Producer Prices and Retail Sales Show Disappointing Inflation Trends

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Wishing for higher inflation sometimes just feels odd. You have to have higher prices in the future to help with growth, but it means we all have to pay more (and earn more) to buy the same things. With the Federal Reserve wanting to raise interest rates at the first opportunity that can be justified, now they have a dilemma in that there is still just not any serious inflation to worry about. The harsh reality is that the Fed’s 2.0% to 2.5% inflation target just doesn’t seem realistic at all for now.

Friday’s economic reports included the U.S. Department of Labor’s Producer Price Index for final demand for the month of July. The headline PPI reading was −0.4% in July, and the core rate (excluding food and energy) was also in the red at −0.2%. Bloomberg was calling for a gain of 0.1% in the headline and for a 0.2% gain in the core PPI reading.

Where things continue to look weak on the inflation front is on the year-over-year reading, with a twist. Compared with July of 2015, the headline PPI reading was −0.2%. If you back out food and energy prices, the core reading’s year-over-year change was actually up by 0.7%.

What matters here is that the rise in oil and gasoline prices seems rather short-lived. Now there are even some pockets around the country where too many apartments have been built (Houston, that’s you!) and rents are starting to drop.

One more issue to consider is that there was a decline in the price for services, and apparel prices fell after seeing three months of gains. The price of goods fell for the first time since February. The price of food at the wholesale level was also a standout issue. Finished goods saw lower prices as well, as did certain aspects of the auto sector.

If you want to complicate the July wholesale inflation report, it turns out that retail sales in July were also only flat. The 0.0% reading was versus an expected 0.4% gain. If you back out auto sales, retail sales were down 0.3%, and backing out autos and gasoline saw a drop of 0.1% in July.

Sales were just not strong at the retail level, which may only make for more discounting (lower prices) ahead. There was weakness in the supermarkets, sporting goods, restaurants, gas stations and building materials. Sales at nonstore retailers were higher, and that means e-commerce sales are eating into traditional retail sales.

Maybe it really will take all the push for higher and higher wages to drive prices higher. Just be careful what you wish for — you might actually get it.