Still No Pressure on Consumer Prices from Tariffs

WILBUR-ROSS Campbell Soup

The tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on steel, aluminum, and imports from China have not taxed American consumers.

The Labor Department said Wednesday that its Consumer Price Index was flat last month and consumer prices are up just 2.2 percent compared with a year ago. That’s a deceleration of price pressure from October when prices were up 2.5 percent compared with the prior year.

Excluding volatile food and energy doesn’t change the picture very because core inflation was also very low. Core CPI climbed just 0.2 percent for the month and is up 2.2 percent from a year ago. That is in-line with October’s 2.1 percent and September’s 2.2 percent 12-month increases.

Wages are rising. After adjusting for inflation, average hourly earnings rose a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent in November compared with the prior month. Compared with a year ago, average hourly earnings rose 0.8 percent. But the average workweek declined in November, so average weekly earnings were up just 0.1 percent compared with October and 0.5 percent compared with a year ago.

Prices of most items subject to the metals and China tariffs, however, either declined or advanced on pace with or slower than inflation and wages. In other words, prices for most tariff impacted items fell in inflation-adjusted terms. Only major appliance and vehicle part prices show any evidence of tariff pressure.

Steel and Aluminum Consumer Goods

Take the price of soup and beer. Breitbart News has been closely following the prices of soup and beer ever since Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confronted critics of tariffs back in March on CNBC while holding up a can of Budweiser and a can of Campbell’s soup. The prices of these items, Ross argued, would hardly be affected at all by the 10 percent tariff on aluminum. Critics had argued that the rising the price of the metal would win up pinching consumers by raising prices in the grocery aisle.

The price of soup rose 0.3 percent in November and is up 0.5 percent compared with a year ago. This appears to be a volatile category on a monthly basis, thanks in part to seasonal adjustments. Without adjustments, soup prices rose just 0.3 percent from October.

The price of beer consumed at home rose 0.3 percent for the month and is up 1.2 percent compared with a year ago.

There was a little more pricing pressure on beer consumed in bars and restaurants, which is notable because the price of beer kegs has reportedly gone up because of the aluminum tariffs. But the increase is just 2.6 percent compared with 12 months ago, not much ahead of broader prices. For the month, the price of beer consumed outside of the home was up 0.6 percent after being flat the month prior.

Prices on canned fruits and vegetables, another category of consumer goods that was widely predicted to see prices rise because of increased aluminum costs, fell a seasonally adjusted 0.7 percent in November. That is the second consecutive monthly decline. (On an unadjusted basis, prices fell much more, registering a 2.4 percent decline. So the seasonal adjustment here is pretty steep.) Compared with a year ago0, these prices are up just 1.7 percent.

Car and truck prices also show no signs of tariff-driven inflation. The price of a new car rose a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent in November and is up just 0.8 percent for the year. That’s another deceleration in price gains, down from a 1.2 percent 12-month gain the prior month. The price of new trucks was flat in November after falling in the previous two months.  Compared with a year ago, truck prices are down 0.1 percent.

Consumer Technology and Other Imports

Many of the categories of consumer goods that are largely manufactured abroad also saw steep declines.

Tools and hardware defied the “tariffs are taxes on consumers” narrative. Prices on these fell 0.1 percent following a 0.4 percent in October. Compared with a year ago, tools and hardware prices are down 0.3 percent.

The cost of televisions fell again in November, dropping by a seasonally adjusted 1.5 percent. This is the fourth consecutive monthly decline for televisions. Compared with a year ago, television prices are off 18.1 percent, even further down than the October year over year decline of 17.8 percent. This steep drop may reflect sluggishness in the housing market since a lot of television sales accompany home purchases.

The price of personal computers fell 1.8 percent and is down 5.1 percent for the year. Software prices are down 2.1 percent for the year after rising 0.4 percent in November. Phone prices fell  again, for at least the third consecutive month, and are now down 8.1 percent compared with a year ago.

Prices did climb a seasonally adjusted 0.9 percent for major appliances in November, up from the 0.5 percent gain in October. That could be evidence that either the metals tariffs or the China tariffs are creating some upward pressure on prices. But seasonal adjustment drove much of that gain because on an unadjusted basis, major appliance prices fell 2.4 percent. For the year, major appliances prices are up 10.1 percent.

Keep in mind that the annual gain in appliances is largely driven by the climb in the price of laundry equipment, which in turn was driven by a specific anti-dumping tariff imposed in January intended to drive up the price from artificially depressed levels. Prices of washing machines are up 15.5 percent compared with a year ago.

Made in China 2018

The tariffs on Chinese-made goods also do not seem to have had much of an effect on consumer prices. Initially, these applied to $50 billion of imports from China and were largely focused on technology goods. In late September, however, the China tariffs were broadened to cover a wide array of consumer goods.

The prices of furniture and bedding, one of the largest categories of China-made imports, fell 0.6 percent in November and are up just 0.8 percent annually. Toys, another big import category, saw prices fall 0.9 percent in November. For the year, toy prices are down 10.4 percent. Sports equipment prices fell rose 0.6 percent in November, a reversal of several months of declining prices. Compared with a year ago, sports equipment prices are down 3.6 percent.

Clothing prices fell a seasonally adjusted 0.9 percent in November and are down 0.4 percent compared with a year ago. Footwear prices rose just 0.1 percent for the month and are down 0.5 percent from a year ago.

Auto parts prices have not risen sharply. On a year over year basis, auto parts are up 2.1 percent and rose 0.3 percent in November. Excluding tires, however, auto parts are up a steeper 3.6 percent. And these prices rose both in October and November. This could reflect the metals or China tariffs or both. But the storms that flooded some areas of the South also likely played a role, pushing up demand for parts as consumers repaired storm-damaged cars. Evidence for storm-driven pricing on parts comes from the fact that used car prices were also up sharply in October and November, almost certainly because consumers had to replace damaged cars.
Whatever the cause, this is hardly a tariff apocalypse for car parts: it is only 1.4 percentage points above inflation.

So with all these prices falling or rising by less than inflation, where is the 2.2 percent gain in prices coming from? Mostly, from services and other sectors not subject to tariffs. Prices of services rose 2.9 percent compared with a year ago. Haircuts and other personal care services rose 3.4 percent. Gardening and lawn care is up 8.7 percent. Legal services up 6.4 percent. The price of fresh biscuits, muffins, and rolls–yes, this a real category tracked by the Department of labor–was up 3.4 percent. Cupcake prices rose 3.2 percent.

The rise in these prices very likely reflects the tightness of the labor market due to very low unemployment.

The consumer price data released on Wednesday largely confirmed the evidence from producer price data released Tuesday that showed higher costs due to tariffs were not being passed on to consumers.

Tariffs may raise some consumer prices next year. But several months into our the Trump administration’s tariff program, the evidence is conclusive: tariffs have not squeezed the U.S. consumer.


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