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Ignore ‘hysterical people’ — inflation is not here to stay, economist says

A breakdown of the latest U.S. data indicates that inflation is confined to certain sectors and will not pose a threat to the recovery, according to Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics.

U.S. CPI inflation came in at an annual 6.2% in October, its steepest climb for more than 30 years.

Energy, shelter and vehicle costs led the gains, which more than wiped out the wage increases that workers received for the month.

The persistent high inflation and continuation of pressures such as supply chain bottlenecks have led many economists to question the Federal Reserve’s long-held view that the spike will be “transitory.”

However, stronger-than-expected October retail sales and industrial production figures this week have indicated that the broader economic recovery may well be on track, even as inflation drives prices skyward.

Weinberg told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Wednesday that with industrial output and GDP back to pre-pandemic levels, the U.S. economy has essentially recovered. He argued that the labor market lagging is “typical for economic recessions,” with unemployment following the 2008 global financial crisis taking around a decade to fully recover.

That said, November’s jobs report indicated that the labor market was now gathering steam, with nonfarm payrolls increasing by 531,000 in October and driving the unemployment rate down to 4.6%.

“We have a problem related to specific sectors of the economy, not the economy overall. I was surprised to read those industrial production and manufacturing numbers, but they are what they are, and we are doing it now with 5 million fewer people working than before the pandemic, so this tells us that productivity ought to be up by maybe 3% or more compared to then,” Weinberg said.

He suggested that the market needs to keep productivity gains in mind when looking at wage increases, which are “tolerable with steady, stable prices as long as they are offset by productivity gains.”

Citing High Frequency Economics’ aggregation of data across the component sectors within the CPI reading, Weinberg estimated that around one third are falling while half are growing at less than 2%, which he argued “is not inflation.”

“The rise of selected categories, scattered categories of products within CPIs are making those averages of the basket price move higher, but that doesn’t mean that all prices are moving higher along with all wages,” Weinberg said.

“Inflation is a process of spiraling wages and prices, it is not a one-time event, an off-time shock to prices coming from an understandable supply shock.”

Ignore ‘hysterical people’

Weinberg cited Milton Friedman to make the case that Fed intervention based on these individual pockets of spiking inflation would likely do “more harm than good.” He also highlighted comments from Fed Chair Jerome Powell and Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, both of whom have suggested that tightening policy in response to inflation resulting from temporary supply shocks would be counterproductive.

“Let’s not be influenced by hysterical people like Larry Summers, who are telling us that inflation is taking off. Let’s listen to what the people who actually are making policy are telling us,” Weinberg said.

Summers was contacted for comment by CNBC. The former U.S. Treasury secretary has in recent weeks called on the Fed and the Biden administration to tackle rising inflation, and argued that the “transitory” label had run its course.

Larry Summers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

David A. Grogan | CNBC

Despite having long advocated for more expansionary fiscal and monetary policy, Summers, now president emeritus of Harvard University, said in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this week that he had changed his view in the face of the evidence. He also challenged the notion that inflation was confined to just a few sectors.

“In October, prices for commodity goods outside of food and energy rose at more than a 12 percent annual rate,” Summers said.

“Various Federal Reserve system indexes that exclude sectors with extreme price movements are now at record highs.”

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