August Consumer Prices, Real Earnings and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: CPI: +0.4%; Less Energy: +0.2%; Gasoline: +6.3%/ Real Earnings: -0.3%/ Claims: -14,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “The hurricane blew up the cost of energy, but otherwise, inflation is still reasonably well contained.”

WHAT IT MEANS: We knew that Harvey’s hitting Texas would affect the inflation indices and it did. Consumer prices jumped in August, led by a surge in gasoline costs. A loss of production, even for a short time, tends to do that. Are we are likely to see some spillover into September? Gasoline costs spiked during the early portion of the month, though they have started coming down. We still have half the month to go so it is not clear what will be the impact this month. Otherwise, prices rose moderately. Food and clothing costs increased minimally while clothing, medical goods and vehicle prices were either flat or even down. Restaurants continue to push through price increases even as supermarket prices fall. Whole Wallet is now only Half a Wallet. Inflation is picking up in the services side of the ledger. Housing, transportation and medical services costs were up sharply.

The large rise in overall consumer costs in August cut deeply in household spending power. While hourly wages rose, the increase was more than offset by the jump in prices. Thus, real earnings declined. Over the year, inflation-adjusted hourly earnings were up only 0.6%. As I keep saying, it is hard to grow quickly if purchasing power is rising modestly.

Weekly jobless claims fell sharply last week but the level is extremely high due to the Hurricanes. These numbers will be likely remain elevated as Irma’s impact is still to be seen in the labor data. It is impossible to know how high they will go and when they will come down, so just use the data to understand the impact on jobs, not the trend in the labor market.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The gasoline situation will not mislead the Fed into thinking inflation is on the rise. It is accelerating, but only slowly. Excluding energy or even when both food and energy are removed from the index, the rate is still below the Fed’s 2% target. The Fed will look past the short-term impacts as Fed policy works with a lag anyway. The members are worried about next year not next month. They might want to temporize at next week’s FOMC meeting, as there is a lot of uncertainty about the impacts of the storms. Even if they do, expect announcements about balance sheet reductions and a rate hike to come in the November and/or December meetings. As for the markets, when it rallies on the belief that the insurance costs will by huge but not incredibly huge, then you have to wonder about the rationality of investors. It is hard to see that the storm didn’t cause massive damage. The real problem will come if insurance companies don’t pay or are slow to pay for repairs. Without those funds, much of the needed renovations will either not be made or it will take a really long time for homeowners and businesses to make them. Lower and slower insurance payments mean less growth. Regardless, the cost of the Hurricanes will likely be enormous and a lot of the infrastructure will have to be repaired. Government spending will rise sharply at the federal, state and local levels. The huge cost to utilities will likely lead to price increases down the road. We are looking at a change in a lot of the economic indicators and investors will need to understand what is trend and what is temporary. The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind. The problem was the wind.