Inflation Risks Behind, Beside, and Ahead

By: Michael Ashton | Wed, May 6, 2015
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To be sure, it looks like growth slowed over the course of the difficult winter. The cause of this malaise doesn't appear to me to be weather-related, but rather dollar-related; while currency movements don't have large effects on inflation, they have reasonably significant effects on top-line sales when economies are sufficiently open. It is less clear that we will have similar sequential effects and that growth will be as punk in Q2 as it was in Q1. While I do think that the economy has passed its zenith for this expansion and is at increasing risk for a recession later this year into next, I don't have much concern that we are slipping into a recession now.

Given how close the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow tracker was to the actual Q1 GDP figure, the current forecast of that tool of 0.8% for Q2 - which would be especially disappointing following the 0.2% in Q1 that was reported last week - has drawn a lot of attention. However Tom Kenny, a senior economist at ANZ, points out that the indicator tends to start its estimate for the following quarter at something close to the prior quarter's result, because in the absence of any hard data the best guess is that the prior trend is maintained. I am paraphrasing his remark, published in today's "Daily Shot" (see the full comment at the end of the column here). It is a good point, and (while I think recession risks are increasing) a good reminder that it is probably too early to jump off a building about US growth.

That being said, it does not help matters that gasoline prices are rising once again. While national gasoline prices are only back up to $2.628 per gallon (see chart, source Bloomberg), that figure compares to an average of roughly $2.31 in Q1 (with a low near $2/gallon).

Average Gasoline Prices

It isn't clear how much lower gasoline prices helped Q1 growth. Since lower energy prices also caused a fairly dramatic downshift in the energy production sector of the US economy, lower prices may have even been a net drag in the first quarter. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that higher gasoline prices now will be a net boost to the second quarter; while energy consumption responds quite rapidly to price changes, energy producers will likely prove to be much more hesitant to turn the taps back on after the serious crunch just experienced. I doubt $0.30/gallon will matter much, but if gasoline prices continue to creep higher then take note.

Inflation traders have certainly taken note of the improvement in gasoline prices, but although inflation swaps have retraced much of what they had lost late last year (see chart of 5y inflation swaps, quoted in basis points, source Bloomberg) expectations for core inflation have not recovered. Stripping out energy, swap quotes for 5-year inflation imply a core rate of around 1.65% compounded - approximately the same as it was in January.

And that brings us to the most interesting chart of all. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the year/year change in the Employment Cost Index (wages), in white, versus median inflation.

Employment Cost Index

Repeat to yourself again that wages do not lead inflation; they follow inflation. I would argue this chart shows wages are catching up for the steady inflation over the last couple of years, and for the increased health care costs that are now falling on individuals and families but are not captured terribly well by the CPI. But either way, wages are now rising at a faster rate than prices, which will not make it easy for inflation to sink lower.

Let me also show you another chart from a data release last week. This is the Case-Shiller 20-city composite year/year change. Curiously (maybe), housing prices may be in the process of re-accelerating higher after cooling off a bit last year - although home price inflation as measured by the CS-20 never fell anywhere near to where overall inflation was.

S&P/Case Schiller Composite 20-City

Inflation risks are clearly now moving into the danger zone. I showed a chart of a lagging inflation indicator (wages), a coincident indicator (energy), and a leading indicator (housing). All three of these are now rising at something faster than the current rate of core inflation. In my view, there is not much chance that core inflation over the next 5 years will average only 1.65%.


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Michael Ashton

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA

Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton is Managing Principal at Enduring Investments LLC, a specialty consulting and investment management boutique that offers focused inflation-market expertise. He may be contacted through that site. He is on Twitter at @inflation_guy

Prior to founding Enduring Investments, Mr. Ashton worked as a trader, strategist, and salesman during a 20-year Wall Street career that included tours of duty at Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan.

Since 2003 he has played an integral role in developing the U.S. inflation derivatives markets and is widely viewed as a premier subject matter expert on inflation products and inflation trading. While at Barclays, he traded the first interbank U.S. CPI swaps. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the CPI Futures contract that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange listed in February 2004 and was the lead market maker for that contract. Mr. Ashton has written extensively about the use of inflation-indexed products for hedging real exposures, including papers and book chapters on "Inflation and Commodities," "The Real-Feel Inflation Rate," "Hedging Post-Retirement Medical Liabilities," and "Liability-Driven Investment For Individuals." He frequently speaks in front of professional and retail audiences, both large and small. He runs the Inflation-Indexed Investing Association.

For many years, Mr. Ashton has written frequent market commentary, sometimes for client distribution and more recently for wider public dissemination. Mr. Ashton received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Trinity University in 1990 and was awarded his CFA charter in 2001.

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