Today was CPI day, which after Christmas and Thanksgiving is one of my most favorite of days. Here is what I tweeted earlier today (and there’s lots more commentary below):
- unrounded core CPI at +0.18%, a bit higher than what dropped off. Not exactly alarming, but higher than Street expectations.
- y/y core to almost exactly +2.000%. Apparel rose again after the recent rise had slowed in the last couple of months.
- Subindices: ACCEL: Housing, Apparel, Transp, Food/Bev (75.2% of basket). DECEL: Med Care (6.9% of basket). UNCH: Recreation, Comm/Ed, Other
- OER was unch…rise in Housing came from primary rents (that is, you actually pay rent) and lodging away from home.
- Core goods inflation stayed stable at +0.7% y/y; core services stable at +2.5%. I think the former number is going to rise.
This was actually something less than the most exciting CPI report in history. It was better than the Street expected, and although the year/year figure barely nudged higher the components of the number were strong. The rise came from Housing, which ought to continue to accelerate for a while given rental tightness and other forward-looking indicators, and Apparel resumed its rise as well. See the chart below (source: Bloomberg) for the update to what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite inflation-related charts.
The Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI dropped just enough to round down to +2.2% on a y/y basis, and the Atlanta Fed’s “Sticky” CPI is also at 2.2%. These measures are other ways to look at the central tendency of the inflation figures, and suggest that the current 2.0% from the traditional Core CPI is likely to converge higher rather than vice-versa.
But today didn’t change any inflation paradigms.
There was other news, however, that struck me as inflation-related and worth commenting on.
One was a story in the UK Daily Mail citing the case of a Denny’s franchisee (he owns a few dozen Denny’s restaurants) who is planning to add a 5% “Obamacare surcharge” to customer dining checks.
Now, the sum of all of the sales of this man’s Denny’s restaurants is a tiny part of the CPI category “Food away from home,” which is itself a small part of CPI, so it won’t have any impact on the numbers. Even if lots of restaurants followed suit, it wouldn’t have much of an impact since “Food away from home” is only 5.6% of the consumption basket (so a 5% surcharge on all checks would cause a rise in CPI of 0.28%), but it serves as a good reminder of one important point.
The higher taxes and other costs of doing business that are going to be targeted at business is going to show itself to individuals one way or the other. The higher cost of Obamacare compliance, and any other increased business taxes, will not be paid by businesses for the simple reason that businesses are pass-through entities. That is, businesses don’t make money; people who own businesses (partners or shareholders) make money. So whether the higher costs show up as higher prices to the consumer (in which case the government’s attempt to raise revenue from business will result in higher inflation prints, as the transition takes place) or as lower profits to the businesses themselves, the cost will end up being borne by real humans.
At the end of the day, how much of these costs is absorbed by the owners and how much is paid by the consumers is determined by the elasticity of supply and demand for the product. For example, if the elasticity of demand is infinite, then the owners will bear the entire cost; if the elasticity is zero, then consumers will pay it all. My personal guess is that given the current level of gross margins, more of these taxes and higher costs will be paid by owners – implying lower equity earnings – than by consumers, but we will see. But notice that either way, you get lower real earnings. Either nominal earnings fall, or prices rise. Not good for stocks in either case; bad for bonds in the latter case, too.
Then there are the actions of several central banks in the other hemisphere. A story in the Wall Street Journal, and echoed elsewhere such as in this Australian news outlet, suggests that the Reserve Bank of Australia has adopted a form of QE by allowing its foreign currency reserves to rise in order to push down the currency. The RBA has been one of the bastions, at least relatively, of ‘hard money’ in a world of central banks that have gone wild, so this isn’t a positive development unless you’re long inflation-related assets.
And also hard to miss were the comments by the leader of Japan’s main opposition party, Shinzo Abe, who may become the next prime minister quite soon. Abe suggested that the Bank of Japan should target 3% inflation, rather than 1% inflation, and threatened to revise the law that (supposedly) insulates the BOJ from politics. Note that 5-year Japanese inflation swaps are near all-time highs, but still only at 0.77%, and 10-year inflation swaps are at only 0.48%. Under Abe’s pressure, we would likely see a substantial acceleration in QE by the BOJ, which has already succeeded in pushing core inflation in Japan from -1.6% to -0.6% over the last two years (see chart, source Bloomberg).
We are increasingly moving into a one-way street for central bank policy. Central bankers are essentially engaging in a sophisticated version of competitive devaluations. The Fed does QE, the BOE does QE, the ECB does QE (but claims it doesn’t), the SNB and BOJ and now the RBA does QE. It is a one-way street because whoever stops printing first will see his currency shoot higher as investors flock to the harder currency. The chart below shows what has happened to the Aussie dollar over the last decade versus the USD. While the strengthening trend was interrupted by the 2008 flight-to-quality, it quickly resumed. Since that time, it has risen roughly 50% (and 100% overall since 2001).
Now, a strong currency is good. It makes foreign goods cheaper and raises the standard of living overall. However, it also hurts exports, which slows the economy and results in visible layoffs while the economy adjusts. There’s only so much of this a country’s politicians are willing to take, and it seems Australia may have reached its limit.
If everyone is printing, exchange rates may not move at all. It has frustrated many dollar bears that the greenback hasn’t declined under the profligate printer Bernanke; printing money is supposed to destroy a currency. It has done so repeatedly over the course of history, and it happens for obvious reasons: when you get a bumper crop of something, its price tends to fall. More supply induces lower prices. In this case, it induces a lower price of a currency unit in terms of other currency units.
But that only happens if the relative supply of a currency is changing. If everyone is printing at roughly the same pace, there is no reason that currencies should move at all relative to each other. They should all fall relative to non-printers, or to hard assets. And that’s why it’s even more incredible that commodities are not shooting higher. Yet.
Those effects, in my view, absolutely swamp in importance the weak growth news we’re getting these days. Today, the Philly Fed report and Initial Claims were both quite weak, but the data is going to be polluted by hurricane Sandy for a while and hard to interpret. I don’t think the hurricane had anything to do with this story, or its timing for that matter:
“Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Housing Administration will need billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. Treasury before the end of the year to fill a financial hole caused by defaults on mortgages it insures, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus said today.
“… The agency is “burning through” its last $600 million and FHA officials have briefed him that they will need a financial backstop within a month, the Alabama Republican said during a press conference in Washington.”
So, we are trying to figure out how to raise a trillion dollars over ten years to start closing the budget gap, but it helps to remember that there are other groups who are going to be bellying up to the bar for a hit of government help. The FHA, the postal service (-$15.9bln this year, although they expect to lose only $7bln next year), probably California before long. We’d better get our act together quickly…but as yet, there is no sign of it. Nice of Bachus to wait until less than a month before the FHA runs out of money to mention this, by the way.
And I haven’t even mentioned the sudden explosion of violence in Israel, which doesn’t give the impression of a fire that will quickly burn out. It may not spin out of control, either, but it bears watching very closely since our influence in the region has significantly ebbed since the change of control in Egypt, our exit from Iraq, and our distancing from Israel.
I don’t think 2013 is shaping up to be a very fun year. But we’re not there yet!
This is a summary of my Post-CPI tweets today. You can follow me @inflation_guy.
- Core CPI +0.146%, just barely missing the soft +0.2% people were looking for. But y/y still rose to 2.0%.
- that dip in core is over – next several months have easy year-ago comps.
- Services inflation +0.3%, as is Housing. It’s only core commodities that’s a drag now (+0.0% after -0.1% last month).
- Rents (both primary and OER) rose +0.2% and the y/y rise matches core inflation at 2.1%. The inflation-sapping bust is over.
- unrounded y/y core CPI: 1.988%.
- Y/Y core services inflation is 2.5%. Y/Y core goods is +0.7%. It was services that dragged core down in 2009-10. That’s over. [Note: see Chart, source BLS, below]
- accelerating subgroups: Housing, Apparel, Transport, Recreation (66.2%). Decelerating: Food&Bev, Other (20.2%). Med Care & Educ/Comm unch.
- Both primary rents (+2.7% y/y) and OER (+2.1% y/y) are accelerating – by which I mean they are inflating at a faster y/y pace.
- Median CPI from the Cleveland Fed was +0.2%, and the y/y rate steady at 2.3%. The recent disinflation is an illusion.
The first supplementary chart is for core goods and core services. The sum of these two (weighted, of course) is core CPI. As you can see, it was the decline in the core services component (notably housing) that drove the decline in core CPI in the late ‘Aughts; the overall core number was temporarily kept afloat by the rise in core goods, but the crisis caused that to collapse as well.
Over the last couple of years, core services have returned to 2.5%, and core inflation is only as low as 2% now because core goods prices have begun to decline again. However, taking a broader view, it appears to me that the disinflation in goods from the early 90s to the early 00s is over and that goods prices are gradually taking a higher track. I’ve written previously about the possibility that the “globalization dividend” in terms of disinflationary pressures has shown some signs of ebbing. Obviously, should core goods inflation return to the levels it achieved a year ago (2.2% in November and December), overall core inflation would be comfortably above 2% even if core services inflation did not continue to accelerate.
In a non-CPI related note, New York Fed President Bill Dudley said today that the Fed won’t be “hasty” to pull back easy money: “If we were to see some good news on growth I would not expect us to respond in a hasty manner.” This confirms what we already knew – the Fed is willing to risk letting the inflation genie out of the bottle. Now, faster growth is not actually causal of inflation, as I frequently point out, so not responding to growth is ironically the right strategy, but it’s important to consider the reasons he gives for this policy. He is not saying that the Fed will not respond to growth because growth is not something they can affect; what he’s actually saying is that (since the Fed believes they can affect growth meaningfully) there is a very high hurdle to tightening even if prices accelerate somewhat further as long as growth remains slow.
So in what I think is the most likely case, continued slow growth with rising inflation, the Fed wouldn’t likely start to tighten the screws until core inflation was near 3% (and more importantly, until the economists who are modeling inflation as a function of growth decide they’re wrong, and stop forecasting a decline from whatever level we are at today). Since there is a significant delay of at least 6 months from Fed action to any effect on prices, this means that core inflation could easily get comfortably above 3% before any Fed action took effect – and, with the amount of money they’d need to withdraw, and the likelihood that they would start timidly, I have no idea how long it would take for them to stop an inflationary process which, at that point, would have considerable momentum.
So, in summary, this will not be the last uptick we see in core inflation.
- Core CPI was +0.24%, barely missing an +0.3% print (interestingly, Bloomberg no longer calculates beyond the 1st decimal).
- Y/Y core 2.31%, which is “as expected”…except that economists were looking for a round UP to 2.3%.
- Core ex-housing is no longer as important as it was…since housing is close to fair now…but it’s 2.36% y/y.
- …that’s actually the highest Core CPI y/y print yet. We’ve had 2.3%, 2.2%, 2.3% and 2.3%, but the first two 2.3% were up-rounders.
- …and means 17 of last 18 months we’ve seen y/y core CPI increase.
- Accelerating groups: Apparel, Educ/Comm, Other (15.4%). Decelerating: Food/Bev, Transport, Recreation (37.4%). Unch: Med Care, Housing
The hurdle next month to push year-on-year core CPI higher for the 18th of the last 19th months is challenging. In May 2011, core CPI threw the highest print since 2008: +0.252% (rounded to +0.3%). That being said, this month’s print was the third-highest since 2008, so it’s not a complete reach.
Some observers will focus on the last 3 months of core CPI, which were +0.098%, +0.230%, and +0.242%, projecting to a relatively-calming 2.3% annualized – which is what it appears we’ve done, stabilize right on the Fed’s target. But it appears the February number was the aberration. Annualizing the last four months would give us 2.4% (January’s change was +0.218%), and annualizing just these last two months gives us 2.8%. I don’t recommend playing around too much with annualization, but I point this out because popular opinion will try and pretend the +0.098% was wasn’t an outlier.
Another way you can get a sense for the acceleration of inflation, and the easy potential for further inflation, is to look at the median monthly print and annualize. (This isn’t the same as the Cleveland Fed’s “Median CPI” - that indicator is looking at the median one-month change of all of the goods and services prices collected by the BLS.) What I am doing in the chart below is looking at the median month-on-month print from the last 12 monthly releases, and annualizing that figure. You can see that the number no longer looks like it has leveled off.
What that suggests is that the recent failure of inflation to continue rising on a year-on-year basis is due to the low prints that are “tail events” on the downside, and not because the overall process of inflation has somehow been magically arrested at the Fed’s target.