. Even so, it was only the best result since this past July – when these consumer prices actually dipped in absolute terms by 0.12 percent. But right afterwards, the three-month losing streak began, so that’s another reason for holding the applause.
As for the annual results, they continue to be distorted by that baseline effect that should be so familiar to RealityChek regulars. In other words, for both headline and core CPI, November’s yearly increases (like all yearly increases) need to be compared with those of the previous twelve months. If the latter were unusually low, then chances are an encouraging-looking rise could simply represent a reversion to the mean trend. But if they were unusually high, then chances are they’re revealing continuing strong momentum, along with how much more progress is needed before any cost of living crisis can be considered over.
And the comparisons show that for both headine and core consumer inflation, the baseline figures were unusually high. Therefore, although the November annual headline CPI increase of 7.12 percent was better than October’s 7.76 percent, and indeed the best such 2022 result since January’s 7.52 percent, the October figure followed a rise between the previous Octobers of 5.39 percent. The November baseline figure was an even higher 6.83 percent. In fact, that was the fastest increase for the first eleven months of last year. Even more striking, the January 7.52 percent increase was coming off a headline consumer inflation rate of just 1.36 percent – the lowest figure for 2020-21.
The trends in annual core CPI are only slightly different. The November core rate of 5.96 percent was the lowest of this year and a clear improvement over October’s 6.31 percent. But the baseline figure for October was 4.95 percent – a good deal lower than the November counterpart of 4.95 percent that not so coincidentally was the highest for 2020-21. And back in January, the 2022 annual headline CPI rate was coming off a 2020-21 figure of just 1.39 percent – the second lowest for 2020-21.
But maybe the strongest evidence for greeting today’s inflation report cautiously came from President Biden. Although he’s rarely shy about talking up the economy during his administration, he made clear that “he hopes prices will return to normal by the end of next year, if not sooner. But he stressed he cannot make that prediction.”