Inflation is certainly surging, it remains to be seen how much of a problem that is. What we do know is that some regions of the nation, particularly cities where businesses have embraced technology, are surging ahead quickly. Some a bit too quickly.
In a nation already divided, the success of some cities is only accelerating the divide. If they become too successful their high cost may ultimately slow growth. But for now, the benefits of the recovery are heavily centered on a few places.
In 1981, America stood at a genuine crossroads of the Postwar era. It seemed as though everything had been floundering for nearly a decade. Watergate, oil price shocks, and inflation were eating away at the faith and the paychecks of American workers. Millions of them had entered the workforce as Baby Boomers came of age, only to find that working life was no longer a ticket to any kind of American Dream.
Into this rode a hero as if on horseback. The assault on runaway inflation had been orchestrated since 1979, but it was about to come to full fruition. No, that hero wasn’t Ronald Reagan, it was Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Interest rates rose to 21%, the highest the Fed has ever seen. It worked. Volcker would eventually be mythologized heavily for his role in killing inflation once and for all.
It’s an important story because inflation, the villain of the 1970s, is definitely back.
We have in front of us a big week. This may determine the course of the next year or so in the stock market, the economy, and in politics.
A lot is about to happen. Let’s run it down, day by day.
Inflation is back. What’s left to see is what anyone does about it.
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for January came in at a strong 2.1% over the last 12 months. That’s above the target rate of 2.0% set by the Federal Reserve for the fourth month in a row. There will be attempts to explain it away in various ways. In the noise that will be created over this what will count is action by the Federal Reserve one way or the other.
It’s been nearly a year since Janet Yellen, in her first testimony press conference after a Fed Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, told the world just what she was looking for before raising the Fed Funds Rate (and everything that rises along with it). The openness was remarkable for a Fed Chair and a sign of a new era as a woman took control of what is arguably the most power job in the world.
Since that time, we have followed “Yellen’s Dashboard” with periodic updates to just just how we’re doin’. Nearly everyone agrees that interest rates will rise sometime this year, probably around June, as she has told us. But how does that stack up against her very public criteria? It’s worth checking in with some math to see where we are with rates and what we can expect.
After years of low interest rates and quantitative easing that amounts to more or less printing $4.5T, it would be easy to predict that inflation is bound to rise eventually. More dollars means, by supply and demand, that they have to be worth less, yes?
But the opposite is happening as the US economy charges ahead as the strongest economy in the developed world. While we have stopped stimulating our economy, Japan and Europe are only accelerating their programs. The US is poised to lose the currency war with the strongest currency standing – and a guarantee of lower prices for a lot more than just gasoline in the near future.
What is the real rate of inflation? The official Consumer Price Index (CPI) is calculated with a basket of goods that are supposed to reflect the economy as a whole. There are over 200 categories of consumer goods that make their way into the CPI, including health care, airline travel, clothes, education, and so on. The price of this basket of goods is checked from one month to the next and it’s all added up to produce the CPI.
There is one big problem with this, however – not everyone buys the same goods. On average, over the whole economy, it’s about right. But people who have very little money don’t fly, go to the doctor as often, pay for school, and so on. Charles Gave of GaveKal Dragonomics came up with his own measure of inflation, modeled for the poor, and found some surprising results – and a correlation that spells trouble for the nation’s poor for a long time to come.