September 24, 2015

For those of us that have been around a while, and can remember, back in May 2003 (in the aftermath of the burst of the greatest equity market bubble since 1929) Alan Greenspan, then Federal Reserve Board Chairman said the following:

  • “We at the Federal Reserve recognize that deflation is a possibility. Even though we perceive the risks as minor, the potential consequences are very substantial and could be quite negative”  (Alan Greenspan, Congressional Testimony, May 2003)

At the time, this came as something of a bombshell, for the Chairman of the Fed even to entertain the possibility of deflation was quite a surprise to markets.

We thought it might be interesting to look at the parallels between today’s US inflation picture and that of the Spring of 2003. The comparison is quite striking.

We looked at 180 individual line items in the total Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the 106 line items that pretty much make up the Core CPI:

  • The chart shows that currently 43% of the individual core inflation items are in annual deflation, that compares to 48% in the Spring of 2003 and 45% in late 2010
  • The annual core inflation rate is currently 1.8% versus 1.5% in 2003
  • We are currently seeing the same breadth of core deflation that we saw at the bottom of the cycles post 2000 and 2009 bear market crashes


We then looked at how annual core inflation for the 106 sub-components had changed over the last 6 and 12 months to see if there was any clear trend:

  • In the Spring of 2003 about 60% of the components had seen year/year inflation decline in the previous 6 and 12 months (a clear downward trend) compared to about 50% today


Interestingly, in 2003 we saw:

  • 48% of core inflation components in deflation and 60% with a clear downward trend

In 2015 we see:

  • 43% in annual deflation and 53% with a clear downward trend

Our thought is then, “What is so different?”

Greenspan was worried about deflation and yet now Janet Yellen appears to be itching to tighten. (Growth was strongly accelerating in 2003/4 and has been stuck at 2.5 – 3.0% in the last year or more, so that can’t be the reason).

Could it be the fabled “tightness of labour markets” argument, the so-called “Phillips curve” fed to generations of economics students purporting to link labour markets to inflation? (Along the way, countless economists seem to have lost sight of the fact that A. W. Phillips’ famous 1958 paper was titled “The Relation between Unemployment and the Rate of Change of Money Wage Rates in the United Kingdom, 1861-1957” and said nothing about unemployment and consumer price inflation).

Well, here is the relationship between the US unemployment rate level and US average hourly earnings over the last 50 years:

  • Clearly, even to an untrained eye, there isn’t one. A lower unemployment rate does not push up wage inflation…
  • There is, truly, nothing in the historical data to show that a lower unemployment rate (a “tighter labour market”) implies faster wage inflation (or, for that matter, faster price inflation)
  • Look at it with lags, as changes, whatever way you like, the “tight labour market/higher inflation” thesis cannot be substantiated… another case, to paraphrase our hero Thomas Huxley, of “a beautiful theory and ugly facts colliding”



  • If Greenspan was worried about deflation in 2003, why does Yellen not share the same concern (especially with the Chinese banking system in the state it is in and a Yuan devaluation on the way)? Would Greenspan be considering another round of QE here? We are inclined to think it would be foremost in his mind if he were still Fed Chairman.
  • Tight labour markets/faster inflation concerns just cannot be substantiated by the data; that is no reason to tighten.
  • US consumer inflation is determined exogenously (outside the control of the Fed) by the vast global overhang of global supply. Inflation in assets, inflation in balance sheets and surging debt are endogenous (inside the control of the Fed). They should tighten to address the latter and lay to rest old ghosts of Phillips curves. God forbid we get more QE, the consequences will be even worse when the rebalancing and re-pricing of risk takes place…
  • Because Central bankers are raised to believe that consumer price inflation is the target variable, they completely missed the consequences of inflation in asset prices and balance sheets in the last two cycles (confusing a positive supply shock from Chinese over-investment and low shop inflation with a miraculous surge in underlying productivity growth and hence trend GDP growth) and risk making the same mistake again…



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