WASHINGTON – The past week’s stomach-churning stock market losses were ignited by a sudden and contagious fear of surging inflation and higher interest rates. Many investors worried that inflation would send borrowing rates up and sap corporate profits, stock prices and the U.S. economy.
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Does that mean higher inflation is on the way? Not necessarily. So far, economists see little evidence that price increases are on the verge of accelerating.
Investors are “getting a few steps ahead of where we actually are,” said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisers.
The anxiety that’s permeated the financial markets represents a sharp change from just a few months ago, when many investors viewed inflation as abnormally low. In November, for instance, investors expected inflation to average just 1.8 percent over the next 10 years based on inflation-adjusted bond prices. That expectation has since risen to a still-mild 2.1 percent.
For now, inflation remains historically low, as it has been the past eight years. The Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge shows that prices rose only 1.7 percent in December from a year earlier, below the average 2.2 percent annual increase over the past 30 years. That’s also below even the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target rate.
So why did the markets suddenly panic?
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The most obvious trigger was the government’s monthly jobs report Friday, which showed that average hourly pay in January jumped 2.9 percent from a year earlier, the sharpest annual increase in eight years.
Increased pay levels can accelerate inflation if employers must then raise prices to cover the extra costs. Higher wages are great for employees, but they can crimp corporate profits, which can lead investors to dump shares.
Higher-than-expected-inflation would also likely prompt the Fed to raise short-term interest rates more quickly. Those rate hikes would, in turn, swell borrowing costs for businesses and consumers and potentially slow the economy.
Other factors, too, have intensified inflation worries.
The U.S. dollar has fallen in value compared with overseas currencies. A cheaper dollar makes the imported goods that Americans buy more expensive.
Prices for such commodities as oil and aluminum have also increased in recent months, raising costs for gas, jet fuel and cars. Oil prices have increased from about $46 a barrel in June to $65 on Wednesday. More expensive fuel can raise prices for airline tickets.
Megan Greene, chief economist at Manulife Asset Management, said it isn’t surprising that investors have suddenly grown nervous. Higher pay and inflation typically do kick in after years of steady economic growth. The unemployment rate is just 4.1 percent, a 17-year-low. A mild rise in inflation is not only expected but healthy.
But she, like most economists, thinks the markets have overreacted.
To begin with, the annual hourly wage gain that triggered Friday’s market plunge might have been a temporary blip. Some economists note that it was likely inflated by cold weather. Construction workers and other hourly employees likely stayed home during January’s icy spells and lost pay.
A separate government measure of hourly wages, which excludes managers and supervisors, rose just 2.4 percent in the past year, about the same sluggish pace as before. That suggests that much of the increase in the past year went mostly to managers.
Many economists also note that there is a limit to how far wages can rise. U.S. companies can still move work overseas to find cheaper workers. There are still hundreds of millions of people in China and India who may soon move to cities and work for lower wages.
“There’s this veritable army of available labor, and that is inherently disinflationary,” Daniel Alpert, managing partner at Westwood Capital, said. “There’s a global cap on wages.”
There is also the “Amazon effect,” a phrase that underscores the difficulty many retailers have in raising prices. If they do, it is now much easier for shoppers to simply find a better price online. And with many imports coming from developing countries where workers are cheap, finding those lower-priced alternatives isn’t hard.
Even if inflation seems unlikely to surge significantly higher anytime soon, economists cite another potential cause for alarm: There is more uncertainty about how the Fed might react to faster price gains. This week, Jerome Powell succeeded Janet Yellen as the leader of the Fed. On Friday, Yellen’s final day, and Monday, Powell’s first day, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged a combined 1,800 points.
“People may be a little concerned that the new team at the Fed is a little inexperienced,” said Joel Prakken, chief U.S. economist for Macroeconomic Advisers by IHS Markit.
Other factors may raise interest rates even if inflation remains in check. The new tax overhaul could spur more consumer spending and is projected to add $1.5 trillion in federal debt. Congress is also considering a big increase in spending as part of a budget deal being negotiated.
All of that requires the Treasury to borrow more by issuing more Treasury bills and notes. The increased federal borrowing could force up the yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which would increase borrowing costs for mortgages, cars and other items.
“I do think there is a configuration of forces that is pretty different than a year ago,” Prakken said.