April Consumer Prices and Real Earnings

KEY DATA: CPI: +0.3%; Ex-Food and Energy: +0.1%; Food: -0.1%; Energy: +2.9%/ Real Hourly Earnings: -0.1%; Over-Year: +1.2%

IN A NUTSHELL:  “Inflation is neither too hot nor too cold, but for the Fed, it is hardly just right.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  Normally, news about inflation would take center stage and it should.  So let’s keep it there, even though there are now higher tariffs on Chinese imports.  Consumer prices rose solidly in April, but much of the gain came from a surge in energy costs.  Meanwhile, food prices dipped.  Netting out those two volatile sectors, prices rose modestly for the third consecutive month.  Over the year, both headline and core prices were up about two percent, so the Fed’s target has been reached, at least for this measure.  The details of the report were a bit odd.  Clothing prices cratered again, but there was a change in the data collection process, so maybe we should also exclude clothing.  And there was a large drop in used vehicle costs, but it is unclear why that is happening given all the vehicles coming off of lease.  Maybe we should exclude that too.  And while I am at it…  Okay, just kidding around.   Not really.  There is a serious point in saying we should exclude most components.  The Fed claims there are transient factors restraining inflation and we have to determine which ones they are referring to and how much of an impact they are having.  Right now, core – i.e., non-food and energy – prices rose at a less than two percent pace over the past three months.  How long will the Fed wait to see if the impacts are indeed transient?  The one factor that we can agree is not transient is the continued surge in housing costs.  Those should remain high for an extended period.

With prices up solidly but hourly and weekly earnings rising more slowly, real, or inflation-adjusted earnings fell in April.  Consumer spending power has grown about one percent over the year and that is hardly enough to support strong consumption growth. 

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:  Today’s news on inflation may disappear in the uproar about the raising of tariffs on Chinese imports and the threats to broaden them to all Chinese products.  But consumer prices are something that need to be watched.  It’s not that inflation is likely to soar; there is little reason to believe that.  It is that the tariffs are passed through to consumers.  The tariffs affect only a small percentage of the economy, so the pass though of the costs should not raise consumer prices significantly.  But the impacts don’t fall evenly across income groups.  In addition, inflation-adjusted earnings are growing modestly and the combination of higher tariffs and slow spending power does not bode well for consumption going forward.  First quarter household spending was weak and April’s vehicle sales were really soft, so second quarter consumer demand may not be that much better.  Meanwhile, the tariffs only make the Fed’s job more difficult.  They slow growth but may raise inflation enough to keep it near the Fed’s target.  Yet any agreement would unwind those impacts, whipsawing the data.  With no clear idea where the economy and inflation are going, the Fed will likely stay on hold for a long time.