Man, you need an electron microscope to spot any silver lining in this morning’s inflation numbers.
At the beginning of the week, I told you this would be the week before the midterm elections that is most dominated by a focus on the economy and inflation, because of the release of the updated Consumer Price Index figures.
The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers rose 0.4 percent in September on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.1 percent in August, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all-items index increased 8.2 percent before seasonal adjustment.
Increases in the shelter, food, and medical care indexes were the largest of many contributors to the monthly seasonally adjusted all items increase. These increases were partly offset by a 4.9-percent decline in the gasoline index. The food index continued to rise, increasing 0.8 percent over the month as the food at home index rose 0.7 percent. The energy index fell 2.1 percent over the month as the gasoline index declined, but the natural gas and electricity indexes increased.
The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.6 percent in September, as it did in August. . . .
Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. University of Michigan economics professor Justin Wolfers is a pretty darn straight shooter in his assessments of the economy, and his instant reaction didn’t sugarcoat it, for those who were hoping to get a burst of good economic news about a month before the midterm election:
Inflation is proving to be more resilient — and more troubling — than many had hoped or forecast. Both the headline and core inflation readings are about 0.2 percentage points higher than expected. That might not sound like a lot, but over a month, it’s a pretty big miss. Worse, it comes after a run of disappointing inflation readings. There’s nothing in this report that folks at the Fed are going to cheer. Even as nominal wage growth remains contained, inflation continues to run at troubling rates. Remember, the Fed is focused on core rather than headline inflation, and core is a more dismal story.
One year ago, in September 2021, the U.S. inflation rate was 5.4 percent, continuing a stretch of steadily high, but not quite astronomically high, inflation rates that had begun in April. By November, the rate had jumped to 7.8 percent, the largest year-over-year jump since 1982, and we knew we were entering once-in-a-generation territory. This September’s prices are 8.2 percent higher than those prices, which were already 5.4 percent higher than September 2020’s prices. In other words, we’re now well into our second year of exceptionally high inflation. For 19 straight months, the inflation rate has been higher than it was a year earlier.
CNBC reported that economists had expected the CPI to have risen 0.3 percent, up from 0.1 in August, and offered an ominous quote from Diane Swonk, KPMG’s chief economist:“The core inflation is going to be higher, so it’s still an inflation that hasn’t peaked yet in many ways. There’s still more risks of supply side shocks.”
Yesterday brought the update to the Producer Price Index, a less-discussed figure that measures the prices that suppliers are charging businesses and other customers. That number increased 0.4 percent from this August to this September, and 8.5 percent from last September to this September.
If inflation is cooling, you shouldn’t be seeing big jumps in the PPI number or the CPI number. You know that a lot of people wanted to see some glimmer of hope in those numbers, both for the sake of the country and for the sake of Democrats’ hopes in the midterms. But CNBC’s Jim Cramer couldn’t find a silver lining yesterday:
“It was just plain bad. There’s absolutely nothing to say about it other than it was bad. A lot of people were hoping this number’s going to be good, maybe accepting that tomorrow’s going to be bad,” he said on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “The only thing that’s actually even remotely positive about it is that there’s nothing that’s really shocking to the upside, it’s just kind of as bad as it’s been.”
“There’s no relief here . . . there’s just nothing good here,” he added.
All of this makes for a target-rich environment for Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents. You can picture the ad and debate lines already: The so-called Inflation Reduction Act was signed in August, and so far, it’s not doing a darn bit of good. The economy was already recovering in early 2021, and then Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the Democrats decided to throw another $1.9 trillion in cash into the economy — too much money chasing too few goods, driving prices up. Biden said in July 2021 that inflation was going to be temporary, and he declared in December that inflation had peaked, and he said in February that it would “taper off.” He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. He just keeps telling us to be patient and that things will get better. That’s not optimism; that’s stubborn denial. The Democrats always want to spend their way out of a problem, and when you’re in an inflation crisis, that’s like pumping gasoline onto a raging inferno. Just this month, Gavin Newsom started sending out $1,050 checks to California residents to “help with inflation.” That makes the problem worse! When too much money is chasing too few goods, giving people more money only drives the prices up further!
By the way, this morning in Politico, Victoria Guida begins her piece with, “Officials at the Federal Reserve and in the Biden administration are seeing promising signs that the U.S. might finally be through the worst of inflation.”
Yesterday, the Associated Press released a new poll revealing that 46 percent of Americans now call their personal financial situation “poor,” up from 37 percent in March. For perspective, in March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was shutting down American society, 38 percent said their personal financial situation was poor — and that number actually improved slightly in the subsequent months. Now, just 23 percent of respondents say they feel the U.S. economy is “good,” and intriguingly, “The drop since September came primarily among Democrats, from 46 percent then to 35 percent now.”
In other words, even the people who are most instinctively sympathetic to the argument that the economy is doing well aren’t buying the happy talk coming from the White House. Not that President Biden is changing his approach.
On Tuesday, Biden was interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, and he scoffed at JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s assessment that the U.S. is either already in a recession or will enter one in the near future.
“Look, they’ve been saying this now how — every six months, they say this,” Biden said. “Every six months, they look down the next six months, and say what’s going to happen. It hadn’t happened yet. It hadn’t been — there has — there is no — there’s no guarantee that there’s going to recession.”
As you probably know, the U.S. has experienced two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, which for a long time was the traditional definition of a recession.
Biden continued, “I don’t think there will be a recession. If it is, it will be a very slight recession. That is we’ll move down slightly. . . . It is possible. Look, it’s possible. I don’t anticipate it.”
The president didn’t anticipate 19 months of high inflation, either.