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Current market inflation expectations are ridiculous

By Arif Husain
3 minute read

Raise your hand if you honestly thought year-over-year US headline consumer price index (CPI) inflation would peak in June 2022 at 9.1 per cent and stay above 6 per cent into early 2023.

I expect to see very few hands forecasts for inflation from 2021 through 2023 were wildly inaccurate.

Even many central bankers and most economists got it wrong and were forced to rethink longstanding assumptions about inflation. Put your hand down if you even whispered “transitory”.

Breakeven spreads the market’s best measure of expected headline inflation on US Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) ranged between 2.44 per cent (five-year) and 2.28 per cent (30-year) in mid-March 2024. In the context of the inflation volatility experienced since 2020, this appears utterly ridiculous. You’d expect at least modest variation in inflation expectations across maturities given how much headline CPI inflation has fluctuated over the last few years. Does this mean that market participants have no idea where inflation will settle? Or are they seeing inflation miraculously disappearing?

Will the downward trend in inflation continue?

Market views on the path of inflation are currently not nearly as divergent as they were in 2021 and early 2022, when outlooks were divided into “transitory” (which included most developed market central banks) and “persistent” camps. Of course, inflation broadly trended downward as 2023 progressed. Most commentators think this will continue through 2024, allowing the Federal Reserve and other central banks to begin cutting interest rates at some point during the year.

But early 2024 has featured signs that the global economy isn’t decelerating nearly as quickly as anticipated, stoking concerns that inflationary forces could build once again. Case in point: portions of the US CPI numbers for January and February were higher than expected, and January’s nonfarm payrolls report blew past consensus expectations for jobs added (though the jobs-added number was later revised lower).

Inflation to reaccelerate after nearing Fed target

My view is that core inflation will fall to around 2 per cent, which is the target for several central banks, including the Fed and the European Central Bank. My longer-term outlook is not as sanguine, however, as I think inflation will reaccelerate.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a productivity miracle, at least in the longer run. But implementing AI into corporate processes across the manufacturing and services sectors will take time and more labour, imposing higher costs. As a result, I see AI being inflationary in the short term before the economy can realise its longer-term productivity benefits. Much of the anecdotal evidence our analysts pick up in their hundreds of company meetings confirm this view.

China is another wild card for inflation. Faltering Chinese domestic demand has meant that the country has been exporting goods disinflation (or even deflation, in some cases) through global trade. This has been a major contributor to decelerating price pressures worldwide.

However, an increase in demand within China potentially triggered by fiscal stimulus funded by the country’s recently announced special issue of new long-term government bonds would reverse that factor and drive export prices higher. While this probably isn’t a baseline scenario, the main point here is that sentiment towards China is skewed to the downside. A surprise would likely be to the upside. Then consider the potential inflationary impact of any additional tariffs that may result from the developing US political theatre, and you have clear inflationary risk.

Arif Husain, head of international fixed income and chief investment officer, T. Rowe Price