Caveat emptor: The first-quarter economy is slowing and inflation is rising. A month ago, economists were optimistic about the potential for 4 percent growth. Now they are marking down their estimates toward 2.5 percent. Behind this, consumer expectations are falling while inflation fears are going up.
A recent CNBC All American Economic Survey revealed that 37 percent of respondents expect the economy to get worse in the next year. That’s up about 15 percentage points from the December poll. The key reasons? Worries over rising food and fuel costs. Respondents anticipate prices to climb 6.6 percent over the next year. That’s double the 3 percent inflation registered in the December survey.
Supporting the CNBC poll, the early March consumer sentiment index from the University of Michigan dropped sharply, with the reading for consumer expectations falling 14 points. Additionally, one-year inflation expectations have risen to 4.6 percent in March from 3.4 percent in February.
Of course, everyone has been badly shaken by the terrible disaster in Japan. For the U.S. economy, supply-chain disruptions will damage growth. Also, the civil war in Libya and the broad unrest across North Africa and the Middle East have fueled a mild oil-price shock, also subtracting from U.S. growth.
So if the economy ending in the March quarter slows to less than 3 percent, it would mark the fourth-straight sub-3 percent GDP reading. Despite the strength in the manufacturing sector and rising corporate profits, that reading would underscore the softness of this recovery cycle.
The main cause of today’s consumer angst is undoubtedly the jump in gasoline prices. Nationwide, the pump price has climbed to $3.55 a gallon, up from $3.16 a month ago and $2.82 a year ago (for a 26 percent one-year jump). The last leg of this gas-price jump can be attributed to the $10 or $12 oil-price spike, resulting from supply worries in the Arab world. But it’s worth noting that gasoline moved from $2.70 to $3.15 just as soon as Ben Bernanke announced his money-pumping QE2 strategy in late August last year.
All things the same, the gasoline price could knock a half percent off growth and add a half percent to inflation. In fact, the consumer price index has registered three consecutive outsized monthly gains, and is running 5.6 percent at an annual rate through the three months to February. This increase is led by a 79 percent increase in gasoline prices and a 5 percent gain in food prices.
But food commodities have jumped 37 percent over the past year. So there’s more coming at the retail price level.