The Return of Inflation

Post from First Trust Economics Blog

Brian S. Wesbury – Chief Economist
Robert Stein, CFA – Deputy Chief Economist 

Feb 8th, 2021

 Inflation is not dead. It is not gone. It has not been tamed. We know it seems like it, especially after the past few decades which generated in many an “inflation-complacency” that feels justified. After all, following the 2008 Financial Panic, many predicted Quantitative Easing would cause hyper-inflation. 

When the Fed boosted the Monetary Base by more than $3 trillion dollars during Quantitative Easing 1, 2 & 3, and the federal budget moved to a huge deficit, gold and silver commercials proliferated. So did predictions of a collapsing dollar. 

But inflation never came. Since the end of the 2008-09 financial panic, the Consumer Price Index has increased by an average of just 1.7% per year, falling short of the Fed’s (conjectural) 2% target. So, what happened? 

The answer: Boosting the monetary base is not the same as boosting the amount of money circulating in the economy. Milton Friedman taught us to watch the an annual rate and if it rises a modest 0.2% per month between January and May, it will be up 3.4% over 12 months. Part of this is because COVID shutdowns led to weak inflation in early 2020, but we expect inflation to move higher in 2021. 

But, in addition to M2 growth, incomes and savings have increased, while production has not. Demand is exceeding supply. All personal income combined – wages & salaries, employee benefits, small business income, rents, interest, dividends, and transfer payments – was up 6.3% in 2020 versus 2019. Total after-tax income was up 7.2% in 2020, the most for any year since 2000. 

Combined, Americans saved about $2.9 trillion in 2020, more than doubling the previous record high of $1.2 trillion in 2018. As of the third quarter of 2020, the amount Americans held in checking accounts, savings accounts, time deposits, and money market funds was up $2.8 trillion from the year prior. Add another $1.9 trillion in federal government stimulus spending (borrowing from the future, to spend today) and the US is awash in cash, much of which is funded by Washington’s money printing. 

Unfortunately, in spite of a strong recovery in output, industrial production is 3.3% below pre-COVID levels, while real GDP is 2.5% below. In other words, demand is OK, it’s supply that’s still hurting – a perfect recipe for inflation. 

We can see the impact of this affecting markets. The 10-year Treasury yield has risen from roughly 0.6% in May 2020 to 1.2% today. The gap between the yield on the normal 10-year Treasury Note and the inflation-adjusted 10-year Treasury Note suggests investors expect an annual average increase of 2.2% in the consumer price index (CPI) in the next ten years, and those expectations are rising. 

Bitcoin, while we doubt it will ever be real money, hit a record high today reflecting fears of lost dollar purchasing power. Commodity prices continue to surge. 

All this money printing threatens to eventually create a sugar high in equities. We aren’t there yet, but markets are floating on a sea of new money. In fact, its more like a tsunami! Inflation hedges (real estate, commodities, materials companies) will do well. Traditional fixed income (long-term bonds) is at risk. The return of inflation because of misguided policy choices is a very real threat to the long-term health of the US economy.