Honestly, I hate to bombard everyone with official U.S. government data showing that President Trump’s tariffs so far have done exactly zero damage to the U.S. economy, contrary to upteen claims. Except official U.S. government data keeps showing that President Trump’s tariffs so far have done exactly zero damage to the U.S. economy, contrary to upteen claims.
Two days ago, this conclusion was borne out by the Labor Department’s latest report on price changes faced by businesses (measured by the Producer Price Index). Yesterday, the same message was sent loud and clear by the Department’s latest report on price changes faced by consumers (measured by the Consumer Price Index), which take the story up to September.
Since Mr. Trump’s first tariffs on imports from China didn’t go into effect until late August, not enough time has passed to assess their impact. But new American levies on steel and aluminum began to be collected in late-March. In addition, separate tariffs have been imposed on imports of large home washing machines since February. So this post focuses on price changes in sectors that use lots of steel and aluminum – the very sectors of course that have complained loudest about the tariffs. And it will present some seasonally adjusted and non-adjusted figures, because the only year-on-year data provided are unadjusted.
First, the main overall results for the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (not the only U.S. government measure of inflation at the retail level, but one that’s widely cited and that the Labor Department emphasizes). Between August and September, the overall CPI was up 0.1 percent on both adjusted and unadjusted bases. Year-on-year on year, these September prices rose by 2.3 percent (again, on an unadjusted basis).
Most students of the economy more closely follow the so-called “core CPI,” which strips out food and energy prices because of their volatility. But they weren’t much different from the overall CPI results. Between August and September, the core CPI increased by 0.2 percent on an unadjusted basis, by 0.1 percent on an adjusted basis, and on year by 2.2 percent (adjusted).
So these numbers don’t exactly scream “Raging inflation!” But what about products with lots of steel and/or aluminum? In most cases, prices went up considerably less than overall prices and core prices, and especially year-on-year – which provides the best indicator of trends over time.
Take new motor vehicles. Their September year-on-year price increase has been just 0.5 percent – less than a quarter the rate of core inflation. And on both adjusted and unadjusted basis, they were down between August and September – by 0.1 and 0.3 percent, respectively. Don’t forget: Both the adjusted and unadjusted monthly figures show that core inflation rose in September.
Take canned fruits and vegetables. Year-on-year, their price is up 1.9 percent as of September – nearly the rate of core inflation and overall inflation. But look beneath the hood: Most of those higher prices were generated by canned vegetables, which were 3.2 percent more expensive this September than during the previous September. So it sounds very much like the price hikes had little to do with cans made more expensive by more expensive metals.
On a sequential basis, the price changes in canned fruits and vegetables seem to make the tariff-induced inflation claims look more convincing. When seasonally adjusted, in particular, prices for the group rose by 0.7 percent in September – much faster than the overall or core consumer inflation rates. But look even more closely at that line item, and you’ll find a footnote making clear that the size of the sample on which the figure is based is “substantially smaller” than the norm. So presumably its reliability isn’t sterling.
Because the CPI data don’t distinguish between canned beer, soda, and soup, and the uncanned varieties, the impact of higher metals prices on these foods is tougher to figure out.
For example, for carbonated drinks, September year-on-year prices rose by 2.1 percent – again, close, but not quite at the overall CPI rate. And of course, many of these drinks are sold in bottles as well. Both the adjusted and unadjusted monthly September consumer inflation rates for these drinks were actually a good deal higher than the overall rate – 0.3 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively. But how many of the drinks surveyed were cans?
The same question arises for beer. The Labor Department distinguishes between suds consumed at home and away from home. For beer (and “ale and other malt beverages”) drunk at home, prices rose in September at an annualized 1.1 percent – less than half the overall inflation rate. On an adjusted and unadjusted basis on month in September, the increases were greater – 0.5 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively. Indeed, they were both greater than the comparable overall inflation numbers. But what was the can-bottle ratio?
For these malt beverages consumed away from home, the annual September price increase was twice as great as for home-consumed drinks in the beer category (2.2 percent). But the monthly increases were in the same neighborhood as for beer etc drunk at home – 0.5 percent adjusted and unadjusted. And there’s still that can-bottle puzzle.
Therefore, there’s no reason to think that price for canned produce and beer-type drinks are rising through the roof due to the metals tariffs. The case for tariff-led inflation is even weaker for soups – many of which are canned but some of which are powdered or otherwise dried. On-year, their prices were down by 3.8 percent. On month, prices also dropped on both adjusted and unadjusted bases – by 1.4 percent and four percent, respectively. So if anything, prices for soups are deflating.
And finally, let’s take those washing machines. Year-on-year, their September prices rose by a robust 10.6 percent. But the latest figures show that the pricing trend has actually shifted into reverse. On month, washing machine prices were down by 1.9 percent on an unadjusted basis and by fully 3.8 percent on an adjusted basis. Moreover, the rate of monthly price drops has been speeding up. So although producers tried to jack up prices in response to the tariffs, they’re failing to make those price hikes stick.
As for the future, who knows? But the tariff-led inflation alarmists still haven’t answered this crucial question: If business thinks it will have great scope to boost prices after tariffs are imposed, why isn’t it raising those prices right now? That is, why will companies have the major extra pricing power on Tariff Day Plus One that they will have lacked up until Tariff Day Minus One?
Once that question is answered, tariff alarmism will start looking highly plausible, even if no tariff-led inflation is visible yet. But not one day before.