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Is This Inflationary Period Really Transitory?

As we begin a new year with inflation raging on, the idea that these price increases can accurately be called transitory seems to be losing credibility. In this segment of Backstage Pass, recorded on Dec. 13, Fool contributors Jason Hall and Toby Bordelon discuss what "transitory" even means in this context.

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Jason Hall: The latest we saw, CPI-chained inflation -- consumer inflation -- rose 6.8% in November from the year-ago period. One notable economist -- and again something else to take with a grain of salt here, this was on CNBC -- said and I quote, "Probably the worst inflation call in the history of the Federal Reserve, and it results in a high probability of policy mistake, referring to it as transitory."

Another two-parter are here. Toby, you go first on this one. What does transitory even mean? What does it mean to you? What do you think they mean when they say it? And do you think inflation will be transitory or persistent? That's the first part. Second -- actually, we'll save these, we'll do the second part all at the same time -- but what's the stock that you own or follow that you think is getting hurt by inflation? But answer the first part first.

Toby Bordelon: May I be a little philosophical here for a moment, Jason?

Hall: I would hope so.

Bordelon: Have you ever read Ecclesiastes, that great biblical book?

Hall: I've read parts of it, yes.

Bordelon: The great recurring refrain: "All is vanity, everything is vanity," which can be translated also as transitory, impermanent. And the idea behind that being, everything is transitory. Transitory means not lasting forever, right?

Now, we understand what you're talking about in the religious context, but just in our own secular context, does anything last forever? Is everything transitory? I think it might be. I'm not quite sure that's what they're talking about when they say transitory. Is high inflation transitory? Well, yeah, because eventually, it's going to be low again -- at some point. Sure, it's transitory. I think honestly, I don't know. For me ...

Hall: You're saying it's the most nebulous, BS, pat-on-the-head thing they could have possibly said.

Bordelon: Exactly, that's what it is. I think it's a shorthand way for someone to say, "Look this isn't going to last forever, but I actually have no idea how long it's going to last. So I'm going to use this fun word that I can pretend means anything I want it to be."

Hall: "Get out of here kid, mind your business."

Bordelon: [laughs] Basically. For me, when you say transitory, I don't know, I'd probably say that means it's going to be not a whole decade. But when I think about what does someone on TV mean, they probably it's only going to last a couple of weeks, and there's a pretty big difference between those two things.

So I don't know if we get any value out of describing something as transitory or not. What was the other part of the question, do I personally think...?

Hall: What do you think? Is this going to be a few months, a short period of time, versus a persistent, extended period of time? Let's frame it that way.

Bordelon: So, I have no idea. But you'd probably want me to say something, right, because that's ...

Hall: No, that's actually the perfect answer.

Bordelon: I don't know. I have no idea.

Hall: We're not on CNBC. I'm not Jim Cramer, you don't have to...

Bordelon: We don't have to pretend we know.

Hall: Right.

Bordelon: The thing is, when we were talking about it a couple of months ago, my thought was it's not going to last that long, I think by January, we're going to be fine.

I don't know that that's the case anymore. I think we might still see some continued inflation in some areas. It's interesting to me that a lot of companies have resisted raising prices, though.

If the people whose job it is to make money selling you things really thought higher prices were going to be permanent, why wouldn't they have raised their own prices?

Hall: Especially when you have the cover of inflation.

Bordelon: Exactly. To use your example, look at Microsoft. This time last year, they had just released the latest generation Xbox. They told us there's going to be shortages over the holiday season when there's this high demand and they aren't going to be able to make enough, but wait till early next year or whatever. And we still have shortages now. You probably can't get one this holiday season, a year later. But if you can find one to buy, you know what you pay? The same retail price that it was last year. They haven't raised that price at all. You can think of any number of examples of this. Some companies have raised prices because there is absolutely no choice, right? Some restaurants have gone up a little bit.

Some companies that are selling lower-margin consumables have to raise prices. But a lot of stuff hasn't gone up that much. That for me is an indication that a lot of people don't think this is a permanent thing. Even though the demand exists, the shortage is there, and they could make more money, they just are choosing not to. That's interesting to me.

Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Jason Hall has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Rachel Warren has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Toby Bordelon owns Microsoft. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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