KEY DATA: Sales: +0.6%; Non-Vehicle: +0.5%/ Imports: +0.1%; Nonfuel: -0.1%; Exports: +0.4%; Nonfarm: +0.3%/ NAHB: 68 (Up 4 points)
IN A NUTSHELL: “The economy seems to be picking up steam, finally.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Economists have been saying, thinking and basically hoping that growth would improve during the second half of the year and that might be happening. Retail sales, which had been sluggish for much of the first half of 2017, rose solidly in July. Better vehicle sales were just one of the reasons. Online retailers as well as furniture, supermarkets, home improvement, sporting goods and health care stores reported strong gains. People even ate out more, though they didn’t stuff themselves. Amazingly, department stores showed a robust increase and these were supposed to be ghost towns. There was some weakness, as sales of gasoline and electronics and appliances were off. Still, the breadth of the increases was impressive. When you ad that to upward revisions to previous months, it is clear that households are emptying their wallets at an expanding pace.
On the inflation front, there still is very little. Import prices ticked up a touch in July, but largely because energy costs jumped. Excluding fuel, the cost of foreign products was off a little. Food prices are on a steady upward climb and that does not bode well for supermarket prices going forward. Vehicle prices were down again and nonvehicle consumer goods costs were flat. In other words, there is minimal price pressure coming from imports. On the export side, we did see a nice rise in not only farm sales but for many other products sold to the rest of the world.
The housing market looks like it is rebounding. The National Association of Home Builders’ index jumped in August. Sales are rising and that has improved builders’ confidence. That said, the index seemed to be artificially low in June and July and the gap up didn’t even get us back to the May level.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The economy is on the rise. Even the New York Fed’s manufacturing index pointed to stronger summer growth, though one would hardly point to this region as a key player in the nation’s industrial revitalization (if there really is one). Also, as I have pointed out several times before, wage gains just aren’t keeping up with spending and that is forcing households to cut back on their savings. So how long the economy can grow at a faster pace without better income increases is unclear. Still, investors should really like the data. As for the Fed, that is a different story. Yes, import prices did rise, but not for most goods. The dollar has weakened and we could see some pick up in import costs, but it is unlikely to be enough, by themselves, to drive inflation much higher. The Fed members would love to see inflation above 2% for an extended period so they can go about their business of normalizing rates and the balance sheet. But for now, they will have to be content with saying that inflation will reach the target in the medium term, however long that may be.