Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Life is Good Without a Car or Food

Is there or is there not an inflation problem in the U.S. economy? Anyone who buys gasoline knows inflation is rampant. Filling up the average sized gas tank costs about $50 these days. Just a few years ago you would have needed only about $30. Food prices are also way up. Even Starbucks is complaining that high dairy prices are pinching profit margins.

Yet Fed officials and most economists say inflation is not so bad because they prefer to focus on core inflation. In other words, they want to know how much prices are rising if we exclude gasoline and food. They believe gasoline and food prices are just too volatile to provide a meaningful measure of inflation, so they simply ignore them.

But investors are waking up to the fact that gasoline and food really matter. Consumers know these items are taking a bigger and bigger bite out of their paychecks. The effects are starting to show as consumer spending becomes strained. For example, Wal-Mart has been complaining for some time about higher gasoline prices weakening their customers' purchasing power. It turns out some of those customers are making up for this by resorting to the 5-finger discount. Wal-Mart is getting fed up with the increased levels of shoplifting activity it is seeing, so it announced plans to be more aggressive about prosecuting violators.

In the meantime the housing market continues to implode and foreclosures keep rising. Even S&P and Moody's have finally figured out that sub-prime mortgages are indeed risky. Housing prices are falling nationwide. Of course, the high-end of the market will probably fare well. But average prices are likely to fall enough to put some homeowners in a negative equity position.

As for jobs, so far so good. The economy is still creating jobs and the unemployment rate remains low. Nonetheless, incomes are not doing so hot. According to the Commerce Department, inflation-adjusted incomes actually fell in May. Of course, that's using overall inflation, which includes those volatile gasoline and food prices. Those of you who are lucky enough not to have to drive or eat, well it turns out you're doing pretty well!