(What’s Left of) Our Economy: That New Wholesale U.S. Inflation Report was Underwhelming, Too.

This morning saw the release of another official report on U.S. inflation that apparently everyone except me loves. It dealt with wholesale prices – what businesses charge each other to turn out the goods and service they wind up selling to their final customers. Therefore, they tend greatly to influence consumer prices down the line. And my lack of enthusiasm stems largely from the same kind of baseline considerations that bugged me about the latest consumer inflation release that delighted so many.

Not that baseline considerations weren’t my only problem with this latest read on the Producer Price Index (PPI), which covered October.

The strongest reasons for PPI optimism came from the monthly results of core PPI – which strips out food and energy prices supposedly because they change for reasons having little or nothing to do with the economy’s underlying vulnerability to inflation. (Unlike the official consumer price figures, this measure of core inflation also excludes the numbers for a category called trade services.)

October’s headline sequential core producer price increase was 0.17 percent. It was the weakest pace since July’s 0.16 percent, and revisions were big and positive for both September and August. (i.e., they went down.) Moreover, the recent monthly PPI increases are a far cry from those earlier in the year, when they peaked at 0.95 percent in March.

The story wasn’t as encouraging for the monthly headline PPI results. October’s 0.22 percent rise was only the slowest since August, when wholesale prices dipped 0.05 percent. And revisions were minimal. That means that the PPI is now up two months in a row after declining for two straight months. So where does the momentum lie? That’s not entirely clear to me.

And the year-on-year results impressed me even less because the comparisons with the previous year make clear that on this basis, producer inflation has lots of momentum.

Take core PPI. October’s annual increase of 5.38 percent was not only a nice step down from September’s downwardly revised 5.61 percent. It was the most sluggish pace since May, 2021’s 5.25 percent. But between the previous Mays, prices had actually sagged by 0.18 percent – because of the economy’s big CCP Virus-induced downturn. So the May, 2020-2021 number looked to me like nothing more than a return to normal (and in fact, such considerations convinced me for many months that recent price increases would indeed be transitory).

But the October annual PPI increase was coming off an October, 2020-21 spurt of 6.26 percent. By contrast, when annual PPI crested this year, at 7.11 percent in March, the baseline figure was just 3.15 percent – only about half as high. That tells me that businesses last month believed they still had plenty of (inflationary) pricing power despite their great success in charging their customers much more over the previous twelve months.

The headline annual results look very similar, with one notable exception. The October yearly PPI increase of 7.97 percent was both much lower than September’s downwardly revised 8.44 percent and the best such result since July, 2021’s 7.83 percent. But as with the core PPI figures, that increase was coming off a pandemic-y wholesale price decrease of 0.17 percent between the previous Julys.

And when headline annual PPI inflation topped out this year (so far) at 11.67 percent in March, that increase followed an annual rise between the previous Marchs of 4.06 percent. The latest October annual increase follows an October, 2020-21 jump of 8.90 percent – more than twice as high. So that’s another sign that businesses remain awfully confident about their pricing power – and that companies that supply consumers will be faced with major cost increases for months to come.

Moreover, as I’ve pointed out, those consumers still have lots of money to spend, and will receive more in the near-term future. So it’s likely that they’ll keep paying up for the time being however much they may grumble. Until serious signs appear that they’re getting tapped out, keep expecting inflation to stay alarmingly high, too. 

P.S. The next official U.S. inflation report comes out December 1, and it’s the Federal Reserve’s favorite measure of consumer price trends.  Stay tuned!