Talk of inevitable oncoming inflationary spike has increased as gold broke through $1000 an ounce, Chairman Bernanke discussed the Fed retracting liquidity and money supply surged. Of course this chatter has spilled over to the bond market and is one of the legs of the "short the bond bubble" theme. However, a close inspection of the mechanics of inflation suggest that it may be a long time before we have to worry about rising prices.
Inflationary pressures are generally attributed to too much money chasing too few goods. The monetarists have focused on the recent massive spike in money supply, specifically monetary base. The argument goes that eventually that money will find its way into the hands of consumers who will begin to purchase goods. These purchases will prompt factories to ramp up production. In the process of increasing production the factories will demand more raw materials which will lead to supply shortages. More demand chasing the stagnant supply will lead to inflation. The following hockey stick chart has the Chicago crowd sweating in their Bears jerseys.
The narrow view of simply observing money supply assumes that producing more goods requires more resources, but that is not always the case. We must also take into account the stage of the business cycle and the ability of the economy to produce more goods with current resources. One tool for measuring this is capacity utilization, which attempts to determine the percentage of "normal" operation US factories are currently operating. Currently capacity utilization is running at roughly 74%; the highest level of capacity utilization in the last 36 years was 88.65% in October 1973. The implication is that the economy has plenty of slack in the system and could produce more given current resources.
Another way of measuring the production potential of the economy is the output gap. The output gap is the difference between the estimate of what the economy could produce and what the economy is actually producing. The "gap" between potential and actual output is a measure of tightness or slack in the economy. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produces a reliable estimate of the full potential of the economy. If the economy is producing at or above the estimated levels then businesses must increase consumption of resources, i.e. raw materials and labor. If the economy is producing below potential then companies do not have to chase after supplies or add workers.