Is the inflation glass half empty or half full? The latest numbers mean different things to different economists

May 11, 2022, 5:30 PM UTC

Has inflation peaked? That depends on who you ask. There’s fierce debate on Wall Street about the path of consumer price increases moving forward.

Inflation moderated to an 8.3% annual rate in April, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the Labor Department reported on Wednesday. That’s down from a four-decade high of 8.5% in March, but ahead of Dow Jones’ estimates for an 8.1% gain.

The most recent figures are either a sign that the U.S. is through the worst of it and returning to normal, or evidence that the economy is headed towards stagflation—a combination of slowing economic growth and high inflation—depending on which expert you speak with.

Here’s what economists have to say. 

Glass half empty 

Many top economists are worried that inflation will continue to be a thorn in the Federal Reserve’s side through 2022, and could lead the central bank to increase interest rates at a pace that slows economic growth or even sparks a recession.

That theory is backed up by April’s inflation numbers, which included a higher-than-anticipated rise in the core-price index—that means everything except volatile food and energy prices. 

Core prices increased 0.6% in April, doubling March’s 0.3% gain. The rise has some experts sounding the alarm about the potential for inflation to persist longer than the Federal Reserve may like. 

“The combination of elevated inflation and Federal Reserve rate hikes increases the risk of stagflation, which is an awful environment for investors that typically results in stocks and bonds losing value simultaneously,” Nancy Davis, the founder of Quadratic Capital Management, told Fortune

And some economists think that energy prices, which were already high, could get much worse despite a 2.7% slowdown in April after March’s surge caused by the Ukraine war.

“Inflation was already very bad before the war pushed up energy prices, and even after gas prices came down a bit in April, inflation is still very bad,” said Bill Adams, Comerica Bank’s chief economist. “With national gas and diesel prices up to record highs in the first 10 days of May, pain at the pump—and higher retail prices as businesses pass on increased shipping costs—are going to continue in the second half of 2022.” 

Shelter costs, which rose at a 5.1% annual rate in April (the fastest gain since 1991) are another concern for experts. Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst, noted that shelter accounts for roughly 40% of the consumer price index, and rising costs have put household budgets under pressure.

“The lagged effect of rental price increases is likely to push CPI higher throughout the year, even if food and energy prices level out,” McBride said.

A dramatic increase in airfare costs in the April report also shows a transition in consumer spending from goods to services as pandemic travel restrictions wane, Bank of America says. And that could be a leading indicator for higher services inflation over the next few months. 

Airfare prices jumped 33.3% year-over-year last month, pushing core CPI up by 13 basis points, Bank of America analysts, led by Alexander Lin, said in a Wednesday note, adding that “underlying inflation pressures remain elevated.”

Glass half full

But not every expert is worried about the most recent CPI data. Many argue that we’re past the worst of it. 

“Inflation has likely peaked,” says Jeffrey Roach, chief economist at LPL Financial, the largest independent broker-dealer in the U.S. “Investors and policymakers both know inflation will likely stay above target for a while, but both will focus on the direction of the change.”

Roach believes that even if inflation continues to be a problem, April’s slowdown will help boost consumer confidence moving forward.

Robert Triest, a Northeastern economics professor, told Fortune he expects consumer prices to moderate as well, arguing the Fed’s interest rate increases will help cool the economy through the end of the year. So far, the Fed has raised rates by a quarter-point in March and another half-point earlier this month.

“The Federal Reserve is taking actions to combat inflation, as they should,” Triest said. “And importantly, in the longer-term, inflation expectations remain well-anchored. So I think in the short run, inflation is going to remain elevated. But then, in the long run, I expect the Fed to stick its 2% target.”

The growing chorus of experts saying that the U.S. has reached peak inflation follows UBS’ early April prediction that CPI would fall to 8% in Wednesday’s reading. While that estimate turned out to be a little optimistic, UBS analysts were right that March’s headline figure of 8.5% was higher. 

However, UBS’ prediction that inflation will moderate to 3.4% by year’s end as gas prices come back down to Earth may have been premature, given another record day for both gas and diesel prices on Wednesday.

Morgan Stanley also believes inflation may have peaked, but the investment bank’s economists, led by Ellen Zentner, argued the Fed might struggle to bring consumer price increases back down to their 2% target this year.

“While we have likely passed the 12-month peak in core CPI inflation at 6.5% in March, a near-term plateau has formed not far below that peak,” the economists wrote in a Wednesday note. “Slower monthly increases in pandemic-sensitive categories like airfares, as well as a further easing in goods price inflation, are two key components that will be needed to get core inflation below that trend over coming months.”

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