Will We Finally See Higher Inflation in 2021?
by Rob Stoll, CFP®, CFA Financial Advisor & Chief Financial Officer / February 18, 2021
There’s been increasing chatter in the market about inflation. Reported inflation numbers from the government have repeatedly failed to rise above the Federal Reserve’s 2.0% target. But with another round of stimulus underway and consumer spending booming, will we finally see higher inflation in 2021?
The Backstory: Inflation Falls Short of Fed’s Target
Investors haven’t had to grapple with the prospect of higher inflation for a long time. At least, not officially. The reason is that the reported numbers from the Federal government have consistently failed to reach the Federal Reserve’s arbitrary inflation target of 2.0%.
Since adopting a 2.0% inflation target in early 2012, Federal Reserve policy has failed to deliver on its stated goals. They’ve kept short-term interest rates at near-zero levels and have consistently bought U.S. Treasury bonds to keep long-term bond yields low. Nothing has worked.
In response, they adopted a new policy in 2020 to target an “average” inflation rate of 2.0%. The nuance in language basically means they’ll allow inflation to move above its target for a period of time before tightening monetary policy to bring it back down.
This change in policy created a stir with investors, as it implies the Fed will keep monetary policy loose for a lot longer than normally expected. This is a key reason the stock market continues to surge to record highs.
Beware of Inflation “Base Effects” in 2021
The chart above is a “core” index of price changes. That means it excludes stuff like food and energy prices, as those prices are much more volatile. Nevermind that for most families, food and energy are pretty important budget items! (More on this in a bit)
If we look at an inflation index of “all items” – including food & energy – we see a lot more volatility in the numbers.
You’ll notice that in April and May last year inflation took a dive. This was because oil prices collapsed as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded onto the scene. In fact, prices went NEGATIVE, as we noted at the time.
Oil prices have since recovered their pre-pandemic levels, rising to above $60 in the last week. And other commodities have surged in recent months as well.
Why does this surge in energy and agricultural prices matter? Because it will cause the inflation “all items” index to rise as well. And based on our projections, inflation in April and May could top 3.0%. In economist-speak, they call this a “base effect” whereby you lap an abnormally low number a year ago with a higher number this year.
Given that the Fed focuses on inflation excluding food & energy, this rise shouldn’t matter. But we all know how Big Media works. And you can bet that headlines about higher inflation will be screaming this Spring. Given how sensitive the Fed is to controlling its narrative, these headlines will no doubt cause consternation within the Fed.
So answering the question in this post: “Will we see higher inflation in 2021?” the answer is “absolutely!”
Low Official Inflation Doesn’t Equal Low Cost of Living
Anyone with a pulse that lives outside of the Washington, DC bubble knows that inflation is higher than what “official” government stats seem to show. Are we really to believe that inflation excluding food & energy has averaged only 1.7% in the last 20 years?
We’ve worked with many people on their budgets and have a pretty good idea of what people spend on. A simple look at the major spending categories for the vast majority of families out there reveals the real truth about inflation.
Other than clothing, almost every major spending category has seen inflation higher than 2.0% since 1999. And if you live in the Great State of Illinois, you know our property taxes go up well-north of this level!
Remarkably, many of these inflation numbers are sub-components of the same index the government says is only increasing 2% a year. Please!
Federal Reserve Fighting a Don Quixote Inflation Battle
How can the Fed’s perception of inflation be so divorced from the reality 99% of us are experiencing every day? This type of government incompetence would be laughable if its policies weren’t so destructive to American society.
Like Don Quixote, the Fed is fighting a fake inflation monster by inflicting deep financial repression on us. Zero interest rates and constant intervention in financial markets have led to:
- Decimation of our seniors, whose fixed incomes have collapsed while costs have risen
- Wealth inequality, pumping up the wealth of the 1% that controls 2/3 of stock market wealth
- An explosion in financial system leverage, as hedge funds and private equity funds lever-up in order to generate higher returns (Heads, they win. Tails, we lose as the Fed bails them out)
Will we finally see higher inflation in 2021? Yes, we’ll see it because of the technical “base effects” noted above. But we as a society have to get the point across to Washington elites that we’ve been experiencing real levels of inflation for the last 20 years. Everyone feels it. Everyone knows it. Yet Fed Chairs Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen (now Treasury Secretary under President Biden), and Jerome Powell are modern-day Don Quixote waiving their 0% interest rate swords at the inflation windmill.
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Rob has over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry. Prior to joining Financial Design Studio in Deer Park, he spent nearly 20 years as an investment analyst serving large institutional clients, such as pension funds and endowments. He had also started his own financial planning firm in Barrington which was eventually merged into FDS.