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John Mauldin and Long Soapy Showers

By Michael Ashton

[biiwii comment: trying to ignore the imagery conjured up by the title, Mike… :-( ]

I feel like I am falling behind in my articles and commenting on other articles that people have recently written about inflation. After years – literally, years – in which almost no one wrote anything about inflation, suddenly everyone wants to opine on the new shiny object they just found. At the same time, interest in the solutions that we offer – investment strategies, consulting, bespoke inflation hedges, etc – has abruptly picked up, so it feels like the demand for these articles is rising at the same time that my time to write them is shrinking…

But I try.

I want to quickly respond to an article that came out over the weekend, by widely-read author John Mauldin. I’ve corresponded over the years from time to time about inflation, especially when he got way out on the crazy-person “CPI is made up” conspiracy theory limb. To be fair, I think he considers me the crazy person, which is why he’s never referred to me as the inflation expert in his articles. C’est la vie.

His recent article “State of Inflationary Confusion”, though, was much more on-point. Honestly, this is the best article Mauldin has written on this topic in years. I don’t agree with all of it but he at least correctly identifies most of the issues correctly. He even seems to understand hedonic adjustment and the reason we need it, and the reason the PCE/CPI debate exists (which is no easy thing – it depends on what you’re trying to do, which one is ‘better’), and that hasn’t always been the case.

Where I agree with him is when he says that ‘None of us are average’. This is obviously true, and is one reason that we have on our website a calculator where you can look at your own CPI by adjusting the components for what you personally spend (though it doesn’t take into account where you live, which is one reason your experience differs).

But I disagree with him when he says “Reducing this complexity to one number and then using that number to guide monetary policy is asking for trouble.” What an odd remark. We do that for every other piece of data: GDP, home sales, home prices, durable goods sales, retail sales, unemployment, and so on, and we use that information to guide all sorts of policy. Why would it be the case that CPI, of all of the figures, isn’t very useful for this reason? Look, your personal unemployment number is not 4%. It is either 0% or 100%. Totally binary. If Mauldin was making a compelling argument here, you’d throw out the Unemployment Rate long before you’d throw out CPI.

Indeed, if you play with the numbers on our calculator you will find that unless your consumption basket is wildly different, your CPI is likely to be fairly similar to the average. This is why TIPS make sense for many investors – it’s “close enough” to what your consumption basket is actually doing. And it is certainly close enough for policy.

The problem with monetary policy isn’t that they’re using PCE or CPI when they should be using the other, or that neither PCE nor CPI reflects the exact experience of most people. The problem with monetary policy is that policymakers don’t know what the right policy response is given the numbers because they don’t believe in monetarism any more. So their models don’t work. And that’s the problem.

Here’s an analogy (and you know I love analogies). You’re taking a shower, and your impression is “hey, this seems too hot.” It doesn’t really matter if you are using Celsius or Fahrenheit, or just a general visceral sense that it’s too hot. You simply think the water is too hot. So, to solve your problem you apply more soap.

That’s what the Fed is doing. The water is too hot, so they’re applying soap. And they’re really confused when that doesn’t seem to make the water any colder. So they say “gosh, our model must be wrong. The water temperature must be somewhat less sensitive to the amount of soap applied than we thought it was. So let’s recalibrate and apply more soap.” It never occurs to them that they’ve got the wrong model.

That’s the problem with central banking. It isn’t what you use to measure the water temperature, as long as you’re close; it’s how you respond to it that matters. And policymakers don’t understand inflation and, as a result, don’t understand how to affect it.