Central bankers play down soaring cost of living

Officials insist inflation won't last, and on Wednesday the U.S. Federal Reserve Board's Jerome Powell hinted he'll join the Bank of Canada's Tiff Macklem in cutting back on stimulus. But unless wages catch up, rising prices continue to make most of us poorer.

But life really is getting more expensive even while officials insist inflation won't last

The price of food is on the way up as Canadian inflation hit 3.6 percent, but transport and housing rose much more, and wages have yet to catch up. (Natalie Maerzluft/Reuters)

How big of a raise did you get last year? In Canada or the U.S., if it wasn't in the four to five per cent range you really did not get much of an increase at all. 

On Wednesday, after a year of repeating that he wasn't going to discuss cutting back on monetary stimulus, the world's most powerful central banker, Jerome Powell, finally changed his tune.

The chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve said he and advisors are now "talking about talking about" cutting back on bond buying — a key part of stimulus during the pandemic, and the bank signalled interest rates hikes could come in 2023.

But as prices in Canada soared by 3.6 percent, hot on the tail of U.S. inflation currently running at five per cent after that economy opened up sooner, it is by no means clear those efforts will give you back the money you've lost. 

Less car, less gas, less house

Even while prices continued to surge, both Powell and Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, who addressed the Canadian Senate Wednesday evening, continue to insist that the inflation we are seeing now is a flash in the pan.

Price increases, they say, will head back down toward two percent after the pandemic's distortions have passed and the economy gets back on track.

Speaking to the Senate committee on banking last night, Macklem reiterated his view that inflation is transitory, to a large extent caused by what the central bankers call "base-year effects" since prices now are being compared to prices last year, which fell just after the pandemic hit.

"As these base-year effects fade [the central bank] expects the ongoing excess supply in the economy to pull inflation back down," Macklem told the assemble senators.

But that won't push wages up. 

For consumers, the problem is that price inflation is cumulative. Unless your wages rise by an equivalent amount this year, your monthly pay will continue to buy you less stuff. As yesterday's Statistics Canada data showed, it will buy you less car, less gas, less clothing and less house.

And while inflation did decline by a fraction of a percentage point in April (-0.2 per cent) and May (-0.4 per cent) of 2020, it was by no means enough to make up for this year's huge rise in prices. Especially since by June, prices were on the rise again, up 0.7 per cent.

Rising wages?

But workers may have a chance to catch up. Although Powell was discussing the U.S. rather than the Canadian market, labour demand tends to filter across the border just as inflation does.

Low interest rates have helped propel house prices to record highs in Canada, but U.S. central bankers, who often lead the way on Canadian mortgage rates, have begun to talk about hikes. (Kate Letterick/CBC)

One of the reasons Powell said he was willing to let inflation continue to climb without stomping it down was specifically to create jobs and help raise wages, giving unemployed low-wage workers hardest hit by the pandemic a chance to catch up. 

"If you look at the forecasts, we're going to be in a very strong labour market pretty quickly here," Powell told reporters at Wednesday's news conference. "There's every reason to think that we'll be in a labour market with very attractive numbers, with low unemployment, high participation and rising wages across the spectrum."

Unlike in Canada, one of the roles imposed by Congress on the U.S. central bank is creating jobs in the economy. The other one, similar to the duty of the Bank of Canada, is to keep inflation steady at around two per cent, although last night Macklem discussed with senators the possibility of adopting the U.S. "dual mandate" system.

Powell said the bank learned a crucial lesson from its last attempt to stimulate employment following the 2008 financial crisis and recession.

Wage and price spiral?

Then, as U.S. jobless levels fell to record lows, there were repeated concerns that the economy had run out of workers and that would push wages and inflation sharply higher. Instead, the bank discovered more and more people who had ostensibly not been looking for a job were enticed into the workforce, holding wages down. Powell hopes letting stimulus run will make that happen again.

"We don't see anything that's troubling, in the sense of very wide across-the-economy wages at unsustainable levels," said Powell, noting there is no sign of a traditional wage and price spiral that has driven inflation in the past. He implied that overall wage increases may come from people switching jobs to other jobs that pay more.

For financial markets the big issue was not the prospect of higher wages, but the fact that Powell officially broke his silence on tapering. That's the idea that the Fed would stop stimulating using quantitative easing — the bond-buying that both U.S. and Canadian central banks have done to increase the amount of money circulating in the economy.

After months of saying he would not talk about talking about cutting stimulus, U.S. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell has given officials the green light to start discussions. (Drew Angerer/Reuters)

Unlike Canada, which formally announced it was cutting quantitative easing back in April, Powell said the Fed is still only talking about it. Nonetheless, markets retreated on the news, raising fears of a new "taper tantrum" when the central bank actually announces something definitive.

And although the Powell did not officially announce rates would rise any sooner, data released with the monetary policy report showed that a majority of his advisors are also now following the Bank of Canada's lead, projecting interest rates will begin to rise in 2023, not 2024.

As Macklem told the senate committee last night, the way the current economic crisis came — starting with a bang, and ending, possibly, just as suddenly — has made it hard to decipher. 

"Everything about this crisis is so unique," said Macklem in his meeting with senators.

It was a feeling echoed by Powell earlier in the day who said that a highly unusual pandemic-caused recession and recovery increases uncertainty a few notches above the normal level of wariness of economic predictions.

"I think we have to be humble about our ability to understand the data."

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis



Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.