On a day when the investment community received data on housing starts and building permits for the month of January, we also learned that producer (wholesale) prices for the same month rose modestly. Specifically, the Department of Labor reported that the Producer Price Index for finished goods increased 0.2%.
A closer examination shows that the nominal increase in finished goods prices was led by the index for finished consumer foods, which rose 0.7%. This was a stark contrast to the 0.8% decline recorded in December. The advance was led by a 39% jump in prices for fresh and dry vegetables, likely the product of last summer’s drought in the Midwest. Increases in the indexes for soft drinks and for candy were also behind the uptick in prices for finished consumer goods. Going forward, this metric bears watching, as higher prices for essential foods items could reduce the amount of income individuals have at their disposal for discretionary items (i.e., big-ticket purchases and vacations). This problem could be compounded by lower take home pay for Americans following the increase of payroll taxes in January.
However, there were bright spots too in the latest producer prices data. Specifically, prices for energy goods fell 0.4%, the fourth consecutive monthly decline. Meanwhile, the index for “core” finished goods—less the two aforementioned volatile components—advanced a rather tame 0.2%. Overall, prices for finished goods advanced 1.4% for the 12 months ended January, 2013, compared with a 4.1% advance in 2011.
The latest report is both a good and bad snapshot of current economic conditions. On the negative side, the data suggest that economic growth in this country is proceeding at a pedestrian pace right now, which is not surprising given the recent uninspiring data on retail sales and employment. Conversely, the nominal increase in prices suggests that inflation is not a big issue for the central bank at this moment and is more evidence why Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has not put the brakes on the lead bank’s aggressive bond-buying program. The Fed remains committed to monthly purchases of $45 billion in Treasuries, in an effort to keep the economy on a growth path.
The tame inflationary environment—the rate of inflation is still in the Federal Reserve’s desired rate of 2% or below—also allows the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates at record lows. It’s more ammunition for the Fed to continue its accommodative monetary policies, with its main focus on making a notable dent in the nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, which currently stands at 7.9%. Our sense is that the low interest-rate environment may be in place until at least the early stages of 2015, if the lead bank’s intermediate-term goal is to reduce the unemployment rate to around 6.5%.
All in all, the latest wholesale pricing data reinforces the Federal Reserve’s desire to keep its accommodative monetary policies in place. Investors should note that we will receive the Labor Department’s companion report on consumer prices at 8:30 AM (EST) tomorrow.