A few years back in an interview with Wall Street Journal’s “Heard on the Street” program , Elliott Management’s Paul Singer said that his greatest worry was the rise of inflation that could appear suddenly. He suggested that this could come about with small changes in perception of inflation risk. Specifically, “The first whiffs of either commodity inflation or wage inflation,” said Singer, “may cause a self-reinforcing set of market events … which may include a sharp fall in bond prices, … fall in stock prices, rapid increase in commodities…”
However, government statistics keep churning out almost too-good-to-be-true data. With today’s report, unemployment is down, but wage pressure is “muted.” But is it? Last month’s Average Hourly Earnings ticked down from a 3.4% annual growth rate to 3.2%. The small down-tick prompted the collective market komentariat to declare that wage pressures are abating. But are they really? A look over the longer-term trend gives quite the opposite impression: wage pressures are in an upward trend that appears to be accelerating. Here’s the official data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
The main worry about this trend is percisely inflation – you know, the thing Warren Buffett likened to an economic equivalent of the hydrogen bomb for a debtor nation. Should we remain relaxed and complacent because at present there’s little inflation discernible in the official data?
Historical research published by Alliance Bernstein indicated that significant changes in inflation almost always come as a surprise: “elevated money and credit growth is a warning sign. Another warning sign occurs when the level of aggregate demand begins to bump up against supply constraints. And a third is a rise in wages. None of these factors alone causes inflation, but in combination they are extremely likely to signal inflationary risk.” Still, says complacency: “we don’t expect any surprises.” Live and see.
Alex Krainer [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a hedge fund manager and commodities trader based in Monaco. He wrote the book “Mastering Uncertainty in Commodities Trading”