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US CPI eases substantially to 8.5% but the Fed yet to “hit the brakes”

US consumers received a welcome break from the meteoric rise in prices with the July CPI ‘easing’ more than anticipated to 8.5% Y-o-Y.

The figure moderated from 9.1% in June owing to a fall in surging gasoline prices as the summer driving season came to a close.

Forecasts had suggested that the CPI may only fall to 8.7%.

Prices of key commodities such as corn, wheat and copper also declined by 20.4%, 27.7% and 13.5% compared to 3 months ago at the time of writing.

Buoyed by renewed optimism, the S&P 500 has risen by 2.1% thus far during today’s session.

Yet, the rate of inflation is still far above the Fed’s stated 2% target.

Source: Investing.com

Core CPI which excludes volatile energy and food items from the main basket stayed unchanged at 5.9% Y-o-Y while increasing by 0.3% on a monthly basis, significantly below July expectations of 0.7%.

Pimco economists Tiffany Wilding and Allison Boxer noted that although headline inflation has eased, core CPI has stayed firm, and has even seen an uptick in related data released by the Fed’s regional institutions.

The July reading showed the sharpest Y-o-Y dip since March 2020, when CPI fell from 2.3% in February to 1.5% as the initial lockdowns took effect.

Source: Investing.com

American families continue to battle sky-high prices amid declining real wages. Simon Moore, a contributor at Forbes magazine adds that “price increases for many other areas of the economy still remain concerning for the Fed.”

The broad-based nature of inflation has meant essentials such as food, rent, and health services are continuing to see an uptick despite a lower aggregate number.

For instance, the Bank of America noted that the average monthly rent has risen by 16% for those in the youth demographics.

Source: TradingEconomics.com, US EIA

Jobs market

The substantial dip in the CPI has proved to be a bit of a surprise following the latest jobs report which registered an increase of 528,000 in July, with the unemployment rate falling to a low of 3.5%.

The labour market continues to remain unnaturally tight despite the Fed’s overall hawkishness, two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction, and reports of big-tech lay-offs earlier in the year.

A tighter job market usually implies more competition for talent, higher wages and ultimately more spending. More spending tends to push up consumer inflation necessitating rate hikes.

As of July 2022, the U.S economy has been able to replace the 22 million jobs that were lost amid covid lockdowns, leading to predictions of a “jobful recession.”

Economists argue that this unique situation may be fueled in part by ageing demographics and a sharp decline in immigration during the course of the pandemic.

Productivity data

A key concern for the Federal Reserve is falling labour productivity in the economy. The output per worker reduced for a second consecutive quarter to -4.6% Y-o-Y, having registered a fall of 7.4% in the first three months of the year.

Q1 marked the deepest cut in labour productivity since records began in 1948, 74 years ago. This was reinforced by the weakness in GDP data that contracted in both Q1 and Q2, contrasting with the positive signals from the headline jobs figures.

At the same time, unit labour costs increased 10.8% in Q2, although real wages have contracted 3.5% over the past year.

Can we expect a pause in rate hikes?

Bluford Putnam, Managing Director & Chief Economist, CME Group, wrote “…factors has changed course in the past six to 12 months and is no longer likely to be a source of future inflation”

Elevated goods demand due to the pandemic and ongoing lockdowns have eased markedly; supply chain disruptions will take time to alleviate completely but significant strides have been made in this regard; the gigantic fiscal stimulus injected during the covid crisis has largely run its course; central banks are finally reducing their balance sheets; while policymakers have embarked upon the withdrawal of rock-bottom interest rates.  These are all sources of price rise that have seemingly turned the corner.

In addition, gasoline prices are likely to ease for the foreseeable future, while WTI and Brent have fallen 4.7% and 2.4%, respectively over the past month.

However, Bill Adams of Comerica Bank has been reluctant to call a peak to inflation and expects that the US is at risk of “another energy price shock” over the winter.

The conduct of monetary policy has never been a clear-cut matter. The judgement of monetary authorities is paramount while projecting into the future has always been fraught with known and unknown unknowns. 

The relatively sharp decline in CPI, contracting GDP and tightness in the job market tell a muddled tale.

For the average householder, costs are punitive, and inflation is likely to stay sticky.

However, the New York Fed in its July survey of expectations found that inflation expectations of the ‘general public’ have followed gasoline and broader energy prices lower, with one year ahead expectations falling to 6.2%.

Since inflation expectations are central to the monetary policy equation, once again, we find that supply-side factors not under the control of central banks may have influenced public sentiment and consumer behaviour more so than simply tighter policies.

In light of the likely easing among key inflationary sources, CME’s FedWatch Tool reports that there is a 60.5% probability of a 50 bps hike in September, while there is a 39.5% chance of a third consecutive 75 bps hike.

This is in spite of the fact that Jerome Powell believes that the Fed has been able to achieve the neutral interest rate during its last meeting – a level where the economy is neither constrained into contraction nor incentivized to expand.

Putnam states that “any level of short-term rates that is below a reasonable view of inflation expectations remains accommodative”, resulting in the Fed taking “its foot off the accelerator, but it has not hit the brakes. “  

Moore points out that “Inflation is starting to fall, but still not by as much as the Fed would like and it may be some time before they can declare any sort of victory”

For now, all eyes will be on tomorrow’s Producer Price Index data and the likely passing of the controversial Inflation Reduction Act in the coming days.

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