April Consumer Prices, Real Earnings and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: CPI: +0.2%; Ex-Food and Energy: +0.1%/ Real Hourly Earnings: 0%; Over-Year: +0.2%/ Claims: unchanged

IN A NUTSHELL: “Inflation may not be soaring, but it is high enough to  wipe out most of the gains workers are seeing in their paychecks.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Solid economic growth and tight labor markets have yet to translate into rapidly accelerating inflation. The Consumer Price Index rose moderately in April and excluding food and energy, it increased only modestly. The details, though, were all over the place. There were strong increases in gasoline and fuel oil prices, but electricity and piped gas costs fell. Food price gains picked up steam, though cookies and ice cream costs were off sharply – thankfully. Interestingly, medical care costs were tame, with medical commodity prices actually down. Over the year, both medical commodity and services costs rose less than the overall price index, a real surprise. I thought medical costs were soaring. Oh, well, another misconception put to rest. And then there are used vehicle prices, which dropped sharply. The record sales in 2015 and 2016 are having an impact as the two and three year old vehicles coming off leases are flooding the market. That helped restrain the rise in the overall index. Since people don’t usually buy vehicles frequently, I am not sure if the sharp decline in used vehicle prices matters a whole lot to the average worker. But the cost of housing does and that keeps rising sharply.

Even though inflation did not jump in April, neither did wages. So, when you adjust the rise in hourly earnings by the increase in consumer prices, you find that household spending power went nowhere. Worse, over the year, consumer costs were up by 2.4% and hourly earnings by 2.6%, so real earnings rose a pathetic 0.2%. As I say month after month, it is hard to sustain strong growth if consumers don’t have the income to spend and that is the case.

 That wages are not increasing is a conundrum that defies explanation. Jobless claims, when adjusted for the labor force, remained at record lows last week. In addition, job openings are at record highs and the number of positions available is about the same as the number of people unemployed. No matter what measure you use, even the really stupid unemployment rate, you know, the one that adjusts for people saying their frustrated or they want a full-time job but cannot find one (for whatever reason), it is clear that labor markets are tight.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Today’s data raise questions that investors may not be asking. Specifically, how can companies that are linked to the consumer make money when incomes are rising minimally? The savings rate is extremely low and the recent rise seems to indicate that households are either saving the tax cuts or paying down debt. Thus, if we are to maintain a growth rate close to 3%, businesses will have to start investing the tax cuts they received. Will they do that? It makes sense to improve efficiencies by upgrading machinery and equipment, but many the large, publicly traded companies appear more intent on raising dividends, increasing stock buybacks and/or bidding for other companies. The merger and acquisition phase seems to be just getting started. So, yes, we could see 3% growth this year, but it will be hard to sustain. And if we get it, how will firms keep wages and prices down in that strong growth economy? That is the real question.