May Industrial Production and June Consumer Sentiment

KEY DATA: IP: -0.1%; Manufacturing: -0.7%; Motor Vehicles: -6.5%/ Sentiment: +0.8 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “A fire may have disrupted vehicle production in May, but that has already turned around, so don’t worry about the drop in output.”

WHAT IT MEANS: I often mention that it is foolish to look at the headline number for one month and assume it tells what is going on. Nothing shows that more than the May industrial production number. The decline in overall output and the sharp drop in manufacturing activity were largely due to the fire in Ford’s main parts supplier. Vehicle and parts production cratered. That is already turning around, so while the May number was temporarily low, the June number should be temporarily high. Put the two together and you get the trend. That said, manufacturing output still declined mildly in June as most industries were down. Six of the eight non-durable goods industry groups posted falling output, while only three of the eleven durable goods industries were up. Why the sudden drop in output is unclear, so I think it is best to just file this report away and see what the next couple of months have to offer.

Household confidence picked up during the first half of June. The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index increased modestly, led by a sharp increase in the view about current conditions. However, and maybe more importantly, respondents were more pessimistic about the future. And they are beginning to notice the pick up in inflation. Anchored inflation expectations are something the Fed had often noted as being important and if they are becoming unmoored, that is a real concern.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: There have been so many strong economic numbers that one weak one shouldn’t indicate the start of a slowdown. Very simply, the economy is in very good shape. Looking forward, though, we need to be concerned about inflation. Pressure is building at every level for both producer and consumer goods. Households are noticing that, especially since it is eating into purchasing power, which has flatlined again. It is not enough to simply say growth is strong and conclude everything is fine. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing as well. And investors are not very happy with the imposition of tariffs. While it is hard to argue that Canada is an unfair trader, especially given the U.S. runs a trade surplus with our Northern neighbors when both goods and services are considered, it is not unfair to say that China is an unfair trading partner. The issue is how you reduce the barriers. It is doubtful that the U.S. can cut greatly into the trade deficit with China without massive, wide-ranging tariffs and restrictions. Those would raise costs for consumers and businesses, reducing spending power, consumption and making U.S. firms less competitive internationally. About the best thing that has come from the talk of tariffs and trade wars is that people are finally recognizing that there is a thing called fair trade. Decades ago when that issue was raised, the free-traders of the world considered that approach nothing short of protectionism. Those same free-traders seem to have become tongue-tied when it comes to the ultimate protectionism, tariffs. Maybe now a rational, well thought out approach toward trade will be discussed, where trade barriers are reduced through trade agreements with our trading partners.