The story of US inflation in 2021 could very well come down to this: it’s all a mirage.
Americans will likely see prices rise in various sectors next year, in part thanks to COVID-19 vaccines this will potentially increase the demand for pandemic victims such as travel and tickets to sporting events.
With the prices of certain inputs like copper and lumber rising, inflation could very well meet or exceed the Federal Reserve’s 2% target within a few months. Financial markets increasingly forecast higher inflation in the coming years, and debates over whether the central bank should start easing its record monetary stimulus could intensify.
But one essential ingredient will be missing to support higher inflation: labor market.
Many economists ignore the chances of a more lasting acceleration and note that while inflation indicators appear to increase in the coming months, this is in part a reflection of the math. Unemployment is expected to remain high throughout the year, and a resurgence in demand for services may be offset by low rents and some goods such as used cars.
“We think inflation is going to be eased because unemployment will always be high,” said Michael Feroli, chief US economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. “There will still be a slowdown in the labor market, which will keep some pressure on wages.”
On Thursday, the Ministry of Labor will publish its consumer price index for November. The median forecast of economists polled by Bloomberg calls for a moderate increase of 1.1% year over year.
Forecasters polled by Bloomberg generally expect inflation to temporarily rise above 2% in the second quarter of 2021 before falling back to that level or slightly below.
However, investors are increasingly betting that inflation will not stay so subdued.
The 10-year break-even rate – a market-based measure of average inflation rates over the next decade – hit 1.91% on Friday, its highest level since May 2019. This key indicator, taken from Inflation-protected securities and standard Treasuries, have since surged hitting an 11-year low of 0.47% in March.
This year’s sluggish spending on services is likely to give way to a resurgence throughout 2021 as the country gets vaccinated. This means Americans will be more comfortable participating in activities such as trips to Disney World, attending Major League Baseball games, and enjoying meals inside their favorite restaurant – developments that can empower service providers to raise prices.
Services account for around 60% of the overall consumer price index and 75% of the base measure, which excludes food and energy.
In a Bloomberg notice room Former New York Fed chairman Bill Dudley last week wrote that a rebound in spending on services suggests that “sharp price increases may even be needed to balance demand with available supply, that the pandemic has undoubtedly mitigated.
The result: Those who see few signs of excessive inflation “might be preparing for a nasty surprise,” Dudley said.
An ongoing problem: the so-called base effects will cause inflation to rise. Price indexes at the start of next year will be compared to the sharp drops in March and April, which could push inflation towards or above the Fed’s 2% target.
The gauges of input prices and costs paid by companies have also improved in recent times, although factories still have a lot of room to maneuver.
Fed officials are taking next year’s data fast. The Fed’s target is based on the Commerce Department’s personal consumption expenditure price index, which tends to rise slightly more slowly than the CPI on average. Central bankers have adopted a new policyframein August and signaled a willingness to allow PCE inflation to exceed their target for a while.
“In 2019, we had a really perfect storm for higher inflation,” with low unemployment, tariffs on goods and a weaker dollar compared to previous years, said Matthew Luzzetti, economist in American chef at German Bank AG. “And that really didn’t get us back to the Fed’s core inflation target, so getting inflation above the target is a really tough thing for the Fed.
At 6.7% in November, the unemployment rate is almost twice as high as it was in the closing months of 2019, when it was at a five-decade low of 3.5%. Yet workers’ compensation costs slowed down.
Healthcare is another sector that could see higher inflation as providers attempt to recoup some of the revenue lost during the pandemic, said Sarah House, senior economist at Wells fargo & Co.
Still, the number of vacant units, along with continued financial hardship for tenants, will limit rents, House said.
Another factor is that “inflation expectations remain well within their historical range,” House said.
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