January Industrial Production, Producer Prices and Weekly Jobless Claims
KEY DATA: IP: -0.1%; Manufacturing: 0%/ PPI: +0.4%; Less Food and Energy: +0.4%; Goods: +0.7%; Services: +0.3%/ Claims: +7,000
IN A NUTSHELL: “Business confidence may be sky-high, but it would be better if actual business activity was growing faster.”
WHAT IT MEANS: “Watch what I do, not what I say” is the phrase we should be thinking about right now. Surveys are showing businesses are exuberant. According to the National Federation of Independent Business Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg, “The historically high index readings over the last year tell us small business owners have never been more positive about the economy”. Similarly, the most recent Conference Board Measure of CEO Confidence jumped. Well, what is happening in reality? Apparently, not much. Overall industrial production declined in January and manufacturing output was flat for the second consecutive month. That is hardly a sign of a booming economy. There were some strong sectors. Motor vehicle assembly rates increases, helping power a rise in metals output. There were also solid increases in the production of petroleum, textiles, electrical equipment, computers and appliances. A rebound in business equipment output implies that businesses may be ramping up investment spending. But that is still to be seen.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat of higher inflation is getting louder. The Producer Price Index jumped in January, the fifth time in sixth months the index was up by at 0.3%. Yes, energy prices soared, but excluding that sector, prices still rose solidly. Over the year, wholesale prices increased 2.7% and just about every special segment of producer costs has posted gains in excess of 2%. In other words, the price increases are spread across the entire economy.
Weekly jobless claims rebounded last week, but that was from historic lows, so the rise doesn’t mean much. Businesses want to retain workers and the incredibly low level of claims supports that view.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: After a short scare, investors seem more than willing to look past things such as accelerating inflation and rising interest rates and focus on what they believe will be the never-ending benefits from the tax cut legislation. But it does appear as if higher inflation is here to stay. The latest surveys by the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks found that about half of the respondents expect to get higher prices for their goods in the next six months, while very few thought prices would fall. In the Philadelphia report, a special question on prices and compensation showed that inflation expectations increased from three months ago. This should be a concern for Fed members, who consistently argue that inflation expectation are “well anchored”. Well, maybe that anchor is started to come loose. While equity investors are shrugging off the inflation data, the bond markets are not. The ten-year Treasury note hit its highest rate in over four years while the 2-year note reached a 9½-year high. Just a few months ago, before the surge in rates, many investment “gurus” were saying the economy would crash and burn if we got to 3% on the 10-year. Yet here we are with a rate that is just a few basis points from 3% and the equity markets are rising. So, is the exuberance in the stock markets rational or irrational? Where is Alan Greenspan when we really need him? I hardly expect new Fed Chair Powell will be making any comments that could roil the markets, even if he should be asking some really hard questions.