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Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (January 2020)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments or Enduring Intellectual Properties (updated sites coming soon). Plus…buy my book about money and inflation. The title of the book is What’s Wrong with Money? The Biggest Bubble of All; order from Amazon here.

  • The first CPI day of 2020! Although technically, this is the last print from the 20-teens.
  • The next decade ought to be very different from the last decade, from an inflation perspective. No more wondering if deflation is sneaking up on us, which is how 2010 began. I suspect we will spend more time worrying about how to put the inflation genie back in the bottle.
  • As the saying goes, letting the cat out of the bag is a heck of a lot easier than gettin’ him back in.
  • But let’s be more myopic for now: month on month. Consensus on core CPI is for +0.18% or so, which would keep y/y at 2.3% unchanged from last month.
  • To tick y/y core back to rounding to 2.4%, we only need 0.22% m/m on core CPI, so that’s more likely than the weakness we would need to see it tick down to 2.2%.
  • Last month in fact we saw 0.23%, which is right on the 6-month average core print. The only reason y/y is as low as it is, is because Feb-May last year were all 0.11-0.15% prints. Which is to say that the comps get easier starting in March (with Feb’s number).
  • Last month’s +0.23% came with softish housing, too. So there are some underlying upward pressures beyond housing. Medical Care has been getting the most attention so we will be attentive to any continued upward pressure there.
  • Also watch this month for an apparel bounce-back. Big drop last month, most likely due to the placement of Thanksgiving and the BLS’s new methodology which has induced lots of volatility to the series.
  • Downwardly, Used Cars remain a risk with private surveys showing softness there. And we’ll watch housing again. A sea change in housing would be a big deal. No real sign of that yet, and in fact housing has been running hotter than our forecasts by a tiny bit.
  • That’s all for now…good luck with the number. 5 minutes.
  • Weak CPI print, +0.11% on core…y/y just barely rounded up to 2.3% y/y. I said a downtick would be hard…but this was weak enough that it was very close.

  • Used Cars was quite weak, at +0.76% m/m, but that’s not super-surprising. The y/y at -0.68% (from -0.44%) is roughly in line.
  • Another usual suspect, Lodging Away from Home, plunged -1.75% m/m, putting the y/y to -0.28% from +3.26%. So a big, anti-seasonal move there. But LAfH is only 1% of CPI.
  • Overall housing was okay…OER +0.24% and Primary Rents +0.23% m/m, meaning that they upticked slightly y/y to 3.28% (vs 3.26%) and 3.69% (vs 3.66%) respectively. So it isn’t the big components there.
  • Yet Housing as a whole subgroup was only +0.10%. Was that all LAfH? Need to check.
  • Medical Care accelerated further, +0.57% m/m.

  • Medical care jump led by a large +1.25% m/m rise in Pharma (Medicinal Drugs).

  • The increases in the broad medical care components tends to support my prior suspicions that the big rise in CPI for health care insurance was a case of BLS not catching what was actually moving, so it appeared to show up in the insurance residual. That residual is still high…

  • Struggling finding anything (other than used cars and lodging away from home) that was really weak. Apparel was +0.40% m/m, so we got some of the bounceback. Recreation was a little weak, +0.15% m/m, and “Other” was -0.13% m/m…I need to dig deeper in housing though.
  • Overall core goods was steady at +0.10% y/y; overall core services was steady at +3.0% y/y. So no super clues there.
  • Here’s supporting chart for what I said about the weakness in Used Cars. Weak, but not surprisingly weak.

  • Well, in Housing…Shelter, which includes rents but also includes Lodging Away from Home, decelerated to 3.25% from 3.32% y/y. Fuels and Utilities is -0.23% y/y vs +0.74%. And Household Furnishings/Operations +0.98% vs 1.61%.
  • Looks like major appliances were heavy, down 1% m/m or so. But we’re talking a pretty small weight.
  • So biggest m/m decliners (and annualized changes) were Lodging AfH (-19.1%), Public Transport (-16.3%), Car and Truck Rental (-14.7%), and Personal Care Products (-12.9%). Cumulatively that’s only 2.8% of the CPI, but big changes.
  • Biggest m/m gainers aren’t in core: Motor Fuel (+39.6%) and Fuel Oil/Other Fuels (+27.4%). Medical Care Commodities (drugs) were +19.3%, and are in core, but as we have seen probably not a one-off. Then Meat, Poultry, Fish, and Eggs (can we just call this “protein?”) +16.7%.
  • So we’re talking about a lot of left-tail things in core especially. Median looks to be over 0.2% again, though a little hard to say because one of the regional OERs looks like the median category. But y/y Median CPI should stay roughly steady at 2.92% is my guess.
  • So core ex-shelter dropped a bit to 1.55% from 1.61% y/y. Still well off the lows. But if these left-tail one-offs are really one-offs, we would expect to see that rebound next month. Bottom line though is that 1.55% from non-housing isn’t very alarming yet.
  • To kinda state the obvious, nothing here will have the slightest impact on the Fed. They’ve basically said they don’t care about inflation at these levels. “Wake me when it hits 3% on core PCE, then hit the snooze button for a year.”
  • “In order to move rates up, I would want to see inflation that’s persistent and that’s significant. A significant move up in inflation that’s also persistent before raising rates to address inflation concerns: That’s my view.” – Powell, Dec 11 2019
  • Let’s look at the four pieces charts in order from most-volatile to least. First, Food and Energy.

  • Second, Core goods. This includes pharma, but also used cars, so right now the cars are beating drugs. (Don’t drink and drive, kids.)

  • Core Services less Rent of Shelter. Now, this month overall was weak but this is starting to look more concerning thanks to Medical Care. I think we might be seeing this over 3% before long, given the signals from health care.

  • And 4th piece: rent of shelter. So, flip side of the other core services is that rents might be softening..but at least aren’t showing an urgency to accelerate further. This was the reason I thought we’d see core peak in the 1st part of this year. I’m no longer confident.

  • Ever feel like inflation was giving you the finger? Here is the distribution of price changes. The big one in the middle is OER. The one at the far right is gasoline. You can see there are a lot of left tail events still.

  • Last one. Same data as the last chart, but this just sums all the categories over 3% y/y inflation. Obviously, when this goes over 50%, median is at least 3%. Because of rents, this is going to be close to 50%…but enough other categories are starting to scooch it there.

  • Scooch being a technical term.
  • OK, that’s all for today. The summary is that while the monthly number was soft, the underlying pressures are if anything getting a little firmer. Of course, the summary if you’re on the FOMC is, “CPI came out today? Really?”

As I said, nothing here will affect the Fed, at least for a while. I am sure some of them still pay attention to the CPI but they’ve made very clear that the only way inflation would affect monetary policy is if it went a lot higher, or a little bit lower. It may go a lot higher, but it won’t get there quickly. And core PCE, which is what the Fed supposedly focuses on (insider tip: they focus on whichever index is confirming their thesis), is more likely to accelerate from here since it overweights medical care – which is now trending higher – and underweights housing – which is looking soft – compared to private consumption. So, write off the Fed.

However, the “cyclical” ebbing of inflationary pressures that I had been expecting in Q1-Q2, mainly because I expected more softening in rents and I thought bond yields would be declining more in reaction to the slowdown in growth, aren’t apparent. It looks as if inflation might peak later than I had expected. Now, I never thought such a peak would mean inflation rolls over and goes to the lows of the last recession. Absent another collapse in housing, which does not appear to be in the offing, that isn’t going to happen. I thought inflation would stage a small retreat and then move to new highs when rates headed back up again. So far, though, I don’t even see much reason to think the peak is about to happen. Yes, rents are squishier than they were but it appears that medical care is moving fairly aggressively higher and interest rates don’t appear to be responding to the global slowdown in growth. So we might well be looking at a recession where inflation doesn’t slow very much.

In any event, the Fed’s response function make potential tail events a mostly one-way affair right now. They’ve warned you. Take appropriate precautions – which is relatively easy now as most inflation hedges (exception precious metals) are quite cheap!

  1. Toomas
    January 17, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Hello Michael,

    Always reading your commentary with great interest. And, like many others, have been constantly and continuously surprised and a little confused about the subdued inflationary pressures in light of the monetary and fiscal policy adventures in the US and Europe.

    I wonder if you know the work of Jeffrey Snider of Alhambra Investments. Would like to hear your views on the way he links CPI and energy/crude inflation e.g. in this article-

    Thank you for the good work you are doing.

    Best regards,


    • January 29, 2020 at 8:27 am

      Gosh, sorry Toomas that I just saw this. Been traveling a bit. The short answer is that he’s absolutely right, the 800-lb gorilla in headline CPI is energy. And if you are forecasting this month’s numbers, you ONLY need to worry about forecasting the impact of energy. And it’s not really difficult, though there’s so much noise that it’s easy to be wrong by a tenth or two. But on a larger point, this is why policymakers ignore headline inflation and focus on core (and why personally I focus on Median, which is a better measure of the true central tendency IMO).

  2. Toomas
    January 30, 2020 at 5:36 am

    Thank you. I guess my interest is to try to understand the longer term, fundamental relationship between energy and non-energy inflation. From one point of view, energy inflation would tend to dampen demand for other items (simply less money to spend), so the relationship would be one of negative correlation. On the other, energy inflation, to the extent that it is demand-driven, reflects fundamental strength/weakness globally. I think (one of) Jeffrey Snider-s points is that commodity inflation always goes hand in hand with economic expansion so from that point of view energy and non-energy inflation would tend to be positively correlated (longer term). I wonder if you have run such computations based on historical data and what the results are.

    Of course, this all feeds into the “big picture” question as to why have, despite all the monetary and fiscal efforts, inflation trends been weak (or at least weaker than one would expect, other things equal). So is energy inflation the 800-lb gorilla (if behind the scenes) not just for CPI inflation, but for inflation overall (including core). Put it another way, can there be sustained non-energy inflation without energy inflation (assuming no big substitution effects).

    To me as an investor in markets, inflation is pretty much everything. I remember too vividly how inflationary pressures ended the boom in 2000 and 2007. So looking out from today, I tend to think that the muddle-through expansion could well continue until inflationary pressures finally show up. Are energy prices the true canary?

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