Saturday, 19 of August of 2017

Economics. Explained.  

Category » Inflation

Gasoline Prices

August 16, 2017

Gasoline prices at the retail level were unchanged in the week ending August 14 at $2.38 per gallon.   In the low country of South Carolina gasoline prices tend to about $0.25 below the national average or about $2.13. The Department of Energy expects national gasoline prices to average $2.33 this year — almost exactly where they are currently.

As the price of gasoline declined the economy got a tailwind. However,  oil prices today are 10.0% higher today than they were a year ago.  Hence, the tailwind effect on the economy has run its course but has not yet turned into a significant headwind.

Crude oil prices are currently about $47.00 mark.  The Energy Information Agency predicts that crude prices will average $48.88 in 2017.  As crude oil and gas prices have leveled off the underlying inflationary pressures have become more apparent although currently there is less upward pressure on the inflation rate than what most economists, us included, had expected.

The number of oil rigs in service dropped 79% to 404 thousand  after reaching a peak of 1,931 wells in September 2014.  However, the number of rigs in operation has actually rebounded in recent months to 949 thousand.  Thus,  higher crude oil prices are encouraging some drillers to step up slightly the pace of production.

While the number of oil rigs in production has been cut by 79% between late 2015 and the middle of last year, oil production has declined much less than that.  Since that time the rebound in oil prices has encouraged oil firms to step up the pace of production and at 9,502 million barrels it is now only about 1% lower than its June 2015 peak pace of production which was 9,610 thousand barrels.  We should match that record pace of production by early next year.  The Department of Energy expects production to average 9.3 million barrels per day in 2017 and 9.9 million barrels next year.

How can the number of rigs go down but production be relatively steady?  Easy.  Technology in the oil sector is increasing rapidly which allows producers to boost production while simultaneously shutting down wells.  For example, output per oil rig has increased by 27% in the past twelve months.  Put another way, a year ago some frackers could not drill profitably unless crude oil prices were about $70 per barrel.  Today that number has declined to about about $44 per barrel.  Six months from now that number will be lower still.

While oil inventories gradually declined for most of 2016 the increase in production earlier this year caused inventory levels to climb to a record high level in February.  Since that time inventory levels have been steadily shrinking.  We know that OPEC output has been reduced, but its cutback has been partially offset by a significant pickup in U.S. production.  More import is strong demand.  We are seeing a quickening of GDP growth not only in the U.S. but around the world.  Oil stocks have been falling steadily, but they remain far above their five year average.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC

Consumer Price Index

August 11, 2017

The CPI rose 0.1% in July after having been unchanged in June.  During the past year the CPI has risen 1.7%.  The year-over-year increase climbed to 2.8% in February before settling back in the past five months. .  Excluding food and energy the CPI rose 0.1% for the fourth consecutive month.  Over the past year this so-called core rate of inflation has also risen 1.7%.

Food prices rose 0.2% in July after having been unchanged in June.  Food prices have risen 1.1% in the past twelve months.

Energy prices fell 0.1% in July after having declined 1.6% in June.  These prices are always volatile on a month-to-month basis.   Over the past year energy prices have risen 3.4%.  Energy prices should be relatively flat between now and yearend.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the so-called “core” CPI rose 0.1% in April, May, June, and July.  The year-over-year increase now stands at 1.7%.  The year-over-year increase in the core CPI had risen to as high as 2.3% in January before retreating.  But a lot of this softening reflects a price war amongst telecommunications firms and thereby distorts the overall run-up.  But that exaggerated price drop appears to have run its course as phone prices have only edged lower in each of the past three months.

The core CPI has also benefited from a sharp slowdown in the rate of increase of prescription drug prices.  That appears to reflect President Trump’s threat to the pharmaceutical industry that he intends to cut the prices of prescription drugs by allowing consumers to purchase such drugs overseas, and by having Medicare negotiate prices directly with the insurance companies.  That caused prescription drug prices to slow markedly late last year and in the first five months of this year.  However, such prices rose 1.0% in June and 1.3% in July.  This downward bias to the CPI stemming from a reduced rate of increase in drug prices also appears to have run its course.

While the CPI, both overall and the core rate, have been very well contained in the first half of this year we believe that as the year progresses the core rate of inflation will have an upward bias  because of what has been happening to both shelter prices and gradually rising labor costs which reflects the tightness in the labor market.

Shelter costs rose 0.1% in July after having risen 0.2% in both May and June.  In the  past year they have climbed 3.2%.  This undoubtedly reflects the shortages of both rental properties and homeowner occupied housing. Indeed, the vacancy rate for rental property is at a 30-year low. This steady rise in the cost of shelter  will continue for some time to come and, unlike monthly blips in food or energy, it is unlikely to reverse itself any time soon.


The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation is not the CPI, but rather the personal consumption expenditures deflator, specifically the PCE deflator excluding the volatile food and energy components which is currently expanding at a 1.5% rate and is poised to head higher.  The Fed has a 2.0% inflation target.  However, going forward we have to watch out for the steady increases in shelter which, as noted above, is being pushed higher by the shortage of both rental properties and homeowner-occupied housing.   Shelter is a long-lasting problem and given its 33% weighting in the CPI it will introduce an upward bias to inflation for some time to come.  We also have to watch rising medical costs and the impact of higher wages triggered by the shortages of available workers in the labor market.

Why the difference between the CPI and the personal consumption expenditures deflator?  The CPI is a pure measure of inflation.  It measures changes in prices of a fixed basket of goods and services each month.

The personal consumption expenditures deflator is a weighted measure of inflation.  If consumers feel less wealthy in some month and decide to purchase inexpensive margarine instead of pricy butter, a weighted measure of inflation will give more weight to the lower priced good and, all other things being unchanged, will actually register a decline in that month.  Thus, what the deflator measures is a combination of both changes in prices and changes in consumer behavior.

As we see it, inflation is a measure of price change (the CPI).  It is not a mixture of price changes and changes in consumer behavior (the PCE deflator).  The core CPI currently is at 1.7%.  However, with the economy growing steadily, rents rising, and the unemployment rate falling, the core inflation rate should pick up during 2017 and rise by 1.8% in 2017 and 2.5% in 2018.  And because the core PCE increases at a rate slightly slower than the core CPI, the core PCE should increase  1.7% in 2017 and  1.9% in 2018.  Both rates are trending higher.

Keep in mind that real short-term interest rates are negative.  With the funds rate today at 1.0% and the year-over-year increase in the CPI at 1.7% the “real” or inflation-adjusted funds rate is negative 0.7%.  Over the past 57 years that “real” rate has averaged about 1.0% which should be regarded as a “neutral” real rate.  Given a likely pickup in GDP growth this year and next and a gradual increase in the inflation rate, we regard a negative real interest rate inappropriate in today’s world.  The Fed should continue to push rates higher.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC


August 10, 2017

The Producer Price Index for final demand – intermediate demand  includes producer prices for goods, as well as prices for construction, services, government purchases, and exports and covers over 75% of domestic production.

Producer prices for final demand fell 0.1% in July after having risen 0.1% in June.  During the past year this inflation measure has risen 2.0%.  It has been bouncing around in a range from 2.0-2.5% for the past six months.

Excluding food and energy producer final demand prices also fell 0.1% after having risen 0.1% in June.  They have risen 1.8% since July of last year.  This series has not climbed above the 2.0% mark since April 2014 but it is obviously getting close.  Some economists are once again beginning to fret about deflation.  Forget about it.  Not going to happen.  This series continues to track near the Fed’s desired 2.0% pace.

This overall index can be split apart between goods prices and prices for services.

The PPI for final demand of goods was unchanged in July after having risen 0.1% in June. These prices have now risen 2.4% in the past year (left scale).  Excluding the volatile food and energy categories the PPI for goods fell 0.1% in July after having risen 0.1% in June.  During the past year the core PPI for goods has risen 2.0% (right scale).  It steadily accelerated for more than a year but has leveled off in recent months.

Food prices were unchanged in July after having jumped 0.6% in June.  Food prices are always volatile.  They can fall sharply for a few months, but then reverse direction quickly.  Over the past year food prices have risen 1.9%.

Energy prices declined 0.3% in July after having fallen 0.5% in June.  Energy prices have risen 4.3% in the past year.  These prices are also very volatile.

The PPI for final demand of services fell 0.2% in July after having risen 0.2% in June.  This series has risen 1.7% over the course of the past year (left scale).  The 2.1% year-over-year increase for May was the largest 12-month increase in this services index since January 2015.  Changes in this component largely reflect a change in margins received by wholesalers and retailers (apparel, jewelry, and footwear in particular).  The PPI for final demand of services excluding trade and transportation rose 0.2% in July after having risen 0.3% in June.  It has climbed 2.0% during the past year.  The 2.2% year-over-year increase for June was the largest 12-month increase thus far in the business cycle.  Once again, any concern about deflation in the United States is totally off base.  Not going to happen.

Because the PPI measures the cost of materials for manufacturers, it is frequently believed to be a leading indicator of what might happen to consumer prices at a somewhat later date.   However, that connection is very loose.

It is important to remember that labor costs represent about two-thirds of the price of a product while materials account for the remaining one-third.  So, a far more important variable in determining what happens to the CPI is labor costs.  With the unemployment rate currently at 4.3%, the labor market is beyond full employment.  As a result, wages pressures are sure to rise, and once that happens firms are almost certain to pass that along to the consumer in the form of higher prices.

Some upward pressure on labor costs, rents, and medicare care will further increase the upward pressure on inflation.  We expect the core CPI to increase 1.9% in  2017 and 2.5% in 2018.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC

Employment Cost Index

July 28, 2017

The employment cost index for civilian workers rose at a 2.2% annual rate in the second quarter after having climbed at a 3.1% annual rate in the first quarter.  Over the course of the past year it has risen 2.4%.  Thus, the labor market is slowly beginning to get tighter, and to attract the workers that they want employers are having to work employees longer hours, and offer higher wages and/or more attractive benefits packages.

With the unemployment rate at 4.0% and full employment also presumably at 5.0%, it is not surprising that we are beginning to see a hint of upward pressure on compensation.

Wages climbed at a 2.2% rate in the second quarter after having risen at a 3.2% rate in the first quarter.  Over the course of the past year wages have been rising  at a 2.3% pace.  Wage pressures are beginning to accelerate gradually.

Benefits climbed at a 2.4% rate in the second quarter after having risen 2.7% pace in the first quarter.   As a result, the yearly increase in benefits is now 2.4%.

What happens to labor costs is important, but what we really want to know is how those labor costs compare to the gains in productivity.  If I pay you 3.0% more money but you are 3.0% more productive, I really don’t care.  In that case, unit labor costs were unchanged.

Currently, unit labor costs  have risen 1.1% in the past year as compensation rose 2.3% while productivity increased by 1.2%.   Such an increase in ULC’s is consistent with an inflation rate roughly in line with the Fed’s desired target rate of 2.0%.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC

Personal Consumption Expenditures Deflator

June 30, 2017

There are many different measures of inflation, but the one that the Federal Reserve considers to be most important is the personal consumption expenditures deflator, in particular the PCE deflator excluding the volatile food and energy components.

The PCE deflator declined 0.1% in May after having risen 0.2% in April.  The year-over-year increase now stands at 1.4%.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components the PCE deflator rose 0.1% in both April and May.  The year-over-year increase is now 1.4%.  It is being held down in recent months by a price war in the wireless cell phone industry and falling prescription drug prices as Trump is putting pressure on the industry.  Falling prices in those two sectors will not continue.  This is the inflation measure that the Fed would like to see rise by 2.0%.   We think it will reach the 1.8% mark by the end of 2017 and 2.2% by the end of next year.  This inflation gauge has gone from being below the Fed’s inflation target to being almost to its target.  The Fed is likely to raise the funds rate one more  time in 2017 which would lift the funds rate to the 1.25% mark (which is still very low).

The more widely known inflation measure, the CPI ex food and energy, has been rising at a somewhat faster pace and is projected to increase 2.0% in 2017 and 2.5% in 2018.

Why the difference?  The CPI measures price changes in a fixed basket of goods each month.  The deflator captures price changes, but also changes in consumer spending habits.  If we try to save money by switching from butter to lower-priced margarine, from beef to chicken, or if builders substitute PVC pipe for more expensive copper,  the deflator would come in lower than the CPI in that particular month.  For our money, we think that the CPI which strictly measures price changes is a better barometer of inflation.  The Fed disagrees.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC