More to inflation data than meets the eye

It’s easy to fixate on headline inflation numbers that appear disappointing, but Rick explains why there’s more to the data than meets the eye.

Last week’s U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) data release came in below economists’ consensus expectations, and represented the fourth weak print in a row. Specifically, the headline CPI print came in roughly flat month-over-month, and at 1.6% year-over-year, while the core measure (excluding volatile food and energy components) resided near 0.1% month-over-month and 1.7% year-over-year.

The data resulted in a great deal of handwringing by many market commentators over the strength of the economy and the advisability of further Federal Reserve policy normalization this year. In our view, these arguments represent somewhat of an overreaction to the data and don’t grasp the underlying trend within U.S. inflation numbers: higher services inflation and actual goods deflation.

More accurate inflation measures

It’s important to recognize that measures of inflation considered more accurate than the CPI, such as Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) data, have witnessed price changes vary dramatically between these different broad components. Over the past 20 years, core PCE has increased at an average annual rate of 1.67%, with core services and goods components averaging annual changes of 2.51% and -0.48%, respectively. Core services represents nearly three-quarters of the PCE consumption basket today, with goods taking up the final quarter.

The underlying trend of higher services inflation and relative goods deflation has been in place for 20 years and largely continued with last week’s inflation data release. This isn’t surprising, since this dynamic is largely driven by major secular changes to the United States’ demographic profile and by profound technological changes, including technologically inspired competition. Thus, we find ourselves in a world in which CPI core services (ex-energy) is growing by roughly 2% to 2.5% and CPI goods sectors are deflating by -1% to -2% on average.

Benefit to consumers

Perhaps even more importantly for the trajectory of the economy, the goods deflation we are seeing today can be considered a net benefit to consumers’ spending power, particularly for lower- and middle-income households. We are seeing price weakness in food and grocery categories; in clothing and apparel; and in sporting goods and department stores, all areas where these households spend a meaningful amount of their disposable income. For example, year-over-year, the food subcomponent of CPI has only increased by 0.9%, with “food away from home” the only area witnessing a meaningful increase.

Finally, we are encouraged to see price stability in some areas, such as furniture and shelter pricing, that underscores strength in the U.S. housing market. The bottom line: It’s very easy to fixate on headline inflation numbers that appear disappointing at first glance, but digging deeper and looking at the data in broader context often reveals more to the data than meets the eye.

Rick Rieder, Managing Director, is BlackRock’s Chief Investment Officer of Global Fixed Income and is a regular contributor to The Blog.

Learn more about how consistent investment performance and low fees are critical to achieving your fixed income goals in today’s environment.

Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal. Fixed income risks include interest-rate and credit risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in bond values. Credit risk refers to the possibility that the bond issuer will not be able to make principal and interest payments.

This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of July 2017 and may change as subsequent conditions vary. The information and opinions contained in this post are derived from proprietary and nonproprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. As such, no warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions (including responsibility to any person by reason of negligence) is accepted by BlackRock, its officers, employees or agents. This post may contain “forward-looking” information that is not purely historical in nature. Such information may include, among other things, projections and forecasts. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this post is at the sole discretion of the reader.

©2017 BlackRock, Inc. All rights reserved. BLACKROCK is a registered trademark of BlackRock, Inc., or its subsidiaries in the United States and elsewhere. All other marks are the property of their respective owners.