LONDON (Reuters) - The global economy has weathered the new U.S. administration’s sweeping challenges to the status quo with surprising aplomb given serious threats made to world trade, but what is not so clear is how much longer inflation will remain stubbornly low.
Nearly a decade since the start of the financial crisis and an avalanche of emergency monetary stimulus that ensued, inflation is only just now close to the 2 percent target many of the world’s biggest central banks still keep.
But there have been stirring signals on inflation elsewhere in the world, suggesting a turning point may be closer.
The Reserve Bank of India just dropped its bias to ease policy, citing global inflation pressures as one reason for a sudden volte-face. Mexico’s central bank, grappling with a falling peso, hiked rates on Thursday to a near-eight year high.
Key releases on inflation for the United States, Britain and China are due next week, forecast at 2.4, 1.9 and 2.4 percent, respectively, according to Reuters polls.
The worry is with growth holding up and commodity prices giving inflation a nudge up now, the last thing needed with most major central bank rates still near zero is more fuel poured onto to an already-raging fire.
An expected announcement from the Trump administration on plans for sweeping tax cuts is likely only weeks away, and has again boosted already-lofty stock prices, despite widespread worries about the barriers to trade that may come later.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is due to testify to Congress next week for the first time since Donald Trump moved into the White House. She doesn’t appear ready to signal a major step up in the Fed’s glacial pace of rate rises yet either.
Inflation in the economy is picking up: but so far not because spare capacity has been eaten up in product and labour markets, triggering price rises driven by demand outstripping shortages of supply.
Instead, the latest rise has to do with rising costs, particularly energy costs, leaving central bankers, notably European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, saying they will instead focus on the next round of inflation pressures.
The main impediment to higher inflation rests in one of the side-effects from the free flow of labour: a lack of wage pressure.
“What had appeared to be a promising trend of stronger wage growth broadening out to include more higher paying industries has reversed since late last year,” notes Morgan Stanley U.S. economist Robert Rosener.
“Wage pressures remain predominately in low-wage industries, limiting gains in overall aggregate wage growth.”
The U.S. unemployment rate is below 5 percent, close to where most economists say is the lowest it can go before shortages start to drive up the cost of labour.
Despite this latest setback in the official data, the general expectation is that wage inflation will soon take off, especially given that it is one of President Trump’s stated aims to hire American.
The talk of wage inflation has been less robust in the Britain, however.
Britain is facing an imported inflation challenge following Britons’ majority vote last June to leave the European Union that caused a 15 percent fall in sterling. That could send inflation to 3 percent or higher later this year.
The Bank of England just cut its estimate of the unemployment rate it thinks will generate inflation to 4.5 percent from 5.0 percent based on recent evidence that already-low unemployment isn’t boosting wages much.
Its latest agents survey of businesses shows very modest expectations for pay settlements in the coming year, only slightly above 2 percent.
Average UK weekly earnings excluding bonuses are forecast to rise 2.7 percent in the three months to December on a year ago, steady compared with the last official set of data.
It is clear that going forward, there is still plenty of uncertainty over what Britain’s future trading relationship will be with the EU and how long that will take.
But if the unemployment rate keeps falling, it should soon be time for a trend of rising wages to re-establish itself, so long as basic laws of economics still apply.
“There seems to be a real inconsistency between the way the U.S. is being analysed and the way the UK is being analysed,” said Charles Goodhart, former member of the BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee, at a recent conference hosted by Fathom Consulting and Thomson Reuters.
“That means that there must be, to my mind, at least a 50 percent possibility that wages will go up in line with inflation... in which case interest rates in the UK will go up. So it all depends on wages. Watch wages like a hawk.”