KEY DATA: CPI: +0.1%; Less Food and Energy: +0.1%/ Real Earnings: +0.2%; Over Year: +0.7%
IN A NUTSHELL: “The only thing saving consumers is low inflation as spending power is going largely nowhere.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Inflation remains well under control. Yesterday we saw that wholesale costs were soft and today’s consumer price report also pointed to minimal inflation pressures. The Consumer Price Index rose modestly in July. While energy prices edged down, food costs increased moderately. (The all-important bakery component surged, so my diet is safe.) Excluding food and energy, prices were up minimally. Looking at the details, several components stood out. Prices of medical commodities and services continue to surge. The deceleration in medical costs had been going on for quite some time but that is no longer the case. On the other hand, costs of both new and used vehicles keep falling. The slowdown in demand and the large number of vehicles coming off leases are pressuring the sector. Households are also being buffeted by large increases in vehicle insurance. Clothing prices were up in July but for the year, they are still down.
While they wait for wage gains to accelerate, workers can be thankful for the modest inflation. Hourly wages rose moderately and only part of that gain was lost to the low inflation. Still, the increase over the year of real, or inflation-adjusted earnings is pathetic. For all of 2017, real hourly earnings have expanded by less than 1%. Households are earning more, but some of the gains are coming from working longer. Even when you add the rising hours worked to the gain in wages, family spending-power has increased by just over one percent. That is why so many people are unhappy.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The Fed may want inflation to pick up, but that would not be good news to households. Wages are growing modestly and the only way spending power has increased at all is that inflation has remained below the Fed’s target rate. As I have noted on countless occasions, it is hard for the economy to grow much more than 2% if earnings are largely flat and that is still the case. Real wages had accelerated during 2015, but the gains have slowed over the past eighteen months. Consumers have had to reduce their savings rate to maintain their lifestyles. That is not good news. So we are stuck in the same trap that we have been in for several years now: Wages are rising modestly so consumption is mediocre. That is keeping growth down, limiting business pricing power and causing inflation to decelerate. The slow growth is also enabling businesses to restrain wages and allow job openings to go unfilled. The Fed members really want inflation to rise above 2%. But if that happens without a concomitant increase in wages, consumer purchasing power will decline, slowing growth. Essentially, the driver of stronger growth appears to be, at least to me, better wage increases. That would expand demand and growth, induce workers to work harder not just longer, improve productivity, pricing power and profits and induce greater investment. That’s my theory and I am sticking to it.