Gas Prices Dropped as 2018 Ended: January 7 – 11

Core consumer prices grew at a steady, moderate pace in December. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending January 11.  

Note that the partial shutdown of the federal government has and will delay the release of certain economic data reports.

#1Consumer prices fell in December, but core prices inched up. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) declined 0.1 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was the first drop in consumer prices since last March, with gasoline prices being the main culprit. Energy CPI slumped by 3.5 percent (its third decline in four months) with gasoline prices plummeting 7.5 percent. Prices for both electricity (+1.8 percent) and utility delivered natural gas (+0.7 percent) both rose. Also rising were food prices (+0.4 percent—its biggest single-month gain since May 2014), pulled up by increased costs for fruit and vegetables. Net of energy and food, core CPI gained 0.2 percent. Rising were prices for medical care services (+0.4 percent) and shelter (+0.3 percent) while prices fell 0.2 percent for transportation services, used cars/trucks, and medical care commodities. Over the past year, CPI has increased by 1.9 percent while core consumer prices have risen 2.2 percent.CPI December 2018 111119.png

#2Even with a decline in November, there were more job openings than the number of unemployed people. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 6.888 million open jobs on the final day of November, down 243,000 from October but 16.1 percent ahead of the November 2017 count. This was greater than the BLS’s estimate of 6.018 million unemployed people during the month. Private sector employers had 6.266 million open jobs in November, up 15.5 percent from a year earlier. Most industries reported double-digit percentage increases in job openings, with notable exceptions being retail (-6.2 percent), wholesale trade (+5.4 percent), and financial activities (+8.9 percent). Also dropping during the month was the number of people hired, declining by 218,000 to 5.710 million people (+3.7 percent versus November 2017). Industries reporting particularly large year-to-year percentage increases in hiring included wholesale trade (+31.7 percent), transportation/warehousing (+16.1 percent) health care/social assistance (+14.0 percent), financial activities (+10.9 percent), and manufacturing (+9.9 percent). 

#3Service sector activity chilled a bit as 2018 wrapped up. The NMI, the headline index from the Institute for Supply Management’s Nonmanufacturing Report on Business, shed 3.1 points to a reading of 57.5. This was the measure’s lowest reading since July but also represented the 107th consecutive month in which it was higher than 50.0 (indicative of an expanding service sector). Three of the NMI’s four components lost ground relative to November: business activity/production (down 5.3 points), supplier deliveries (down 5.0 points), and employment (off 2.1 points). Eking a small gain was the component tied to new orders, which added 2/10ths of a point. Sixteen of 18 tracked nonmanufacturing industries reported growth during December, led by arts/entertainment/recreation, transportation/warehousing, and health care/social assistance. Whereas the comments from survey respondents were “mostly optimistic about overall business conditions,” highlighted comments noted potential adverse effects resulting from the tariffs.

#4Small business owner optimism slipped again in December but remained near post-recession highs. The Small Business Optimism Index shed 4/10ths of a point during the month to a seasonally adjusted 104.4 (1986=100). Even though this was the fourth straight monthly decline, the National Federation of Independent Business’s measure has been above a reading of 100.0 for 25 consecutive months. Four of the index’s ten components improved from their November readings: plans to increase inventories (up six points), current job openings (up five points), current inventories (up four points), and plans to increase employment (up a point). Of the six declining components, the largest decreases were for expected economic conditions (off six points), whether it is a good time to expand (off five points), and plans to make capital outlays (down four points). The press release emphasized that small businesses “need workers to generate more sales, provide services, and complete projects.”

#5Consumer borrowing rose in November. The Federal Reserve estimates consumers held a seasonally adjusted $3.979 trillion in outstanding non-real estate related debt (e.g., mortgages) at the end of November. This represented an increase of $22.2 billion from October and a 4.3 percent gain over the past year. Revolving credit (e.g., credit card) expanded by $4.8 billion to $1.042 trillion (+2.2 percent versus November 2017). Nonrevolving credit balances rose by $17.3 billion in November to $2.937 trillion. Nonrevolving consumer credit balances, which includes both college and auto loans, have increased by 5.1 percent over the past 12 months.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending January 5, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 216,000 (-17,000 vs. previous week; +31,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 221,750 (-9.4% vs. the same week a year earlier).
FOMC Minutes

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current employer. No endorsements are implied.

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