Wednesday 12 May 2021 5:15 am

As economies reopen, inflation fears return with a vengeance

London’s FTSE 100 is on course for its worst day in three weeks this afternoon amid inflation concerns.

Inflation has never really been away. It’s been a central theme that has dominated conversations among economists, analysts and bankers over the past few months, and more specifically, the possibility that it is about to take off.

There are several strands to these concerns, particularly with regards to the current market conditions across the pond, acording to City-based Neil Shearing, group chief economist at Capital Economics,

Firstly, there are fears that a combination of persistently large government budget deficits, alongside an institutional softening of attitudes within the world’s major central banks, will pave the way to an era of much higher inflation which lasts for years, if not decades.

“There is something to this, although the risks vary between countries and comparisons with the inflation of the 1970s are generally overdone,” Shearing told City A.M. this afternoon.

A more immediate concern, however, is that the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions will unleash a surge in demand that firms will struggle to meet, thus putting upward pressure on prices and generating a burst of inflation.

In this regard, the April PMI surveys, which were released last week, may have provided a taste of what is to come.

“A common theme across all countries and regions was a lengthening of supplier delivery times and a rise in input and output price balances. Add in continued increases in global commodity prices, and all the ingredients for a rise in inflation are there,” Shearing explained.

“Before the pandemic, monthly CPI releases tended to pass without much comment. Now they will be scoured for any evidence of a post-pandemic jump in inflation,” he added.

But what scenarios could unfold in the next few months? Shearing said three things stand out.

Opening up inflation 

The first issue markets will closely whatch is evidence of what might be termed ‘opening up’ inflation.

This is likely to appear in goods and services for which there is a surge in demand as restrictions are lifted such as hotels, restaurants, airfares and clothing.

“The extent of pent-up demand in these areas means that, even in the best of times, supply might struggle to keep pace. But in some areas, restaurants, for example, continuing social-distancing measures will compound the demand and supply imbalance,” Shearing noted.

Opening up disinflation

The second issue is the risk of ‘opening up” disinflation. Some goods, including IT equipment and groceries, saw sharp increases in demand and prices as people were forced to stay at home.

Basically, these components should see the reverse of ‘reopening inflation’, meaning that price pressures should ease as demand starts to level off.

“In some cases, however, the severe supply shortages that were created by a surge in demand during the pandemic are likely to linger for many months and limit the extent of any disinflationary pressure,” Shearing said.

“This is particularly true of consumer electronics,” he added.

Commodities-related inflation

Finally, markets will increasingly look out for any evidence that points towards ‘commodities-related inflation’.

For example, oil prices have recovered from their slump at the start of the pandemic and metal and grain prices have surged far above pre-pandemic levels.

“These developments are already boosting inflation and will continue to do so in the near term,” Shearing shared.

“The extent to which they exert further upward pressure on inflation beyond the next six months or so will depend on whether the increase in commodity prices is sustained,” he noted.

Importantly, since inflation measures the change in prices from a year ago, Shearing stressed that is the pace of any future increase that matter.

“Commodity prices have to continue to increase at their current pace in order for the impact on inflation to be sustained. If they level out – never mind fall back, as I expect – the effect on inflation will move from significant to neutral in 2022,” he explained.

More complex calculations

The task of tracking these different shifts is complicated by the effect the pandemic’s disruptions have had on calculating inflation data.

“On a practical level, statistics offices have faced the problem of having to measure prices when many items are simply not available for purchase due to lockdowns,” Shearing said.

They also need to account for shifts in the timing of seasonal sales caused by the pandemic, he pointed out. And they must grapple with a shift in consumption habits due to lockdowns which then needs to be reflected in the weights within inflation baskets.

“All of this means that ‘measured’ inflation, which is to say the monthly figure reported by statistics offices, may differ from the true rate of inflation on the ground,” he warned.

Uncomfortable reading

Ultimately, Shearing said that, all things considered, there is much greater scope for a rebound in inflation in the US than in Europe or Japan.

“This is due in part to distortions caused by measurement issues,” he said.

The fact that US states imposed relatively light-touch lockdowns meant that the statisticians were better able to capture the full extent of price falls in categories most affected by pandemic-related restrictions, such as airfares.

In contrast, their counterparts in Europe were forced to impute prices for items that could no longer be purchased.

“This meant that measured prices for these items fell in the US but didn’t in Europe, meaning there is now much greater scope for measured inflation in the US to rebound as restrictions are lifted,” Shearing pointed out.

But the scale of fiscal stimulus in the US also makes it more likely that a rebound in ‘reported’ inflation does not prove “as transitory” as many expect, including members of the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

Instead, it seems more likely that supply fails to keep pace with demand, thus keeping core inflation elevated over the next couple of years.

“US inflation data will make for increasingly uncomfortable reading over the coming months. If that’s the case it will test the Fed’s commitment to keeping policy support in place,” Shearing concluded.