HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK
- The second week of 2018 marked another strong performance in equity markets. While the advance did take a breather midweek, the main American stock indices resumed their upward trajectory, rising to new highs. The rally received an added fillip from oil prices, which gained additional ground, thanks in part to a bullish inventory report.
- Economic reports drove in the point that the U.S. economy ended the year on solid footing. Retail sales rose 0.4% m/m in December, while November sales received a healthy upward revision. Fourth quarter consumption growth is now expected to come in at around 3.3% (ann.), which should help propel growth forward by a robust 2.6% at year-end.
- On the inflation front, data out this morning suggests that price pressures appear to be building. Core CPI saw a stronger-than-expected 0.3% m/m increase, which lifted the y/y pace to 1.8%. Altogether, this week’s data helps bolster support for a March rate hike, with two more expected later this year.
Upbeat Data Bolster Case For March Hike
The second week of 2018 marked another strong performance in equity markets. Tax reform and upbeat economic data helped support investor sentiment. Markets hiccupped temporarily mid-week on renewed concerns about NAFTA, and an unsubstantiated report that senior Chinese officials have recommended slowing or halting the purchase of U.S. Treasuries. The main American stock indices shrugged off these concerns, and resumed their upward trajectory to new highs. The rally received an added fillip from higher oil prices, thanks in part to a bullish inventory report.
Economic reports reinforced the view that the U.S. economy ended the year on solid footing, setting the stage for robust momentum heading into 2018. Retail sales rose 0.4% m/m in December, while November received a healthy upward revision to 0.9% from 0.8% previously. Gains were broad based, with strength seen in categories such as building material, food & beverage, and non-store retailers. Considering these data, fourth quarter consumption growth is expected to come in at around 3.3% (annualized), which should help real GDP growth advance by a solid 2.6% at year-end.
Complementing strong consumer spending, small business owners remained upbeat. Although confidence pulled back slightly in December, the reading remained at historically high levels. Moreover, the recent upbeat trend in optimism has been accompanied by the increased difficulty in finding qualified workers (Chart 1). Given the tightness in the labor market, businesses will need to boost worker compensation in order to attract and retain talent. They will have an improved ability to do so thanks to tax reform which will lower some of the tax burden. This narrative, corroborated by an upward trend in the share of small businesses planning to raise compensation, provides additional comfort with regards to our inflation outlook.
On that note, inflation data out this morning suggests that price pressures appear to be falling into place. While headline inflation was held back by declining energy prices, recording only a modest uptick, the more important aspect of the report was that core CPI saw a stronger-than-expected 0.3% m/m increase, buoyed by gains in shelter costs, healthcare-related costs and vehicle prices. This nudged up the y/y pace of core inflation to 1.8% in December (Chart 2). The lack of price pressures has long puzzled the Fed, holding back the pace of interest rate normalization. But, this week’s data is consistent with a Fed that is likely to hike this March and twice more in 2018.
The potential for overheating, given the combined impact of fiscal stimulus and a tight labor market, may necessitate a slightly faster pace of hikes. But for now, we views risks for three hikes in 2018 as roughly balanced. For instance, the fact that core inflation has remained in the 1.7 to 1.8% range for the past eight months makes one month of strong data not very reassuring. Strength was also concentrated in a few key categories, which may not prove sufficient to buoy inflation on a sustained basis. A radical makeover of the Fed, which has a number of vacancies, along with the possibility of a government shutdown as early as next week, pose additional downside risks.
Admir Kolaj, Economist
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