Trying to decide when to act against inflation is like trying to know the precise moment to stop falling in love. There are forces here beyond apprehension, and they don't dial back without damage.
At least with a relationship, there's the hope of happily ever after. Inflation, once it has its hooks in, probably won't love you back.
Yes, "probably." More on that in a bit.
What inflation means in the simplest terms is that you'll need more money to buy something in the future than you do now. Maybe you can compensate with good pay raises or returns on your investments, but when inflation runs hot enough for long enough, people tend to lose pace.
The aggregate year-over-year increase in prices, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), was 6.2% in October. By comparison, average weekly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls over the same period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, were up 4.6%. That's ground lost — and it represents about 80% of the workers contributing to the economy. Another opportunity for empathy: The basis used in 2022 inflation adjustments to Minnesota's minimum wage will be 2.5%.
Keep in mind that these comparisons are wiggly, and that how you are personally affected depends also on what you buy. Not everybody is in the market for a used car or truck (up 26.4% in the last year), but everyone needs food (up 5.3% — again, more than wages).
We mentioned that high inflation probably won't love you back. There's one way, though, that it could — by diluting the burden of your current debt, if you really bring in more dollars with which to pay it down.
Say, who do you know who collectively owes more than $28 trillion?
The big worry is that inflation, once loose, will persist even if economic strength and job growth don't. It's not the only possible outcome, but it's the most recent in many minds. The stagflation of the 1970s started amid supply shocks and loose monetary policy, not unlike conditions now. It ended only after the Federal Reserve Board finally turned off the tap, triggering recessions. No dialing back without damage.
Fear can become an opportunity to broaden the search for culprits. Political ones tend to be convenient. One such currently is the infrastructure and social spending partly approved and still proposed by the Biden administration. Those initiatives are now considered suspect even though they are deferred maintenance for the nation.
The truth is that Congress can influence the economy through appropriate spending and taxation, but until it learns to work both sides of that equation, stabilization is left to the Fed.
The Fed will proceed under the likely stewardship of Jerome Powell, whose recent renomination as chair the Star Tribune Editorial Board supported. Powell has argued that the current spike in inflation is likely a temporary effect of the pandemic and that acting too soon risks undermining the recovery in the job market. In the parlance of war and reticence via the archetypes of the animal kingdom, that makes him a dove, whereas a more aggressive responder would be a hawk.
Powell is not in fact passive, but he does seem to prefer to clearly identify his targets. He will need a sharp eye to spot what really rustles among the leaves. The Fed's tea leaves, at least, have been starting to shift, and on Tuesday Powell told a congressional committee that the central bank is increasingly concerned about inflation.
The next update to the CPI is scheduled for Dec. 10. Arriving just in time to make interpretations murky is the possibly powerful COVID variant omicron and perhaps economy-squelching consequences.