Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Is The Spike In Wholesale Prices A Sign Of Inflation?

An higher than usual increase in wholesale prices is not a signal of imminent inflation, at least not in the immediate future says James Picerno. The Treasury expects inflation to be low over the next decade with a forecast of 2.2% inflation per year. See the following from The Capital Spectator.

Time may be running out for the policy of embracing the Great Liquidity without paying an inflationary price. A hint of things to come is buried in today’s producer price report for November.

Wholesale prices jumped 1.8% last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning. That's near the upper range for monthly changes in recent years. The surge last month is easily dismissed, however, considering that much of the rise is due to energy prices. On the assumption that energy prices won't keep rising, one could soft pedal the headline PPI number for November.

It's harder to dismiss last month's core PPI change, which excludes the volatile food and energy sectors. As our chart below shows, core PPI gained a hefty 0.5% in November, the highest monthly change in more than a year.

Is simply a case of statistical noise? Or is pricing pressure finally starting to rebubble as the financial crisis of 2008 continues to fade into history? Another clue arrives in tomorrow's consumer price report.

Meantime, the Federal Reserve's FOMC meeting begins today, with a fresh monetary policy announcement scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. Presumably the Fed heads will factor the latest wholesale and consumer price reports into their decision tomorrow.

The Fed funds futures market doesn't expect that Bernanke and company will change policy tomorrow. As we write this morning, futures are priced in anticipation that Fed funds will remain as is, targeting the zero-to-0.25% range.

Certainly there's no imminent threat of inflation. Indeed, a fresh bout of deflation can't be ruled out entirely, at least not yet. There are still weaknesses in the global economy, and some of them are bubbling here in the U.S. The ongoing contraction in the labor market is one example. But as we discussed earlier this month, the bleeding is poised to cease quite soon. That doesn't mean the labor market will start expanding robustly. But marginal changes at this stage can have an unexpectedly large impact on pricing trends, perhaps surprising the market along the way.

The factors that have allowed central banks to keep nominal interest rates at zero retreating, one by one. At some point, and perhaps sooner than the crowd expects, the Fed will begin raising interest rates. Slowly, to be sure. But even that change won't arrive until next year. Tomorrow's FOMC confab will offer no surprises, or so markets are predicting.

The clock is ticking, however. The good news is that it's still ticking slowly. The 10-year outlook for inflation in the Treasury market, for instance, calls for price changes of around 2.2% a year for the decade ahead. That's still low by recent standards, as our second chart below shows.

In short, the inflation outlook isn't very threatening at the moment, as suggested by the Treasury forecast. But let's also recognize that the inflation forecast isn't falling either.

This post has been republished from James Picerno's blog, The Capital Spectator.

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