Inflation is climbing at the highest rate in 40 years. Gas prices at the pump are giving consumers a bad case of sticker shock and food, well we all know about that. So why are economists talking about peak inflation?
U.S. consumer inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), reached 8.5 percent in March 2022. The producer Price Index, which measures the cost of inputs for companies, jumped to 11.2 percent in March. On the surface, both numbers are dreadful, but economists look behind the headline numbers for hints of what areas when up and what went down.
The month-to-month rate of core price increases slowed in March and declined for core goods. Core goods are an aggregate of prices paid by urban consumers for a typical basket of goods, excluding food and energy. Used car and truck prices, for example, which are a large part of core goods fell by 3.8 percent. Used car prices, as most readers know, have skyrocketed in the past year and have been a major contributor to higher inflation.
Traders decided the data leaned toward a cup half full and bid stock prices up. At the very least, they decided, inflation expectations were at least contained. That is important since inflation expectations play an important role in how we set prices and wages. Investors are hoping that the pace of core price increases slowed down last month could be an indication that a peak could be in the offing.
However, one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one data point make a trend. My own opinion is that we should see a peak in inflation sometime before the second half of the year. That has been my expectation since the beginning of the year. It is based on a loosening of some of the supply chain shortages that we have been battling since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. We may be seeing an early signal of this expected pivot.
U.S. jobless claims held close to multi-decade lows this week. Initial jobless claims last week were 185,00 which are still near a 54-year low set earlier this month. Think back to April 2020 at the height of the pandemic when in a single week in April jobless claims hit 6.1 million. U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is still growing but slowing. The Conference Board is expecting a 3 percent growth rate for 2022, which is still above trend.
From a macro point of view, the economy despite the inflation rate, still looks in pretty good shape. The fly in the ointment, for both Wall Street and Main Street, is the high inflation rate. The worry from investor’s standpoint is can the Fed manage a soft landing and at the same time stop inflation in its tracks. Any indication that inflation is slowing could mean the Fed may not need to be as hawkish in the months ahead.
Last week, I was expecting a bounce in the market once stocks re-tested the 4,400-4,500 level on the S&P 500 Index. This week both sides of that level have been broken with no clear winner. We are still testing that range and closed on Friday at 4,392, slightly below my range.
True to form, I am expecting the volatility in the equity and bond markets to continue into next week. Earnings season is again upon us, and while I am expecting some decent results, the forward guidance is crucial. My best guess is that we are up in the beginning of the week and then down once again to end it. As we get closer to May, I am still expecting another dramatic decline, but I would be a buyer of that sell off.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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