April Import and Export Prices

KEY DATA: Imports: +0.3%; Over-Year: +3.3%; Nonfuel: +0.2%; Exports: +0.6%; Farm: -1.2%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The import price pressures that had been building seem to moderating.”

WHAT IT MEANS: While economists can debate all they want about the lack of wage gains, ultimately what matters is the rate of consumer inflation. Wage increases supported by productivity gains have limited inflationary implications. But retail price increases don’t have to come from just a rise in labor expenses. We get a significant portion of our consumer and producer goods from other nations and that means we have to watch the import price numbers carefully. During the second half of last year, import goods inflation was soaring. So far this year, import price inflation has moderated, as can be seen in the April report. We know that energy prices are rising. However, nonfuel cost increases are not as threatening. They were up moderately in April. Food prices were down, capital good costs were flat and consumer goods import prices rose modestly. Just about all the gain came from the industrial supply sector and it wasn’t all petroleum. In addition to petroleum-based products the cost of other industrial inputs such as wood and minerals were also up sharply. On the export side, firms were raising prices in just about every sector except farm products. Agricultural exports are extremely exposed to a backlash from the administration’s trade policies and that may explain, at least in part, the large decline. Between April 2015 and April 2016, farm export prices were up 4.6%. Over the past year, they rose only 1.4%. In April, the only export products that didn’t show large price declines were related to fish/seafood.

An early May reading on consumer confidence came out today. The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index was flat during the first half of the month. Expectations rose but respondents thought that current conditions were not as strong as they had been.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The more moderate increases in import prices are nice to see. The rise in foreign product costs have been strong enough to convince the Fed to continue tightening but not so high that the members need to worry that inflation will suddenly soar. That is, inflation is running neither too hot nor too cold. It is running just right for rate hikes every other meeting and that is what most economists, including myself, expect. Investors seem to be growing comfortable with that pattern of rate increases and they should be. A solidly growing economy and a move back to more normal interest rates are indications that the negative impacts of the Great Recession are finally disappearing. Now we can start focusing on the next set of problems, which already be cropping up. As Jamie Dimon noted, there’s a 100% chance of another economic downturn. Of course there is. But the issues are when and what will cause it. Recessions are created by either bubbles bursting and/or policy mistakes. Potential bubbles are stocks and interest rates, while the policy mistakes could fiscal policy at the wrong time, too much Fed tightening and/or trade risks. Together, though, they do add up to a formidable list of potential issues that could derail the economy, maybe not in the next twelve to eighteen months, but not much after that.