November Consumer Prices and Real Earnings

KEY DATA: CPI: 0%; Excluding Food and Energy: +0.2%; Excluding Energy: +0.1%/ Real Earnings: +0.1%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The steady rise back to normal inflation continues, adding ammunition to the Fed’s view that it is just a matter of time before its target is reached.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Inflation remains the one issue, or non-issue, when it comes to raising interest rates. But that concern is starting to fade, at least when you take out energy. Consumer prices were flat in November, led by another decline in gasoline costs. That downward pressure on the index by energy is continuing, though it is hardly clear that lower energy costs are a problem. Yes, they hurt the energy sector and all the companies that feed into it, but over time, the economy will be better off with the lower energy costs. Sometimes it just takes some pain to get some real gain. Excluding energy, consumer prices were up minimally. But more importantly, over the year, they are right at the Fed’s 2% target. However, all prices, including volatile food and energy, have risen only modestly since November 2014. While commodity prices keep falling, services, which are 63% of the index, keep accelerating. They rose solidly in November and are up by 2.5% over the year. It is unclear how much further energy prices will fall and if or when they will start to rise again, but the huge declines we saw in 2015 will dissipate as we go through 2016. And when that happens, even the headline number will move back toward and likely above the Fed’s target.

Wage gains seem to have eased once again. Hourly earnings increased moderately in November but when inflation is factored in, the gain was modest. We may still be a few months away from when firms feel so stressed by the lack of available workers that they actually have to start paying for new employees. But unless the law of supply and demand in the labor market has been repealed, the lack of workers and the growing number of job openings will have to lead to rising costs – no matter how hard and long businesses fight it.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The FOMC meeting starts today and will likely end with tomorrow’s announcement that for the first time since June 29, 2006, the fed funds rate has been increased. The consumer price data only add to the confidence of those at the Fed who believe it is prudent to start the process of raising rates back toward more normal levels. The Fed has a lot of work to do. We are at least three percentage points below where we should be if the economy was growing solidly and inflation was at a reasonable level. The modest inflation pressures allow the Fed to move back to where they should be at a conservative pace. But with inflation, excluding energy, at the Fed’s target and with the annual declines fading, any price pressure that rising wages may create would move the inflation rate above target. Don’t be surprised if that happens sometime during the first half of next year. The Fed will argue that it will stop, look and listen before crossing the street to the next move, but that is likely to happen in March and every other FOMC meeting until late fall. Regardless, we are just one day away so let’s just sit back and wait.