Tag: inflation

Inflation Expert

Who knows more about inflation, Richard Galanti or Ben Bernanke? I maintain that, when it comes to the facts, Mr. Galanti knows more than the Fed chairman. Galanti is the CFO of Costco Wholesale Corp.

The Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday (May 26th) on a conference call with Mr. Galanti. He said “we saw quite a bit of inflationary pricing” in the 3rd quarter.

Price increases occurred in a broad range of products” dry dog food (3.5%). Detergents (10%+), plastic products (8-9%). Costco will “hold prices as long as we can.” When it can no longer, the consumer will face rising prices.

Costco is a good leading indicator of inflation at the retail level. It turns over inventory quickly, and is leading other retailers in restocking at higher prices. Costco offers a forward-looking view of consumer price inflation.

Meanwhile the Fed and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, rely on backward looking measures of inflation, like the CPI. That index, and the “core” component that excludes food and energy prices, overweight the depressed housing sector. And they are yesterday’s news.

For years, American consumers have benefitted from cheap imports from China and India. When those countries liberalized and opened up to global commerce, Americans got the benefit of the hard work and low wages of 2 ½ billion workers. The era of cheap labor is coming to an end, and with it the flood of imports that held down prices in the U.S. Especially in China, wage rates are rising rapidly.

Heretofore, the flood of dollars has chiefly affected asset prices and inflation in other countries. The flow through to U.S. consumer prices will now be quicker. You’ll experience it when you go to Costco to restock.

Is Housing Holding Back Inflation?

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the consumer price index (CPI) numbers for April, which generally gives us the best picture of inflation.  The headline number is that between April 2010 and April 2011, consumer prices increased 3.2 percent, as measured by the CPI.  Obviously this is well above 2 percent, the number Ben Bernanke defines as “price stability.”  Setting aside the reasonableness of that definition, there is definitely some mild inflation in the economy.

Also of interest in the April numbers is that if you subtract housing, which makes up over 40% of the weight of the CPI, then prices increased 4.2 percent — twice Bernanke’s measure of stability.  What has always been problematic of the housing component is that its largest piece is an estimate of what owners would pay themselves if they rented their own residence.  This estimate makes up about a fourth of the CPI.  As the chart below demonstrates, for much of 2010, the direction in this number was actually negative, which held down CPI over the last year.  The current annualized figure for owner’s rent is 0.9 from April 2010 to April 2011.  Oddly enough, this is below the actual increase in rents, which was 1.3.  For most homeowners, the real cost of housing — their mortgage payment — has likely been flat, not decreasing.  So whatever benefit there has been to declining housing costs, most consumers are unlikely to feel any benefit from those declines, if they are actually real.

While the primary driver of CPI has been energy costs, food prices have also garnered considerable attention.  Excluding food from the CPI does not change the headline number, although this is due to the fact that the cost of eating out has been rising considerably slower than the cost of eating at home.  So as along as you’ve been eating out every night, you’ve apparently been fine.  This touches upon what is one of the less recognized features of current inflation trends:  the regressive nature of these prices increases.  If you rent, then you’ve seen costs increase more than if you own.  If you mostly eat at home, then you’ve seen prices increase more than if you dine out a lot.  If you have a lot of leisure time, the you’ve gained by the decrease in reaction prices.  While I don’t think one’s position on inflation should be driven purely by distributional concerns, the fact that working middle-income households have been hit harder by recent inflation trends than higher-income households should cut against the claims that inflation is somehow good for the poor or working class.

Can We Rely on Inflation Expectations?

The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that in his recent press conference Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke used the words “inflation expectations” (or some variation) 21 times. His argument is that we need not worry about inflation because we will see it coming, and then the Fed will do something about it. Such an argument relies heavily on the ability of inflation expectations to predict inflation. Which of course raises the question, just how predictive are inflation expectations?

The graph below compares inflation, as measured by CPI, and inflation expectations, as measured by the University of Michigan consumer survey, the longest times series we have on inflation expectations.

Clearly the two move together. For instance, the correlation between current inflation and expectations is almost 1 (its 0.93), while the correlation between inflation and actual inflation a year later is slightly less at 0.81. The relationship declines as we move further into the future. So yes, consumer expectations appear a reasonable predictor of the direction of inflation. However, they don’t appear to be a great predictor of the magnitude or the frequency of changes. For instance, the standard deviation of actual inflation is about twice that of expected inflation. As one can easily see from the chart, expectations are quite sticky and rarely pick up the extremes. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, expectations did move up, but then never reached the heights actually experienced, nor did consumers ever actually expect deflation during the recent financial crisis (if we are going to base policy on expectations, we should at least be consistent about it).

For about the last decade we also have market based measures of inflation, based upon inflation-indexed bonds. The TIPS measure tends to be less correlated with actual inflation, but does a better job of capturing the extremes. Although interesting enough, TIPS was already predicting that deflation would be short-lived before we even experienced any deflation.

The point is that while expectations are useful for qualitatively purposes, they do not have a strong record of recording the extremes. Given that most of us expect some positive level of inflation, the real debate is over how much. In this regard, either survey or market-based expectations are likely to be both a lagging indicator and an under-estimate of actual inflation.

End the Fed: More than Just a Bumper Sticker Slogan?

To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

As they say, stay tuned.

Misunderstanding Inflation through the Years

NPR reports on rising food prices across the world. They may have played some role in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and if so, those wouldn’t be the first revolutions sparked by inflation. NPR reporter Marilyn Geewax mentioned several reasons that food prices are rising – droughts, floods, oil prices, financial speculation – but not the obvious one: the continuing creation of unbacked money by central banks around the world. As Milton Friedman said, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” And as Jerry O’Driscoll wrote just two weeks ago, about rising food prices, “Inflation is here.” But that point isn’t yet universally understood, at least not at our government radio network.

Anyway, I turned off the radio and turned on the television, where TCM was just broadcasting the 1942 MGM propaganda film “Inflation” (made at the request of the Office of War Information but then never released because it was too anti-capitalist even for wartime propaganda). Edward Arnold plays the Devil, in league with Hitler and posing as a businessman who who encourages people to buy more, evade price controls, stockpile goods, and use the black market. (The film was made by Cy Endfield, who had been a member of the Young Communist League at Yale and went on to make such films as Zulu and Universal Soldier.) The film features what appears to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s April 28, 1942, radio speech, “Total War and Total Effort.” As the young couple in the film go to buy a new radio, the shopkeeper turns on the radio and they hear FDR say:

You do not have to be a professor of mathematics or economics to see that if people with plenty of cash start bidding against each other for scarce goods, the price of those goods (them) goes up.

Yesterday I submitted to the Congress of the United states a seven-point program, a program of general principles which taken together could be called the national economic policy for attaining the great objective of keeping the cost of living down. I repeat them now to you in substance:

First. we must, through heavier taxes, keep personal and corporate profits at a low reasonable rate.
Second. We must fix ceilings on prices and rents.
Third. We must stabilize wages.
Fourth. We must stabilize farm prices.
Fifth. We must put more billions into War Bonds.
Sixth. We must ration all essential commodities which are scarce.
Seventh. We must discourage installment buying, and encourage paying off debts and mortgages.

As it happens, I have a 1942 OWI poster with that same message hanging in my kitchen:

In fact, of course, price inflation was the natural result of a substantial increase in the money supply before and during the war. All of FDR’s policies – cartels, destruction of crops, wage and price controls, rationing – were misguided attempts to deal with the consequences of monetary manipulation and other bad policies.

By the way, FDR famously said, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Which might explain another propaganda film produced by MGM, this one in 1933, that extolled the virtues of FDR’s policy of inflation, utilizing the argument that is variously called “stimulus” or “the broken window fallacy.” The film cited the successful results of Civil War inflation. “What inflation has done before it will do again! … What a man! And what a leader! Yowzer! Happy days are here again!” Yeah, that went well. And by 1942 MGM was back on board, making a government propaganda film opposing inflation.

For background on inflation, read Cato adjunct scholar Lawrence H. White at the Concise Encylopedia of Economics.

Fannie & China: 2 Birds, 1 Stone

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington brought renewed focus on China’s currency.  It was likely the largest point of discussion between President Obama and President Hu.  I suspect a less public, but related, issue was China looking for some certainty that America would make good on its obligations; after all, China is our largest lender.

What is often missed is the connection between these two issues:  currency and debt.  When China receives dollars for the many goods it sells us, instead of recycling those dollars into the purchase of US goods, it uses that money mostly to buy US Treasuries and Agencies (Fannie/Freddie securities).  These large Treasury/Agency purchases (foreign holdings of GSE debt are over $1 trillion) have the effect of increasing the demand for dollars and depressing that for yuan, resulting in an appreciation of the dollar relative to the yuan.  This connection exposes the hypocrisy of President Obama’s complaints about China currency manipulation - without massive US budget deficits, China would not be able to manipulate its currency to the extent it does.  If the US wants to end that manipulation, it can do so by simply reducing the outstanding supply of Treasuries and Agency debt.

Another solution, which would also do much to end the “implicit guarantees” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is to take Fannie and Freddie into a receivership, stop the US taxpayer from having to cover their losses, and shift those losses to junior creditors, which include the Chinese Central Bank.  Were the Chinese to actually suffer credit losses on their GSE debt, they would quickly start to reduce their holdings of such.  They might also cut back on Treasury holdings.  These actions would force the yuan to appreciate relative to the dollar.  And best of all, it would end the bottomless pit that Fannie and Freddie have become.  It is worth remembering that even today, under statute, the Federal government does not back the debt of Fannie and Freddie.  It is about time we also teach the Chinese a lesson about the rule of law, by actually following it ourselves. 

Of course this would increase the borrowing costs for Agencies (and maybe Treasuries), but then if China were to free float its currency, that would also reduce the demand for Treasuries/Agencies with a resulting increase in borrowing costs.  We cannot have it both ways.

Appreciating China’s Currency

China’s President Hu Jintau arrives in Washington today for a state visit, turning the spotlight once again on U.S.-China trade and China’s allegedly undervalued currency, the yuan. Not one to let such an opportunity go to waste, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is introducing legislation that would threaten to impose duties on imports from China if the yuan does not appreciate quickly.

Count me skeptical that a more expensive yuan relative to the U.S. dollar would make much of a dent in our bilateral trade deficit with China, or that it would have any positive effect on U.S. economic growth and employment. But even if those assumptions were true, the big story is how much the yuan as already appreciated against the dollar.

It has been a mantra of Sen. Schumer and other critics of U.S.-China trade that the yuan is undervalued by 15 to 40 percent. They were saying that before the 2005 appreciation, and they’re saying that now, as though nothing has changed.

Yet a lot has changed. In nominal terms, the yuan appreciated by more than 20 percent between 2005 and 2008. That’s when China relaxed its hard peg with the dollar and allowed its currency to gradually appreciate. After holding the peg steady again during the recent financial turmoil, China has again allowed it to rise another 3 percent since last June.

The nominal rate is just part of the story, however. Price levels in the United States and China determine the real exchange rate–the actual amount of goods that can be bought with each currency. A big story in China recently is its rising inflation rate, which makes Chinese goods relatively more expensive at any given exchange rate. In this way, a relatively higher inflation rate in China compared to the United States acts in the same was as a nominal increase in the exchange rate of the yuan.

When you combine the effect of rising prices in China with the higher nominal value of the yuan, you get a double boost to the real exchange rate. According to a chart on the front page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the real value of the yuan has appreciated by 50 percent since the beginning of 2005. In early 2005, 100 Chinese yuan could be exchanged for about $12; today it can be exchanged for $18 (in real, inflation adjusted dollars).

Rather than complain, Sen. Schumer and his allies should congratulate themselves on achieving their goal of a much stronger yuan and a much weaker dollar, even if we are still waiting for the tonic effect they predicted it would have on jobs and growth.