US inflation reaches above 15% on wage-price spiral

US inflation reaches above 15% on wage-price spiral

Christopher Dembik
Head of Macro Analysis

Summary:  By the fourth quarter of 2022, US CPI inflation reaches an annualized 15% as companies bid up wages in an effort to find willing and qualified workers, triggering a wage-price spiral unlike anything seen since the 1970's.

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At the end of the 1960s, the US Federal Reserve and the Fed chair then, McChesney Martin, misjudged how hot they could run the US labour market without fanning inflation. The miscue paved the way for inflation expectations getting out of control and a massive wage-price spiral the following decade. The official US CPI reached a peak at 11.8% in February 1975. It wasn’t until the recession of 1980-82 and brutal policy rate increases to levels as high as 20% that inflation was finally killed. 

In 2022, the Federal Reserve and Fed chair Jerome Powell repeats the same mistake all over again as the post-Covid outbreak economy and especially the labour market are severely supply constrained, making a mockery of the Fed’s traditional models. Powell believes millions of Americans will return to work and fill some of the 10.4 million open job positions as Covid-19 fades. But this is plain wrong. Some have retired early due to the crisis and thus have permanently left the US workforce. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimates the exodus of older workers to be about 3 million people. Others aren’t returning to poorly paid jobs after seeing huge handouts during the pandemic and seem to be waiting for better jobs and pay. 

The big difference between today and yesterday is that the pandemic has fuelled a great awakening of workers. Across sectors and income classes they realise they are now more empowered than ever. They demand a better experience: better job conditions, higher wages, more flexibility and a sense of purpose from work. Coupled with persistent inflationary pressures coming from the production side, the energy crisis and labour shortage, this results in unprecedented broad-based double-digit annualised wage increases by Q4. As a consequence, US inflation reaches an annualised pace above 15% before the start of 2023, for the first time since WWII. This prompts the Federal Reserve into a too-little, too-late move to tighten monetary policy faster in a desperate effort to tame inflation. But the central bank has lost credibility; it will take time to regain it. 

Market impact: extreme volatility in US equity and credit markets. The JNK high-yield ETF falls as much as 20% and the VIXM mid-curve volatility ETF soars as much as 70%

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