More to Inflation Data Than Meets the Eye

It’s easy to fixate on headline inflation numbers that appear disappointing, but Rick explains why there’s more to the data than meets the eye.

Last week’s U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) data release came in below economists’ consensus expectations, and represented the fourth weak print in a row. Specifically, the headline CPI print came in roughly flat month-over-month, and at 1.6% year-over-year, while the core measure (excluding volatile food and energy components) resided near 0.1% month-over-month and 1.7% year-over-year.

The data resulted in a great deal of handwringing by many market commentators over the strength of the economy and the advisability of further Federal Reserve policy normalization this year. In our view, these arguments represent somewhat of an overreaction to the data and don’t grasp the underlying trend within U.S. inflation numbers: higher services inflation and actual goods deflation.

More accurate inflation measures

It’s important to recognize that measures of inflation considered more accurate than the CPI, such as Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) data, have witnessed price changes vary dramatically between these different broad components. Over the past 20 years, core PCE has increased at an average annual rate of 1.67%, with core services and goods components averaging annual changes of 2.51% and -0.48%, respectively. Core services represents nearly three-quarters of the PCE consumption basket today, with goods taking up the final quarter.

The underlying trend of higher services inflation and relative goods deflation has been in place for 20 years and largely continued with last week’s inflation data release. This isn’t surprising, since this dynamic is largely driven by major secular changes to the United States’ demographic profile and by profound technological changes, including technologically inspired competition. Thus, we find ourselves in a world in which CPI core services (ex-energy) is growing by roughly 2% to 2.5% and CPI goods sectors are deflating by -1% to -2% on average.