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Bloomberg News: Inflation May Be About to Pick Up Sharply

November 23, 2020
Image for Bloomberg News: Inflation May Be About to Pick Up Sharply

Article by Richard Cookson in Bloomberg News

It may seem strange to be worried about inflation in the midst of a global recession, a pandemic and huge political ructions in the U.S., but I strongly suspect that it’s about to pick up both soon and sharply. How fast this happens depends on how quickly the developed world recovers over the next few months, but pressures are building. As has been the case for many years, global inflation has “Made in Asia” stamped all over it. This time, though, that’s likely to be compounded by much greater supply constraints in the economy.

Economic models assumed that how quickly money changes hands (its velocity, in the jargon) is both stable and predictable. Instead, it has collapsed. That’s why all those people who predicted a massive rise in inflation as a result of central bank QE have been wrong. Velocity may pick up — your guess is as good as mine — but that wouldn’t tell us much about what happens in the next couple of years as it’s more of a long-term indicator. And there are signs aplenty that inflation is headed higher.

Ask yourself the following counterfactual. Had you known that the developed-world economy would be largely shut down, what would you have expected to happen to the prices of traded goods? Probably, you’d have expected them to collapse. But they didn’t even fall as much as in the manufacturing recession of 2015, let alone during the global financial crisis.

Prices are now rising strongly, in part because Asian growth is humming. Chinese export prices have risen year over year. Excluding oil, industrial commodity prices are also now higher than they were at the end of last year. Even if nothing moves between now and late spring of 2021, year-over-year comparisons will start to look very dramatic — as prices this spring were at their low point. These trends are already making themselves felt in the developed world. U.S. import prices, for example, are rising strongly. Durable goods prices are on a tear. There are signs that services inflation is also rising.

Yet much of the developed world is still in the midst of a pandemic, subduing demand. When the vaccine comes or the virus blows itself out, demand will pick up smartly. What will happen to prices when it does? I strongly suspect that a lot of manufacturing capacity has been lost. Both domestically and internationally, transportation is at once more difficult and more expensive.

Assuming that all this takes a fairly long time to get up and running, you would expect these constraints to last. The same is probably true of services. A lot of companies have already been put out of business and many more are likely to go to the wall. There has been, then, severe losses to economies’ supply potential. All of which means that the path of least resistance when demand picks up is higher prices.

Those with a few grey hairs will remember the bond carnage of 1994. At some point, I’d expect yield curves to steepen dramatically from today’s levels.

Central banks have suppressed volatility and rates in debt markets for years. This is about to become ...

To read this article in Bloomberg News in full and view the relating charts, click here.

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