Economy followers who are fans of facts have ample reason to be grateful that the partial federal government shutdown has left the Labor Department open. As a result, the Bureau of Labor statistics can keep churning out data showing that the next valid claim of tariff-led damage to the U.S. economy that’s supported by authoritative statistics will also be the first. And today’s producer price numbers (for December) are the latest case in point.
The Department’s producer price index (PPI) measures price changes at the wholesale level, and neither the results for products heavily affected by President Trump’s metals tariffs or by his tariffs on goods from China show any evidence of contributing to inflation that will at some point be passed on to consumers.
Let’s start with metals-using products supposedly vulnerable to the U.S. levies on imports of steel and aluminum, which began to be imposed in late March. As with the situation as of last month, steel itself continues to demonstrate strong pricing power on an annual basis, starting with a 7.4 percent increase in April that’s since soared to 18.5 percent in December.
Even so, on a monthly basis, steel prices have actually fallen on net since August (by 0.36 percent), and dropped by 0.63 percent on month in December. So its price momentum seems to be cooling significantly – and possibly at an accelerating rate.
Further, much weaker pricing power – and therefore inflation – can be seen in various goods that use lots of steel. On the one hand, the December figures still showed robust price increases in products like pumps, compressors, and related equipment; and mining machinery and equipment. Wholesale inflation was 4.1 percent in the former on month in December, and 8.5 percent in the latter. By contrast, in the super-category in which both products are found (“final demand goods”), yearly wholesale inflation was only 2.5 percent in December.
Switch over to “intermediate demand” goods and you find big annual price hikes in sectors like metal containers (6.5 percent), fabricated wire products (16.4 percent), and certain kinds of valves (six percent). Yearly December inflation in that super-category was three percent.
But as in steel itself, the latest monthly figures are generally much lower – e.g., since August, 1.57 percent cumulatively for pumps, compressors, and related equipment; -0.55 percent for metal containers; 0.12 percent for fabricated wire products; and 2.32 percent for the valves.
Mining equipment is a conspicuous exception: Its prices were up 6.21 percent from August through December. But it was a strange exception, since all of the increase took place from October to November.
And the tariff alarmists still need to account for all the steel-using goods where wholesale inflation has been weak for the entire year and looks to be going nowhere: machine tools; oil and gas field machinery; agricultural machinery; motor vehicles; motor vehicle parts; ships; railroad equipment.
It’s true that the markets for all these producer goods vary tremendously, as does their dependence on steel. But that’s the point: Tariffs are only one of many trends and developments that influence their prices.
As for aluminum, its pricing momentum has slowed considerably – from 11.9 percent on an annual basis in April, to 6.3 percent in December. And since August, aluminum wholesale prices are off by fully 3.20 percent.
The first Trump China tariffs weren’t imposed until early July, so the sample size is smaller. But the case for tariff-led wholesale inflation on this front is just as weak as in the metals-related sectors.
Here are the PPI changes for some of the leading products found on the Trump administration’s initial China tariff list. They were imposed on July 6, so the numbers show the cumulative price changes since August. (Note: Because the administration’s Trump announcement used a different classification system than that used in the PPI reports, the below data don’t match up exactly with that tariff list. But the following goods are all at the least main parts of the items on the Trump list, or vice versa.)
aircraft engines and engine parts: 0.04 percent
industrial heating equipment: 1.15 percent
oil and gas drilling platform parts: 0.46 percent
farm machinery and equipment: 2.26 percent
paper-making machinery: -0.13 percent
ball bearings: 1.01 percent
electric generators: 1.85 percent
electricity transformers: 0.35 percent
medical, surgical, and personal aid devices: 0.33 percent
X-ray and electro-medical equipment: 0 percent
As with the metals-using products, some strong price increases are apparent. But so are some very weak increases, a flat-line, and a price drop. So it’s tough to argue that the tariffs have been make-or-break in the wholesale pricing sphere. I’ll keep tracking the China angle with unusual alacrity, though, since the number of tariff-ed imports expanded greatly later in 2018.
Lastly, there are the tariffs on large household laundry machines. Their retail prices keep increasing strongly, as shown in the latest (December) consumer price data – though not as strongly as in the immediate aftermath of the product-specific tariffs slapped on their imports in late January.
But at the wholesale level, inflation has been much weaker lately – a 0.84 percent monthly December increase for “household appliances” (the laundry equipment isn’t broken out), but only a 1.61 percent advance since August, and a comparatively meager 3.7 percent increase year-on-year. Call me a cynic, but it looks like consumers have been paying much more for these products this past year mainly because the retailers have been making a killing, not because of tariff hikes.