Of course, the war in Ukraine, soaring energy and food prices, supply chain disruption and the covid lockdowns in China were all – to a greater or lesser extent – not easily predictable.
But what really puzzles us is their forecast that inflation will miraculously fall back to the official 2% target by early 2024. It seems central bankers are still addicted to the notion of ‘transitory’ inflation.
There are really only two ways for that target to be met. Either the Bank intends to raise rates high enough to plunge the economy into recession. Or it is desperately hoping energy and food prices stabilise, supply chains are unblocked, deglobalisation is reversed and, most importantly, wages don’t rise.
Back in the real world, average earnings (as measured by the Bank of England itself) are already rising at 4-5%. If you include bonuses and other payments, the latest number is more like double that.
The good news is that unemployment is now just 3.7%, the lowest since 1974, and job vacancies are at all time highs. For the first time since records began, there are more job vacancies than unemployed workers.
The bad news is that such a tight labour market points to rising wages. If earnings rise to offset the ‘cost of living’ crisis, then inflation will become embedded in the system. Government payments to offset soaring energy costs, though welcome to those struggling to pay soaring energy costs, can have much the same effect.
Unless the Bank is willing (and allowed) to raise rates dramatically, we struggle to see how inflation falls back to target by 2024. High interest rates can always control inflation if you are willing to bear the economic pain. But will central banks and governments prescribe such harsh medicine? We think not.
So, as we celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, it seems inflation is harking back to 1977, the year of her Silver Jubilee. Either official interest rate forecasts are wrong, or we are heading for a recession, though we could, of course, really mimic the 1970s and get stagflation – low growth and inflation. We think it’s more likely that inflation does not fall back to target any time soon. But, if it turns out to be a recession, we are prepared, with our portfolios’ credit protections likely to be particularly effective.
We expect central banks to conclude that inflation may be the lesser of these two evils, especially given the high levels of debt in the economy. But investors should be in no doubt about the threat it poses to both equities and bonds. After all, as John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1924: ‘inflation is unjust and deflation inexpedient. Of the two perhaps deflation is the worse; because it is worse, in an impoverished world, to provoke unemployment than to disappoint the rentier.’