Blog Hero Image

Posted by Craig Basinger on Mar 18th, 2024

Inflation - Not Going Quietly Into the Night

The primary cause of the market declines in 2022 was inflation and the subsequent response by central banks. Rates higher, yields higher, stock prices lower… yuck. The stock market rally in 2023 was a bit more complicated but a big driver was inflation coming back down, opening the door for central banks to stop raising rates and for bond yields to stabilize. Yay. Now with 2024 well underway and the equity market up smartly, should we be concerned that inflation doesn’t seem to be going quietly into the night?

Last week, the U.S. Consumer Prices Index (CPI) data came in a bit warmer than expected by the consensus. The month-over-month change was 0.4%, both headline and core, excluding food and energy; this brought the year-over-year to tick up a bit from 3.1% to 3.2% and the core from 3.7% to 3.8%. This probably wasn’t a big deal; the equity market shrugged it off, and bond yields moved a bit higher in response. We could argue the finer details, such as insurance moving higher or shelter, but really, it was a lack of price deflation in goods. Good prices had been falling for the past six months, helping overall inflation come down. There was further evidence goods deflation may be waning in the Producer Prices data released later in the week. The market had more of a negative reaction to this information.

US inflation not going quietly

It gets a bit more challenging as well due to base effects. Given more folks pay attention to the year-over-year inflation reading, this is poised to move higher. It had been moving lower partially because, for the past six months, the monthly number being dropped from a year ago averaged 0.4% (high-ish). So, any monthly reading below this 0.4% would result in the year-over-year reading falling. However, we are about to drop a number of months that averaged much lower inflation, so future months will need to be below 0.2% to see headline CPI fall.

A resurgence of inflation, even if partially due to base effects, will likely see more folks talking up similarities with the 1970s. The 70s saw an initial move higher in inflation, which faded and then rose again. Please note I just jammed an entire decade of inflation into one sentence, which is an oversimplification. In reality, there were many twists and turns along the way. While this is certainly possible, we would point to a major policy mistake in the 1970s. The Fed started cutting rates even before inflation peaked. Of course, hindsight makes it easy to say this today. Recently, the policy mistake was to wait too long before raising rates and then to maintain a restrictive level as inflation has come down. Worth noting a recurring trend has been for the market to keep pushing expectations of rate cuts further out.

Will inflation history rhyme?

Also, it's fair to say this just isn’t your 1970s economy. Even if inflation does pick up in the near term due to base effects, the trajectory should remain to the downside over the next year. Shipping prices have ticked higher, which feeds into goods pricing. Commodity prices have moved up recently as well. On a positive, if you look at factory pricing in China, this continues to be disinflationary. Yet most developed economies are more tilted to services than goods. U.S. CPI is broken down into 14% food, 7% energy, 19% goods and 60% services. The good news is services inflation doesn’t move around nearly as much as other components; the bad news is that it moves very slowly.

Despite goods inflation ticking up of late, investors should not read too much into this as it tends to be more volatile. More importantly, the lagged inflation components are starting to roll over. The two biggest drivers of services inflation, rents and wages, are cooling. Small business wage and price intentions are softening. This should help inflation continue to cool as 2024 progresses, albeit not in a straight line that can include some countertrend moves, like the one happening right now.

Early/fast inflation components vs slow-moving components
Wages and rent - these cooling trends are good news

Why All This Inflation Talk?

Inflation is essentially a tax on wealth; higher inflation makes everything worth less in real terms. This includes your portfolio. Even though we believe inflation is likely going to become lower, it may flare up further downfield. Many of the factors that helped keep inflation lower or moving in a downward trend during the past couple of decades have softened. Inflation may well become a recurring risk to portfolio and financial plans. Ensuring a reasonable allocation to asset classes that can help offset will likely become a larger allocation in the years ahead. This includes equities, more on the value factor, and real asset exposures.

More importantly, for today, any variation in the path of inflation can quickly translate into bond yields. The recent CPI and PPI prints triggered the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield to move up from about 4% to 4.3%. That may not sound like a big deal, but over the past year or so, the equity market has been very sensitive to bond yields when above 4%. What does that mean? Well, when bond yields have been below 4% since the start of 2023, there has been a weak relationship between the movement in bond yields and the stock market. However, when it was over 4%, this relationship became much stronger and more reliable.

Since the start of 2023, equities have only cared about bond yields when over 4%

This relationship will not endure as other factors will become more impactful. For now, though, the equity market does not like yields moving higher when above 4%. The good news is that when yields fall, the equity market will potentially rejoice, as it did when yields fell from 5% at the end of October to 4% by the end of the year.

Final Thoughts

Given our current view that this recent uptick in inflation will prove to be a short-term counter trend, we don’t believe the rise in yields will persist either. And should it move further, that may create another bite at the apple to add duration. Or even add equities if it translates into equity market weakness. For now we are not getting concerned over the uptick in inflation data.

— Craig Basinger is the Chief Market Strategist at Purpose Investments

 Get the latest market insights to your inbox every week.

Sources: Charts are sourced to Bloomberg L. P.

The content of this document is for informational purposes only and is not being provided in the context of an offering of any securities described herein, nor is it a recommendation or solicitation to buy, hold or sell any security. The information is not investment advice, nor is it tailored to the needs or circumstances of any investor. Information contained in this document is not, and under no circumstances is it to be construed as, an offering memorandum, prospectus, advertisement or public offering of securities. No securities commission or similar regulatory authority has reviewed this document, and any representation to the contrary is an offence. Information contained in this document is believed to be accurate and reliable; however, we cannot guarantee that it is complete or current at all times. The information provided is subject to change without notice.

Commissions, trailing commissions, management fees and expenses all may be associated with investment funds. Please read the prospectus before investing. If the securities are purchased or sold on a stock exchange, you may pay more or receive less than the current net asset value. Investment funds are not guaranteed, their values change frequently, and past performance may not be repeated. Certain statements in this document are forward-looking. Forward-looking statements (“FLS”) are statements that are predictive in nature, depend on or refer to future events or conditions, or that include words such as “may,” “will,” “should,” “could,” “expect,” “anticipate,” intend,” “plan,” “believe,” “estimate” or other similar expressions. Statements that look forward in time or include anything other than historical information are subject to risks and uncertainties, and actual results, actions or events could differ materially from those set forth in the FLS. FLS are not guarantees of future performance and are, by their nature, based on numerous assumptions. Although the FLS contained in this document are based upon what Purpose Investments and the portfolio manager believe to be reasonable assumptions, Purpose Investments and the portfolio manager cannot assure that actual results will be consistent with these FLS. The reader is cautioned to consider the FLS carefully and not to place undue reliance on the FLS. Unless required by applicable law, it is not undertaken, and specifically disclaimed, that there is any intention or obligation to update or revise FLS, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise.


Craig Basinger, CFA

Craig Basinger is the Chief Market Strategist at Purpose Investments. With over 25 years of investment experience, Craig combines an educational foundation in economics & psychology with years of experience in both fundamental and quantitative research. A long-term student of the markets, Craig’s thoughts and insights can be seen in his Market Ethos publications and through his regular contributions on BNN.

Craig and his team bring a transparent and cost-efficient approach to investment management. The team provides asset allocation OCIO services and directly manages over $1 billion in assets. The team manages dividend mandates, quantitative risk reduction strategies and asset allocation services.