November Consumer Prices and Real Earnings

KEY DATA: CPI: 0.0%; Over-Year: +2.2%; Ex-Food and Energy: +0.2; Over-Year: 2.2%/ Real Hourly Wages: +0.3%; Over-Year: +0.8%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Inflation remains in the Fed’s sweet spot.”

WHAT IT MEANS: If the Fed is worried about inflation, it shouldn’t be – either on the upside or the downside. That is, inflation is neither too hot nor too cold. Bring on the porridge. Consumer prices went nowhere in November, which hardly surprised anyone given that gasoline prices cratered. There was also a sharp drop in apparel expenses. Prices did rise a bit more than expected for a variety of goods and services, including utilities, medical costs, new vehicles and at restaurants. Since November 2017, consumer costs are up 2.2%, a pace that the Fed could live with for a long time. Even excluding the volatile food and energy categories, inflation rose at the exact same rate. In other words, inflation is right where it should be.

With hourly wages rising moderately and inflation flat, real, or inflation-adjusted wages rose solidly in November. However, over the year, the increase remains below one percent, which is hardly enough to generate much additional spending on the part of most workers. I suspect wage gains will accelerate, but so could inflation. Thus, household spending power is not likely to rise significantly in 2019.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: While some may blame the Fed for the wild ride in the markets, the real culprit is trade fears. I think we see that clearly as anytime concerns that the U.S./China trade battles will turn into a full-blown war, the markets crash, but when hopes reemerge that there will be some kind of agreement, the markets soar. Meanwhile, the Fed plods along and it should. Inflation is right where the members want it and the economy is still growing solidly. After ten years, doesn’t it make sense that interest rates should be back to normal levels? Yes, and that is why the Fed is raising rates and should continue raising rates. Maximizing equity returns is not a Fed mandate and in any event, the risk is trade not rates. Meanwhile, the important questions are not being asked of Chair Powell: What is a neutral funds rate and how do you determine what that rate should be? Without that knowledge, how can we determine if any given funds rate is well below, near or above normal? The Fed Chair must be a little bit more forthcoming about “neutral” if that term is to have real meaning. Right now, it doesn’t. Indeed, given the Chair’s recent inconsistent comments about the distance we are from neutral, it is not clear he knows what neutral is. So, if the Fed is creating any issues, it isn’t because they are raising rates to levels that are too high. It is that they have a failure to communicate effectively.

 

November Employment Report

KEY DATA: Payrolls: +155,000; 3-Month Average: 170,000; Private: +161,000; Revisions: -12,000; Hourly Wages: +0.2% Over-Year: +3.1%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Sustainable is good and that may be the level toward which job growth is finally be trending.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Job gains in November were well below expectations – Yippee! The idea we could sustain hiring at or above 200,000 a month ranked up there with the idea that we could sustain 3% growth for a decade. You have to be living in a state where recreational use of drugs is legal to hold those views. Simply put, the November increase was a welcome sight. The three-month average is still a bit high but a lot closer to sustainable. Job increases were spread across much of the economy with only one major sector, information services, posting a decline. Why motion picture employment cratered is anyone’s guess, so let’s not make too much of that. Health care, food services, transportation and manufacturing all added workers at a solid pace. Even retail trade payrolls expanded.

On the unemployment front, the rate remained the same. A solid gain in the labor force offset a jump in the number employed. Still, the rate is extremely low and that is causing wages to rise. The increase over the year was over three percent for the second consecutive month and that should continue. With some major companies starting to implement $15.00 per hour minimum wages, other firms will have to follow if they are to retain or attract workers. I would be surprised if the wage rise is less than 3.5% by mid-2019.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Too much of a good thing is too often not a good thing. Everyone wants strong economic, job and wage growth. But the implications of an extended period of above trend growth in any, let alone all those factors, is an economy filled with bubbles. And we know what happens when bubbles burst. So, while those politicians, businesses leaders and business commentators who have been touting the likelihood of robust growth for as far as the eye can see may be unhappy with more moderate gains, economists are overjoyed. Steady, sustainable growth – you know, like we had until about a year ago – means we can stay out of a recession for a longer period of time. It may not lead to a surge in equity prices, but it would also restrain consumer prices. For the Fed, this report allows them to do what they want. A rate hike on December 19th is highly likely, but if the Fed indicates it wants to see what happens to the economy, they can say that. Of course, even if the Fed were to move four times next year, the first move would not come until March, so the members have plenty of time to see if the markets calm down and the trade wars subside. In other words, the Fed really doesn’t have to make any changes other than say that the growth is moderating. Keep in mind, unless growth moves below trend, the unemployment rate will continue to slowly decline and wage gains will accelerate. Even moderate growth could create wage pressures at a level that the worries Fed. Rooting for a halt in Fed rate hikes is either rooting for a sluggish economy or saying that rising wage gains are nothing to be concerned about. I don’t think the Fed members believe either is a realistic way of looking at the economy.

November Private Sector Jobs, NonManufacturing Activity, Layoffs and October Trade Deficit

KEY DATA: ADP: +179,000/ ISM (NonMan.): +0.4 point; Orders: +1.0 point/ Layoffs: 53,073/ Deficit: $0.9 billion wider

IN A NUTSHELL: “The labor market remains tight and that could be the major reason we see a slowdown in job gains.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Today was a major data dump as a number of releases were held back yesterday due to the national day of mourning. Tomorrow is Employment Friday and the usual Wednesday ADP private sector job report was released today. It showed solid hiring occurred in November, but at a slower pace than had been the case. While middle and large-size firms added to payrolls strongly, small businesses have not been hiring lots of workers. This may be due to their inability to match the higher wages being paid by the larger companies. I suspect the government’s report will mirror this slowdown.

That a lack of workers may be behind any job gain slowdown could be inferred from the latest report on economic activity in the services and construction sectors. The Institute for Supply Management’s NonManufacturing Index rose in November, which was surprising. New orders continue to expand sharply, creating burgeoning order books. That should keep activity strong for an extended period. Despite the growing demand, hiring expanded at a somewhat slower pace. It is not as if firms don’t need the workers, they do. They may be finally hitting the wall that most economists expected to see months ago. It is hard to hire when there are not a lot of workers available.

Despite the strength in the labor market, layoffs have been increasing. Challenger, Gray and Christmas reported that worker cuts have rose sharply this year. The November number jumped by over 50% from the November 2017 total. For the first eleven months of the year, layoff announcements have soared by over 28%. While the economy is strong, not every industry has benefitted and the changing industrial structure has led to a restructuring of worker needs.

Maybe the biggest uncertainty about the economy is trade. Last week, I wrote that I thought the trade deals and announcements were more puff than pastry. It looks like the markets think that is possible. And the widening in the trade deficit in October didn’t help. Adjusting for prices, both exports and imports were down. The trade battles are not adding to growth, at least so far, and it is unclear how they will be beneficial in the long run. Undoubtedly, the Chinese are looking to diversify their supply chains to limit dependence on the U.S. and to open other markets for their goods. That can only lead to reduced exports to China in the future.

 MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The markets are in disarray while the economy remains in good shape. Are investors looking at the wrong thing? Yes and no. To the extent that the uncertain messages being sent about the status of trade negotiations with China are creating fear, there is every good reason to mark down values. That is especially true if you believe, as I do, that values were probably too high to begin with. Little risk was priced into them and the markets may have gotten ahead of themselves. I noted that a few months ago and it looks like that is starting to hit home. But I don’t agree that the Fed’s normalization policy or the potential inversion in the yield curve should be taken as signs the economy is about the crash and burn. If the economy were so strong as so many say, why would an extra 25 or 50 basis points make a major difference? That is the difference between three or four moves next year, which so many say are threatening, and one or two increases, which commentators and business leaders claim are non-threatening. Seriously, you cannot have a robust economy and a fear of an additional half percent increase in rates. The two are inconsistent. I know, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but sometimes you need an argument to hold together. The Fed bashers just don’t have a consistent argument. As for the yield curve (10-year minus two-year) inverting, that is where consistency is foolish. You have to understand why the curve is inverting. In the past, the Fed was always jamming on the breaks. That is, the funds rate was way past neutral. Even if the Fed does raise rates one full percentage point next year, the rate will not be much, if anything, above neutral. The inflation-adjusted fed funds rate has to be significantly higher than it is currently. Indeed, it is still negative, and the curve normally doesn’t invert under these circumstances. If it did, it would not be because the Fed tightened excessively. So, the markets need to look for other scapegoats. I go with the over-valued market theory created by the belief that the tax cuts would produce an extended period of excessively high growth. When you get your economics from politicians, it appears you not only get the economy you deserve but the markets you deserve as well.

November Supply Managers’ Manufacturing Index and October Construction Spending

KEY DATA: ISM (Manufacturing): +1.6 points; Orders: +4.7 points/ Construction: -0.1%; Private: -0.4%; Residential: -0.5%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The strong (manufacturing) keep getting stronger while the weak (construction) keep getting weaker.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The first readings on November activity are starting to come out, led by a solid rise in manufacturing activity. The Institute for Supply Management’s index rose more than forecast as orders surged. Hiring and production also accelerated. Still, more workers and more output didn’t keep order books from fattening at an increased pace, which is good news for future production. Maybe the best news was that the pressure on input prices, though still rising sharply, are not nearly as great as they had been.

Once again, the construction data came in soft. Overall construction spending fell slightly in October and the entire decline was in the private sector. The government continues to spend on all sorts of things but businesses have become quite conservative. Private residential activity was off moderately. That is hardly a surprise as the other housing numbers have been fading. There were some sectors in the private sector that did improve. Spending on offices, commercial buildings and educational facilities rose solidly.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: There was nothing surprising or even new in today’s reports. Manufacturing is strong while construction is weak. Investors know all that so there should be little reaction to these data. The focus of attention is back on trade. The 90-day “truce” between China and the U.S. was good news, but hardly a surprise. It was in the best interests of both nations to put off a full-fledged shooting war until it was clear nothing else could be done. And the Chinese are notorious for pushing into the future any decision they don’t want to make. The Chinese need time to restructure their supply chain. While there may be some short-term gains for the U.S. from any agreement, they come on top of short-term losses. Net-net, there may not be much improvement in the situation. It is the long run that is most concerning. If you run a business (or government) and your main supplier becomes undependable, you have not choice but to start looking at expanding your suppliers. To do anything else would be irresponsible. It may take a little while for the Chinese to get other countries to shift agricultural production to meet the Chinese needs, but they are starting that process. And buying more soy products at the bottom of the market is hardly a bad thing either. But once the alternative suppliers are in place, the U.S. farmer is likely to suffer as both sales and prices could decline. So, look past the deals headlines and think about the details and the implications for the future. I would be surprised if any U.S.-China trade deal has significant long-term benefits for either county. Let’s face it; the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal was hardly a major breakthrough. Indeed, when many analysts indicate the dairy industry will be the biggest winner, it looks like it is more puff than pastry. But we can always hope that is not the case with any new U.S.- China deal. Indeed, we have to hope there is at least some agreement as the alternative would be a disaster.

October Spending and Income, Pending Home Sales and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: Consumption: +0.6%; Disposable Income: +0.5%; Prices: +0.2%/ Pending Sales: -2.6%; Over-Year: -6.7%/Jobless Claims: +10,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “The strong spending and income numbers don’t hold up to careful scrutiny, so don’t assume the economy is surging again.”

WHAT IT MEANS: There is one warning I repeat consistently and that is: “the devil is in the details”. That saying is quite accurate when it comes to the October spending and income report. On the surface, it looks like consumers went wild. Spending surged and the increases were across the board and that is the good news. While this is a good report, there are lots of holes in it. The biggest consumption gain came from a massive jump in services demand. The major factor there was spending on utilities and gas – weather? Expect that to unwind in the next couple of reports. Durable goods purchases were up sharply, but there was a jump in vehicle sales that looks to have been driven by flood-related replacements. That too will wind down going forward. On the income side, you would think that workers are finally getting paid more money. Wrong again. Wage and salary gains were modest, which is another way of saying disappointing. Instead, farm income surged because the government bailout of farmers hurt by the trade war was in the data. Nonfarm proprietors’ income also soared, though it isn’t a clear why that happened. With spending exceeding income, the savings rate declined again. One unambiguous number was inflation, which is showing no signs of accelerating.

Another housing number, another indication that the residential real estate sector is fading. The National Association of Realtors reported that pending home sales fell for the tenth consecutive month.   The only region that reported a rise was the Northeast, which was up modestly. Over the year, the index has fallen sharply and given the sudden despondence in the homebuilders’ ranks, it is not clear that trend will change anytime soon.

New claims for unemployment insurance jumped last week. November is always a very choppy month; so don’t read too much into the rise.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The income and spending report was a good one, but it was hardly great. With special factors at work, the best we can conclude is that the consumer is still spending but households are not flush. High levels of confidence, though, do imply a solid holiday shopping season. But unless wage gains accelerate, the early part of next year could be ugly as households cut back to pay for their holiday excesses.

Fed Commentary: Yesterday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell delivered a speech that has been interpreted to mean the Fed will be slowing its rate hike pattern. The conclusion came from a change in the description of how close the Fed is to “neutral”, the point where rates are neither adding to nor subtracting from growth. Yesterday, he noted that the Fed was “just below the broad range of estimates of the level that would be neutral for the economy”. Just below is the operative phrase here since in October, he noted that the Fed was “a long way from neutral”. This appears to be a huge change in emphasis and it brings up the question, what has changed over the past month to merit a significant recalibration of the stance of monetary policy. The answer is, very simply, little. The stock market has declined, but the Fed is not tasked with keeping up equity prices. Economic growth has moderated, but anyone who doesn’t work in the White House has been saying that would happen and in any event, growth remains above trend. Uncertainties about the world economy have increased, but no one is forecasting a worldwide recession. The president has stepped up his attack on Chair Powell, but it is hard to believe he caved because of political pressure. Unfortunately, it looks that way. That is very disturbing since protecting the Fed’s independence may be the Fed Chair’s most important job. Without it, policy could not be trusted.

In defense of Mr. Powell, it has been suggested he was referring to the “range of forecasts” for a neutral Fed funds rate. He did say range in in his comment. But if he changed his reference to the range rather than the level, he was terribly unclear in his presentation. If that is indeed the case, he set back the attempts at making the Fed more transparent more than any Alan Greenspan talk ever did – and Greenspan’s intentions were always to keep Fed intentions opaque.

Basically, Chair Powell has muddied a lot of waters. He needs another speech soon to clarify his thinking and where he believes monetary policy is going. Right now, the best we can say is that he whiffed badly. While that happens to everyone, it should not happen to a Fed Chair.

October New Home Sales and Revised Third Quarter GDP

KEY DATA: Sales: -8.9%; Over-Year: -12.0%; Prices (Over-Year): -3.1%/GDP: +3.5% (Unchanged);

IN A NUTSHELL: “The housing fade continues.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The housing market, a key component of the economy, is continuing to deteriorate. New home sales dropped sharply in October with every region posting a decline. The level is the lowest since March 2016. There were double-digit decreases in the Northeast and Midwest, while the South posted a nearly 8% fall off. The West nearly held its own, but it was still down over 3%. In comparison to October 2017, only in the West did sales hold up, with the other three regions posting double-digit declines. With sales slowing, pricing power has disappeared. Over the year, the median home price fell for the second consecutive month.

The second reading of GDP showed no change in the initial estimate of the overall growth pace. There was a downward revision to consumer spending, though it remained quite strong. Business investment, while revised upward a little, remained disappointing. The surge in business inventories added over two percentage points to growth and that is not likely to be matched this quarter.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Home sales are faltering and that trend is likely to continue. The National Association of Home Builders’ Housing Market Index cratered in November, dropping a huge eight points. Traffic was down sharply and if people are not looking, they are not buying. To blame rates for the slowdown makes little to no sense, given that mortgage rates are still relatively low. The 30-year mortgage rate is still over one percentage points below the levels buyers faced during most of the housing boom in the 2000s. Remember, affordability has a number of components, including rates, prices and income. Prices did surge and that should be more of the focus of attention. The declining costs of new homes may make units more affordable and I suspect builders are already adjusting to that necessity. As for the economy, it is in good shape. If there are worries, it may be on the business credit side. As the Fed noted in a report on financial stability, debt levels at companies with weak balance sheets pose a growing risk. Also noted was that leverage in the corporate sector is high, asset prices were high and geopolitical and trade risks were growing, any of which could lead to a large drop in asset values. So look at what the government and the private sector are doing, don’t just focus on the Fed.  

November Consumer Confidence and Third Quarter Home Prices

KEY DATA: Conference Board Consumer Confidence: -2.2 points/ Case-Shiller (September, Over-Year): +5.5%/FHFA (Over-Year): +6.3%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The softening in consumer confidence and housing prices portends a similar moderation in economic growth.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The economy boomed in the spring, was strong over the summer and now it looks like it is growing solidly in the winter. That slow, but steady moderation in activity reflects the same pattern in consumer attitudes and the housing market. Households remain confident, but their irrational exuberance is wearing off. Today, the Conference Board reported that confidence fell in November, though the decline was not large. Indeed, respondents believe the labor market is strong and getting better, which led to an increase in the current conditions index. It was the future that is starting to trouble people. A fairly similar pattern was seen in last week’s University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, which also eased. The current conditions measure fell less than the future conditions measure, though again, neither was down significantly. But a slow and steady drop in hopes about the future could signal a softening in consumer spending.

As for the housing market, it too is on a softening trend. The S&P CoreLogic Case Shiller national home price index posted a limited gain in September and the rise over the year continued its steady deceleration from the peak reached in the spring. Similarly, the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Home Price Index rose more moderately in the third quarter and the rise over the year also was off from the early year peak. The results were consistent with other indicators, such as housing starts and sales, which point to a market that may be close to its peak.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The economy is in good shape, but given how great things were, we are into the “what have you done for me lately” approach to economic growth. And lately, things are not as strong as they had been, which should surprise no one, or at least no one that doesn’t have a political axe to grind. The rate of expansion during the spring and summer was unsustainable. Just about every economist has said that and will continue to say that. The issue was not whether we could keep up the strong pace, but how fast we would get back to a sustainable, roughly 2¼% growth rate. We could exceed that in the fourth quarter, but we should see the return of a 2-handle on the number.   As we go through next year, growth should settle into the 2% to 2.5% range. Politically, that would be viewed as a disaster. But that is what most economists expected to see once the tax cut sugar-high wore off. Housing is leading the way slower and I expect business investment growth to decelerate next. If the trade war heats up further, don’t expect exports to bail us out. That leaves government spending, which at the federal level is once again out of control. The U.S. budget deficit could approach one trillion dollars this fiscal year and maybe even exceed it if growth decelerates faster than expected. So much for the tax cuts paying for themselves.   So, let’s hope we can settle into a reasonable growth range because the risks, especially if the trade situation deteriorates, is for a lot slower not faster growth by the end of next year or first half of 2020.

October Industrial Production

KEY DATA: IP: +0.1%; Manufacturing: +0.3%; Business Equipment: +0.8%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The manufacturing sector is hanging in there, helped by improved business spending.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Were reports of the manufacturing sector’s demise a bit premature? Maybe. Manufacturing production was up solidly in October and that marks five straight months of good gains. The details tell a generally favorable story as most of the different industrial sectors and commodity groupings posted gains. But the data still were somewhat mixed, especially when you look at critical sectors. A variety of sectors posted strong increases in output, led by machinery, metals, aerospace, oil and gas drilling, furniture and textiles. A major fall off in vehicle assembly rates, a flat high tech and a drop in equipment and appliances offset some of the gains in the other portions of the sector.

Supporting the view that conditions remained solid as we moved into November was the report by the Kansas City Fed. After faltering in October, it rebounded sharply in November. This was in contrast to the moderation in activity that the latest Philadelphia Fed showed. However, the KC Fed’s index had declined for five consecutive months, so it isn’t clear if the November number was the start of a new, upward trend or just a usual periodic bounce in a longer-run downward trend.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Manufacturing appears to be neither accelerating nor faltering. That is good news as the current level of activity is quite high. Maybe the best piece of data was the large rise in machinery spending. We have been waiting for firms to put the tax cuts to use to expand productivity and capacity and maybe that is finally happening. But I have expressed that hope before, only to find that capital spending didn’t pick up very much. So let’s wait and see. As for investors, the earnings reports have been strange as there have been a number of high profile misses. Firms are also becoming more conservative in their expectations, which should be taken as a sign they are seeing growth moderate. One thing we are not seeing are any indications that there was any acceleration in growth from the summer and that points to a slower GDP growth rate in the final quarter of the year. Growth should be good enough, though, to sustain rate hikes.

October Retail Sales and Import Prices and November Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Index

KEY DATA: Sales: +0.8%; Ex-Vehicles: +0.7%/ Imports: 0.5%; Nonfuel: +0.2%/ Philly Fed BOS: -9.3 points; Orders: -10.2 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “Despite October’s strong consumer spending, there are some signs that the economy may be slowing.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The consumer has to keep spending if growth is to remain anywhere near 3% and households did just that in October. Retails sales rose more than expected, but before we start expecting another quarter of great growth, it should be recognized that rebuilding from the hurricanes and replacement of lost vehicles might have played a major role in the strong increase. We saw a surprising pick up in vehicle sales and that showed up in the retail sales data. In addition, there was a surge in spending on building materials. Finally, the gain was hyped by a surge in gasoline purchases that was likely price related. The measure that closely aligns with GDP consumption, which is retail sales excluding the above listed components, as well as food, rose more modestly. Still, sales of electronics and appliances were strong, so there is some underlying strength in the data.

As long as the Fed continues its march to neutral, inflation will remain a key issue. If it stays moderate, the FOMC may not have to go above neutral, as the Committee indicated is possible. Well, import prices rose solidly in October but much of that came from a jump in energy costs. Removing fuel, the rise was moderate. And since oil costs have cratered, much of the gain in the overall index will be backed out in November. For consumers, though, there is a warning as food prices jumped for the second consecutive month. That should show up in retail prices soon.

 While the focus has been on the consumer and inflation, a possible softening in the manufacturing sector may be seen in the below the radar data. The Philadelphia Fed’s manufacturing index dropped sharply in early November. Order growth decelerated significantly as well. The sector is still expanding, but more moderately. And expectations are starting to falter as well.

Jobless claims edged upward, but remain low. There are no signs that the labor market is cooling.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Economists always warn that after the initial slowdown created by disasters, there is usually a sharp rebound. It looks like that happened in October. Hurricanes come, hurricanes go but it is the fundamentals of growth matter the most in the long run. Right now, consumer spending looks good but wage gains are still barely outpacing inflation, while the savings rate is declining. In addition, while solid, the manufacturing sector may be throttling back as well. And finally, we are still waiting for the surge in capital expenditure that was supposed to be triggered by the tax cuts. Early this year I suggested we wait until the fall to make any determinations on the success or failure of the tax bill to induce businesses to invest. It’s almost winter (actually, it’s snowing outside, so maybe it is winter) and the stronger investment is not yet here. Thus, the comments I made about the second quarter likely being the high water mark seem to be coming true. Will the slower growth restrain the Fed? Not for a while, as the economy is moderating not faltering. But with investors soon having to deal with earnings comparisons that are already tax hyped and with uncertainties about trade, tariffs and rising interest rates having an impact on corporate spending decisions, volatility in the markets is likely to be with us for quite some time.

October Wholesale Prices and Mid-November Confidence

KEY DATA: PPI: +0.6%; Energy: +2.7%; Food: +1%/ Sentiment: -0.3 point

IN A NUTSHELL: “Despite the surge in producer prices, there are few indications that inflation will accelerate sharply.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Is inflation something the Fed should be concerned with? It doesn’t currently believe so and today’s Producer Price Index increase really doesn’t change things very much. First of all, the large rise was driven by jumps in energy and food. Petroleum costs have hit a downdraft and it isn’t clear that food prices will continue to rise sharply. Also, the change over the year in the index has decelerated over the past few months. That is not say the October report did not contain any potential issues. Transport costs are increasing and with growth strong, they are likely to continue putting pressure on distributors. Construction expenses are skyrocketing. And price pressures in the pipeline are picking up. Add to that rising labor expenses and firms will have to start determining if demand is strong enough to support faster increases in prices. I suspect that is what will happen, so look for consumer prices to begin accelerating slowly over the next few months.

Consumer confidence remains on the moon. That’s not quite Mars, but pretty close. The University of Michigan’s mid-month reading of consumer sentiment fell only modestly in November. Still, the index is on track to record the highest level since 2000. The dot.com bubble hadn’t burst yet and confidence did crater afterward. A similar result occurred when the housing bubble burst. If the economy tails off over the next year, as expected, look for confidence to start deteriorating.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The Fed, as expected, made no change in rates yesterday, in part because the members were fairly sanguine about inflation. They noted that “On a 12-month basis, both overall inflation and inflation for items other than food and energy remain near 2 percent. Indicators of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.” In other words, the strong growth they see is not threatening. But that doesn’t mean there is no reason to raise rates in December and going forward. Remember, the Fed is simply trying to get back to neutral, which Chair Powell has stated is far from the current level. To the members, as long as there are no deflationary pressures at work, the need to move to neutral will dominate. And also remember that the Fed has a dual, not a triple mandate that would include the stock markets. So if increasing rates has a negative impact on equity prices, so be it, unless it sets off a major stock market correction. Why that would happen with an economy that is as strong as the current one and which is being propelled by massive fiscal stimulus is something I cannot figure out – and something that doesn’t seem to worry the Fed right now. So, look for further rate hikes in 2019, even if growth moderates, which it likely will.

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