In Epsilon Theory notes, we use a lot of images of politicians and bankers shaking their fingers at us, because it’s a great way to communicate what we mean by Fiat News – the proclamation of opinion as fact. Fiat News is to hard news what fiat money is to hard money, and like fiat money, it’s a dominant transactional medium in modern human society.
When a famous person shakes his or her finger at you, they’re not telling you a fact.
They’re telling you how to think about a fact.
For the past six months or so, the Federal Reserve and US Treasury have made a concerted and highly intentional effort to shake their collective finger at us and tell us how to think about inflation. This effort to encourage doubleplusgood thinking about inflation has a number of tenets, the most fundamental being that there’s really no need to think about inflation at all. Every measurement you see about inflation in 2021 is impossibly corrupted by the year-over-year comparison to a pandemic-depressed economy, so it’s probably best if you just avert your eyes entirely. To the degree you do peek at the numbers and think about inflation, rest assured that it will be “transitory”, and to the degree it’s not transitory, rest assured that it is actually a good thing and what the Fed wanted all along, and to the degree it’s not a good thing and what the Fed wanted all along, rest assured that the Fed has all the “tools” it needs to bring this puppy to heel.
I’ve put the words “transitory” and “tools” in quotation marks, because these are articles of faith, not real words with real meaning as we might use them in the real world. They are tautologies, meaning that they are by definition always true and impossible to prove wrong. Of course inflation is transitory. Everything human is transitory. Of course the Fed has all the tools it needs. The Fed can literally do anything it wants with the made-up entity we call the US dollar. This “debate” (again quotation marks, because again the word is being used in a way that has no real meaning) over the is-it-or-isn’t-it transitory nature of inflation is just utterly tiresome. It’s full of sound and fury, and yet it signifies nothing.
Here, let me clear this up for you: over the weeks and months and years to come, the Fed and its Renfields will shake their collective finger at you and proclaim that, indeed, inflation was transitory and their tools worked exactly as planned. They will point to certain aspects of the real world as evidence. They will speak the magic words of “transitory” and “tools” with new inflections and slightly differing emphasis. Many market participants will believe this to be true. Almost all market participants will act as if they believe this to be true. This is how common knowledge works. This is how the game of markets works.
The proclaimed real world – the Fiat World – will always conform to the tautologies and articles of faith of a theocracy, not the other way around, because that’s what it means to have an institutional structure built around faith. This is true whether you’re talking about an institutional structure built around faith in a god, an institutional structure built around faith in a sports team, an institutional structure built around faith in a political ideology, or an institutional structure built around faith in the social scientific management of an economy.
There are two ways in which Fiat World conforms to a tautology – either the common understanding of that tautology is stretched to include whatever the real world is presenting (“you thought transitory meant six months? foolish child! everyone knows that transitory means eighteen months!”) OR the measurement of the real world is constrained to fit within the common understanding of the tautology (“after adjusting Patrick Mahomes’ stats, removing outliers to project the future, he heavily regresses to around the level of 2018 Dak“). The former can be costly if you have formidable political adversaries (“sir, did you or did you not testify that transitory meant six months? perhaps this transcript will refresh your memory.”), so it’s usually a last-ditch effort by the incumbent clergy. But the latter is just tweaking one cartoon (literally, an abstraction of an abstraction, like a statistical representation of an NFL quarterback’s performance metrics … or hourly wage data) for another. That’s easy. And that’s the stage we’re in with the transitory inflation “debate”.
The tweet on the left was put out by the Cleveland Fed yesterday, reinforcing recent tweets and New York Times posts by Paul Krugman, where he argues that a truer picture of inflation “inertia” can be found by further constraining the already-constrained personal consumption expenditure (PCE) cartoon of US inflation by eliminating the “outliers” and taking the median category’s inflation reading instead of an average of all the categories.
Here’s the Cleveland Fed chart of median PCE (gold) versus headline PCE (green) and core PCE (blue) in greater detail.
To which I’d reply that the median high temperature in Portland this month was 82 degrees.
To which I’d reply that the Fed can use a median measure of inflation just as soon as I can pay a median measure of my bills.
More seriously, I’d reply that if median PCE were a truer picture of inflation, then why weren’t the HIgh Priests of the Fed Church calling this out in 2015 and 2016 when core PCE was running “stubbornly” low (that’s the favorite word for the Fed Church … stubbornly … like a mule that just needs to be whacked with a two-by-four), and median PCE was consistently running hotter than the Fed’s 2% target? But no, the constant message from Fed missionaries for the past decade has been that awkshually, “true” measures of inflation clearly show that the Fed should proclaim, not just more monetary policy accommodation, but MOAR! accommodation. The message has never been that awkshually, “true” measures of inflation show there’s nothing to be worried about. Until now.
More seriously, I’d reply that this is how inflation works, as a rolling series of shocks through one goods/service category after another, not as a steady increase across all categories simultaneously.
If you haven’t yet read Stephen Roach’s mini-memoir of the Arthur Burns Fed papacy, you really must. It’s chef’s kiss good. Here’s an extended quote.
When US oil prices quadrupled following the OPEC oil embargo in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Burns argued that, since this had nothing to do with monetary policy, the Fed should exclude oil and energy-related products (such as home heating oil and electricity) from the consumer price index.
Then came surging food prices, which Burns surmised in 1973 were traceable to unusual weather – specifically, an El Niño event that had decimated Peruvian anchovies in 1972. He insisted that this was the source of rising fertilizer and feedstock prices, in turn driving up beef, poultry, and pork prices. Like good soldiers, we gulped and followed his order to take food – which had a weight of 25% – out of the CPI.
Burns didn’t stop there. Over the next few years, he periodically uncovered similar idiosyncratic developments affecting the prices of mobile homes, used cars, children’s toys, even women’s jewelry (gold mania, he dubbed it); he also raised questions about homeownership costs, which accounted for another 16% of the CPI. Take them all out, he insisted!
By the time Burns was done, only about 35% of the CPI was left – and it was rising at a double-digit rate! Only at that point, in 1975, did Burns concede – far too late – that the United States had an inflation problem. The painful lesson: ignore so-called transitory factors at great peril.
I think inflation is now well and truly embedded in expectations for wages and prices and the core assets of the US economy (cars and houses and stonks). I think the reversal of globalization and the expansion of fiscal stimulus provide powerful tail winds for those expectations. I think that expectations are the only thing that really matter. That’s what I think.
But I do not know what the inflation Truth with a capital T is today. Neither do you. Neither does Jay Powell.
The only thing I know is that it took about three years for Fiat World to be whittled away by the real world in the 1970s. The only thing I know is that it’s highly unlikely for that process to happen any quicker today, no matter what the real world inflation Truth might be. The only thing I know is that we will be “debating” the “transitory” nature of inflation and the efficacy of the Fed’s “tools” for that entire time. The only thing I know is that this is a debate that the Fed will always win, until an equally powerful institutional structure built around faith proclaims an alternative vision of the world with alternative tautologies and alternative articles of faith.
And then the real conflict begins.