KEY DATA: Consumption: +0.2%; Disposable Income: +0.4%; Prices (Over-Year): +2.3%; Excluding Food and Energy (Over-Year): +2.0%/ Sentiment: 98.2 (up 0.2 point)
IN A NUTSHELL: “Inflation to Fed: We have a liftoff.”
WHAT IT MEANS: There is a famous saying from the Apollo 11 mission, when we put the first people on the moon: “We have a liftoff!” Well, it looks like that is the case when it comes to inflation. Consumer prices rose moderately in May, whether or not you include the more volatile food and energy components. But the real issue is that over the past year, both the headline number and so-called core numbers rose by at least 2%. The Fed’s target has been reached.
But we are just starting to see the impacts of the tax cuts hit. Indeed, consumer spending increased fairly modestly in May and when you adjust for inflation, it was flat. That is likely to change, hopefully, during the second half of the year. Moderate May weather kept utility spending down and that helped restrain consumption. Energy costs were up sharply, though. Meanwhile, household income expanded at a somewhat better pace. But even here, there are some warning signs. Wage and salary gains were fairly limited. What created the solid increase was a sharp rise in dividends. For the average household, if they hold stocks at all, their dividends wind up mostly in retirement accounts, so it is not going to be spent. That raises questions about how strong consumption will be going forward. So far this quarter, consumption is growing at a 2.3% pace, up quite nicely from the 0.9% rate posted in the first quarter. A likely decent gain in June could push the increase to the 3% range. That would point to much better second quarter growth.
The University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment edged up in June, though it receded from its mid-month reading. Importantly, households are becoming more concerned about future economic activity. Respondents think the economy is in very good shape, but the trade issue is weighing on optimism. A growing share of people believe more trade is better than less.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Right now, the extended period of strong growth that so many are predicting is just a wish and a hope. The numbers on wages continue to disappoint. In addition, households seem to taking their tax cuts and saving them, as the savings rate has risen recently. And while business capital spending is strong, it hardly matches the massive spending on dividends, stock buy-backs and mergers and acquisitions. I am not saying that the tax cuts are having no impact on growth, they are. But as of now, I think the added spending has been disappointing. That may or may not worry investors, but in a perverse way, should provide some comfort to the Fed. The members’ worse fear is a surge in growth that triggers even faster inflation. How long the Fed would be willing to allow the economy to “run hot” is not clear, but with backlogs building and labor shortages of critical workers, such as truckers, at crisis levels, the ability and need to raise prices is also increasing. Inflation may not be high yet, but the Fed has to be concerned that it will exceed its target by more and for longer than expected. It hard to think that we will not see another two rates hikes this year and the possibility we will get four more next year cannot be dismissed.