The Fed Takes a Pause…So Do Consumers: December 9 – 13

FOMC voting members signal that the rate cuts are over, at least for now. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending December 13.

#1The Fed left alone its short-term interest target and expects not making any changes in 2020 either. The policy statement released after last week’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting contained the exact verbiage from last October in describing the state of the U.S. economy. This included noting a “strong” labor market and an economy expanding at a “moderate rate.” As a result, the FOMC voting members agreed unanimously to keep the fed funds target at a range of 1.50 percent and 1.75 percent. The committee saw their monetary policy as “appropriate to support sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective.”

Economic projections released in conjunction with the policy statement indicated that FOMC members do not expect to change course in 2020. The median forecast found the U.S. economy growing 2.0 percent next year with an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent and inflation slightly below the Fed’s 2.0 percent target. The same forecast has no fed funds rate cuts next year. Thirteen of 17 FOMC members expect the fed funds target rate will hold steady in 2020 while four voting members anticipate a quarter-point rate increase.

#2The start of the holiday season retail sales fails to impress. The Census Bureau estimates retail food services sales grew 0.2 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted $528.0 billion, off from October’s 0.4 percent increase. Boosting the headline sales figures were advances at both car dealers/parts stores (+0.5 percent) and gas stations (+0.7 percent). Net of sales at both car dealers and gas stations, core retail sales were unchanged in November. Sales slumped at health/personal care stores (-1.1 percent), apparel retailers (-0.6 percent), department stores (-0.6 percent), sporting goods/hobby retailers (-0.5 percent), and restaurant/bars (-0.3 percent). Sales grew at stores focused on electronics/appliances (+0.7 percent), and groceries (+0.3 percent), and furniture (+0.1 percent). Both the headline and core retail sales measures have risen a good, but not great 3.3 percent over the past year.

#3Consumer prices rose in November. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) grew at a 0.3 percent seasonally adjusted rate, following October’s 0.4 percent rise. Energy CPI rose 0.8 percent, down from October’s 2.7 percent surge (gasoline: +1.1 percent versus October 2019), while food CPI edged up 0.1 percent. Net of both energy and food, core CPI increased 0.2 percent, matching October’s advance. Prices rose for used cars/trucks (+0.6 percent), medical care services (+0.4 percent), shelter services (+0.3 percent), apparel (+0.1 percent), and medical care commodities (+0.1 percent). New vehicle prices slipped 0.1 percent. Over the past year, CPI has risen 2.1 percent while core CPI has risen 2.3 percent.

#4Wholesale prices mellowed in November. The Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand held steady during the month on a seasonally adjusted basis following a 0.4 percent gain in October. Also holding constant was the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ core measure of wholesale prices (final demand PPI net of foods, energy, and trade services), after inching up 0.1 percent during the prior month. Wholesale prices jumped 1.1 percent for food (boosted by eggs and vegetables) and 0.6 percent for energy (gasoline: +2.3 percent). Core goods PPI climbed 0.2 percent, its biggest single-month gain since July. PPI for final demand services dropped 0.3 percent, pulled down a 0.6 percent slump in PPI for trade services. Over the past year, final demand PPI has grown by a mild 1.1 percent while the core measure had a 12-month comparable of +1.3 percent.

#5Small business owners were more positive in November. The Small Business Owner Optimism Index, from the National Federation of Independent Business, added 2.3 points during the month to a seasonally adjusted reading of 104.7 (1986=100). This was the measure’s best reading since July and left it just 1/10th of a point below that of a year earlier. Seven of ten index components improved in November, led by sizeable gains for those related to earnings trends, whether it is a good time to expand, current inventories, and current job openings. Only two index components slipped: expected real sales and plans to increase inventories. The press release said that small business “[o]wners are aggressively moving forward with their business plans.”

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending December 7, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 252,000 (+49,000 vs. previous week; +39,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 224,000 (-0.4% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Import Prices (November 2019, All Imports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. October 2019, -1.3% vs. November 2018. Nonfuel Imports: -0.1% vs. October 2019, -1.4% vs. November 2018.
Export Prices (November 2019, All Exports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. October 2019, -1.3% vs. November 2018. Nonagricultural Exports: Unchanged vs. October 2019, -1.6% vs. November 2018.
Productivity (Nonfarm Labor Productivity, 2019Q3, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): -0.2% vs. 2019Q2, +1.5% vs. 2018Q3.
Business Inventories (October 2019, Manufacturers’ and Trade Inventories, seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. September 2019, +3.1% vs. October 2018. 

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