A PEEK AT PEAK INFLATION: FIVE SIGNALS TO WATCH FOR
Barry Gilbert, PhD, CFA, Asset Allocation Strategist, LPL Financial
George Henry Smith, CFA, CAIA, CIPM Senior Analyst, LPL Financial
After an updside inflation surprise in October, it’s clear that peak inflation may still be ahead, possibly even pushing into 2022. While the Federal Reserve (Fed) maintains its position that elevated inflation will be transitory, we have yet to see progress. Below we look at five signs to watch for over the next several months that may signal that inflation may be near or at its peak.
The October reading for the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the most widely known measure of inflation, came with an upside surprise versus expectations on top of already elevated inflation concerns. The headline number came in at 0.9% for the month and 6.2% for the year, the highest reading since November 1990. The core reading (which excludes food and energy prices) rose 0.6% for the month and 4.6% for the year—the highest since August 1991.
Elevated inflation continues to be largely driven by pandemic-related dynamics—primarily supply chain challenges and tight labor markets combined with high demand as the global economy bounces back. The COVID-19 Delta variant has deepened those problems in unexpected ways, although we cautioned in the early days of the surge that further supply chain disruptions were likely. Calling inflation “transitory” has not really captured these inflation dynamics well. Elevated inflation will last as long as supply chain bottlenecks and hiring challenges remain in place. As those dynamics subside, we expect inflation to return to something close to 2%, but we believe that’s more of a 2023 conversation.
But market participants don’t need to wait until CPI is back under 3% to feel a sense of relief. It would be enough to know that we’re past the peak, something that might not happen until 2022. In fact, since markets are forward looking, it may be enough to have a “peek at the peak.” Here are five signs to watch for that peak inflation, if not immediately at hand, may be in the near future.
Current inflationary pressure is primarily about supply chain disruptions, the inability to get product to market (whether because of labor and material shortages), the inability to maintain needed inventory, or logistical disruptions. Supply chains will heal over time—businesses have a strong profit incentive to address supply chain challenges. But there are structural constraints on how quickly progress takes place that businesses can’t control.
To take one high profile anecdotal example of supply chain disruptions and the impact of structural problems, there are currently over 100 container ships waiting to unload off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. Before the pandemic, the worst backup was under 20. But the needed equipment, space, workers to accelerate progress simply isn’t available on demand.
Our best peek at how supply chains are doing may be purchasing managers’ index (PMI) readings. Supply-chain related readings from the Institute for Supply Management’s October release has shown some improvement in places, but disruptions remain elevated. The reading on order backlogs peaked in May, but at 63.6 remains well above its long-term median of just above 50 (above 50 indicates higher backlogs from the previous month).
Likewise, supplier deliveries also peaked in May but has moved higher the last two months and was at a very elevated 75.6 in October. Readings in the mid to low 50s for both of these sub-indexes would probably be needed to indicate we were on the cusp of significant improvement to supply chain problems.
HOUSING AND RENTS
Shelter excluding energy costs, essentially housing costs and rents, makes up about 1/3 of CPI and just over 40% of core CPI (excluding food and energy). Costs for housing have picked up on a year-over-year basis but, unlike some other measures of inflation, it has not yet hit a high dating back to the 1990s [Figure 1]. In fact, current one-year housing inflation, at 3.5%, is lower than its 2019 peak. Nevertheless, housing costs have jumped the last three months and housing inflation is a concern—both because it represents such a high proportion of consumer spending and because it tends to be relatively sticky. Base effects (rolling low numbers off the one-year reading) will likely help push annual shelter inflation higher until April 2022, so looking at monthly numbers will be important. Consecutive monthly readings near 0.3% would be a good sign that housing costs have stabilized but, even at that level, the year-over-year number could continue to climb in the first several months of 2022.