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Inflation Stronger Than Expected in August

According to this morning’s report from the BLS, headline inflation was 1.1% for the year ending in August. This is up from 0.8% for the year ending in July and also higher than markets had expected. The federal reserve will welcome this news as stubbornly slow inflation has been a major factor in their reluctance to raise rates, despite their clear intention. While growth in the all-items index remains well below the Fed’s 2% target, core inflation indicates that the economy is moving in the right direction.

The all-items index less food and energy remained well above the headline index in August, up 2.3% year-over-year. Stripping out only energy prices, which are extremely volatile and sensitive to external factors, the consumer price index was up 2% in August.

aug-us

Monthly Inflation

Seasonally adjusted monthly inflation was 0.2% in August after remaining flat in July. Stripping food and energy from the index, seasonally adjusted  core prices were up 0.3% in August – more than expected. The monthly acceleration in the core index was largely driven by higher prices for shelter and medical care. The price indexes for food and energy did not change in August.
aug-us-2-mo

Prior to seasonal adjustments, the energy index fell 1.2% in August. Energy commodities fell 2.9% and energy services inched up 0.3%. The energy commodity index includes subindexes for motor fuels, fuel oil and other fuels, all of which were down roughly 3% in August. Energy services includes electricity, which remained unchanged and utility (piped) gas, which was 1.6% more expensive in August.

Unadjusted food prices were up 0.1% in August. The seasonal nature of food prices means adjusted numbers are often a more meaningful indicator of economic activity. On a seasonally adjusted basis, prices at the grocery store were down 0.2% in August. This includes a 6.6% decline in the price of eggs and a 1.5% drop in the index for breakfast cereal.

The shelter index, which represents one third of the all-items index, was a major driver of inflation for the month, gaining 0.3%. The subindexes for rent and owners equivalent of rent were up 0.3% and 0.4% respectively. The index for apparel spiked 1.5% in August while medical care costs were 0.8% higher. Airlines fairs dropped a notable 5.5%.

Inflation Over 12-Months

The 12-month inflation rate for the all-items index accelerated in August compared to July. Over the year, food and energy prices slowed inflation while medical care and shelter costs pushed higher. The shelter index was up 3.4% over 12-months. Medical care services including hospital services and physician services, jumped 5.1% year-over-year. Transportation service costs were up 3.1% due to a reported 6.5% increase in the price of motor vehicle insurance.

The net food index was flat over the 12-months ending August despite significant price movements within the index. The price of food at home (which accounts for about 58% of the food index) fell 1.9% and the price of food away from home grew 2.8%. At the grocery store, meat, poultry, fish and eggs is the largest component of the CPI. This subindex declined 6.5% over the year. The next largest component within the grocery store index is fruit and vegetables, this subindex added 0.3% compared to a year earlier.

Energy prices continued to create a large drag on inflation, although less in August compared to July. The index for energy commodities was down 17.3% for the year ending in August. At the pump, prices fell 17.8% over that period compared to 19.9% for the year ending in July. On the other hand, energy services only inched down an annual 0.4% in August.

Inflation by Region

Over the year, inflation was strongest in the West (1.6%) and lowest in the Midwest (0.6%). In the Northeast, inflation was in-line with the national average of 1.1%. However, inflation in the Northeast was significantly higher in cities with populations over 1.5 million compared to smaller cities (1.2% compared to 0.8%). This discrepancy is also evident in the South and West. Inflation in San Francisco was 3.1% for the year ending in August. In Chicago, prices were down 0.3% year-over-year.

Urban Population12-monthAugust
over 1.5 million1.3%0.1%
50,000 to 1.5 million0.7%0.1%
under 50,0000.8%-0.1%
Urban Regions12-monthAugust
Northeast1.1%0.1%
Midwest0.6%0.1%
South1.0%0.1%
West1.6%0.1%

Outlook for the Fed

Today’s inflation report should help the Fed come to more of a consensus over the timing of interest rate hikes. Despite having stated strong intentions to raise rates from their unprecedented lows, they have not been confident enough to follow through in a meaningful way.  It is not likely that they will raise rates when they meet next week or again in November.

However, expectations are growing for a rate hike in December despite the fact that other economic reports for August have been less than positive. Some economists argue the Fed would be wise to cut rates to keep steam in the economy but that is very unlikely. The expectations for an increase in the benchmark rate, measured by the market price of 30-day fed funds futures, increased on today’s positive inflation surprise from 48.2% to 52.6%.

Prices Mostly Stagnant in July

According to this morning’s monthly inflation report from the BLS, consumer prices fell 0.2% in July after rising 0.3% in June. With seasonal adjustments, overall price levels were flat in July following increases of 0.2% in both May and June. Over the 12-months ending in July, the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) added 0.8%, down from 1% in the two previous months. Today’s report will disappoint investors who had been expecting slightly higher numbers. It also quells expectations that the Fed will raise interest rates in the near term.

The core index or all-items index excluding food and energy is an important indicator of true price trends as food and energy prices are volatile and impacted by extraneous factors. The core index was flat in July following an increase of 0.2% in June. Year-over-year, core prices were up 2.2%, down from 2.3% the previous month. Slowing core inflation may be an indication of some underlying economic weakness.

July US CPI

Monthly Inflation

The seasonally adjusted energy index fell 1.6% in July following 4 consecutive months of positive gains. The decline can mostly be attributed to a 4.7% monthly drop in the price of gas. On the other hand, the price of natural gas posted its largest monthly gain in over two years, up 3.1%.

Overall food prices were flat in July. The index for food at home slipped 0.1% but was balanced by a 0.2% increase in the index for food away from home. Food at home accounts for 13.7% of the overall CPI-U and food away from home is 5.7%. At the grocery store, meat prices fell 0.7% while the index for fruits and vegetables gained 0.3%. Prices were lower in four of the six major grocery store food indexes.

With seasonal adjustments, the index for all items less food and energy was up only 0.1% in July, slowing from 0.2% in each of the previous three months. Within this index, shelter prices climbed 0.2%, slowing from the previous three months. Medical care service costs grew 0.5% in July and the price of medical care commodities increased 1.1%. The index for used cars and trucks dropped 1% in July, adding to similar declines in recent months. The indexes for airfare, communication, and recreation all declined in July.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly % Change in CPI-U by Category (2016)

 JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly
All Items0-0.20.10.40.20.20.0
Food00.2-0.20.2-0.2-0.10.0
Energy-2.8-6.00.93.41.21.3-1.6
Gasoline-4.8-12.52.28.12.33.3-4.7
Fuel Oil (non seasonally adjusted)-6.5-2.91.71.96.23.7-1.5
Electricity-0.7-0.20.4-0.3-0.2-0.50.5
Utilities (piped gas service)-0.61.0-0.70.61.7-0.43.1
Energy Services-0.70.10.2-0.10.2-0.51.0
All Items Less Food and Energy0.30.30.10.20.20.20.1
Services Less Energy Services0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Shelter0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Transportation Services0.40.20.20.70.30.3-0.2
Medical Care Services0.50.50.10.30.50.20.5

Annual Inflation

Food prices were only up 0.2% over the 12-months ending in July. The index for food at home declined 1.6%; the index for meat poultry fish and eggs dropped 5.6% and the index for dairy and related products fell 3.1%. However, the cost of food away from home grew 2.8% to temper the decline in overall food prices. The energy index fell 10.9% over the year ending in July. The index for energy commodities fell 19.4% including a 19.8% decline in gas prices. Over the same period, the index for energy services only declined 0.9%.

The core price index increased 2.2% year-over-year in July, following an annual gain of 2.3% in June. This includes a 3.3% annual increase in shelter costs as well as a 4.1% increase in the index for medical care services. The index for transportation services, which accounts for nearly 6% of the overall index, climbed 3% year-over-year, including a 6.3% jump in the price of motor vehicle insurance and a 4.6% decline in airline fares.

Inflation By Region

For the year ending in July, inflation was above the national average in larger cities; cities with populations over 1.5 million posted overall inflation of 1.1%, while those with populations between 0.5 and 1.5 million only recorded inflation of 0.4%. Inflation was also significantly higher in western urban areas compared to other regions. Large, western urban areas had 1.6% inflation over the year, twice the national average.

In July prices fell most drastically in the midwest. The midwest urban index dropped 0.5% and in Chicago prices fell 0.8% month over month. The south urban index also declined in July, down 0.2%. Month-over-month, prices fell more in smaller cities.

Urban Population12-monthAugust
over 1.5 million1.3%0.1%
50,000 to 1.5 million0.7%0.1%
under 50,0000.8%-0.1%
Urban Regions12-monthAugust
Northeast1.1%0.1%
Midwest0.6%0.1%
South1.0%0.1%
West1.6%0.1%

Outlook for the Economy

The next FOMC meeting is on September 21st. According to the CME Group’s FedWatch tool, the markets are pricing in an 82% likelihood that the Federal Reserve will leave rates unchanged at this meeting. The same tool predicts that rates will remained unchanged throughout the year with a probability of just under 50%.

Given the unprecedented nature of the current low interest rate environment, policy may need to be adjusted. Policymakers are beginning to reconsider the central bank’s framework – which aims to maintain an annual inflation rate of 2%. According to John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco:

“There is simply not enough room for central banks to cut interest rates in response to an economic downturn when both natural rates and inflation are very low. [A higher inflation target] would imply a higher average level of interest rates and thereby give monetary policy more room to manoeuvre”.

June Inflation Slow and Steady

According to the BLS’s monthly inflation report, consumer prices climbed 0.3% in June, down slightly from 0.4% in May. However, with seasonal adjustments, inflation was 0.2% in both May and June. For the year ending in June, inflation was 1%, in-line with the year ending in May.  Expectations had been for marginally higher numbers in June. Overall, inflation appears steady but sluggish and remains stubbornly below the Fed’s 2% target.

Much of the volatility in the CPI reflects volatility in the price of gas. The positive trend in the core index over the past 18 months is driven by steady growth in the price of housing and cost of services. The special aggregate index for services encompasses about 63% of the items in the all-items index and was up 2.8% year-over-year in June. The remainder of the items in the CPI are categorized as commodities. The special aggregate index for commodities declined 2.0% over that period.

advisor graph

(source: advisorperspectives.com)

The core or all-items index excluding food and energy (two sectors with volatile prices that may not reflect true underlying economic strength) climbed 0.2% in June for the third month in a row. This measure of core inflation points to some underlying price pressure and is a positive sign for the US economy. Year-over-year, core prices were up 2.3%, significantly higher than the 10-year annual average core rate of 1.9% and above the 2% target.

Monthly Inflation

Much of the inflation in June can be attributed to a 4.4% (non-seasonally adjusted) monthly rise in gasoline prices. Shelter and transportation prices also pushed higher. Shelter prices were up 0.3%, with both the rent index and the owners equivalent of rent index up by that same amount. The transportation services index was up 0.3% in June because of a 3.2% spike in rental car prices. In May the rental car index was up 4.8%.

Overall food prices were down 0.1% with seasonal adjustments in June.  The index for food at home fell 0.3% while food away from home climbed 0.2%. Declines in the index for meat, poultry, fish and eggs and the index for dairy and dairy related products, down 0.7% and 0.3% respectively, impacted prices at the grocery store.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly % Change in CPI-U by Category (2016)

 JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly
All Items0-0.20.10.40.20.20.0
Food00.2-0.20.2-0.2-0.10.0
Energy-2.8-6.00.93.41.21.3-1.6
Gasoline-4.8-12.52.28.12.33.3-4.7
Fuel Oil (non seasonally adjusted)-6.5-2.91.71.96.23.7-1.5
Electricity-0.7-0.20.4-0.3-0.2-0.50.5
Utilities (piped gas service)-0.61.0-0.70.61.7-0.43.1
Energy Services-0.70.10.2-0.10.2-0.51.0
All Items Less Food and Energy0.30.30.10.20.20.20.1
Services Less Energy Services0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Shelter0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Transportation Services0.40.20.20.70.30.3-0.2
Medical Care Services0.50.50.10.30.50.20.5

Apparel prices dropped a seasonally adjusted 0.4% in June after jumping 0.8% in May. The index for used cars and trucks, which accounts for over 2% of the all items index, declined by 1.1% in June, adding to May’s 1.3% decline.

Annual Inflation

The annual 1% inflation rate for the year ending in June was largely due to growing prices for shelter and medical care. The shelter index increased 3.5% year-over-year as the price of moving, storage and freight climbed 12.1%. Rent of shelter, which accounts for nearly a third of the all-items index, was a major contributor to inflation for the year ending in June. The rent index was up 3.8% year-over-year, while the index for owner’s equivalent of rent was up a similar 3.2%.

Medical care service prices increased 3.8% over 12-months and were bolstered by higher prices for health insurance and hospital services. The indexes for food and apparel were also marginally higher for the year, gaining 0.3% and 0.4% respectively. Within the food index, prices for food at home declined an annual 1.3%, with declines in four of the six grocery store indexes. The price of meat, fish, poultry and eggs fell 5.0% over the year ending in June. Meanwhile, the index for food away from home gained an annual 2.6%

Over the same period, the energy index declined 9.4%, including drops of 15.3% in energy commodity prices and 2.5% in energy service prices. The 15.4% decline in gas prices, which represents around 3.3% of the CPI and close to half of the energy index, was a major factor impacting inflation over the year.

Inflation By Region

June inflation was higher in western cities at 0.6% compared to the national average of 0.3%. Year-over-year, inflation was concentrated in larger western cities. The index for western urban centres with populations over 1.5 million was twice the national average at 2%. In San Francisco, consumer prices climbed 2.7% over the year.

Urban Population12-monthAugust
over 1.5 million1.3%0.1%
50,000 to 1.5 million0.7%0.1%
under 50,0000.8%-0.1%
Urban Regions12-monthAugust
Northeast1.1%0.1%
Midwest0.6%0.1%
South1.0%0.1%
West1.6%0.1%

Outlook for the Economy

The US economy appears to be strengthening, especially when compared to much of the world where volatility is high. The US dollar is rallying in anticipation of a rate hike before the end of the year.  According to the CME Group’s FedWatch tool, the markets are pricing in a probability of about 50% that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates before year-end.

Given today’s economic climate of low but stabelizing commodity prices; slow global growth with high levels of uncertainty; and a strengthening currency deflating the price of imports, near term inflation will probably not accelerate quickly, if at all. It will have to come from growth in employment. This will stimulate housing prices and increase consumer demand while higher wages will be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Lower Grocery Store Bills Offset by Higher Rents in May

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), a popular measure of inflation, climbed 0.4% in May according to  today’s monthly report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With seasonal adjustments, inflation was 0.2% in May, down from 0.4% in April. Excluding food and energy, the seasonally adjusted index climbed 0.2% in May, matching the previous month’s core inflation reading. Economists surveyed by the WSJ prior to today’s report had expected the CPI to rise 0.3% in May.

May

For the year ending in May, prior to seasonal adjustments, prices climbed 1.0%, down from 1.1% for the year ending in April.  An annual 10.1% decline in the energy index at the end of May had a significant impact on overall inflation. Energy comprises about 6.8% of the total CPI-U. The significant negative impact of falling energy prices is mostly the result of cheap gas (down 16.1% year over year and accounting for nearly 3.1% of the index). Overall food prices were up only 0.7% for the year ending in May. Excluding food and energy, prices climbed an annual 2.2% led by higher shelter and medical costs.

May Inflation

Food prices declined in May to offset higher prices for shelter, medical care and education. Food, which accounts for approximately 14% of the CPI-U is broken down into food at home (around 8%) and food away from home (about 6%). Food at home is divided into 6 major grocery store categories. The prices of food at home declined across the board in May with all six grocery store categories declining. The price of food away from home increased 0.2% in May.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly % Change in CPI-U by Category (2016)

 JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly
All Items0-0.20.10.40.20.20.0
Food00.2-0.20.2-0.2-0.10.0
Energy-2.8-6.00.93.41.21.3-1.6
Gasoline-4.8-12.52.28.12.33.3-4.7
Fuel Oil (non seasonally adjusted)-6.5-2.91.71.96.23.7-1.5
Electricity-0.7-0.20.4-0.3-0.2-0.50.5
Utilities (piped gas service)-0.61.0-0.70.61.7-0.43.1
Energy Services-0.70.10.2-0.10.2-0.51.0
All Items Less Food and Energy0.30.30.10.20.20.20.1
Services Less Energy Services0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Shelter0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Transportation Services0.40.20.20.70.30.3-0.2
Medical Care Services0.50.50.10.30.50.20.5

The energy index increased by 1.2% in May following a monthly increase of 3.4% in April. Gasoline accounts for nearly half of the energy index. Gas prices were up 2.3% in May following gains of 2.2% and 8.1% in March and April. Within the energy index, electricity was the only component to post a decline in prices in May, down 0.2%.

The index for all items less food and energy was up 0.2% in May, matching the growth rate in April. Shelter is the major component in this index, accounting for over 40%. The price of shelter has grown steadily in recent months and continued this trend, posting a 0.4% increase in May following increases of 0.2% and o.4% in March and April.

12-Month Inflation

For the year ending in May, the CPI-U grew 1.0% following an annual rate of 1.1% in April. Inflation remains well below the Fed’s target as the energy index continues to quell annual numbers. The price of food has also failed to spark much inflation, climbing 0.7% over the 12-months ending in May. Stripping out food and energy, overall prices were up 2.2% year over year.

Shelter prices were a major contributor to inflation for the year as the cost of rent for primary residences increased 3.8% and the index measuring owners equivalent of rent grew 3.3%. Within the shelter index, water and sewer and trash collection services saw prices grow 4.1% over the relevant year.

Medical care service costs were reportedly 3.5% more expensive in May compared to a year earlier. Higher prices for prescription drugs, up 3.3% contributed to this but were buffered by lower prices for non prescription drugs, down 1.3% for the year. Over this period, the price of health insurance also grew 6.3%.

Motor vehicle insurance costs increased 6.6% for the year ending in May, pulling the transportation services index up an annual 3.2%. Within transportation services, the cost of airline fares dropped 3.1% year over year and the index for car and truck rentals grew 4.9% annualy. Over the same period, new vehicle prices slipped o.2% and the cost of used vehicles declined 2.3%.

Inflation by Region

May’s inflation was distributed relatively equitably across the country and across different size cities. At 0.3%, inflation was slightly below the national average. Northeastern states posted slightly higher inflation in May at 0.6% compared to 0.4% in the midwest and south and 0.5% in western urban areas. For the year, inflation was significantly higher in western states at 1.5% compared to a national average of 1%.

Over the year, inflation was lowest in medium size urban areas (populations between 50,000 and 1.5 million) at 0.6%. Larger and smaller sized cities saw prices growing much faster.

Urban Population12-monthAugust
over 1.5 million1.3%0.1%
50,000 to 1.5 million0.7%0.1%
under 50,0000.8%-0.1%
Urban Regions12-monthAugust
Northeast1.1%0.1%
Midwest0.6%0.1%
South1.0%0.1%
West1.6%0.1%

Outlook

Today’s report comes on the back of the FOMC’s mid June meeting. The unanimous decision to leave rates unchanged at 0.25%-0.5% was the result of disappointing economic data, a stagnant labor market and uncertainty related to the looming possibility of Britain voting to exit the EU. The fed also lowered their interest rate projections for 2017 and 2018 but left open the possibility of another rate hike in 2016, possibly as early as next month.

Gas Prices Spark Inflation in April

Headline inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), was 0.5% in April according to today’s report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. With seasonal adjustments, prices were up 0.4%, the highest monthly rate since February 2013 and slightly above what markets had expected. A Bloomberg survey of economists showed a large range in inflation expectations for April, from 0.2% to 0.7%.

April monthly US

Overall, price levels were 1.1% higher for the year ending in April compared to 0.9% for the year ending in March. While annual inflation remains significantly below the Fed’s 2% target, core measurements suggest the US economy is slowly strengthening. Core annual inflation was 2.1% in April and 2.2% in March.

April’s Inflation

Inflation was broad based in April as the food and energy indexes both increased, as did the index for all items less food and energy. Prices at the pump were the main contributor to monthly inflation, up 8.1% with seasonal adjustments and 9.1% without adjustments. The energy index, which accounts for approximately 6.6% of the CPI-U and includes gasoline, climbed 3.4% in April.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly % Change in CPI-U by Category (2016)

 JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly
All Items0-0.20.10.40.20.20.0
Food00.2-0.20.2-0.2-0.10.0
Energy-2.8-6.00.93.41.21.3-1.6
Gasoline-4.8-12.52.28.12.33.3-4.7
Fuel Oil (non seasonally adjusted)-6.5-2.91.71.96.23.7-1.5
Electricity-0.7-0.20.4-0.3-0.2-0.50.5
Utilities (piped gas service)-0.61.0-0.70.61.7-0.43.1
Energy Services-0.70.10.2-0.10.2-0.51.0
All Items Less Food and Energy0.30.30.10.20.20.20.1
Services Less Energy Services0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Shelter0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Transportation Services0.40.20.20.70.30.3-0.2
Medical Care Services0.50.50.10.30.50.20.5

The price of food was up 0.2% in April following a decline of that amount in March. The index for food at home increased 0.1% while the index for food away from home was up 0.2%. Within the food index, the most notable changes in April include; the price of eggs, down 6.3% and the price of tomatoes, down 4.7%. The index for fruits and vegetables also slipped 0.5% on a seasonally adjusted basis in April after declining 1.9% in March.

The index for all items less food and energy was up 0.2% in April after increasing 0.1% in March. This measure of core inflation eliminates items with highly volatile prices and is a good indicator of underlying price trends. According the current composition of the CPI, the index for all items less food and energy represents about 79.5% of overall consumer spending.

Within the core index, prices in April were 0.4% lower for household furnishings and supplies and 0.3% lower for apparel. Over the same period, the price of medical care commodities grew 0.4%, with prescription drug prices up 0.7% and nonprescription drug prices up 0.4%. The index for medical care services was 0.3% higher as the price of visiting dentists and eye doctors both increased by 0.7% in April. The cost of health insurance was 0.4% higher, following an increase of the same amount in March.

The index for transportation services, which is included in the core index, posted a seasonally adjusted inflation rate of 0.7%. This was largely driven by a 1.2% spike in the cost of motor vehicle insurance, although prices were higher across the board within transpiration services. The indexes for new and used vehicles, which are not included in transportation services but are part of the core index, both fell by 0.3% in April.

12-Month Inflation

The CPI-U grew 1.1% for the year ending in April despite a 8.9% decline in energy prices. For the year, the price of fuel oil declined 27.5%, and gas prices were 13.8% lower. The index for energy commodities dropped 14.2% compared to the index for energy services, which was only down 3.1% year over year.

Overall, food prices were up 0.9% over the 12 months ending in April. However, the price of food at home declined 0.3% while the price of food away from home increased by 2.7%.

The index for all items less food and energy gained 2.1% for the year. Within this index, commodities (commodities less food and energy commodities) declined 0.5%. Over the same year, the price of services (services less energy services) increased by 3.0%.

Inflation by Region

Inflation was distributed equitably across geographical regions in April. Prices grew marginally more in the Northeast, up 0.6% compared to the midwest, south and west (up 0.5%, 0.4% and 0.4% respectively). However, for the year ending in April, the western states recorded significantly higher inflation than the rest of the US, 1.8% compared a national average inflation rate of 1.1%.

Inflation was also stronger in bigger cities over the year ending in April. The average inflation rate for cities with populations over 1.5 million was 1.4% compared to 0.7% for cities with populations between 50,000 and 1.5 million. Large west coast cities were a major contributor to inflation over the past year. San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles recorded respective inflation rates of 2.7%, 2.5% and 2.0% – all well above the national average.

Urban Population12-monthAugust
over 1.5 million1.3%0.1%
50,000 to 1.5 million0.7%0.1%
under 50,0000.8%-0.1%
Urban Regions12-monthAugust
Northeast1.1%0.1%
Midwest0.6%0.1%
South1.0%0.1%
West1.6%0.1%

Outlook

Today’s inflation report suggests the economy is moving in the right direction and increases the likelihood of rate hikes in the near future. Prior to today’s report, rate hikes had not been anticipated until at least December. However, there has been a lack of consensus among members the Fed regarding the current state of the US economy and the risks posed by turmoil in global markets. Today’s report suggests that the domestic economy is moving forward and tightening or raising rates to reign in growth and prevent bubbles, may be prudent. The Fed meets next on June 14th and 15th and there will likely be more agreement regarding the need to increase interest rates.

Economic Growth Fails to Spark Inflation in March

Today’s inflation data will be a disappointment to the Federal Reserve as it does not support their intention to raise interest rates in the near term. In the absence of healthy underlying price pressure, the case for economic tightening is weak. According to this morning’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation appears more sluggish than expected.

Headline inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) inched up 0.1% in March on a seasonally adjusted basis and 0.4% without adjustments. For the year ending in March, the CPI-U was up 0.9%, significantly below expectations, which were closer to 1.2% and well below the Fed’s 2% target rate.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly Inflation

Data was mixed across economic sectors in March as declining food prices largely offset higher energy prices.

march CPI

The food index fell 0.2% in March to wipe out February’s 0.2% increase in the price of food. Food at home decline 0.5% compared to an increase of 0.2% for the previous month. This is the largest monthly decline in food prices in nearly 7 years. Prices at the grocery store were basically down across the board with the index for ‘other food at home’ being the only one of the six grocery store categories to post higher prices in March. The most significant monthly declines were in prices for eggs, down 5.2% and for fresh fruits and vegetables, down 2.4%. On the other hand, the index for food away from home was up 0.2% in March.

The energy index was higher in March, up 0.9% on a seasonally adjusted basis following a 6.0% drop in February. Higher gas prices, up 2.2% with seasonal adjustments and 10.2% without adjustments, pushed the energy index into positive territory for the month. The gasoline index is still down 20.9% for the year. The transportation index (transportation commodities less motor fuel) fell 0.1% in March.

Prices for many retail consumer discretionary goods weakened in March. The price of household furnishings and supplies dropped 0.2% including a 0.8% decline in the index for appliances. The apparel index was down 1.1% for the month following an increase of 1.6% in February. Recreational commodity prices dropped 0.3% compared to a decline of 0.5% the previous month.

Prices for services pushed higher in March, the index for services less energy services was up 0.2% following three consecutive monthly increases of 0.3%. This index includes shelter, medical care services and transportation services. Shelter prices continued to rise, gaining 0.2% in March. However, the index for lodging away from home fell 1.8% for the month due to declines in hotel and motel rates.

Medical care service prices were 0.1% higher in March, cooling after two month of 0.5% growth. While the cost of health insurance increased 0.4%, most other medical care service costs slipped marginally throughout the month. Transportation services were 0.2% higher including a jump of 2.2% in the index for car and truck rentals.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly % Change in CPI-U by Category (2016)

 JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly
All Items0-0.20.10.40.20.20.0
Food00.2-0.20.2-0.2-0.10.0
Energy-2.8-6.00.93.41.21.3-1.6
Gasoline-4.8-12.52.28.12.33.3-4.7
Fuel Oil (non seasonally adjusted)-6.5-2.91.71.96.23.7-1.5
Electricity-0.7-0.20.4-0.3-0.2-0.50.5
Utilities (piped gas service)-0.61.0-0.70.61.7-0.43.1
Energy Services-0.70.10.2-0.10.2-0.51.0
All Items Less Food and Energy0.30.30.10.20.20.20.1
Services Less Energy Services0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Shelter0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Transportation Services0.40.20.20.70.30.3-0.2
Medical Care Services0.50.50.10.30.50.20.5

12-Month Inflation

Prices pushed up 0.9% over the 12-months ending in March, slowing slightly from 1% in February.  Core inflation (all items less food and energy) was 2.2% over the 12-month period. Food prices climbed 0.8% over this period. The cost of food at home declined by 0.5%, while the price of food away from home increased by 2.7%.

The energy index was down 12.6% year over year in March. Energy accounts for about 6.4% of the CPI-U. Energy commodity prices fell an annual 21.2% in March, including a 34.8% drop in the cost of fuel oil and a 20.9% drop in gasoline prices. The index for energy services fell 3.3% year over year.

The price of retail goods such as furniture (down 1.2%), appliances (down 3.4%) and apparel (down 0.6%) were lower for the year. The index measuring the price of toys also fell significantly, down 7.6% since March of last year. Over this period, the index for medical care commodities increased by 2.4% including an annual increase of 3.6% in the price for prescription drugs.

Regional Inflation

Across the country, inflation has been higher in cities with over 1.5 million residents and fewer than 50,000 residents compared to mid-size urban areas. Inflation has also been significantly stronger in western states over the past year. Prices climbed 1.7% in the Los Angeles area but dropped 0.2% in Cleveland year over year.

Urban Population12-monthAugust
over 1.5 million1.3%0.1%
50,000 to 1.5 million0.7%0.1%
under 50,0000.8%-0.1%
Urban Regions12-monthAugust
Northeast1.1%0.1%
Midwest0.6%0.1%
South1.0%0.1%
West1.6%0.1%

Outlook for the Federal Reserve

There is growing evidence that the US economy is on solid ground and the Federal Reserve is waiting for the opportunity to continue raising interest rates. However, raising rates without clear evidence of inflationary pressure would be imprudent. The growing domestic economy now faces headwinds from slow growth abroad, especially in China. If the dollar continues to fall, prices of imported goods will climb and inflation could tick up in the coming months. Also, oil prices will eventually rebound, which will contribute to higher rates of inflation in the US. The fed will likely wait for evidence of these price pressures before reigning in economic growth by hiking interest rates.