The Inflation Watch

The U.S. got some economic news yesterday that is designed to unsettle those of us with more than a few years under our belts. The Consumer Price Index rose 5.4 percent in June, year over year, which was higher than analyst expectations. It’s the highest year over year increase since 2008. And while economists expected some inflation—it’s hard to avoid when stimulus checks are being sent to millions and government spending has exploded—the magnitude of the increase shown by the June data was greater than the forecasts.

Inflation data can be broken down in many ways, because of course prices for all goods and services don’t rise at uniform rates. Some observers noted that the “core” inflation rate, which strips out more volatile food and energy costs, was 4.5 percent—the highest increase since November 1991. Others argue that the rates are being driven by increases in some sectors, like in the cost of used cars, that seem to be reflecting a short-term imbalance of supply and demand that will work itself out. And still others note that the energy sector, and the skyrocketing cost of fuel, will have a ripple effect that can be expected to drive further increases in other areas, like food and many consumer goods, where transportation costs are factored in to prices. Nobody quite knows what might be coming next month, or later this year.

If, like me, you lived through the ‘70s, news about growing inflation is like fingernails on a chalkboard. An inflationary cycle means your paychecks buy less, because pay increases never quite catch up to prices, and it means the money that you’ve carefully saved and invested is worth less—a result that punishes prudent and responsible behavior. Retirees and people on fixed incomes get crushed and find that their nest egg has become a lot smaller than they thought.

And we veterans of the ‘70s and early ‘80s also remember that the cure for inflation—high interest rates and tight monetary policy that consciously stifles economic growth and produces high unemployment rates—is no treat, either.

Economists will be watching to see if this price spike is transitory, or is the first sign that we are on the road to a bad long-term inflationary period. I’ll be watching, too, and hoping that our economy isn’t cycling back to the ‘70s mode.