Post-CPI Summary

By Michael Ashton

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets.

  • Only 20 minutes to CPI!
  • This month, we are looking for something of a correction to last month’s terribly weak and surprising core CPI (0.08% m/m).
  • Recall that last month, Apparel plunged -1.6% m/m – which seems at odds with a world of higher landed costs due to tariffs.
  • The only way that would make sense is if BLS were backing out the tariffs from the retail prices, but this isn’t like sales tax – no good way to disentangle tariffs since some products have ’em and some don’t.
  • So Apparel prices are due for a bounce. That’s well-understood out there in inflation land I think.
  • The apparel plunge was the driving force pushing core goods to -0.2% y/y when it had gotten all the way up to 0.0% y/y the prior month. It’s hard to get a lot of inflation without core goods being positive!
  • Other parts of core goods remain perky, such as Used Cars and Trucks. Probably some further gains due there.
  • The core services component was also soft last month, as OER softened slightly (but it has a big weight) and medical care declined.
  • I’m starting to get less confident that Medical Care will have a big upswing because of work I’m doing in pharma inflation. But at the same time, the y/y looks like it may have fallen too far too fast. And I don’t think doctors’ services +0.8% y/y makes a lot of sense.
  • All in all, the odds I think favor a solid 0.2% or above. This would cause y/y core to reaccelerate from 2.19% back to the 2.3% range b/c we’re dropping off an 0.13% from last Sept. To get a 2.4% print on core, we’d need 0.29% or better m/m, which is a stretch.
  • …but not out of the question if last month’s surprises are totally reversed.
  • The bottom line I am really watching is core-ex-shelter, which has been rising and is the key to the next leg higher in inflation. Housing won’t carry the water.
  • We’re down to about 12 minutes here before the number and one thing I want to add: more than recent CPIs this is likely a pretty important number for the stock market. Climbing CPI –> higher rates;stocks aren’t handling that well right now. A soft CPI is really good for stocks.

  • Ordinarily equities ignore CPI, but maybe not today.
  • One last point to make is that even with the weak month last month, core CPI is up at a 2% annualized pace over the last quarter. Median is at 2.5% annualized over the last 3 months. So we’re not talking deflation here.
  • Another very soft CPI. 0.116% on core. As that is roughly in line with what’s dropping off from a year ago, y/y core stays about the same at 2.2%.
  • First glance is that Apparel bounced but OER was weaker. If that’s true then this isn’t as weak as it looks.
  • 2.17% y/y on core, down from 2.18%, so as I said basically unch.
  • No doubt however that this is a huge relief to stocks. Even if it is stronger than it looks on the surface, it’ll help take the Fed off the relative boil (not like they’ve been crazy hawkish, just by recent standards)!
  • Incredibly, the subcomponents are AGAIN being slow-rolled by Bloomberg and this time looks like that’s because the BLS is being slow releasing the data. Crazy. Someone get them a new laptop.
  • Yayy! Finally getting data. So Apparel was +0.93% m/m, which raised y/y from -1.41% to -0.55%. Partial retracement and makes more sense. Only 3% of the CPI basket but a big move makes some difference.
  • Ah, here’s the thing. There was a MASSIVE decline in CPI-Used Cars of -2.99% m/m. That’s completely absurd. It puts y/y to -1.47% from +1.25% in that category, pushes core goods from -0.2% to -0.3%, and dampened overall CPI.
  • But it makes NO SENSE. Private surveys of used vehicle prices are still rising at around 4% per year. This is complete nonsense.
  • Here’s the chart. Used cars had been closing the gap. Again, this is nonsense. And it’s a big enough category to matter some.

  • Moving on…OER was only 0.18% m/m, pushing the y/y to 3.27% from 3.33%. Primary Rents were 0.24% m/m, 3.63% y/y up from 3.61%.
  • The OER modest deceleration isn’t terribly problematic although home prices are still rising quickly enough that I wouldn’t expect it to get much slower than it currently is. Primary Rents still rising, which puts the cherry on that point.
  • Lodging Away from Home plunged -1.01% m/mm, so the y/y dropped to 0.57% from 2.34%. Large moves in that index aren’t terribly unusual, so this isn’t an “AirBnB effect.” Will probably be reversed next month.
  • Back of the envelope by the way (and I know I’m refusing to let cars go again) is that Used Cars cost about 0.075% on core CPI. Put that back and your 0.116% becomes 0.191% m/m…right on expectations.
  • Medical Care remains weak. Pharma -0.19% m/m, but rises to 1.17% y/y from 0.77% because of base effects. Doctors’ Services 0.26% m/m, with y/y up to 0.46%..not exactly running away. And Hospital Services softened to 3.79% y/y from 4.17%.
  • BUT, because of those base effects, Medical Care overall rose to 1.73% y/y vs 1.54%.
  • doctors’ services:

  • Forgot to update this chart, last 12 core CPI prints. Although, as I said, this one is bogus.

  • Core ex-housing, even with the cars nonsense (he really just won’t let it go, will he??), accelerated to 1.38% from 1.34%. That’s still below the 1.5% hit in July, but we’d be just about there without those cars you know.
  • Here’s core ex-shelter. If you think the Fed is “going crazy” tightening, it’s because of this. Right about in the middle of the last two decades’ range. But I think it’s heading up.

  • All this talk about used vehicles…I should note that New Vehicles rose to 0.47% from 0.30% y/y. Placidly approaching the upper end of the range.

  • For something completely different, there was a rise in Cable & Satellite television service this month after a long slide. That’s 1.5% of the overall CPI…about 3/4 the weight of used cars!

  • So let’s see…m/m largest declines were …hey! Used Cars and Trucks #1, Footwear #2, and Lodging Away from Home #3. We’ve discussed two of those. Biggest gainers were Mens/Boys Apparel (retracement), Car & Truck Rental (splutter), and another couple of apparel categories.
  • Now, here’s why I prefer Median CPI. It’s totally for months like this. Median this month ought to be around 0.22%, meaning y/y should be almost exactly unch at 2.77%. As always, my Median is an estimate, but it should be pretty good this month.
  • And that’s the REAL story – inflation continues to motor along at about 2.8%, when measured using an index that isn’t perverted by inaccurate surveys of cars.
  • So here’s the summary. Great number for stocks, because they don’t care about the details. It’s not really a soft number, though – all one category. Core goods at -0.3% really ought to be at 0.3% or 0.4% (see chart), and assuming it does converge there we’ll see core CPI resume.

  • But you don’t really need Core CPI because Median is already telling you what you need to know: inflation is in the high 2s. The rebound from last year is over, and last few numbers have been basically flat around 2.8%.
  • Same story in this chart, showing the weight of categories inflating faster than 3%. It’s pretty steady and has been for a while. This is why we were able to ‘look through’ the 2017 slowdown in core CPI. The middle of the distribution was stable/rising slightly.

  • The key question for the next leg, up or down, is what happens to core goods. Housing, as I wrote recently, is not about to accelerate or decelerate in a MAJOR way. The next leg will have to come from other categories catching up.
  • With a following wind from clearly-rising wages and “protection” from offshore price competition, this seems very probable. Ergo, I expect Median to be over 3% in the next quarter or two. We’re not talking hyperinflation, but it’s going to keep creeping higher.
  • People sometimes ask me, “don’t you think the Fed knows how to look through the CPI to see what’s really going on?” The answer is no, I do not. I’ve yet to find a Fed person who gets very down and dirty with the data in a way that’s illuminating (as opposed to a wonky model).
  • OK, to wrap this up let’s look at the four pieces charts and tell the story (for new followers: these four pieces are each around 1/4…actually 0.2-0.33…of overall CPI). First, Food & Energy.

  • Next, Core Goods. Already discussed. This should be, and will be, higher.

  • Core Services less Rent of Shelter. A lot of this is Medical Care Services and I’m less bullish on that than I have been. It would help the bull-inflation story to see this above 3%, but I’m just not sure it can get there in short order.

  • Finally, Rent of Shelter. It’s probably a bit below where it should be, but as I recently wrote it’s not going to be doing anything dramatic here for a while.

  • That’s all for today. I just want to conclude by saying that it is a NATIONAL EMBARRASSMENT that we can’t accurately measure the behavior of used car prices. Not to put too fine a point on it.

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