Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Deflation 'greatest hoax' as prices keep rising

Inflation rates on the rise
Inflation rates on the rise

Three-dollar gas and the seemingly unending rise in grocery prices have bedeviled consumers for years, but all the while they've been told inflation pressures were nearly nonexistent.

In the summer of 2014, that finally could change.

Economists expect inflation to begin building to a point where even the Federal Reserve cannot deny. For years, officials at the central bank have been calling price gains in energy, food and produce "transitory" while noting that elsewhere in the economy—rents, utilities and the like—there was little pressure at all.

The months ahead promise to show that not only will price increases continue to build in food, but also in those other areas that have been under control since the Fed cut short-term interest rates to near zero.

"For headline inflation, pipeline food prices have been soaring, and while there has already been significant pass-through to the consumer level in recent months, there is likely more to come," Morgan Stanley economist Ted Wieseman said in a recent note to clients.

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"For core inflation, goods prices appear to be firming up after a year of persistent slight deflation, consistent with some improvement in global growth after last year's strains in emerging market economies," he added. "Meanwhile, more domestically driven core services prices are being boosted by signs of a slight acceleration in rental costs, which is likely to continue as tight mortgage lending conditions drive increased demand for rental units into already tight rental markets."

That's not all.

David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, said other areas beyond food and energy—both of which are excluded in what economists define as "core inflation"—are getting costlier as well.

"Airline fares are on the rise," he said in his morning note Tuesday. "Movie tickets and other such recreational services are on the rise. Repair service fees are on the rise. Shelter costs in general are on the rise. Tuition costs are on the rise. Medical service prices are on the rise."

Taken together, Rosenberg said the current deflation scare among monetary policy makers—European Central Bank President Mario Draghi spoke of it Tuesday—amounts to "the greatest hoax" as central banks "do what they do best, which is to ... fight the last war."

Read MoreECB prepared to act on inflation risks: Draghi

Indeed, the Fed has kept its policy rate near zero as its top officials dismiss concerns about traditional inflation measures, such as the Consumer Price Index, show relatively low readings.

In the minutes from the Fed's April meeting, inflation garners 47 mentions—each of them equally dismissive as the central bank continues to focus on propelling the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression.

"The staff's forecast for inflation was basically unchanged from the projection prepared for the previous (Open Market Committee) meeting," the minutes stated. "The staff continued to forecast that inflation would remain below the committee's longer-run objective of 2 percent over the next few years."

Market & Fed complacent: Pro
Market & Fed complacent: Pro

Wieseman, though, thinks the Fed is wrong, primarily in terms of how much slack, or unused capacity, it sees in the labor market. That's critical, because if Wieseman is correct that the economy is closer to full employment than the Fed thinks, that would put more pressure on wages and prices sooner than the FOMC anticipates.

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If the economy continues apace and creates about 200,000 jobs per month, the unemployment rate would fell below 6 percent by the end of the year, he estimates.

"This would put the labor market, by our estimation, close to sustainable full employment at the start of 2015," he said. "If so, there may be a risk of a more notable inflation pickup next year if capacity constraints indeed start to appear while the Fed is slow to acknowledge and respond to them, believing that a substantial margin of slack still exists."

Rosenberg thinks the Fed is looking at the wrong indicators.

The Personal Consumption Expenditures index, on which the Fed places great emphasis, "is the queen of all lagging indicators and ... affords the central bank considerable cover" to keep rates low, he said.

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"The issue here may be one of causation—many think we can't have inflation without wages, but perhaps it is inflation that leads the bargaining process as opposed to the other way around," Rosenberg said.

With wages flat, prices rising and the Fed staying put, consumers could be in for a long summer.

Some of the price increases are staggering.

Compared year over year, ground beef is up 16.5 percent, bacon has risen 16.4 percent and eggs have spiked 10.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Oranges have soared 28.5 percent, grapes 24.8 percent and even wine is up 5.8 percent. Of the 75 price points the BLS follows, 52 have risen over the past 12 months.

Any good news? Well, coffee and sugar are cheaper, and potato chips have plunged 8.1 percent.

As Rosenberg stated: "I keep hearing from media types and market pundits (not to mention central bankers) that deflation remains a primary risk. I used to be of that view, but then I started to pay attention to prices at the mall and the monthly bills my family pays."