Finally! Some good news about U.S. inflation! Not that it’s incredibly good news. But today’s July results for the Consumer Price Index (CPI) were sure better than June’s awful read.
The news was also somewhat surprising, at least to me, because the official June figures for wholesale inflation – the prices businesses charge each for the goods and services needed to turn out what they sell to consumers – had accelerated some since May. And that type of development in the Producer Price Index (PPI) is usually a sign that these businesses will pass these prices on commensurately to their final customers.
Still, there were two big flies in this mildly encouraging ointment.
First: Yes, overall, or “headline” CPI actually fell on a monthly basis and rose more slowly in July on an annual basis. And yes, “core” inflation (which strips out food and energy prices because supposedly they’re volatile for reasons have little to do with the economy’s fundamental inflation-proneness) rose less than half as fast month-to-month than in June. But on an annual basis the latter stayed at its alarming levels.
Second, the main reason that inflation generally speaking has been slower lately is because the economy is slowing – and may even be in recession. As I’ve explained several times (e.g., here and here), it’s anything but difficult for the Federal Reserve and the rest of the federal government to cool price increases by dampening the ability of consumers and businesses to buy goods and services. And just how loudly should we cheer the lower living standards resulting from those growth-slowing steps?
With these caveats in mind, today’s CPI report showed that headline inflation dipped sequentially in July by 0.02 percent. That’s the first monthly decrease in absolute terms since the 0.06 percent decline in May, 2020 – when the economy was just starting to recover from the first wave of the CCP Virus and the deep lockdowns-induced downturn it triggered. And the July figure was light years better than June’s 1.32 percent increase – the biggest monthly jump since July, 1980’s 1.33 percent.
This progress owes entirely (at least when we’re talking about the major categories of goods and services) to a 4.56 percent monthly drop in energy prices – the first such decline since April’s 2.70 percent and the biggest since the 10.31 percent plunge in April, 2020, while that virus-induced was still with us.
And energy prices weakened in turn largely because the recent sky-high prices for gasoline have led Americans to cut way back on their summertime driving – which has fallen below even pandemic-y 2020 levels, when so many CCP Virus-related travel restrictions remained in place. Indeed, gasoline prices on month sank by 7.71 percent – their biggest such tumble since the 20.80 percent crash dive also in pandemic-y April, 2020. (Don’t forget, though, that global energy prices are also off their recent peaks because growth in the rest of the world is down considerably, too.)
As for core inflation, progress was registered on a monthly basis, too, with these prices rising sequentially in July by just 0.31 percent – much lower than July’s 0.71 percent and the best such performance since last September’s 0.25 percent.
Yet on an annual basis, as indicated above, July core inflation stayed exactly where is was in June: 5.91 percent. And although this pace was the slowest since last December’s 5.48 percent, it also means that progress according to this measure has stopped for the time being.
Can falling energy prices continue, and keep dragging down the headline CPI? The U.S. Energy Department has just weighed in here:
“The August Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) is subject to heightened uncertainty resulting from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, how sanctions affect Russia’s oil production, the production decisions of OPEC+, the rate at which U.S. oil and natural gas production rises, and other contributing factors. Less robust economic activity in our forecast could result in lower-than-forecast energy consumption.”
In brief, “Search us.”
Will big elements of core inflation, like housing and new vehicles and used vehicles and healthcare, keep stabilizing at current (still historically high) rates or even moderating some? And can this progress continue while a recession is avoided? Those are the questions that need to be answered to get some visibility on future inflation, and figure out how satisifed we’ll be with the results.
In the meantime, look out for the next official release on wholesale prices – which is released tomorrow!