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Latest Issue

Inflation: More Transitory than Expected

September 17, 2021

If the inflation numbers leave you scratching your head, join the club. The August data was especially perplexing. The Producer Price Index came in hot, up 8.3% in the last year, inviting 1970s comparisons. Obviously, our current situation is different in many ways. But so were the 1970s, at first.

That was last Friday. On Tuesday the August Consumer Price Index data surprised in the opposite way, coming in lower than expected—but by no means “low.” Headline inflation rose 5.3% in the last 12 months.

Source: BLS

The pace may be slowing, though. The monthly CPI changes show an uptrend from January-June of this year, followed by two successively weaker months. But even 0.3% is higher than pre-COVID monthly inflation. If that pace continues, a year from now we will have experienced about 3.7% annual CPI growth.

That should be enough to meet the Fed’s inflation target and let it normalize policy. Whether it will do so or not, no one knows—not even the FOMC members. Today we’ll take another walk through the inflation debate. Is it still transitory or should we expect a light-1970s inflation going forward? The answer is critically important.

Measurement Problems

First a little history. Last May, Stephen Roach wrote a very important essay on inflation in the 1970s. He noted that Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns (Roach had just started his career at the Fed during that time) would claim that every inflationary impulse was simply transitory. By the mid-70s Burns was...

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