Ep 15: Inflation Explained

What is inflation? What causes inflation? And why do we invest in the stock market (hint hint: to outpace inflation). Inflation was 8.9% in the summer of 2022, and even though it's currently around 3.7% as of September 2023, we are still feeling the lag effects. The memes talking about the struggles a lot of us are facing are plentiful! There's definitely a trickle effect happening

Episode Equity

Understanding Inflation: What It Is and How It Works

Inflation: A Simple Explanation

Inflation is a concept that can seem complex, but at its core, it's about the purchasing power of money and how it changes over time. Let's break down this economic phenomenon in a straightforward way.

What Is Inflation?

Inflation refers to the gradual increase in the prices of goods and services, which, in turn, reduces the purchasing power of your money. A little bit of inflation, around 2%, is generally considered healthy for an economy because it signifies slow and sustainable growth. Central banks, like the Federal Reserve in the United States, often target a 2% annual increase in inflation to maintain stability.

A Fun Way to Understand Inflation

Imagine you're back in school, and your teacher wants to explain inflation to you using an interactive activity. Essentially, if you want to know how to explain inflation to a child. Here's how it would go:

Supplies Needed:
  • Three paper bags, each filled with identical items.
  • Fake money in denominations of 1 (at least 5 per person for three rounds, totaling 15).
The Inflation Activity:
  • Round 1: Each student receives $5. One student spends all their money to win a bag but can't open it (winning bid = $5).
  • Round 2:Each student receives another $5. Students realize they can pool their money to bid higher for the second bag (winning bid = $12), but they still can't open it.
  • Round 3: Each student receives an additional $5. This time, students bid up to a staggering $20.

Now, students can finally open the bags, only to find that they contain identical items. What's happening here is a simplified representation of how inflation works in the real world.

The person handing out money in this activity represents the Fed or other economic factors injecting more money into the system. As students receive more money, they are willing to pay more for the same bag of items, which mirrors the diminishing purchasing power of their money. In the real world, this is akin to too many dollars chasing too few goods, leading to inflation.

this is why you invest in the stock market. If you have cash sitting there, it loses its purchasing power over time because 2% inflation year over year is actually good for the economy. So you invest in the stock market to outpace inflation, which historically it has

What Causes Inflation?

Inflation can be caused by changes in supply and demand for products/services and money itself. Here are a few theories:

  • Cost-push Theory: When the cost of production, such as labor or materials, increases, businesses raise prices to maintain their profit margins.
  • Demand-pull: High demand for limited goods or services, like sold-out concert tickets, can push prices up.
  • Built-in Inflation: Gradual increases in wages and prices can become self-perpetuating, maintaining a healthy balance.

Measuring and Controlling Inflation

Inflation is monitored using metrics like the Consumer Price Index (CPI), Producer Price Index (PPI), and Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE). To control inflation, central banks adjust interest rates. Higher rates reduce spending, which can help combat inflation, but they also risk causing economic downturns.

How Did We Get into the Inflation Situation?

The recent surge in inflation can be attributed to a combination of factors that shook the global economy. Here's a closer look at the key events that contributed to the inflation situation:

COVID-19 Pandemic Disruption (Early 2020)

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in early 2020, prompted widespread lockdowns and supply chain disruptions. Factory closures, bottlenecks at ports, and restrictions on international trade all played a role in disrupting global supply chains. At the same time, governments worldwide issued stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits to support individuals and small businesses impacted by the pandemic. Additionally, central banks, including the Federal Reserve, lowered interest rates to near-zero levels to stimulate economic activity. This massive influx of money into the system was intended to prevent a financial collapse during the pandemic.

Consumer Spending Boom

With the sudden increase in disposable income due to government stimulus and low-interest rates, consumers went on a spending spree. This surge in consumer spending, coupled with trends like the skincare craze and increased investments, led to a heightened demand for goods. Notably, the technology sector experienced a significant boom.

Housing Boom

The pandemic also prompted a shift in housing trends, as more people sought larger homes or moved to different areas. This resulted in a housing boom, driving up real estate prices and rents significantly.

Russia's Invasion of Ukraine (Early 2022)

In early 2022, Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine triggered a series of economic sanctions and trade restrictions on Russia. Since Russia is a major producer of fossil fuels, these actions limited the global supply of oil and gas. Additionally, Ukraine's large grain harvests couldn't be exported due to the conflict, leading to higher food prices. Rising fuel and food prices then rippled through various value chains, contributing to inflationary pressures.

Return to Travel and Services

As the COVID-19 pandemic receded, consumers started to embrace travel and services again. This resurgence in demand for airline tickets, hotels, and other services led to an increase in prices, particularly in the travel sector.

What Is the Fed's Stance Now?

The Federal Reserve has been closely monitoring the inflation situation and implementing policy changes in response. Here's a snapshot of the Fed's current stance:

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) have taken a cautious approach to address inflation. They have opted for a "hawkish pause" as of September 2023 moving away from aggressively raising interest rates. Here are some key points from the Fed's recent actions and statements:

Restrictive Interest Rate Increases: The Fed has raised interest rates to 5.25% over the course of a year. However, these policy changes take time to filter through the economy, a phenomenon known as a "lag effect." Consumers are still spending as credit card limits haven't been reached, and rent prices are slow to adjust because longer-term leases need time to expire and rollover.

Focus on Core Inflation: The Fed pays attention to core inflation, which excludes volatile elements like energy prices. Recent data suggests that while new lease rates are still 20% higher than pre-pandemic levels, they have come down from the extreme increases observed in 2021.

Data-Dependent Approach: The Fed emphasizes its reliance on data when making policy decisions. Powell and the FOMC remain cautious and flexible, considering the uncertainty of economic factors and the lag effects of previous policies.

In summary, the Fed is in a delicate position, carefully adjusting interest rates to control inflation while avoiding a rapid economic downturn. They are closely monitoring economic indicators, such as labor market conditions and consumer spending, to determine the appropriate path forward in their pursuit of price stability and a strong economy. It seems that Fed has reached the end of their hiking cycle and will look to find the sweet spots where rates will remain. (The higher for longer narrative).

Inflation is a crucial economic concept that impacts our daily lives. Understanding its causes, measurement, and control is essential for making informed financial decisions. As we navigate these economic dynamics, we'll continue to see how the central banks' actions influence our purchasing power, investments, and overall financial well-being.

Jessie's Questions

  • What is inflation?
  • Inflation is the rise in the general price level of goods and services over time, resulting in a decrease in the purchasing power of money.
  • What causes inflation?
  • Inflation can be caused by various factors, including an increase in demand for goods and services, rising production costs (cost-push inflation), and changes in the supply of money in the economy.
  • How does inflation affect the economy?
  • Inflation can have both positive and negative effects. It can stimulate economic growth by encouraging spending, but if it rises too rapidly, it can erode the value of savings and reduce consumers' purchasing power.
  • What is the role of the Federal Reserve (the Fed) in managing inflation?
  • The Fed plays a crucial role in managing inflation. They use monetary policy tools, such as adjusting interest rates, to control the money supply and influence inflation levels. Raising interest rates is a common strategy to combat high inflation.
  • What are some recent factors contributing to inflation?
  • Recent factors contributing to inflation include supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, increased demand for goods, rising production costs, and geopolitical events like the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
  • How can individuals protect themselves from the effects of inflation?
  • Individuals can protect themselves from inflation by investing in assets that historically outpace inflation, such as stocks, real estate, and high-yield savings accounts. Diversifying investments can also help mitigate inflation's impact on personal finances.
  • Why does the Fed target a 2% inflation rate?
  • The Fed aims for a 2% inflation rate because it represents a healthy level of inflation that promotes economic growth without eroding the value of money too quickly. It's considered a balance between growth and stability.
  • How does inflation impact different aspects of the economy, such as housing and rent prices?
  • Inflation can affect various sectors differently. For example, housing and rent prices may rise during periods of inflation due to increased demand, but it takes time for the effects to be felt in long-term leases. Inflation can also lead to higher interest rates for mortgages.
  • Can workers negotiate higher wages to keep up with inflation?
  • Workers can negotiate for higher wages, and some employment contracts include provisions for annual wage increases tied to inflation. However, wage negotiations can vary by industry and employer, making it important for individuals to advocate for fair compensation.
  • How does inflation impact investments and the stock market?
  • Inflation can affect investments and the stock market. Investors often turn to stocks and other assets as a way to outpace inflation. However, rising inflation may prompt central banks to raise interest rates, which can negatively impact stock prices.

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Episode Transcript

Jessie: You know, Jess, I've been seeing a lot of memes and posts from friends about inflation for a while now. And there's, you know, things like this is a wage shortage, not a labor shortage.

Jess: Ooh, I've seen those too. Or the comparisons about how it was so easy to buy a house 20 years ago on a similar lower salary. Things were just different. Things our parents did.

Jessie: Right. How much easier it was back then. And the prices of groceries and rent still feel so high.

Jess: All right. So it sounds like we should talk about the inflation situation.