Resist Inflation Complacency

Some analysts and investors breathed a big sigh of relief on inflation when it was reported last week that the Consumer Price Index rose 0.3% in August versus a consensus expected 0.4%. But we think any sense of relief is premature.

First, in no way, shape, or form, is a 0.3% increase in consumer prices indicative of low inflation. Consumer prices rose at a 3.3% annual rate in August, which is still well above the Federal Reserve's 2.0% target. Yes, we are well aware that the official Fed inflation target is for the change in the PCE deflator, which always runs a little lower than the increase in the CPI, but it doesn't run anywhere close to 1.3 points lower, which is what it'd have to do for the Fed to hit the long-run 2.0% inflation target.

Second, a number of sectors had price declines in August that should not persist. For example, airline fares fell 9.1% in August and are now 17.4% below the average fares of 2019, which was pre-COVID. So, as COVID gradually recedes these prices should rise.

Third, housing rents are likely to accelerate sharply in the years ahead, including for both actual tenants as well as owners' equivalent rent, which is the rental value of homes occupied by homeowners. With the eviction moratorium in place, rents have grown unusually slowly for the past eighteen months. But, going back to the 1980s, rents tend to lag the Case-Shiller home price index by about two years. Now, with the national eviction moratorium finished, look for rents to make up for lost time. And because rents make up more than 30% of the overall CPI, anyone predicting lower inflation numbers in the future are saying other prices will fall.