January Import and Export Prices and Housing Starts and Permits

KEY DATA: Imports: +1%; Nonfuel: +0.4%; Exports: +0.8%; Farm: -0.1%/ Starts: +9.7%; 1-Family: +3.7%; Permits: +7.4%; 1-Family: -1.7%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Inflation pressures are building not just because domestic firms are raising prices but also because import costs increases are accelerating.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Another day of numbers, another sign that inflation is on the rise. This time it is from imports. The cost of foreign goods surged in January. Yes, energy prices jumped, but that was not the only reason the index was up so much. Excluding fuel, prices still rose rapidly. There was a surge in food, vehicles and a variety of industrial materials. On the positive side, consumer goods import prices were flat and capital goods costs went up modestly. Excluding fuel and even excluding food and fuel, import prices are up nearly 2%, the highest in nearly six years. On the export side, the only major sector that didn’t post a solid increase was agriculture. This sector has been struggling to find some pricing power and it just isn’t there.

Meanwhile, the December slowdown in home construction was probably due to weather issues. It is tough to seasonally adjust the data during the winter as deep-freezes and blizzards tend to come at random times. The rebound, though, in housing starts and permits in January was good to see. Both permit requests and housing starts were the highest in over nine years. Much of the gain, though, came from big jumps in the multi-family segment, which is always volatile. Regionally, construction fell in the Midwest but surged in the Northeast, South and West. While the number of homes under construction did increase, the level of activity was not a whole lot above what was going on in January 2017. It doesn’t look as if the shortage of inventory will be eased anytime soon.

One other key number came out today. The University of Michigan’s mid-month reading of consumer sentiment rebounded sharply in the early part of February. Consumers were more optimistic about the future and thought the economy was improving.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Do interest rates matter? And if so, to whom do they matter? Despite rising inflation and an increase in the 10-year note of about 50 basis points and a 30 basis point jump in the 2-year note, investors don’t appear to be that concerned. The one-week retreat seems to have been shrugged off. But the inflation pressures are real and we haven’t seen any major economic acceleration from the tax cuts yet that could push up wage costs. Of course, businesses are probably looking forward to stronger, possibly excess demand, as that would give them the pricing power they have lacked for over a decade. And the ability to raise prices holds out hopes that earnings growth can be sustained at a decent level even after the post-tax cut base is put in place. But there is a downside to this thinking as the Fed will be free to raise interest rates back to more normal rates at just about any pace deemed necessary. Unfortunately, the discussion about what are “normal” rates hasn’t really begun. It needs to and soon. In two weeks the next PCE price index comes out and it could be hot. And three weeks later the FOMC meets. If the inflation data are as worrisome as I think is possible, look for the Fed to indicate it is putting inflation on the closely watched list.