Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Inflation Chronicles

This is the new category I mentioned a few weeks ago that will need your participation. In the late 1990's, money manager Bill Fleckenstein started a reader-generated column called "The Mania Chronicles" to document the socioeconomic distortions of the stock market bubble (taxi drivers trading stocks, waiters writing stock tips on customer checks, etc). Same deal here.

Regular readers know I choose my words pretty carefully. I don't have much patience for the apocalyptic, almost gleeful rantings from some parts of the financial commentariat. But I'm extremely worried about what I'm seeing right now. It's really an extraordinary time. The challenge, particularly for those without much historical perspective, is to understand that the dollar falling almost every day is not normal; that oil at a new nominal and real all-time high was not inevitable; that gold just under $1000 is not a meaningless curiosity.

Policymakers who've failed need us to think this is all business as usual. That's the raison d’être for this sort of mendacity. Historical parallels are imperfect, but economic ones are often more instructive and valuable than other types. Among those who realize what's happening right now, Mark gleich Mark might be an appropriate greeting, sort of a secret-society mantra. If you understood the meaning of that phrase when I wrote about it in this 2006 post, you could have, at a minimum, protected yourself and preserved the value of your savings. Or this post from January, in which I urged the Fed to adopt a more austere tone and warned about the consequences of not doing so:

The alternative? Monetary policy as usual, with heaping portions of expediency and no doubt some taxpayer-financed bailouts, eventually sending oil well over $100, gold to $1000 and higher, and the dollar further into the crapper.

Check, check (almost...give it a few more hours), and check. What's remarkable is that there doesn't seem to have been any attempt to "scald the speculators" as Jude Wanniski once put it, or to root out the dollar shorts getting fat off one of the easiest trades in forex history. I don't think intervention in the gold or currency markets would be effective or sustainable, but the statist credentials of this bunch are such that I'm surprised nothing's been tried. It's almost as if policymakers are paralyzed by the realization of what's still to come, and they want to save ammo for...well, something. Scary stuff.

I recommend two field trips for Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson. First, the cardboard countertops of the black-market currency changers in some emerging markets and post-conflict nations. Don't be insulted by the uproarious laughter there -- it's only business, nothing personal. Next, a trip to any major city in the western United States: Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Albuquerque. Start with a rental car and a c-note in the wallet, get on a highway, and drive. See how far you get. You know, I took a trip to the western U.S. two weeks ago. I was struck by how easy it is, in the eastern part of the country with mass transit and shorter distances, to overlook the impact of $3.50 gas. It's one thing to see a mother in a New York City supermarket explain to her kid that $5 is too much for a tiny plastic container of blueberries. It's quite another to drop sixty or seventy bucks at a gas station and barely get to the next city. When was the last time Ben and Hank got out of town?

I think it's possible we've entered a period that historians will regard one day as "The Great Inflation" or some variation of that. Let's make it easy for them, shall we? Email me any examples you come across -- personal anecdotes, articles from your local newspaper, etc. Examples are here, here, here, and here. Milk up 20% since last month? Let me know. Dentist in your town busted for removing metal fillings without telling patients? Send me the link. This blog has readers at BLS, Treasury, and the Fed, so this is your chance to tell them what you're seeing out there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Against the great inflation is the great deflation going on in the financial sphere. Hundreds of billions of dollars are disappearing as debt paper and its derivatives sink. Total new credit issuance is shrinking quickly.

In that circumstance it will be impossible for inflation to accelerate unless the Fed does the unthinkable and just starts going nuts. Against all reports the Fed has been as stingy in its open market operations for the past year as it had been for 7 years. Until last week that is when the did go a bit nuts. They had to to grease the skids for $75 billion in surprise Treasury borrowing

Commodities and basics could I suppose march higher and maybe even stay there. But in the US there is no longer enough money or credit to sustain higher prices in anything but necessities. Consumer goods may increase in price but it won't matter if nobody can afford to buy them.

3/04/2008 5:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe McDonald's had to eliminate its $1 menu.

3/04/2008 6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lots of double-digit percentage jumps at the supermarket in the past week or two (this after the previous double-digit % jump just over a month or so ago). Anyone who claims there's no inflation needs their head extricated from their ass.

As for what the first poster saying about prices not being able to rise because people can't afford it, I'm not seeing it around here. Produce and meats are pricing many out (and you can tell by how much has to be tossed out or marked down), but the stores just keep raising prices even higher. The logic escapes me how people can't afford the price now but are going to start buying once prices go even higher (or at least the stores seem to have that impression)

3/04/2008 8:36 AM  
Anonymous goldhorder said...

unless the Fed does the unthinkable

I'm not sure the Fed will just sit back and allow the US to fall into a Japan style stagflation. ummmm...I don't see that happening. The Fed hasn't gone hog wild yet because it hasn't had to. So far lowering the Fed rate has kept things(stock prices) even. I don't see the market going up anytime soon...as sentiment becomes more bearish...the Fed encouraged by the US federal government will be encouraged to "do something". And the fed will "do something"...which means more inflation...the fed "doing something" always means inflation. There are no more Volckers. The great US government mortgage loan bailout is just around the corner...I'm betting on it.

3/04/2008 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

um, premium gas is over $4 in Manhattan (that is a 50% raise from about a year ago). Organic milk near $5 at my local deli in Brooklyn. Can of sprite? $1.35. Going to a movie? $12 at Battery Park cinemas. Street food vendors have signs apologizing for having raised their prices, since wheat and eggs have all gone up more than 50% recently.

3/04/2008 10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Members of two professional baking organizations will meet this month with USDA Secretary Ed Schafer, White House officials, and congressmen, seeking relief from soaring commodity prices.
The “Band of Bakers” march on Washington, DC March 12 is being organized by the American Bakers Assn. and the Retail Bakers of America.
“ABA is very concerned about the impact on consumers, particularly lower income families,” said ABA president and CEO Robb MacKie. “The situation is likely to get far worse, particularly on the supply side, if quick action is not taken. We will impress upon policymakers the need to take immediate action to address this serious situation.”
“Commodity prices for every item we use are out of control and rising faster than we could every hope to catch them,” said Michael Kalupa, president of Retail Bakers of America. “This issue is about how our industry will survive the next 12 to 18 months.”
Source: Organic Business News

Organic George

3/04/2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger wendyo said...

I have a very good friend who is a working jazz musician in Detroit, he's done this for over 20 years. He lives frugally and owns his house (he bought for $5,000 in the early 80s). He has always had several regular gigs augmented by special events (weddings, parties) and it has filled up his calendar on a regular basis pretty much throughout his career, but I spoke with him yesterday and he only has 2 gigs scheduled this month (outside his regular nights twice a week). He tells me he's never seen it dry up to this extent.

Living in Detroit, he's had some really interesting observations about the economy over the past several years that have come to fruition (first in Michigan, then hitting the rest of the country a few months later).

This doesn't bode well.

3/04/2008 11:33 AM  
Blogger LFC said...

The price of lunch at every restaurant near my place of work has increased in the past year.

3/04/2008 12:05 PM  
Blogger Spider said...

I live in Hoboken, NJ, just across the river from TCR. The cost of the tolls for the Lincoln Tunnel, Holland Tunnel and George Washington Bridge just went up by 33/3% from $6 to $8. The cost of a subway ride, Metro North, Long Island Railroad also increased. I even think NJ Transit prices jumped as well.

I understand how the cost of fuel and stuff can drive these up, but come on?!!! How are the middle and lower classes who rely heavily on public transportation going to be able to keep affording these increases!?! I know I can't. I'm moving out of the NYC metro area to NC in August/Sept. Can't wait to leave.

3/04/2008 12:28 PM  
Blogger cixelsydima said...

It amazes me the number of times my wife has gone ballistic on me for the most trivial circumstance.
I'll ask,"Why are you gong postal on me? I only said...." To which she always replies,"Haven't you been paying any attention to what I've been trying to tell you for weeks?!"
Now with regard to the Fed,the Gov.,in dealing with inflatioanry pressures in the US,...their heads are so far up their asses,that when the shit hits the fan, that being when the consumer snaps,
it'll be an ugly episode!

3/04/2008 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few months back I noticed that a lot of the bread at the supermarket appeared to have differently shaped loaves. The loaves weigh the same but the slices are wider resulting in fewer slices per loaf.

3/04/2008 12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm down here in FL and a relative called the other day, very upset. $44 for soup fixings and eggs at almost $5 a dozen.

I'm a life long Dem who was looking forward to my party taking back the WH this year. Now I'm not so sure. I'm thinking if the GOP runs the country for four more years, the GOP will be destroyed for a generation.

Hey, America! The party's so over.

3/04/2008 1:59 PM  
Blogger DED said...

The Coke and Pepsi wars have subsided. Last year, they enabled CT supermarkets to offer 99, 89, and 79 cent deals on 2-liter bottles. The normal price was $1.29, but you'd have to try really hard to pay that much. Now, $1.59 and $1.69 are the norm and sale prices are $1.25.

This is obviously a result of increased high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) prices, which are due to increased corn prices ($5.25/bushel - double from 2 years ago), which are due to increased demand for ethanol.

Then again, since HFCS is in just about everything, that would account for some of the overall increase in manufactured food prices. And with corn being a staple of a cow's diet, beef and dairy prices go up too.

3/04/2008 2:01 PM  
Blogger LFC said...

... which are due to increased demand for ethanol.

That's a small factor. Remember that the gov't has been paying farmers for ages to leave land fallow. We have more land going into agricultural production, and have plenty more to go.

There are several huge factors you're ignoring when it comes to agricultural commodity prices. First, foreign countries now find our agricultural products very affordable. Why? Because the U.S. dollar has been flushed down the toilet by the Bush administration.

Also, there was a major drought in Australia, causing a huge increase in wheat prices. Wheat goes up, more land gets rotated from corn to wheat, and corn goes up.

The weak dollar, investor flight from the weak dollar to something less dollar dependent, and general increased worldwide demand are all causing increased commodity prices. Just look at the price of precious metals like gold and copper. They sure as hell haven't skyrocketed because of ethanol usage.

If you were Chinese, would you rather have your money in corn or in U.S. dollars?

3/04/2008 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the one who posted about eggs at almost $5/doz. Said relative lives on Long Island, btw.

Here's another one. A retireee told me that her daughter was desperately trying to sell her McMansion out in Manorville on Long Island for more than a year.

Daughter wants to downgrade to a smaller house to be able to afford a meal out and an occasional vacation.

3/04/2008 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

check out the disclaimer to FAKEPAYCHECKSTUBS.com .......extremely funny!!!

3/04/2008 2:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this counts but Miami-Dade has new televison ads urging residents to smile and be nice because the Miami economy depends on tourism.

3/04/2008 2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At happy hour last week here in Ft Lauderdale, a retired railroad engineer knew the current value of the dollar against the euro. Actually, he was off by 2/10ths of a percent but who's counting? My point is that this is the kind of stuff being discussed over a few beers nowadays.

3/04/2008 3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been tracking the difference between core CPI and CPI since the middle of 2007.
I seems that there is no danger of the GI and the Great Moderation is still the theme.
Unfortunately, food looks like will be taking its price harvest till 2014. Energy has steam off and shows just some last efforts to climb higher. No big chance, however. Housing (as used in CPI definition) prices are on downward trend already - the next 10 years.

I would not mix short-term flucs with mid- and long-term trends. You should read better technical documents of the BLS and BEA for the assessment of the accuracy of monthly estimates, especially related to CPI inflation.

3/04/2008 3:34 PM  
Blogger Mr. Hedley Bowes said...

A client reports that baking flour (organic) has gone from $15 per 25 pound bag through $25 to $40 in the last 2 quarters. Futures for hard winter wheat have driven those flour prices to nearly $75 per 25 pound bag.

At home, we use powdered cocoa on a daily basis. Until December, powdered cocoa in bulk was $2.89/pound but in January the price is $6.99/pound (but now it's 'Fair Trade' cocoa, instead of (the presumably declassé) Callebaut.

3/04/2008 3:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm on the front lines of the Ag commodity increases. I can tell you unequivocally that ethanol is the main culprit in the gain shortages.

Farmer's normally rotate crops Soy, Corn then Wheat. When you grow for fuel, a farmer does not have to worry about meeting grades or specifications. You just get paid per bushel. The result has been that farmers have stopped rotations and now grow corn year after year. (At some other date I will explain how these farmers are mortgaging their soil fertility with this practice and what it will mean to consumers in 3 years) So now there is a shortage of beans and wheat due to the loss of rotation crops. It now cost more to feed an animal, (milk, eggs, meat) than anytime in history, on an adjusted inflation basis.

Yes, is land coming out of CRP but it's going into corn not wheat or beans. The Aussi drought has been going on for years so that was not the main cause only another mitigating factor.

Other countries are now holding wheat of the world market, to make sure they have enough wheat for their domestic market. Which has push up international wheat prices. US grain dealers now find it more profiatble to sell US wheat overseas, however US commodity prices are now to high to feed the worlds poor so the US exports to developing are being curtailed. Further driving up the price for basic protiens such as rice, dried beans, etc world wide.

If you like corn chips you are in trouble. Corn chips are made from specialty white corn, not yellow dent that goes to ethanol, so to get farmers to grow this specialty corn producers have to offer a premium over bio-fuel corn.
Here's the kicker, ethanol production is now a money losing proposition due to the high cost of corn. But we have a congressional mandate to make ethanol so the false economy that is bio-fuels will continue until after the election.

The commodity grain problems are a direct result of ethanol, PERIOD!

Organic George

3/04/2008 4:03 PM  
Anonymous Cheryl said...

I bought a pair of discount eyeglasses over the internet late last year for $79. They were from England, so the quoted price was in pounds. Because this is Chicago and our post office sucks, the first pair got lost in the mail but the kindly English chep glasses company sent me out a replacement pair free.

I got an email from them yesterday. They got the original pair returned to them and wanted to know if I wanted to buy them at a slightly discounted price, since you know they may never be able to sell my exact prescription in the frames I picked out. I almost did it, except I checked the price--yes, in pounds they were knocking 10 per cent off. In dollars, they were close to double what I paid 4 months ago.

3/04/2008 4:10 PM  
Blogger Miss Bliss said...

Every now and then I read something here that disturbs me so much I almost can't breathe. Farmers not rotating their crops? How many times do we have to learn basic science? I mean really...do we have to actually destroy our ability to produce ANY food to relearn what we already learned hundreds of years ago? Seriously...I'm really overwhelmed by that stupidity.

3/04/2008 4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pizza and beer now cost an arm and a leg


3/04/2008 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CBS News:
Poor And Uninsured Crossing Border For Affordable Health Care.... Is general healthcare in Mexico is 75% cheaper? Are high prices at clinics causing: "An outbreak of hepatitis C at a Nevada clinic may represent "the tip of an iceberg" of safety problems at clinics around the country, according to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

Don't forget the old trick of decreasing the size (increasing the price/oz). Cans of vegetables, coffee, boxes of cereal use to be 32, 16 oz, etc. It always adds a special touch, when the package size doesn't change, but the quantity decreases. Cheerios use to be 16 oz, now 14 oz., 20 oz to 18 oz. Always wondered how government CPI economic hedonics works, when the quantity is less, and the price is increasing. Dozen eggs were .55 now close to $2, gallon of milk $1, now $3.

Everything you have to have for some semblance of a normal life and success in the US has gone up a lot! Utilities (gas,electric,water,phone), gas for the car, food, insurance, healthcare. Junk, things you can do without, make due, wear out, are still mostly cheap. That's the big joke. You conserve to save, and they just keeping raising the price, sometimes double digits. Also having noticeable increases are: service for car or home, bank fees (TCF eliminated their free checks for certain accts), credit card fees.

I bought a 40 gal AOSmith water heater and had to have it replaced just after 6 years. The price increase was over 11% for the same 40 gal AOSmith water heater.

On the news, they were interviewing folks, and a guy coming out of the store stated, even prices at Walmart are going up. Folks on fixed incomes are having a terrible time.

ABC Nightline - Trump says Manhattan housing market is great. Sold an apartment for $34 million, suspect one for $45 million will sell easily (does that mean the average cost of an apartment is 39.5 million --- and what is minimum wage again... hhmmm). But the rest of the country...

3/04/2008 5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two of Cindy McCain's favorite recipes call for ahi tuna and lump crabmeat at $20+/lb. Me, I paid $11.99/lb for flounder today.

As an aside, Mrs McCain thinks one pound of tuna will feed four adults which seems on the light side.

3/04/2008 5:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend went to Tijuana for dentures to save money.

3/04/2008 5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

IN NYC...a 64oz carton of juice has gone up 50 cents from $3 to $3.50 (in NYC)...I won't event get into the dairy products

3/04/2008 8:56 PM  
Anonymous MouseJunior said...

Talked to one of the floor guys at TJs over the weekend. They've mostly stopped selling extra-large eggs in favor of large eggs because of the price increases.

3/04/2008 10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Las Vegas is having problems with copper thieves. Games have to be rescheduled because theives are ripping out the copper wiring for scrap metal. The even hit the local food kitchen ripping the copper pipes from their refigiration units.


3/04/2008 11:44 PM  
Blogger LFC said...

Organic George-

Since you're in the biz (I'm not), maybe you can interpret this table for me. (This is not a snark. You're argument against exports having a big impact on grain prices due to the dollar's collapse just doesn't make sense to me.)

To me, it appears that total corn exports (section 2 of the table) have skyrocketed in the last 5 years, which would just about track the dollar's fall. For example, from Sep-Dec '03 to Sep-Dec '07, monthly exports look like they are up 45%, 45%, 51%, and 7%. That looks HUGE to me.

Just because it happens to be on the same table, I looked at sorghum exports too. They have also skyrocketed in 2007.

I haven't found the wheat data yet, but I'm interested in what it looks like.

3/05/2008 10:59 AM  
Blogger LFC said...

Organic George: I'd also like to hear your view on the rise in the cost of oil and fertilizer on grains. I'm not sure how you can say "the commodity grain problems are a direct result of ethanol, PERIOD!" and ignore big increases in the largest production costs that farmers have (unless you say that ethanol production is causing oil and fertilizer costs to rise).

3/05/2008 11:18 AM  
Anonymous goldhorder said...

There has been a bunch of copper stealing...There is also a rash of catalytic convertors going missing...thieves trying to get their hands on the small amount of Platinum in them....my garage is full of them. LOL...just kidding.


3/05/2008 1:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Breyer's Yogurt...they were the last major producer to continue selling 8oz individual packages. But just recently even they reduced their product size to 6oz...while retaining the old 8oz price. Result, 33% increase.

Talk about reduced package size...In 2003 I paid $100/month for $2500 deductible catastrophic health insurance. I now pay $155/month for $5000 deductible.

My low-end DSL service has gone from $15/month to $25/month in two steps over the last 15 months. They must use a lot of oil or other commodities to deliver this service to me.

Brussels sprouts just went from $2.49/pound to $2.99/pound. I just said goodbye to my favorite vegetable.

Bread from all major bakeries sold in grocery stores used to have the price printed on the package. I noticed this practice disappearing in the past year. When wheat and delivery costs increase faster than a loaf can be made, delivered, and sold it does not pay to commit to a given price.

In this neck of the woods, I could often find a dozen eggs for a little less than a dollar/dozen as late as the Fall of 2006. Typical low prices now are approaching two dollars per dozen.

I could often find 12oz frozen OJ concentrate on sale for $0.99 two winters ago, and half-gallon cartons for $2 on sale. Now those respective sale prices are $1.59 and $3.

I could go on and on...Soymilk, apples, bananas, tuna, and more have all increased faster than the so-called CPI over the last two years. The increases have accelerated over the last six months.

I strain to think of anything which is cheaper, and give up straining because I cannot. If there are any price decreases, they must be for things I cannot afford.

3/05/2008 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The catalytic converter story seems to be happening all over the place.

3/05/2008 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is about some of the choices that inflation causes people to make, I think:

A friend of mine heard about this story:
which is about Smuckers peanut butter and jelly sales being on the rise. When she heard it on the news, the story was told as though the rise in peanut butter and jelly sales is due to people in the bad economy buying more of cheaper foods.

One day after hearing about Smuckers, I met someone who said that his company was so busy due to the bad economy. I said 'Busy? Don't you mean slow?'. He said that the company he works for makes basic food packaging, like boxes for mac and cheese, and sales of those cheap items go up in a recession.

3/05/2008 6:56 PM  
Blogger tom said...

Keep in mind it is not just about increased price and/or reduced quantity same price, it is during times of recession/depression that cheaper substitutions are made and lace everyday products. Is your coffee really 100% Arabica? Is your hamburger really 100% beef? (and if even if it is, is it from a "downer" cow). Rip offs are not always right in front of your face but deep in the food chain where there is no watch dog and pay offs are the order of the day. So yeah, it may cost more and there may be less of it, but it is also not what you think you are buying. If you have children in public schools -- pack the lunches yourself from source ingredients.

3/06/2008 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The US has always exported grains and the rise in exports does not have any major effect on grain prices, they are yet another mitigating factor as is the increased cost of fuel and petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides.

Farmers have gone broke due to high production cost and over production for decades, that is why the current commodity support system, or should I call it the AMD source of cheap raw materials system, needs to be trashed.

If you had paid close attention to what I wrote about farmer’s exclusively growing corn and not rotating their crops you would have realized that 2/3 the acreage for wheat and soybeans are now OUT of production.

Find all the charts you want but start with basic math.


3/06/2008 10:06 AM  
Blogger LFC said...

Find all the charts you want but start with basic math.

First, the charts contain actual numbers. The numbers are the basis for my math. You've produced nothing but unsubstantiated opinion. I don't see you providing any citations, basic math, or even basic figures. Just opinion.

Second, those numbers I provided show planted acreage for wheat is up slightly in 2007/2008 over the past several years.

Third, those numbers show sorghum production is at its highest level since 2001.

Fourth, those numbers show that corn production is up nearly 46% in the past 5 years.

Fifth, the data on soybeans is a bit tougher, but it shows a slight increase in production through last year.

So when you say "2/3 the acreage for wheat and soybeans are now OUT of production", I have to ask where you got those numbers. Mine come from the USDA. Where do yours come from?

3/06/2008 11:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Honda Classic golf tournament in Palm Beach last week offered Smuckers Uncrustables for $2.50.

I don't remember ever seeing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a major golf or tennis tournament before.

3/06/2008 1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anne Laurie said...

Our branch of the biggest local grocery chain here, suburbs north of Boston, is now shutting down at midnight. Staying open 24/7 used to be one of their mainstay advertisements, but keeping even a skeleton crew on the graveyard shift at minimum wage has become too expensive as margins get thinner. They also recently closed another branch in a neighboring community that was supersized/modernized less than two years ago.

3/08/2008 4:46 AM  
Blogger montag said...

...Stunning Realist...

Thank you for writing this.

3/10/2008 5:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's the old math

Farmers grow soybeans, then corn, then wheat.

Farmers now grow corn, corn and corn.

If two trains leave from different stations at the same time.......

Yep 2/3 of the acreage is out of wheat and soybean production

The Government stats will catch up in about 2 years.

My business $ is tied to Ag commodities, your theories are ivory tower. Anytime you want to put your $ where your mouth is, wade on into the futures market with most of your cash.

Organic George

3/10/2008 11:39 AM  

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