The FOMC Won’t Blink

February 1, 2023

Inflation May Not Be Dead Yet

As expected and discussed in the January Macro Tides the December Consumer Price Index (CPI) dropped below 7.0% falling to 6.5% from 7.1% in November. The takeaway value from December 2021 was -0.58% and the month over month change was -0.1%. As you can see the largest contributor to the decline in annual inflation was the subtraction of -0.58%. The -0.1% decline from November in December was eye catching since it was the first monthly decline since May 2020. The primary reason for the dip was a huge decline in oil and gas prices during December. Oil was down -9.2% and Gas fell -9.4%, and based on their weights in the CPI (oil 4.05% - Gas 3.95%), contributed -.768% to the -0.1% drop. If it weren’t for the outsized declines in energy, the monthly change for the CPI would have been 0.6%, and the annual change would have risen to 7.2% instead falling to 6.5%. The large unexpected drop in the headline CPI reinforced the bullish Wall Street narrative that the FOMC will be able to stop increasing the Funds rate sooner and begin lowering it the second half of 2023.

This bullish narrative may encounter a speed bump in January since energy prices have ticked higher with Gas prices leading the charge. The correlation between Gas Buddy’s national gas prices and the CPI’s measurement of gas prices is not perfect but helpful. In December the price of a gallon of regular gas decline by -9.0% according to Gas Buddy (3.43-3.05), which is a bit less than the CPI’s fall of -9.4%. Since the end of December Regular Gas is up 13.7% as of January 31. WTI crude oil futures are up slightly in January, so it’s unlikely they will be lower in the January CPI report due out on February 14. Rather than declining by -0.1% as in December, the monthly change for January could easily be 0.3% or higher based on the increase from gas. Wall Street probably won’t like that since it would show that inflation isn’t continuing to drop in a straight line manner. An increase of 0.3% won’t however prevent the annual headline CPI from falling more, since the takeaway value for January 2022 is -0.65%.The sharp decline in the CPI in the last few months surprised Wall Street. The speculation that the FOMC has already won the battle against inflation was fueled by the absolute -0.1% decline in the monthly CPI. A modest increase in monthly inflation in January will weaken the ‘inflation battle is over’ narrative and support the FOMC’s plan to increase the Funds rate to 5.0% - 5.25%.

There is a good chance that the increase in gas prices may persist in coming months based on the 3-2-1 Crack Spread. The 3:2:1 crack spread is a very helpful indicator of how tight the oil market is. Higher spreads mean the market doesn’t have enough fuel, while low spreads indicate an abundance of supply. Since late December the Spread has increased from less than $30.00 to $44.00, which indicates that the oil market is tightening up for refined products like gasoline. If the refinery capacity to produce gasoline is reduced, the Spread will increase further and lift gas prices. According to refining intelligence firm IIR Energy, at least 15 oil refineries plan on closing in coming months from 2 to 11 weeks for maintenance. When the Spread soared to $60 in June 2022, many refineries postponed maintenance in order to capture profits due to the level of the Spread. That option is less attractive now and refineries need to close for maintenance or risk damage to expensive equipment. By mid-February closures will lower output by 1.4 million barrels a day, which is double the 5 year average. Nine more refineries plan to closing during the spring, so the upward pressure on the Spread and on gas prices is likely to intensify going into the summer driving season. With refinery capacity expected to drop in the next few months, gas prices will likely move higher, even if oil prices decline as economic growth stumbles. And if oil prices move up, the impact on gas prices will be magnified due to lower refining production. It’s possible that energy prices may pose more than just a one month speed bump for inflation.