Why has the Fed stopped raising their interest rates? Because this is the lowest inflation rate for ‘core’ consumption expenditures in three decades, as this FRED graph from 1980 onward portrays.
“We are almost 10 years deep into this expansion and inflation is still not clearly meeting our target,” said Fed Chairman Jerome Powell in the press conference ending last Wednesday’s FOMC meeting. “That’s one of the reasons we are being patient.”
“Despite the lowest unemployment rate since the late 1960s and the fastest increase in wages in a decade,” he continued, “the rate of inflation actually fell slightly in the second half of 2018. Conventional wisdom says that’s not supposed to happen when the labor market is what economists describe as “tight.”
Right, that’s not supposed to habit but regardless, it has put consumers back into the sweet spot of a Goldilocks, not-too-hot, not-to-cold economy with unemployment at a 50-year low and incomes rising at the fastest rate in 10 years, according to MarketWatch. This is not supposed to happen, per conventional wisdom.
Rather than attempting to fathom what “conventional wisdom” means, it’s more productive to understand why the Goldilocks scenario is happening again. Consumers want to spend more with their rising incomes, but the incomes of a majority of consumers aren’t rising fast enough to keep up with production of those goods, which now largely come from other countries that can produce them more cheaply.
Hence Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) continue to fall, in line with more slowly rising personal incomes (for the 99 percent) and inflation. This FRED graph shows that PCE consistently grew at more than 5 percent until 2000, when it began to plunge to as low as -3.7 percent during the Great Recession, and finishing up +2.5 percent in Q4 2018.
This tells us several things. Firstly, most American workers have not yet recovered from the Greatest Recession since the Great Depression, which took WWII to get US out of that funk. So this hasn’t been enough consumption to boost inflation or interest rates, which is why we continue in the 2 percent GDP growth path, and retail sales were punk during the holidays and slow to recover.
And, there was a 35-day government shutdown in December, which further depressed incomes and sales. Retail sales picked up slightly in January, but February isn’t looking so good with sales negative for the second time in 3 months, per the FRED graph.
And lastly, the final revision of Q4 GDP growth dropped to 2.2 percent from its 2.6 percent initial estimate, which has to be another casualty of the stupidest government shutdown ever.
So though inept government policies and the record income equality keep the economy from growing faster, it enables consumers to stay in the game; and keeps the US economy from overheating, which is a good thing, right?
Harlan Green © 2019
Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen