KEY DATA: CPI: +0.2%; Over-Year: +2.8%, Ex-Food and Energy: +0.2%; Over-Year: +2.2%/ Real Hourly Wages: +0.1%; Over-Year: 0%/ NFIB: +3 points
IN A NUTSHELL: “Inflation is accelerating and eating into household spending power.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The Fed is meeting today, with inflation will be a major topic of discussion. The members have very good reason to raise rates. The Consumer Price Index rose moderately in April, though much of that came from a surge in energy costs. Removing the more volatile food and energy components, inflation was also up moderately. Food costs were flat, though they rose solidly in March. Indeed, that seems to have been the pattern over the past few months. One month, prices rise; the next month they go nowhere. That was true for medical commodities, apparel and transportation services. Shelter costs, though, just keep going up. Since April 2017, the cost of all goods and services was up sharply and that is what we need to watch, since that is what consumers actually buy.
If this economy is to grow solidly for an extended period, consumers will have to lead the way, but that looks doubtful. Hourly wages are rising, but when you factor in the cost of goods and services, they are going nowhere. Yes, nowhere. Real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages, which is another way of saying spending power, were flat over the past year. Unless workers increased their hours worked, they had no increase in their ability to buy more. But even then, the rise in total spending power was modest. With savings levels near record lows, that does not bode well for future consumer spending.
Meanwhile, the small business sector has reached a state of euphoria. The National Federation of Independent Business’ rose to its second highest level in its 45-year history. Views on expansion, earnings and sales hit record highs. But there is a warning in the report for the Fed: Actual and planned price increases are soaring. It looks like small businesses feel that demand is strong enough that they finally have some real pricing power. That may bode well for earnings, but not for inflation.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: There were limited categories where pries increased in April, so, why should the monetary authorities worry? Simple. The month to month changes in consumer prices have been up and down lately, but the year-over-year changes have moved in a pretty clear pattern: Up. And when you add to that the actual and expected price increases of small businesses, it is hard to argue that inflation expectations are still “well anchored”, a favorite Fed phrase. The FOMC is likely to announce another rate hike tomorrow. But it is the press conference and the chart of projected economic growth, inflation and funds rates that should dominate the discussion about future Fed moves. I would be surprised if all of those variables don’t show higher levels than in the last report that came out in March. But the Fed could allow inflation run above trend for a while. Some members would not be uncomfortable with that given how long inflation has been below target. That is where the press conference comes in. There has been a lot of discussion about whether the Fed should change its approach to inflation, including whether the target it has set makes any sense. Hopefully, Chair Powell will shed some light on that, though Fed Chairs rarely are forthcoming. As for investors, the summit seems to have been largely a non-event for the markets as prices are not doing much. Hopefully, investors will now start focusing on economic fundamentals, at least until the next “crisis” hits.