(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Peak U.S. Inflation Still Tough to See in Latest U.S. Figures

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Even for those who don’t put much stock in using baseline comparisons, the latest official report on U.S. inflation – which covers the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of price changes – there wasn’t much to get excited about..

The strongest evidence optimism that inflation’s peaking in this latest release on what’s called the price index for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) came from the monthly results for core inflation. These strip out the food and energy results because they’re volatile for reasons supposedly having nothing to do with the economy’s fundamental prone-ness to inflation.

The latest number (for October) showed a 0.2 percent sequential rise in prices. That was one of the tamer results for the year, but it followed two straight months of 0.5 percent increases – which were among the highest results of the year. And to add a bit of insult to injury, July’s original monthly flatline figure has been revised up to 0.1 percent.

As for the monthly headline inflation result, that came to 0.3 percent in October. This increase also was one of the year’s lowest, but was the third straight month of prices rising at this rate. So a wait-and-see attitude seems to be the best that’s justified.

The annual PCE data for October was considerably less encouraging, largely because of that baseline effect. Core PCE was up five percent that month – mid-range in terms of this year’s figures. But between the previous Octobers, this inflation gauge jumped by 4.2 percent – to that point, by far the worst result of 2021.

In fact, in September of this year, when core PCE worsened by 5.2 percent, its baseline figure was just 3.7 percent.

In other words, core annual PCE inflation was getting really hot at this point a year ago. And over the course of the next year, it got hotter. And that 5.2 percent annual result for this past September has been revised up, too (from 5.1 percent).

Intriguingly, the headline annual PCE numbers reveal a very similar pattern. The bg difference: The October read of six percent matched the year’s lowest figure (from January). But the previous October annual rate was 5.1 percent – also the fastest increase that year to that point.

The September baseline figure was just 4.4 percent, and the 2022 annual headline PCE increase for that month was revised up itself – from 6.2 percent to 6.3 percent.

The bigger picture isn’t especially encouraging, either. That’s because whatever hints of inflation slowdown may be in the air surely stem from weakening momentum for the economy as a whole. (To be sure, many economists, like the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s crew, keep forecasting solid expansion continuing. But many forward-looking indicators are sending exactly the opposite message.) And as I’ve noted (e.g., here), it doesn’t take a policy genius to end inflation by tightening credit so much that growth and employment get crushed.

Further, what’s worrisome about this demand-centric approach, and continued neglect of boosting the supply of goods and services, is that when the Fed loosens monetary policy once more, or when Congress and the administration reopen the net spending spigots, or both, there will be every reason to expect strong inflation to return.

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