Wall Street is ecstatic about today’s official report on two measures of consumer inflation, and President Biden is pretty pleased, too. Both see improvement in the October results for both overall (headline) inflation, and for core inflation (which strips out food and energy prices supposedly for reasons that have nothing to do with the economy’s underlying inflation prone-ness).
And both evidently believe that this improvement means that the Federal Reserve will start easing off on the interest rate hikes it’s both approved so far and promised in order to bring price increases down from their recent multi-decade-worsts. In other words, if inflation is moderating, the Fed might not have to slow down economic growth and job creation as much as feared in order to restore price stability.
Here’s why I think both are wrong – or at the very least prematurely optimistic. They’re ignoring that baseline effect. If you look at the data in context, you see that the annual increases in both the headline and core readings for the Consumer Price Index (CPI) are both coming off prices rises that were highs for the previous year, and that heated up considerably between September and October.
Specifically, although the year-on-year rise of headline CPI did slow to its weakest rate (7.76 percent) since January, the previous year’s annual October overall consumer price increase was that year’s fastest (6.24 percent). The new yearly annual CPI increase was indeed cooler than September’s (8.22 percent). But that figure was coming off a 2020-2021 rise of just 5.39 percent.
Core inflation displayed a similar pattern. In October, prices of goods and services excluding food and energy rose by 6.31 percent at an annual rate – down from a September increase of 6.66 percent that was the worst such figure since August, 1982 (7.06 percent). But the previous September, core annual inflation was 4.04 percent. The previous October, it was a considerably higher 4.59 percent.
The best interpretation, as I see it? Businesses still have plenty of pricing power, which will keep inflation dangerously high, because consumers still have plenty of spending power.
Such inflation pessimism (especially if the Fed does ease off its tightening policy) is also supported by the monthly headline CPI numbers. Overall prices climbed sequentially by 0.44 percent in October. That was way off the high for this year (March’s 1.24 percent). But it represented the third straight speed up.
The news was much better for core monthly CPI. The October rise of 0.27 percent was the year’s slowest, and down greatly from September’s 0.58 percent.
But that core performance bears careful watching, too, because energy prices in particular tend to influence consumer prices eventually, since energy is a key cost for virtually every good and service produced in America. In fact, month-to-month, energy prices were up 1.8 percent in October after falling 2.1 percent in September.
In that vein, another clue about future inflation rates is coming next Tuesday, with the release of the new producer price report. That measures what companies charge each other for the purchases needed to turn out whatever they provide to consumers and to each other (if businesses are their final market). And don’t forget: The CPI isn’t the Fed’s favorite gauge of inflation. It looks more closely at the price indices for “Personal Consumption Expenditures,” and these October results come out December 1.
These clues, however, even if taken all together, won’t be all that big for inflation-watchers, as they’ll cover just a single month. As Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated earlier this month, the central bank is going to need to see “a series of down monthly readings,” and much other evidence, before concluding that inflation is “coming down decisively.” Although he really was behind the curve is foreseeing how prices would shoot up, waiting for the trends over time to start appearing seems like by far the best inflation-fighting approach now. And why the markets’ reaction to today’s data seems like what one of Powell’s predecessors called “irrational exuberance.”