Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Some looked at the inflation statistics released by the Labor Department earlier today and said, "See? Deflation is here!"
Others looked at the same set of price data and replied, "See? Inflation is stirring".
They can't both be right, but they can both be wrong (or at least early).
The annual rate of inflation, measured against the price level of May 2008 (back when gasoline and other commodity prices were soaring), came in at less than minus one percent causing deflationists around the world to rejoice, yet stop short of getting out the bubbly.
Because, so far, this deflation is the Japanese variety, a wimpy version of the much more serious double-digit deflation as seen in the 1930s which, unfortunately, most deflationists fail to understand is no longer within the realm of the possible, unless of course we go back to something like a gold standard instead of printing up new money by the trillions of dollars to replace the dollars that are being vaporized in the ongoing waves of credit destruction.
Then again, since the Consumer Price Index has been effectively neutered by a 25 percent weighting of owners equivalent rent that, while purportedly representing homeownership costs, instead serves to dampen reported inflation. No matter what home prices or mortgage payments do, owners equivalent rent always seems to rise at an annual rate of two percent (even when home prices are falling by ten times that amount) serving as an anchor on the government inflation data.
Due to owners' equivalent rent, the U.S. may never see another double-digit annual rate of inflation - positive or negative.
These days, as far as government reported inflation is concerned, it's all about energy prices and, there, those seeing deflation have something to look at.
Most of the year-over-year change in the overall consumer price index is either directly or indirectly related to the energy price peak last summer and comparisons to it, serving to distort whatever meaning the price index still contains.
But, the intriguing aspect of this morning's report on consumer prices is that you can see in-flation in the data too. After all, gasoline prices have soared more than 70 percent from about six months ago demonstrating the very real difference between $35 a barrel oil and the much more dear $70 type.
Inflationists (and the much more rabid "hyper-inflationists") look at this recent rise in energy prices and figure it to be a sure sign of things to come, what with all the government money printing that has occurred lately - a lot of the newly printed money seems to be going into the black goo.
Anything that doubles in price over a six month period should grab your attention and, whether or not crude oil prices remain lofty in the months ahead is anything but assured, but it's important to remember that present day oil prices are still more than 200 percent higher than the average of the last few decades.
That was the era of modest inflation that many people naively think we're about to return to.
But, that period was really just a fluke.
Never again will the world have cheap, plentiful oil at the same time that clothes, electronics, and other goods are produced at cut-rate prices in the East, only to be sold in the West, and subsequently included in the West's inflation data.
Those seeing inflation in today's data see a world where prices are very different than they were in the latter years of the 20th century, the late-2008 plunge in prices being just a temporary setback to the inevitable higher prices to come.
In the scheme of things, what happened from early-2008 to early-2009 will probably prove to be quite irrelevant - either a blip that quickly fades from memory or a blip that is eventually dwarfed by other much larger blips.
It's way too early to tell.
However, what is quite easy to discern after the last year or so of price data, is that we've entered a very different world of consumer prices and even owners' equivalent rent may not be able to dampen the effects of the price moves in the years ahead.
We probably won't know for sure until sometime in 2010 whether we'll get debilitating deflation or hyper-inflation, though both remain unlikely, at least in my view.
The current inflation numbers are largely meaningless and anyone who reads too much into them does so at their own peril.