If the big U.S. stock indices didn’t react enthusiastically to yesterday’s official American inflation figures (which were insensitively released the very day I had a minor medical procedure), that’s because they were too mixed to signal that consumer prices were finally being brought under control.
Lately, good news on inflation-fighting has been seen as good news for stock investors because it indicates that the Federal Reserve may at least pause its campaign to hike interest rates in order to slow economic growth significantly– and even trigger a recession. That’s because a weaker economy means consumers will have less money to spend and that businesses therefore will find it much harder to keep raising prices, and even to maintain prices at currently lofty levels. And all else equal, companies’ profits would take a hit.
So already softening inflation could convince the central bank that its efforts to date have been good enough, and that its goal of restoring price stability can be achieved without encouraging further belt tightening – and more downward pressure on business bottom lines.
Of course, stock investors aren’t always right about economic data. But their take on yesterday’s figures for the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which cover December. seems on target.
The data definitely contained encouraging news. Principally, on a monthly basis, the overall (“headline”) CPI number showed that prices actually fell in December – by 0.08 percent. That’s not much, but this result marks the first such drop since July’s 0.02 percent, and the biggest sequential decline since the 0.92 percent plunge recorded in April, 2020, when the economy was literally cratering during the CCP Virus’ devastating first wave. Further, this latest decrease followed a very modest 0.10 percent monthly increase in November.
So maybe inflation is showing some genuine signs of faltering momentum? Maybe. But maybe not. For example, that CPI sequential slip in July was followed by three straight monthly increases that ended with a heated 0.44 percent in October.
Moreover, core CPI accelerated month-to-month in December. That’s the inflation gauge that strips out food and energy prices because they’re supposedly volatile for reasons having little or nothing to do with the economy’s underlying inflation prone-ness.
December’s sequential core CPI rise was 0.30 percent – one of the more sluggish figures of the calendar year, but a rate faster than a November number of 0.27 percent that was revised up from 0.20 percent. Therefore, these last two results could signal more inflation momentum, not less.
In addition, as always, the annual headline and core CPI numbers need to be viewed in light of the baseline effect – the extent to which statistical results reflect abnormally low or high numbers for the previous comparable period that may simply stem from a catch-up trend that’s restoring a long-term norm.
Many of the multi-decade strong year-to-year headline and core inflation rates of 2021 came after the unusually weak yearly results that stemmed from the short but devastating downturn caused by that first CCP Virus wave. Consequently, I was among those (including the Fed) believing that such price rises were “transitory,” and that they would fade away as that particular baseline effect disappeared.
But as I’ve posted (e.g., last month), that fade has been underway for months, and annual inflation remains powerful and indeed way above the Fed’s two percent target. The main explanations as I see it? The still enormous spending power enjoyed by consumers due to all the pandemic relief and economic stimulus approved in recent years, and other continued and even new major government outlays that have put more money into their pockets (as listed toward the end of this column).
(A big hiring rebound since the economy’s pandemic-induced nadir and rock-bottom recent headline unemployment rates have helped, too. But as I’ll explain in an upcoming post, the effects are getting more credit than they deserve.)
And when you look at the baselines for the new headline and core CPI annual increases, it should become clear that after having caught up from the CCP Virus-induced slump, businesses still believe they have plenty of pricing power left, which suggests at the least that inflation will stay high.
Again, here the inflation story is better for the annual headline figure than for the core figure. In December, the former fell from November’s 7.12 percent to 6.42 percent – the best such number since the 6.24 percent of October, 2021, and the sixth straight weakening. The baseline 2020-2021 headline inflation rate for December was higher than that for November (6.83 percent versus 7.10 percent), and had sped up for four consecutive months. But that November-December 2020-2021 increase was more modest than the latest November-December 2021-2022 decrease, which indicates some progress here.
At the same time, don’t forget that the 6.24 percent annual headline CPI inflation of October, 2020-2021 had a 2019-2020 baseline of just 1.18 percent. Hence my argument that businesses today remain confident about their pricing power even though they’ve made up for their pandemic year weakness in spades.
In December, annual core inflation came down from 5.96 percent to 5.69 percent. That was the most sluggish pace since December, 2020-2021’s 5.48 percent, but just the third straight weakening. But the increase in the baseline number from November to December, 2021 was from 4.59 percent to that 5.48 percent – bigger than the latest November-December decrease. In other words, this trend for core CPI is now running opposite it encouraging counterpart for headline CPI.
Finally, as far as baseline arguments go, that 5.48 percent December, 2021 annual core CPI increase followed a baseline figure the previous year of a mere 1.28 percent. Since the new annual December rate of 5.69 percent comes on top of a rate more than four times higher, that’s another sign of continued business pricing confidence.
But the inflation forecast is still dominated by the question of how much economic growth will sink, and how the Fed in particular will react. And the future looks more confusing than ever.
The evidence for considerably feebler expansion, and even an impending recession, is being widely cited. Indeed, as this Forbes poster has reported, “The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Survey of Professional Forecasters indicates the highest probability of a recession over the next 12 months in the survey’s 55-year history.”
If they’re right, inflation may keep cooling modestly for a time but still remain worrisomely warm. And the Fed may react either by keeping interest rates lofty for longer than expected – as Chair Jerome Powell has already said – or even raise them faster.
Nonetheless, although the recession that did take place during the first and second quarters of last year convinced numerous observers that worse was yet to come, the third quarter saw a nice bounceback and the fourth quarter could be even better. So if a downturn is coming, it will mean that economic activity will need to shrink very abruptly. Hardly impossible, but hardly a sure thing.
And if some form of economic nosedive does occur, it could prompt the Fed to hold off or even reverse course to some extent, even if price increases remain non-trivial. A major worsening of the economy may also lead Congress and the Biden administration to join the fray and approve still more stimulus to cushion the blow.
Complicating matters all the while – the kind of monetary stimulus added or taken away by the central bank takes months to ripple through the economy, as the Fed keeps emphasizing. Some of the kinds of fiscal stimulus, like the pandemic-era checks, work faster, but others, like the infrastructure bill and the huge new subsidies for domestic semiconductor manufacturing will take much longer.
Additionally, some of the big drivers of the recent inflation are even less controllable by Washington and more unpredictable than the immense U.S. economy – like the Ukraine War’s impact on the prices of energy and other commodities, including foodstuffs, and the wild recent swings of a range of Chinese government policies that keep roiling global and domestic supply chains.
My own outlook? It’s for a pretty shallow, short recession followed by a comparably moderate recovery and all accompanied by price levels with which most Americans will keep struggling. Back in the 1970s, it was called “stagflation,” I’m old enough to remember that’s an outcome that no one should welcome, and it will mean that the country remains as far from achieving robust, non-inflationary growth as ever.