That 70s show: Media suddenly focused on inflation after massive spending spree in DC

“Call it the Big I,” says CNN’s Christine Romans, and “it’s coming.” The CNN segment chalks the rising inflation of consumer prices to a “booming economy,” but the economy hasn’t actually boomed yet. The issues for inflation are more structural rather than performative, and have to do with a deluge of cash coming out of Washington that at least implicitly expanded the money supply and devalued the dollar as a result.

That’s not the only issue at hand, but it’s a good start:

After the White House fumbled the inflation message earlier this week, Janet Yellen and the Fed tried to stanch the bleeding by insisting that any inflationary impact from consumption would only be “transitory.” That’s not the only impetus for inflation, however, and investors aren’t fooled by happy talk from Yellen and Jerome Powell:

But not everyone is buying into the message. According to analysts at Bank of America, markets are pricing in the “risks of a significant overshoot” of the Fed’s 2% average inflation target for the first time in years. (Powell has maintained that a transitory rise in inflation over 2% this year would not be enough for the Fed to start hiking rates—inflation would need to run above 2% “for some time.”)

Ten-year breakeven inflation (measured by the difference between nominal and real yields on Treasury bonds) has reached its highest level since 2013—meaning that investors are expecting an uptick in inflation even though that uptick hasn’t yet materialized. “Fiscal and monetary policymakers are attempting to heat up the economy at record pace: our results suggest that the markets see a clear risk that this will result in a significant inflation overshoot,” Bank of America’s analysts wrote. So while investors may not be sounding alarm bells yet, they are preparing for risk despite the dovish messages coming from Washington.

In a note last week, Ally Invest president Lule Demmissie said that the mindset for investors “has switched from ‘what could go right?’ to ‘what could go wrong?’” Demmissie added that “investors are getting increasingly anxious about what’s coming around the corner, whether it be a policy change, or an inflation scare.”

Evidence of higher inflation is also trickling down to consumers in the form of higher prices on consumer goods and commodities, though some of the price changes over the past year can also be attributed to pandemic-related disruptions in supply and demand. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett said he is seeing “very substantial inflation” in the form of higher prices during Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting last weekend.

CNBC is talking about inflation risks too, and warning investors that they should worry:

“Ten-year breakeven inflation expectations, that’s the bottom line, that’s risen to around 2.5% and that’s the highest it’s been in eight years and that’s important because the Fed is focused on them,” Achuthan told CNBC’s “Trading Nation” on Thursday. “Basically, if inflation expectations remain above the Fed’s kind of 2% target on a sustained basis, that’s going to make policymakers more hawkish.”

After Friday’s shockingly low employment report for April, the 10-year yield dipped to 1.51%, making a move to 2.5% a significant increase. Inflation has been on the rise lately, a development the Fed has viewed as transitory.

Producer prices in March, for example, saw their biggest annual gain in more than nine years. Consumer prices also rose sharply in March. April data is scheduled for next week.

“The backdrop of this is that the Fed has shifted its policy framework from forecasting, kind of looking ahead, to just being outcome-based, and so they need to track stuff like this very, very closely. And, of course, that future inflation gauge on the top, that’s a leading indicator. That does forecast, and that’s telling us, it’s going to keep rising,” said Achuthan.

Oddly, no one’s talking about the six trillion dollars or so that Congress and the White House has spent off the books as part of the pandemic response. That’s essentially the same as printing money, and that has its own inflationary effects. But the conditions and incentives created by those massive spending bills have inflationary impacts of their own. Lawmakers are using those conditions to force an artificial increase in labor costs, which go directly to producer and consumer prices and inflation. Direct stimulus, a key part of all three relief bills, produces a “sugar high” of consumption that puts strain on supply, which results in — ta da! — price increases.

The sudden interest in inflation risk is somewhat amusing, since people have been warning about it for a year. Critics of the federal pandemic unemployment bonus, especially in its flat-rate application, specifically cited its inflationary impact on labor costs right from the beginning. No one wanted to listen at that time, and politicians from both parties dismissed the risks as overblown. And they were … in the immediate term. But inflationary risks from policy decisions are rarely if ever realized in the immediate term.

The Fed will likely have to start considering interest-rate hikes to control inflation. That will put people in a squeeze we haven’t seen since the 1970s if it gets too far out of control, which is — not coincidentally — the last time we had an overarching policy of central control of the US economy rather than a regulatory approach. Central control came back with a vengeance in the pandemic, for understandable reasons, but the consequences of central control won’t be long behind.