August Consumer Prices, Real Earnings and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: CPI: +0.2%; Over-Year: +2.7%; Ex-Food and Energy: +0.1%; Over-Year: 2.2%/ Real Earnings: +0.1%; Over-Year: +0.2%/ Claims: -1,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “Inflation may have moderated in August, but inflation-adjusted wages are still going largely nowhere. ”

WHAT IT MEANS: Inflation pressures have been building this year so it was nice that they didn’t accelerate further in August. The Consumer Price Index rose at a decent but not threatening pace even when you exclude the volatile food and energy components. The good news in the report is that medical care costs declined. I guess the repeal of the ACA is doing what was expected. Oh, that’s right, it wasn’t repealed. My mistake. The likelihood is that the drop was a random occurrence and we will start seeing those costs accelerate soon. There was also another sharp decline in apparel prices. If the market was flooded by a surge of imports intended to beat potential tariffs, the drop is not likely to last. On the upside, shelter costs were up solidly and look like they will continue to rise. Gasoline prices were up, as anyone who drives a non-electric vehicle knows. (When are those cheap Teslas going to become readily available, I think I could use one.) But food costs were largely flat, though the all-important cakes, cupcakes and cookies component was down significantly. Time to get off my no-chips, no-cookies diet.

The race to see which can rise faster, wages or prices, remains largely a tie. Earning rose a touch more than consumer costs in August and that was the good news. The bad news is that inflation adjusted wages, which is a measure of spending power, has barely budged since August 2017. Consumers are spending more, but there are limits to their ability to keep emptying out there wallets. We are likely to see a slow but fairly steady moderation in demand for the rest of this year despite the impacts of the tax cuts. Consumption is where the distribution of the tax cuts matters the most and given the concentration of benefits on upper income households, there is not that much more that most families will have to spend unless wage gains pick up significantly.

Weekly jobless claims fell again and the level is so low that it risks making the indicator irrelevant. The Department of Labor should simply say that just a few people applied for unemployment insurance and be done with it.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The FOMC is meeting in less than two months and the August moderation in both consumer and wholesale inflation will do nothing to change the belief of just about everyone that watches the Fed that rates will go up at the end of the meeting. The Fed’s inflation and full-employment targets have been met so it is time to get back to a neutral Funds rate. While there may be little agreement on exactly what that is, it is probably at least 3%. That means we have four or more rate hikes to go. But the Fed will only stop at neutral if inflation and growth don’t look like they are getting out of hand. Right now, both are running a little hot but are nowhere near boil. With the full impacts of the tax cuts still to be seen, I expect the funds rate to exceed 3%, in part because I believe the neutral rate is above 3% and also because I think we are headed to an inflation rate in the 2.5% to 3% range. But it may take inflation above 2.5% for an extended period before investors realize that rates may go higher than they think or hope.