Neil Irwin reminded us yesterday morning that a lot of hopes are riding on inflation easing this year. But it hasn’t happened yet—or over the last year.
Consumer prices surged more than expected over the past 12 months, suggesting a bleak outlook for inflation and increasing the likelihood of more than a few interest rate hikes this year.
The CPI (all urban index) rose 7.5% in January over a year ago, the Labor Department reported yesterday—the highest since February 1982. Economists were expecting an increase of 7.2%.
The so-called core CPI, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, increased 6%, compared with the estimate of 5.9%—its highest since August 1982.
Inflation raged on in February, driving consumer price increases to a place we haven’t been to in four decades.
The latest numbers include a paucity of signs that inflation us leveling off, muchless subsiding.
What’s more, they largely exclude the impact of Russia’s invasion on oil, gas and other global commodity prices.
Most economists and WallStreeters, the Biden administration and members of Congress—especially Democrats—have been counting on inflation peaking early this year.
Unfortunately for them—not to mention consumers and businesses—the numbers are suggesting persistently high inflation for the foreseeable future.
The economy doesn’t want for problems—there are plenty of them, both at home and stemming from rising geopolitical volatility in eastern Europe.
But as Neil Irwin writes, wherever the movers and shakers of the Federal Reserve look right now, “they're seeing flashing green lights that the world wants them to get moving on raising interest rates.”
Yes, the Fed acts independently based on its best analysis of economic data—in theory anyway.
But other factors shape the tone and outcomes of internal debates, too—like discussions by outside economic thinkers and financial market reactions to potential and actual Fed moves.
Right now, Irwin believes those reactions are almost uniformly pointing toward more aggressive action to try to rein in high inflation.
In fact, Fed future traders say another rate hike by the Fed’s May meeting is a done deal—38.4% see a hike of 50-75 basis points (0.5%-0.75%), while 61.6% see a hike of 75-100 basis points (0.75%-1.0%)
Crack spreads — vernacular for oil refiners’ profits — have soared this year as gasoline demand outstrips supply.
They measure the difference between the cost of crude oil and the prices of refined products like gasoline — and are a key contributor to both profits at oil refineries and also prices at the pump.
Matt Phillips of Axios believes crack spreads will see more pressure as the Biden administration does everything in its power to push gas prices lower before November’s mid-term elections.
Already, stocks of the major oil refiners got hammered on Wednesday, heading into yesterday’s meeting between Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and top industry executives.
Marathon Oil fell 7%, Phillips 66 and Conoco Phillips both dropped 6%, while Chevron and Exxon both fell about 4%.
President Biden publicly is urging an increase in U.S. refinery production, saying bluntly, "I'm calling on the industry to refine more oil into gasoline and to bring down gas prices."
But earlier this year, as crack spreads soared, so did the share prices of major American refining companies, which are up a whopping 38% since January – even as the S&P 500 index has entered bear territory.
While surging profit margins for the makers of gasoline open the industry up to charges of price gouging, industry officials claim that they’re producing as much gas as they can right now.
Industry capacity utilization is running at 94% these days – the highest since 2018 when it hit 97%.
But a recent government report also showed that overall refining capacity has fallen in the last two years.
In fact, it’s now back down to where it was in 2014, meaning that supply will remain hurt even if refineries were to run at 100%.
So, with little chance of bringing new sources of gasoline – domestic or imported – online anytime soon, the administration's best chance to lower prices at the pump in the near term will have to come from leaning on OPEC+ to drill more oil or on refiners to accept smaller profit margins.
That, I predict, will become a growing source of agita for investors in oil companies – and other industries.
Debate is flourishing on Wall Street and at Main Street kitchen tables over the Federal Reserve's fight to lower inflation and how high unemployment will jump as a result.
On the one hand, Fed policymakers believe its rate hikes will eventually drive down strong demand in the economy without causing too much pain in the job market – in other words, a soft landing.
On the other hand, influential economists like Larry Summers say the Fed's ideal outcome hasn't materialized before, and there's no reason to think it will now.
The fight is being debated in various academic papers, but the real stakes for workers and their families are high.
Courtenay Brown and Neil Irwin write today that the issue “is not whether unemployment rises, but by how much as the Fed tightens.”
They believe the crux of the debate is the inverse relationship between unfilled job openings and the unemployment rate.
Other things being equal, as job vacancies rise, unemployment falls and vice versa.
As of May, job openings trended lower but remained near their highest levels ever at 11.3 million.
Plus, the headline unemployment rate is holding near a half-century low (remember, the headline rate is significantly underreported).
The result is an unprecedented 1.9 job openings for each unemployed worker.