By Paul R. La Monica, assistant managing editorMarch 4, 2011: 12:59 PM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — With crude oil over $100 a barrel and gold hovering near a record high, many are clearly worried about inflation.
But Friday’s jobs report featured some encouraging news on the inflation front. Inflation, in the most classic economic textbook sense, just isn’t showing up in the broader economy as of yet.
Most economists point out that there is a big difference between commodity-driven price increases and real inflation. Inflation is typically led by big gains in wages. When people are making a lot more, that tends to drive the price of goods and services much higher.
However, Friday’s jobs report showed that average hourly earnings rose by just a penny in February. And over the past 12 months, wages are up only 1.7%.
Of course, that’s not good news for struggling consumers who are stuck paying more for gas and food. But at the same time, the lack of inflation is likely to mean the status quo from the Federal Reserve for the foreseeable future.
The Fed has taken a lot of heat for its aggressive policies, particularly from those who fear that low rates and quantitative easing will destroy the dollar.
But it’s hard to argue with the results. The unemployment rate is now 8.9% — its lowest level since April 2009
That’s probably one reason why bond investors were in a cheery mood Friday.
Bond yields fell (which happens when prices go up) as it becomes more clear that the economy is improving but that it’s not in danger of overheating. The yield on the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note dipped to about 3.52% from 3.58% Thursday.
“Inflation is not showing up in the job market,” said Leslie Barbi, head of fixed income for RS Investments in New York. “There has been no wage spiral. This is not news that will push yields to new highs.”
As recently as a few weeks ago, inflation cries were growing louder. The 10-year reached 3.74% in early February, its highest level since April 2010.
Barbi said rates may still head back closer to 4% over time if jobs growth, wage gains and the broader economy pick up over time. But she doubts that rates will get there anytime soon, especially because of continued worries about Libya as well as more debt woes in Portugal and other parts of Europe.
Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist with Charles Schwab & Co. New York, agreed that rates will probably stay in a narrow range for awhile.
She said that as long as economic data shows that the recovery is humming along without runaway inflation, that should set the stage for both stocks and bonds to do well. That’s because the Fed is not going to be forced to start raising rates until it’s clear that inflation is a threat.
“Unbelievably strong jobs and other economic numbers could cause trouble,” she said. “That could change Fed policy and the trajectory of bond yields.”
Sure, the Fed may be able to justify leaving rates near zero for now and keeping QE2 in place until that bond buying program expires later this spring. However, rates can’t stay this low forever.
Sonders conceded that inflation fears are “benign” now but added “all that can change quickly.”
But Brian Battle, director with Performance Trust Capital Partners, a fixed-income trading firm in Chicago, noted that inflation pressure around the globe will eventually hit the United States, especially if foreign central banks start to raise rates.
Along those lines, the European Central Bank left rates steady Thursday. But ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet hinted at a rate hike soon, saying that the ECB would be “strongly vigilant” regarding inflation.
The ECB does have the luxury of only needing to worry about inflation as it does not have the dual mandate of prices and jobs that the Fed has.
Steve Van Order, chief fixed income strategist with Calvert Funds in Bethesda, Md., said that unemployment is still too high and inflation too low for the Fed to be doing anything.
Van Order joked that what he calls the “mandate spread” — the difference between the jobless rate and inflation — is about 8%. He thinks that the spread needs to narrow to about 5% before the Fed would consider raising rates.
With that in mind, Van Order said he expects the 10-year rate to stay in a range of 3.25% to 3.75% for a while.
But Battle said that a couple more months of healthy employment gains will likely lead to higher long-term rates.
“The next logical stop for the 10-year is 4%. Trichet wagging his finger about inflation and that will put pressure on the Fed to raise rates as well,” Battle said. “Everybody knows rates have to go higher. The timing is the question.”
Reader comment of the week. I wrote on Thursday about how BlackBerry maker Research in Motion may still be a bargain stock even though Apple is making waves with the iPad and iPhone.
I argued that the tablet and smartphone markets may be dominated by Apple but that other companies like RIM can gain share in mobile devices too.
Daniel Miller, aka @wallstreetbean on Twitter, agreed. “Great piece on $RIMM (RIMM). There’s lots of good fruit out there!” he wrote in one tweet. He followed up saying that “I luv $AAPL (AAPL, Fortune 500) too, but herd mentality has kept many investors away from $RIMM.”
Great point. It obviously does pay to invest in market leaders. But in a rapidly growing market, there’s no shame in being the second or third best.
— The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.
First Published: March 4, 2011: 12:45 PM ET