This week, Lou Barnes talks inflation. The overheated economy type of inflation.

Welcome to the Check Republic
Commentary: Economy glass half empty or half full?
By Lou Barnes

Mortgages and 10-year T-notes tried their tops all week long (6.25 percent and 3.92 percent, respectively), looking like they would break upward … and held. Rates have improved today, but a run into the fives will require a weakening economy. Name your poison.

The stock market’s persistent strength makes sense to all who believe that the economy bottomed in March, that we will not have a real recession, that the credit markets are healing quickly, that overseas strength will prop our economy and big-business profits, and that the tax-rebate checks will ensure a good summer.

Piece of cake. Traders call it the Check Republic.

Some data support that argument. A little. The NFIB small-business index stabilized in April, but only a half-tick above March, the worst in 28 years. New claims for unemployment insurance are flat but high. The turndown in rates late Thursday followed reports contrary to worst-is-over: April industrial production tanked 0.8 percent, and capacity in use fell to 79.7 percent, the first time under 80 percent since 2005 recovery. Consumer confidence fell again, now to a June 1980 level (I remember, and would rather not).

The big unknown is overseas. Retail sales in China rose an annualized 22 percent last month; one-third of that gain was inflation at 8.5 percent, GDP 10.5 percent (after inflation). How long can that oil- and commodity-popping growth continue? Europe is in a worse collision between central banks, inflation and growth than we are, the UK worst of all: inflation out of bounds above 3 percent, house prices and economy crumbling, the Bank of England unable to cut from its 5 percent benchmark, where our Fed was last August.

April CPI rose only 0.2 percent overall, and the core rate just 0.1 percent, as gasoline prices were “seasonally adjusted” to a 0.2 percent decline. That report triggered widespread rage among civilians, and contempt among bond traders (CNBC captured a crew wearing chef’s hats to protest cooked numbers). These objections are foolish. The Fed understands distortions, studies dozens of inflation indicators, and has no interest in political cover from artificially low reports.

Given that argument, and the preserve-economy/fight-inflation conundrum facing the world’s central banks, herewith a brief review of inflation principles.

Classically, inflation is “Too much money chasing too few goods and services.” Note that both “toos” are relative, hence two different kinds of inflation: cost-pushed and demand-pulled. Note further two different sorts of demand-pulled: the money-printing kind (Weimar 1922-23) and the often-associated but different demand from an “overheated” economy. The deadly dangerous inflation virus: when the two forms of demand-pulled combine into a “wage-price spiral.”

Inflation in the U.S. today is cost-pushed. The Fed is not printing money in its efforts to resolve the crunch, nor does its 2 percent cost of money reflect easy credit. Credit today is much tighter than when the wheels came off last August. The exquisite discomfort here is caused by fixed incomes (wages capped by foreign competition) versus rising costs for energy, food and health care. Other than pain, the effect is to force households to shrink spending on everything other than the three pushers. Deflationary!

In mainland Europe and in the UK inflation rates are similar to the U.S., but inflexible labor markets (unions and laws) prop up wages and threaten a wage-price spiral; that threat forces higher central bank rates there than here, ECB at 4 percent vs. our Fed’s 2 percent.

Asia, India, Russia, the Middle East and several emerging nations are in full-blown wage-price spiral and overheating beyond capacity, to a degree and kind making the 1970s U.S. look disciplined. The authorities in none of these places appear to have the political clout to tap the brakes, let alone to stand on them.

Here, the Fed is trying exactly what it must: keep GDP growth close to zero — not going negative if it can — until cost pressure subsides. In the Eurozone, it’s the same deal but lagged six months to a year. Then (all on knees to pray) the slowdown will spread to Asia, breaking commodity and food prices, and perhaps mortgage rates as well.

Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker and nationally syndicated columnist based in Boulder, Colo. He can be reached at lbarnes@boulderwest.com.

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