Inflation is a hot topic at the moment. For good reason: higher inflation would drive up interest rates, affecting both bond and equity prices, as well as commodities and precious metals.
March CPI jumped to 2.64% but the increase is partly attributable to the low base from March 2020. Core CPI (excluding food and energy) came in at a more modest 1.65%. The main difference between CPI and core CPI is rising energy and food costs.
The annual inflation rate in the US ……is the highest reading since August of 2018 with main upward pressure coming from energy (13.2% vs 3.7% in February), namely gasoline (22.5% vs 1.6%), electricity (2.5% vs 2.3%) and utility gas service (9.8% vs 6.7%). Prices also accelerated for used cars and trucks (9.4% vs 9.3%), shelter (1.7% vs 1.5%) and new vehicles (1.5% vs 1.2%) while inflation slowed for medical care services (2.7% vs 3%) and food (3.5% vs 3.6%). Cost of apparel continued to fall (-2.5% vs -3.6%)……..a jump in commodities and material costs, coupled with supply constraints, are pushing producer prices up and some companies are passing those costs to clients. (Reuters)
10-year Treasury yields eased to 1.62% with the breakeven inflation rate at 2.33% — weakening the real 10-year yield to -0.71%.
Inflation and the Money Supply
Milton Friedman famously said, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.”
But experience since the 1980s shows several surges in money supply growth without a corresponding rise in inflation. While an increase in money supply may be a prerequisite for a spike in inflation, it is not the cause.
More direct causes of inflation are increases in input costs for suppliers of goods and services. The two largest input costs are commodities and wages. Rises in commodity prices will mostly affect the manufacturing sector, while increases in wage rates impacts on all employers. Also, commodity prices tend to be cyclical, so price fluctuations will be more readily absorbed, while wage increases tend to be permanent and more likely to be passed on to customers.
The chart below shows a much closer correlation between hourly wage rates and CPI since the 1970s, with surges in hourly earnings accompanied by a rise in inflation.
Rising commodity prices are driving higher inflation at present. While some of the pressures may be transitory, due to supply interruptions, underinvestment in new production over the last decade is likely to act as a supply constraint for both energy and base metals. Rising demand fueled by short-term stimulus and longer-term infrastructure investment would act as an accelerant.
Wage rate increases are so far restrained, but that is likely to change as the economy recovers, boosted by decoupling from China and on-shoring of critical supply chains. Shortages of skilled labor are expected to drive up wage rates, maintaining upward pressure on inflation in the longer-term. Training and education of suitable staff will take time.
We have all the ingredients for an inflation spike. A massive boost in the money supply, accompanied by record stimulus payments, much of which has been channeled into savings. This will help to fuel increased demand in the longer term, while restricted supply will drive up commodity prices and wage rates for skilled labor.