Yesterday saw a revealing insight into the establishment view of inflation. The world economic outlook of the International Monetary Fund was in general upbeat and positive but I noted this.

The outlook for advanced economies has improved, notably for the euro area, but in many countries inflation remains weak, indicating that slack has yet to be eliminated

You may note that it ignores the possible link between lower inflation and better economic growth in its rush to tell us that inflation below some arbitrary target is a bad thing. It really is old era economic thinking to say that low inflation is a sign of slack in the economy as well. Missing also is any thought that growth and inflation are being measured badly and that perhaps we have more inflation ( for example by factoring in one of the largest parts of any budget which is housing) and less growth than the IMF would like us to believe.

The same muddled thinking is evident in this excerpt as well.

Persistently low inflation in advanced economies, which could ensue if domestic demand were to falter, also carries significant risks, as it could lead to lower medium-term inflation expectations and interest rates, reducing central banks’ capacity to cut real interest rates in an economic downturn.

Central banks capacity to cut interest-rates was mostly reduced by them cutting them so much already! If that was the weapon implied here why would they need to do it again? Also as we know some central banks have been willing to employ negative interest-rates. If we move on in a word of low wage growth then most people would welcome low inflation and low inflation expectations. If we put this another way the IMF is skirting over the implication below in its view on asset valuations.

In advanced economies, monetary policy should remain accommodative until there are firm signs of inflation returning to targets. At the same time, stretched asset valuations

What are the inflation prospects?

So far in 2017 headline consumer inflation has been really rather low. For example the CPI in the Euro area is at 1.5% and the US CPI is at 1.9%. There was something of a warning though in the latest US data if we look at some of the detail.

Increases in the indexes for gasoline and shelter accounted for nearly all of the seasonally adjusted increase in the all items index. The energy index rose 2.8 percent in August as the gasoline index increased 6.3 percent.

So let us look at the oil price trend.

Crude Oil

If we look at the price of a barrel of Brent benchmark crude oil then we see it has been rising since late June when it dipped below US $45 per barrel as opposed to the US $56.62 as I type this. There have been various factors driving this of which one has been the economic growth described by the IMF. In addition there has been this factor according to Reuters.

A pact between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other producers including Russia to cut output by 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) in order to prop up prices is due to expire by the end of March 2018. Discussions to extend the pact are taking place, but production elsewhere is rising.

There has been doubt as to how the OPEC deal has actually held but from its point of view the last 3 months or so have been a success as the oil price has risen. The other factor is the shale oil wildcatters in the United States who will also be benefitting from the higher price for crude oil as we wait to see if they expand output. If you recall the cash flow business model for the shale oil wildcatters then 2017 has been a good year as income will have been strong as we note higher prices are being accompanied by this.

U.S. producers are not participating in any pledge to restrain supply, and output has risen by 10 percent this year to over 9.5 million bpd.

Other Commodities

Reuters calculates a commodity price index which is currently at 183.2 which is just under 4% lower than a year ago albeit like in the oil price there has been a rise since late June. Back then it had dipped to 166.5. If we look at the index which excludes energy prices we see that there is a familiar if more subdued pattern as it has risen from just below 116 to 123.6 now.

If we look at metals prices we see Metal Bulletin reporting this today.

The underlying trends in the base metals are upward but those metals in or near high ground seem to be having to absorb selling which is capping the upside, while copper and nickel prices that are still some way below the highs seem to be having an easier time working higher, but neither seems in any rush. We remain quietly bullish, but expect trading to become choppier as prices run into more bouts of scale-up selling.

Dr.Copper had seen quite a surge as a year ago it was US $2.17 as opposed to the US $3.06 now as we wait to see the next move. I guess churches will be nervous about their copper pipes and roofs again. By contrast the Iron Ore price has been heading south at a rapid rate recently and this morning has fallen below the US $60 mark.

Benchmark Australian iron ore fines dropped 4.1% Tuesday to a three-month low of $59.1 a tonne, based on data provided by The Steel Index, taking losses since the start of September to more than 20%. ( Mining.com)

They attribute the fall to this factors.

Iron ore prices continued their downward trend Tuesday amid ongoing concerns that looming steel production cuts in China on environmental grounds will sap steel mill demand……..At the same time, supply from Australia — the world’s No. 1 iron ore producer — has risen,further pressuring prices.

Food Prices

The United Nations calculates an index for this.

The FAO Food Price Index* (FFPI) averaged 178.4 points in September 2017, up 1.4 points (0.8 percent) from August and 7.4 points (4.3 percent) above September 2016. Firmer prices in the vegetable oil and dairy sectors were behind the small month-on-month rise in the value of the FFPI.

So a rise overall which is influenced by the 27% rise in dairy prices over the past year as we note the influence of the butter shortage. Mind you if you have a sweet tooth and are a Maroon 5 fan the news is much better as the sugar price has fallen by 33% over the past year.

Comment

We see that there has been a nudge higher in the beginnings of the inflation food chain over the past 3 months or so. Much of this has been the higher oil price but there have been rises in some metal prices too although not Iron Ore. However whilst the trend is low especially for this stage in the economic cycle it can still be damaging. The rising cost of one of the basic essentials ( housing/shelter ) in many places is mostly ignored and at other times claimed as growth. Secondly the fact is that wage growth is overall low too so that pockets of real wage growth are also much less abundant that we would usually expect in a boom. If the IMF gets the inflation it seems to want there is no guarantee that wages would rise as well so it would have made us all worse off.

So in essence if we look at food and energy prices they are the major players in the consumer inflation measures we have and of course the central banks and IMF try to ignore them as “non-core.” Oh well…….