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Amid all the recent trade policy-related news, I’ve struggled (unsuccessfully) to keep up with the U.S. inflation data, but kept my nose to the grindstone this week and have now managed to scrutinize the new producer price figures (for May) in detail. These Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures contain unmistakable signs that whatever tariff-led inflation had begun to be generated in the American wholesale sector has been dramatically dissipating lately – which no doubt has much to do with continuingly weakening core inflation on the consumer side.

As usual, let’s start with the impact of President Trumps metals tariffs, which have lasted the longest (their first full month was April, 2018), and it’s easiest to identify the industries affected, since steel and aluminum-heavy sectors are pretty obvious (along with the metals themselves), and since we’re not dealing with the dependency on metals from any one trade competitor.

And a special bonus: It’s with steel and aluminum prices per se that the loss of any inflationary momentum comes through most clearly. Specifically, after rising 12.37 percent between April and their most recent (September) peak, prices for steel mill shapes fell 6.44 percent through May. As a result, they’re now 5.14 percent higher than during their first tariffs month. In their control group (the processed goods minus foods and feeds – or “core” – super-category) prices rose by 3.41 percent from April through their peak (in October), and have since declined by 2.62 percent. Consequently, they’re now 0.70 percent higher than during the first metals tariffs month.

So although in absolute terms, steel prices remain higher than those in their super-category, they peaked earlier and have come down faster.

Aluminum prices have been much weaker for much longer. After rising by 6.66 percent between April and their (latest) June peak, aluminum mill shapes prices are down by 6.53 percent. As a result, they’re now actually 0.30 percent lower than during their first full tariffs month.

Significantly, signs of markedly decelerating inflation are just as evident in numerous metals-using manufacturing sectors. In past posts on producer price trends, I looked first at industries where price increases since the metals tariffs onset had initially been faster than that for their super-category – final demand goods minus food and energy products.

The table below makes plain that a sizable, widespread slowdown has taken place. The columns show the percentage price changes between April and whichever month saw such prices hit their latest peak; and such changes for such goods since January. In every instance, the percentage changes for the latter have been much smaller than for the former. And in the cases of mining machinery and equipment and construction machinery and equipment, the slowdowns were more dramatic even than that for the super-category (which was awfully dramatic).

                                                               April to peak (month)          Since Jan.

Final demand less food and energy:       +1.73 (May, 2019)              +0.17

pumps/compressors:                               +3.82 (May, 2019)              +0.57

mining mach & equipment:                    +7.52 (April, 2019)            +0.03

construction machinery & equipment:   +5.75 (April, 2019)            +0.04

metal-forming machine tools:                +3.77 (Feb.,2019)              +0.77

But it would be reasonable to counter that four manufacturing sectors are too few to show anything conclusively. So here are results for nine more whose early inflation numbers were stronger than that of the core final demand super-category. Every single one has experienced an inflation slowdown since January, and except for railroad equipment and possibly oil and gas field machinery, all involved several orders of magnitude.

                                                                  April to peak (month)       Since Jan.

agricultural machinery & equipment:        +4.18 (April, 2019)          +0.04

tools, dies, jigs, fixtures, molds:                +2.82 (Feb., 2019)           +0.51

industrial material handling equipment:    +3.83 (May, 2019)          +0.22

oil and gas field machinery:                      +1.99 (March, 2019)       +1.01

household appliances:                               +4.53 (Feb., 2019)          +1.39

lawn & garden equipment:                        +2.19 (May, 2019)          +0.13

truck trailers:                                             +6.96 (May, 2019)          +0.81

aircraft:                                                      +2.20 (May, 2019)         +0.52

railroad equipment                                    +2.76 (March, 2019)      +2.67

For good measure, a slowdown is also occurring for metals-using industries where price increases have been relatively weak since the metals tariffs were imposed, as apparent from the table below: 

                                                                 April to peak (month)    Since Jan.

metal-cutting machine tools:                     +1.75 (May, 2019)        +0.69 

passenger cars:                                          +1.20 (Oct., 2018)         -0.30

heavy trucks:                                             +1.22 (Jan., 2019)           0.00

light trucks:                                                +2.43 (Nov., 2018)       -1.72

motor vehicle parts:                                   +0.71 (April, 2019)      +0.31

travel trailers & campers:                          +2.24 (March, 2018)    +0.42

Switch over to “intermediate demand” goods and you find a broad-based, often dramatic inflation deceleration as well – even though price increases in this super-category have accelerated!

                                                                 April to peak (month)    Since Jan.

core intermediate demand:                       +1.11 (May, 2019)         +1.26

metal containers:                                      +5.01 (May, 2019)         +2.95

fab wire products:                                  +11.49 (March, 2019)     +0.23

non-fluid power valves:                          + 4.01 (May, 2019)        +0.98

bolts, nuts, screws, rivets, washers:        +7.98 (April, 2019)        -0.43

fabricated structural metals products:     +5.10 (May, 2019)        +2.18

hardware:                                                 +5.10 (May, 2019)       +0.49

heating equipment:                                  +6.99 (May, 2019)       +1.85

fluid power equipment:                           +4.54 (May, 2019)       +1.33

mechanical power transmission equip:   +3.73 (May, 2019)      +0.40

A/C & refrigeration equip:                     +4.16 (April, 2019)     +1.37

ball and roller bearings:                          +5.85 (March, 2019)   +2.96

The first Trump China tariffs weren’t imposed until early July, so the sample size is smaller. And as previously noted, it’s relatively difficult identifying their precise effects because the list of tariff-ed sectors uses an industry classification system different from that used by BLS to monitor price changes, and the China content of these products can vary significantly. In addition, the group of tariff-ed goods have grown since then, the level of levies differs widely, and the original duties for many have been increased (not to mention the suspension of this major increase for several months earlier this year.  For the exact phases of the U.S.-China trade war until the latest – May 10 – Trump tariff increase, see here.).

But on this policy front, too, the exact same recent wholesale inflation slowdown is apparent as documented above for metals and metals-using industries. And for goods in the core intermediate demand super-category, the China tariff-affected goods have also seen produce price inflation slow as price inflation for the super-category has sped up. The only exceptions are the transformer category (where the inflation levels have been very low in absolute terms and the speed-up marginal) and possibly the oil and gas field machinery sector (where the monthly inflation rates for the two periods seem to be about the same_. Here, again, are the results for the entire August, 2018-May, 2019 period (covering the full duration of the China tariffs in toto), and for the post-January period.

                                                                              Aug.-May            Since Jan.

core intermediate demand goods:                     -1.85 percent       +1.26 percent

aircraft engines and engine parts:                    +1.32 percent       +0.35 percent

ball bearings:                                                   +4.23 percent       +2.96 percent

electric generators:                                          +2.41 percent       +0.18 percent

medical, surgical & personal aid devices:      +0.94 percent         -0.05 percent

core commodity final demand:                      +1.12 percent          0.00 percent

industrial heating equipment:                        +3.50 percent        +1.85 percent

oil and gas drilling platform parts:                +1.84 percent        +1.01 percent

farm machinery and equipment:                   +2.29 percent           0.00 percent

paper-making machinery:                             +2.92 percent         +0.88 percent

electricity transformers:                                +0.61 percent         +0.70 percent

X-ray and electro-medical equipment:         +0.35 percent          +0.12 percent

It might be an exaggeration to say “If you blinked, you missed tariffs-led inflation in the wholesale economy.” But as the above figures make clear, for now, it’s not much of an exaggeration.

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