Forget all that money the Federal Reserve has been printing and all the borrowing the U.S. Treasury has been doing and continues to do. Inflation, at least in the short term, has peaked, according to Morningstar’s director of economic analysis Robert Johnson.

“I think we’ve seen the worst of inflation,” said Johnson, who bases his view on what’s happening to commodities prices and on some developments in key components of the Consumer Price Index.

Central in Johnson’s thinking is the fall in domestic refined gasoline prices at the pump, down now from a high of $3.98/gal in April to $3.61 today, according to the AAA daily survey. That’s a 10% decline in a product that constitutes 5% of the Labor Department’s CPI.

Also an important factor, says Johnson, are three major back-to-back declines in basic food prices over the past three months. “Basic food prices -- for things like vegetables and fruits -- have fallen 10%, 7% and 7% in the last three months,” he said.

Adding to his confidence that the worse of inflation is behind the U.S. economy is an apparent tapering off of the disruption in auto manufacturing caused by the triple calamity in Japan this spring which made key parts for auto production such as on-board computers and certain paints nearly impossible to obtain. 

“Toyota’s car production went from 110-120,000 cars/month before the earthquake and tsunami down to a post-disaster 30,000 units,” Johnson said, "but now they’re back up to 90,000 cars.”

He said that a shortage of cars -- not just of Toyotas, but of almost all brands -- had led to a sharp rise in prices for what, again, is a big piece of the CPI, with prices of new cars rising by 1% or more per month for several months.

“That rise was because of a supply shortage,” he said, “and now that shortage seems to be ending. I think soon we’ll be seeing a return of incentives for car buyers.”

In addition to declines in key parts of the CPI, such as food, cars and fuel, Johnson said there are other good reasons to think inflation pressures won’t return in the near term. 

“It doesn’t look like housing will explode on the upside again anytime soon,” he said, “though rents could rise.” Housing represents a whopping 40% of the CPI. “And we’re not likely to see wages rising either.”

But what about all that government red ink?

"Well, longer term, of course, you do have a lot of government debt, but then businesses have reduced their debt significantly since the financial crisis, and consumer debt is down a lot too, so there is a kind of compensating factor," he said.

For now though, Johnson thinks inflation is not a big concern, at least here in the U.S.


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