“Inflation is everywhere a misunderstanding of what actually caused it..“
The pace of US CPI inflation moderated slightly, but it’s too early for the market to conclude rate hikes are over. There are many imbalances still to resolve – especially in consumer credit. Meanwhile, the new UK premier’s clumsy attempts to blame the BOE raise questions.
Markets surged last night on the back of lower-than-expected US inflation. Markets globally rallied, anticipating a slowdown in the pace of Fed Interest Rate Hikes, and a resumption of the long bull Equity market. Bonds rallied. Joy, joy… joy..
Oh dear. It may be well to remember the Happy Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz singing “Ding Dong, Inflation’s Dead…” but, that occurs right at the start of the film… before things get “challenging”. I’m not saying End-of-the-World.. just not-quite-as-rosy-as-you-hope!
The pace of US consumer price inflation fell to 8.5% y-o-y, down from 9.1% in June. It’s well to remember what the CPI number shows is fast prices are rising, not how much they have risen – it’s a subtle, but critical difference…
8.5% Inflation means prices are still rising, (Doh!), just less quickly than last month. Rising prices mean the Fed, and other Central Banks still have to address them. (Which is why expecting Central Banks to mellow rate rises/tighter monetary policy on a single snapshot number is a foolish hope.) 8% inflation sounds so much better than 9%, but it’s still inflation; an imbalance between supply and demand that prices are trying to correct. Result: central banks will keep raising rates to stun demand – if they are brave enough to court criticism from politicians.
The US number shows there are still significant inflationary pulses – and concurrent consequences – surging through the US economy. The lower number will focus analysts on just how quickly the inflation pace will start to fall. The oil shocks in the 1970s lasted effectively a decade. The first 1973 shock took around three years to abate, and was followed by an even stronger price shock in 1977 that took till the early 80s to resolve.
A one-month reversal in a longer-term inflation trend is not unusual – it’s far too early to say a one-month slight improvement in the pace of rising prices means the top has been crossed. But the inflation charts do show it is unusual to get consecutive months of declines, and then a sharp increase again. Its more common for inflation to remain stubbornly high for a number of years following an upspike. (That said… in time of “policy experimentation”, like 2010, an upspike was swiftly followed by a down spike.)
What the US CPI number did confirm is the US economy is in a very different place, and a different stage, to Europe and the Global economy. The key difference is the US report showed energy prices are normalising and reducing as petrol prices moderate. Jet fuel costs declined bringing down the cost of travel. In Europe – there is little chance of energy price moderation – if anything consumer energy bills will become increasingly chaotic and damaging to sentiment. Queue the great divergence between US and Europe – and what that means in terms of investment opportunities.
On the other hand; the US numbers show rising interest rates are impacting consumers cash, food prices continue to rise sharply while housing costs are also spiking. Ah… common experiences Europe and the US share.
The CPI numbers suggest the US economy is still in trouble. Over the past few months I’ve been watching things like Auto-loan delinquencies – as rates rise, and car prices surged on the back of availability and supply chain issues (primarily the shortage of chips), car financing costs became increasingly unaffordable. Auto-loan defaults are rising – but they have not become a crisis because – thus far – the used-car market can very quickly absorb repossessed cars. The reality is 20% of US autoloans go to sub-prime borrowers – who are the ones living pay-check to pay-check, and following years of declining real income (and now a crashing real-income shock) lack the financial resilience to keep paying.
Figures from the Fed show US Household debt is increasing – up 2% in Q2 2022 to $16.15 trillion (!). Officially, that’s because of repressed spending during the pandemic.
In reality, it’s cash-strapped US consumers are living off credit. Much of that credit is real: mortgage and auto-lending, but other numbers like credit cards and from new DeFi lenders showing rising shadow-banking sector lending problems. The default crisis impacting lenders like Klarna comes on the back of cash-strapped consumers using credit to buy their daily milk, bread and petrol. You can’t repossess a bag of shopping.
The inflation driven economic threat in Europe is also about consumers. Years of low incomes, wage constraints, and job insecurity across much of Southern Europe leaves a massive number of consumers with precious few savings. The middle classes have been decimated by rising costs, consumer debt, and taxes.
(It’s a truism: if you can afford a lawyer and an accountant, you can avoid taxes… which is why tax gatherers, like the UK HRMC go for the weakest targets to collect unpaid dues. It takes less effort to extract a million in taxes from 10 struggling middle-class businessmen that it takes to get Amazon to pay a single cent. If there businesses collapse – so what, the tax got its money…)
Who is to blame for inflation?
The UK’s prime minister in waiting, Tank Girl Liz Truss ,says it’s all the Bank of England’s doing. Which is somewhat harsh.
I was unaware Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey triggered the Russian invasion of Ukraine after first persuading Angela Merkle to close her nuclear plants and give German energy security to Vladmir Putin. `I though the Energy shock and food inflation shock were exogenous.
I was unaware it was Andrew Bailey who decided Tory MPS could give billions of govt money to their chums to not deliver functional PPE to the health service during the pandemic.
I was unaware it was Andrew Bailey who came up with (actually brilliant) furlough scheme to preserve jobs and consumer security (that was a very clever civil servant who has got zero credit for his efforts.)
I was unaware it was Andrew Bailey who set the government’s spending plans…
What I thought was Andrew Bailey and his colleagues at the Bank of England were maintaining a low interest rate economy to keep the pandemic economy functioning through the challenging pandemic years, and to keep the gilt market looking attractive so the UK Debt Management Office could continue to fund the Government’s funding schemes – all the while fretting about how to normalise ultra-low interest rates put in place to stimulate the economy in the 20-teens without destabilising everything.
Liz Truss doesn’t think so. That’s why she will not be getting my vote. (Not that I have one to give her.. but that’s not the point.)
The point is our next prime minister and First Lord of the Treasury will be chosen by 160,000 rank and file conservative party members. They are generally older, well-off, white, male and Eurosceptic. 63% are male. 80% are in the wealthy ABC demographic. 58% are over 55 and remember the Glory of Margaret Thatcher with religious reverence.
Which is why I think someone has been whispering in Tank Girl’s ear – I suspect the Minister for the Spanish Inquisition (Jacob Rees-Mogg). Now, Tank Girl wants to remove the Bank’s independence and replace inflation targeting with money supply targeting. Christ-on-a-bike: did I just drop through a worm hole into 1981? Big hair, shoulder pads, Duran-Duran and economic disaster…
I fear She opened the door into the Treasury’s Black Museum – and unlocked the box of Tragic Economic Mistakes, unleasing the Zombies of Monetarist Economic thinking like Mad Paddy Mitford (who says her plans are brilliant – unsurprisingly) and Tim Condon. Oh dear. Lord spare us…
If so, then we really are rubber ducked. Monetarism, ahem, was such a success back in the 1980s – NOT! In the form of Thatcherism, the consequences are today’s broken Britain, the imbalance between London and the regions unknown outside the M25, the rebellious Scots and a host of long-term structural problems.
If someone had unleashed the Zombie Vampyres of Monetarism, then I’ll be sure to carry my crucifix, a sharp pointy wooden stake, and flask of Lagavulin (my holy water) when next in London.
Although its only August, the Christmas shops are already opening. I am tempted to write to Santa now. “Dear Father Christmas… I have been a very good boy all year. Please can we have a completely new UK Government?”