The monster under the bed

Alfred E. Neuman

One of the fun things about being a personal finance writer is the number of “Dear idiot” letters you get. Stories about the Federal Reserve Bank tend to get them. (“You idiot! Don’t you know the Federal Reserve is evil?”). So do stories about taxes. (“You idiot! Don’t you know that Girl Scout cookies are deductible?”)*

Inflation is another source of contention, particularly if you note that inflation has been moderate, which it has been, whether you’re using the Consumer Price Index, the GDP Price Deflator, or even the Billion Prices Project. But your perception of inflation depends on what you spend the most on. If you have kids in college or if you rely on prescription drugs, your personal inflation rate is pretty high.

Those who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s recall when a 5% inflation rate was considered moderate, as opposed to the most recent 2.2% rate. And they fear a resurgence of inflation, with good reason: It erodes the value of retirement savings and pensions.

The consumer price index has averaged a 1.7% annual gain the past decade, and actually dipped into deflation — a period of falling prices — during the Great Recession. And the forces of deflation are still all around us: The favored tactic of technological disruptors such as Amazon, Uber and others, is to drive prices down and drive competitors out of business. This was a favored tactic of the Gilded Age, aided even further by the gold standard, which tends to favor deflation over inflation. I go on at some length about the subject here.

The Federal Reserve traditionally raises interest rates to slow the economy and cool inflation, and it lowers rates to stimulate the economy and encourage inflaton. The Fed has already nudged short-term interest rates higher five times since 2015, but rates are still extraordinarily low by historical standards. Most think the Fed is acting not out of fear of inflation, but out of fear of not having any ammunition to fight the next recession, whenever that may be.

Tomorrow’s Consumer Price Index report hits the headlines at 8:30: The consensus forecast is for a 2.1% year-over-year change for 2017. Anthing higher, particularly for the core CPI (less food and energy) is likely to make for an upsetting day in the bond market, where yields have been creeping higher and prices lower. The iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG), a useful proxy for the bond market’s total return, has already fallen 0.57% this year, according to Morningstar.

Right now, there’s a balance between inflationary forces — a strong economy and fiscal stimulus — and deflationary ones. In the normal course of events, the Fed tightens too much during inflationary periods, causing the economy to slow, earnings to fall, and stocks to tumble. So there’s reason to watch inflation warily.

Is it time to panic? Well, no. It never is. If you’re particularly concerned about inflation, you might consider a fund that invests in Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, whose price is keyed to changes in the CPI. The current yield on TIPS shows that Wall Street expects inflation to remain at 2% the next 30 years. If you think they’re wrong, then one good pick would be Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund Investor Shares(VIPSX).

It may well be that technological changes have redefined the upper bound of inflation in the economy. Tomorrow’s CPI print is no reason to go running from the room in terror. But it’s worth keeping an eye on the monster under the bed this year.

* They aren’t, if you eat them.

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