Wednesday , December 2 2020

Inflation may be about to pick up sharply

It may seem strange to be worried about inflation in the midst of a global recession, a pandemic and huge political ructions in the US. How fast this happens depends on how quickly the developed world recovers over the next few months, but pressures are building. As has been the case for many years, global inflation has “Made in Asia” stamped all over it. This time, though, that’s likely to be compounded by much greater supply constraints in the economy.
First, a little humility. Forecasting inflation is fiendishly hard. Generally, the best forecast is what inflation is at the moment. Central banks have been neither good at forecasting inflation nor creating it. This is because, in essence, classical economics largely assumes that, all things being equal, increasing the supply of money pushes inflation higher. And yet, after years of rate cutting, quantitative easing and so forth, the only thing that has gone up is asset prices. It has been Apple Inc, as it were, not apples.
Clearly, then, not all things are equal. Economic models assumed that how quickly money changes hands (its velocity, in the jargon) is both stable and predictable. Instead, it has collapsed. That’s why all those people who predicted a massive rise in inflation as a result of central bank QE have been wrong. Velocity may pick up — your guess is as good as mine — but that wouldn’t tell us much about what happens in the next couple of years as it’s more of a long-term indicator. And there are signs aplenty that inflation is headed higher.
Ask yourself the following counterfactual. Had you known that the developed-world economy would be largely shut down, what would you have expected to happen to the prices of traded goods? Probably, you’d have expected them to collapse. But as the chart below shows, they didn’t even fall as much as in the manufacturing recession of 2015, let alone during the global financial crisis.
Prices are now rising strongly, in part because Asian growth is humming. Chinese export prices have risen year over year. Excluding oil, industrial commodity prices are also now higher than they were at the end of last year. Even if nothing moves between now and late spring of 2021, year-over-year comparisons will start to look very dramatic — as prices this spring were at their low point. These trends are already making themselves felt in the developed world. US import prices, for example, are rising strongly. Durable goods prices are on a tear. There are signs that services inflation is also rising. Yet much of the developed world is still in the midst of a pandemic, subduing demand.
—Bloomberg

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