Inflation is not something we’re used to worrying about.
In fact, the only Americans with real memories of runaway inflation and its effect on household finances are likely to be those over the age of 60.
Remember (or don’t): US inflation peaked at 14.7% in March and April 1980, with the economy experiencing “stagflation,” a nightmare scenario characterized by weak growth and rising prices.
The Federal Reserve finally got inflation under control when former Chair Paul Volcker constricted the money supply and sent interest rates higher. Rates on conventional 30-year mortgages peaked at 18.45%, but prices moderated and people dependent on fixed incomes breathed a sigh a relief.
The Fed’s job wasn’t an easy one. Getting price rises under control was “a lot tougher than I would’ve imagined,” Volcker once told the Wall Street Journal.
“It took longer,” he said. “I was a bit taken aback. The first actions that were taken, nobody stood up and saluted. They all said, ‘This is more bullshit from the Federal Reserve.’ “
What goes around? Many investors are too young to remember the bad old days of rampant inflation, or indeed, weren’t even born (like the teens targeted by Fidelity — keep reading for more on that.) But that hasn’t stopped inflation fears from dominating market sentiment in recent months.
Investors around the world are concerned that central banks will respond to rising prices by hiking interest rates and pulling back stimulus earlier than expected. The big question is whether inflation will prove fleeting.
The latest: Consumer price inflation doubled in the United Kingdom from 0.7% in March to 1.5% in April, according to data released Wednesday. The annual inflation rate in the European Union was 2% in April, up from 1.7% in March. The rate was just 0.7% a year ago as the pandemic began to spread across the continent.
Higher inflation in Europe comes after US consumer prices advanced 4.2% in April from a year earlier, the biggest increase since the height of the global financial crisis in September 2008.
Meanwhile: The cost of everything needed for China’s post-pandemic infrastructure boom, from steel and coal to glass and cement, is soaring.
The price of rebar, a type of steel used to reinforce concrete, recently hit $965 per metric ton in Shanghai, up 40% this year, and a new record high. Iron ore, which is used to make steel, has topped $194 per metric ton on the Dalian Futures Exchange, a 25% increase since the start of the year.
Right, so. Back to the big question: Is inflation here to stay? The truth is that nobody really knows.
“Either the US inflation uptick is temporary, or the Fed is dangerously complacent. Either way, we’re going to see tolerance of higher inflation tested further in the months ahead,” said Societe Generale analyst Kit Juckes.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who writes a column for the New York Times, argues that US inflation figures are being bloated by temporary factors including supply bottlenecks caused by the pandemic.
He wrote last week that policymakers should “keep their cool.”
“This doesn’t look at all like 1970s stagflation redux; it looks like a temporary blip, reflecting transitory disruptions as the economy struggles to recover from pandemic disruptions,” he wrote.
But not everyone agrees. In the United Kingdom, a similar debate is playing out among economists.
Ruth Gregory, a senior economist at Capital Economics, said Wednesday that energy prices were the major driver of inflation in April, and that price hikes won’t trouble the Bank of England until late 2023.
But Kallum Pickering of Berenberg Bank said the data is a reminder that “inflation is not dead,” suggesting that investors should remain alert.
“While the monthly surge is not the start of a sudden bout of excess inflation, the market should pay attention to the ongoing rise nonetheless. We do not believe that higher inflation will be fully transitory as many in markets contend and as global central bankers seem to presume,” he said.
Is the online sales bonanza slowing?
It’s been a blockbuster year for e-commerce. But there are signs the frenzy sparked by the pandemic may be easing.
Walmart reported Tuesday that its e-commerce sales increased by 37% in the first three months of the year. Sales more than doubled over the last two years, it added. But growth slowed from 69% in the fourth quarter.
It’s a similar story at Home Depot, where digital sales increased by 27% in the first quarter, the company reported Tuesday. That compares to an eye-popping 83% digital growth figure for the fourth quarter of 2020.
The data is the latest indication that some consumers are shifting their buying patterns as the pandemic fades. For companies that sell both online and in stores, the trick is figuring out how much coronavirus behavior will stick.
Investors will get more retail data on Wednesday. JD.com, Lowe’s, Target and TJX report results before US markets open.
So your teen wants to be the next Warren Buffett?
Warren Buffett, the world’s most famous investor, is 90. But there are plenty of people much, much younger who are interested in stocks. Fidelity is going after that market.
The brokerage giant announced Tuesday that it is setting up a new Fidelity Youth Account plan for 13- to 17-year olds. Moms and dads will have full access to monitor their kids’ spending and investing activity.
Fidelity told my colleague Paul R. La Monica that parents and children both must sign customer agreements but “ultimately the parent is responsible for the activity in the account.” Teenage investors will have some autonomy, however, as parental approval is not required to make transactions.
In case you were wondering: The teens’ accounts don’t include any access or links to their parents’ accounts. So moms and dads won’t have to worry about junior tanking their retirement portfolios with rogue stock picks.
JD.com, Lowe’s, Target and TJX report results before US markets open. Cisco and L Brands report after the close.
- EIA crude oil inventories at 10:30 a.m. ET
- Minutes from April’s Fed meeting are out at 2:00 p.m. ET
Coming tomorrow: Earnings from Kohl’s and Applied Materials.