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Two big inflation stories emerge

·4 min read
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This article first appeared in the Morning Brief. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Pandemic pressures linger but new pressures emerge

June's inflation data was a barnburner. 

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics published Tuesday showed the consumer price index (CPI) rose 5.4% over last year on a headline basis, and 4.5% on a core basis. That measure strips out the more volatile components of food and energy. 

These readings were the highest since August 2008 and November 1991, respectively. Then again, eye-popping headline inflation reports are largely what economists expected to see this year

The big debate in markets over the last several months has thus been about whether these inflation readings would come and go (proving "transitory"), or whether higher prices are here to stay. 

Tuesday's data did just about nothing to resolve this debate. Transitory categories are clearly on fire. But the question now emerging is whether more durable pricing pressures are starting to crop up.  

Used car and truck prices rose 10.5% over last month in June, the most on record. New car prices also rose by the most since 1981, increasing 2% month-over-month. These gains in the auto market accounted for more than half of the monthly increase in core CPI, which rose 0.88% last month. 

The increase in new and used car prices were responsible for 0.51% of that increase, according to data from Bank of America (BofA) Global Research.

BofA's Michelle Meyer also noted that if you include lodging and transportation services — which cover hotels and rental cars, for instance — you can account for 0.7% of June's 0.88% gain from just four categories. Categories which are clearly being influenced by demand crunches, supply disruptions, and a summer vacation season in which people are making up for a lost summer.

Thus, the "transitory" story that just a few categories are driving these eye-popping inflation readings is plain to see.

But Meyer found that a 0.18% monthly increase in core CPI, or what's leftover when we back out of pandemic-centric trends, would in normal times be "a relatively healthy increase in prices."

"In other words," Meyer wrote, "even without all the transitory strength, other components of inflation were solid — the aforementioned [owners' equivalent rent] pickup likely being the primary driver." Owners' equivalent rent, which accounts for just under 25% of the entire CPI basket, rose 0.3% in June.

And while strategists and investors will often look to sources outside the government's official data to get a sense of pricing trends, even this data isn't conclusive. 

"[Some] private sector data tracking rents show much more strengthening than the CPI data in recent months," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. macro strategist at TD Securities, in a note on Tuesday. However, he added that "the same data showed much more weakening in 2020." 

In other words, the base effects — or the extent to which price increases reflect past downturns more than present pressures — could be distorting this private data more than the BLS' figures.

Inflation pressures outside re-opening categories also appear to be building. And while food costs are excluded from core CPI, they are not excluded from household budgets: my colleague Brian Sozzi noted Tuesday that several packaged food companies have talked up price increases in recent weeks. 

Most notably, PepsiCo (PEP) CFO Hugh Johnston told Yahoo Finance in an interview on Tuesday the company will be raising prices after Labor Day, even after a 5% increase during the most recent quarter in its North America business.

Last week, we looked at two different data points that suggested inflation pressures might be easing in the economy. Yet, Tuesday's report makes it clear that call is too early to make.

"All in all," O'Sullivan adds, "very strong core data again, but the strength can probably still be viewed as 'largely' transitory, as suggested by the Fed officials in the FOMC statement. Of course, 'largely' does not necessarily mean 'entirely.' In any event, the 'transitory debate' is unlikely to be resolved by this report."

And so the conversation continues. 

By Myles Udland, reporter and anchor for Yahoo Finance Live. Follow him at @MylesUdland

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