Bulls Pause as Inflation Takes a Hike

July 16th, 2021

Markets started the week on a high note, with the S&P 500 hitting another record high during Monday’s trading session. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm was short-lived as investors digested the week’s news. Surging prices for used cars, gasoline, food, and airfares pushed consumer prices higher by 5.40% from year ago levels in June. Producer prices jumped even higher, rising 7.30% year-over-year (yoy). The rapid rise in prices offset a strong start to the Q2 earnings season and an unexpectedly strong consumer spending report. The mixed batch of news forced the bulls to reconsider their recent jubilance as the S&P 500 finished the week down -0.97%.

Consumers Feel the Heat

Main Street is sizzling, and it’s not just from the summer heat. Consumer prices increased 5.40% yoy in June to a 13-year high. Surging used car prices fueled the rise, jumping 45.2% over the last twelve months pushed by strong demand and constraints in new car production supply that would normally result in more used cars hitting the secondary market. The rise in used car prices accounted for a third of the increase in the headline reading. Consumers spent the pandemic buying up cars, RVs, boats and recreational vehicles, and with the busy summer travel season now in full swing, gasoline prices have jumped 45.1% yoy. Core prices, which exclude volatile food and energy, rose 4.50% from the year ago period. That was the largest annual gain since 1991. At the category level, car and truck rental prices led the gains, up an eye-popping 87.7%. Public transportation, which includes airline fares, rose 17.3% – also a record. Away from home lodging, a category that includes hotels, motels and resorts, posted a similar rise of 16.9%. Although the price pressure does lead to some heartburn, the conventional thinking remains that this is a temporary, demand driven event. Early anecdotal evidence of waning demand is starting to be seen in increasing home inventory, particularly in the high-end and second home market, along with recreational boats – the latter of which has been a traditionally reliable metric for euphoric spending. The market’s bet is that this trend will continue as we settle back to pre-Covid patterns.  

Producer Prices Hit 10 1/2 Year High 

Business is booming on the factory floor, pushing prices up 7.30% yoy in June. That was their largest increase in more than 10-1/2 years. Core prices, which exclude food, energy, and trade services, rose at a 5.50% yoy pace. Strong demand for goods coupled with sustained supply chain constraints and low inventory levels have increasingly made it such that producers are being more aggressive in passing the price increases along to consumers — knowing full well that consumers are flush with savings post-Covid. As with CPI, however, relief appears to be in sight with prices in commodities retreating from recent highs. It will take some time for this to ripple through, but the good news is that the impetus of the pricing pressure is starting to abate.

Consumer Sales Shake Off Price Hikes

Prices may be up, but consumers don’t seem to mind. U.S. retail sales rose 0.60% to $621.3 billion in June. That crushed economists’ estimates for a -0.40% slide. June’s sales defied expectations as demand for goods remained strong even as spending shifted back to services. Year-over-year, retail sales were up a robust 18% on delayed, pent-up demand. The month’s rise comes despite a -2.0% drop in new motor vehicle sales caused by a lack of supply resulting from chip shortages. Consumers brushed off the recent price hikes, loading up on furniture, electronics, appliances, sporting goods, and building materials. The service industry also saw strong demand with sales for the restaurant and bar scene up 2.30% for the month. Year-over-year, sales are higher by 40.2%. Excluding autos, gasoline, building materials, and food services, core retail sales were up 1.1% in June. The month’s retail sales results demonstrate the consumer continues to have deep pockets and seems apt to disregard news of inflation — at least for the time being. 

Markets had a lot to digest this week with Q2 earnings season kicking off amid stronger signs of inflation and a solid consumer spending report. Analysts have penciled in a 67.7% yoy increase in earnings for the quarter. Although the figure seems high, it ultimately may prove to be too low. Early results show that 90% of S&P 500 companies that have reported thus far have beat expectations. Given the sharp rise in the S&P 500 over the past 12 months, it is important for companies to continue to beat to justify lofty valuations. Here in the U.S., it is easy to forget that Covid remains a concern, but the pandemic continues to disrupt the global economy. U.S. consumers account for 24% of the world’s total consumption (China is a distant second at 11%). So, it is easy to assume we’re entirely insulated from the ongoing pandemic. The fact is, however, that we are dependent upon intermediary goods from around the world, meaning that the emerging delta variant and its impact on inflation can’t be ignored by markets outright. This might explain why the inflation report dampened enthusiasm on an otherwise strong week of data. 

The Week Ahead

The Q2 earnings season continues. U.S. economic news will be light with existing home sales and housing starts being the highlights of the week. We’ll also check in on eurozone activity with the latest PMI figures. 


The Stars at Night

There are currently more than 60 parks, communities, and reserves across the United States that have been designated as International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries. This distinction is given to areas with very little artificial light that provide ideal conditions for viewing stars and other celestial wonders. High levels of sky glow due to lights from buildings, streetlamps, cars, and other sources of artificial light make it difficult to see more than a handful of stars at night. The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) has been working since 1988 to preserve and protect nighttime environments. Its Dark Sky Park designation recognizes “land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” Since the beginning of this year, a number of new destinations from the west coast to the Eastern seaboard have achieved dark sky certification in the U.S.

The IDA founded the International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) Program in 2001 to encourage communities, parks, and protected areas around the world to preserve dark sites where humans can see planets and stars more clearly. The efforts also help protect wildlife and ecosystems that are adversely affected by artificial light. The International Dark Sky Places Program offers five types of designations:

1. International Dark Sky Communities: Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies.
2. International Dark Sky Parks: Parks are publicly- or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors.
3. International Dark Sky Reserves: Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core.
4. International Dark Sky Sanctuaries: Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile.
5. Urban Night Sky Places: UNSPs are sites near or surrounded by large urban environs whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience in the midst of significant artificial light at night, and that otherwise do not qualify for designation within any other International Dark Sky Places category.

The popularity of astrotourism – traveling to destinations where stargazers can see planets and stars more clearly – has been growing steadily. As a result, the number of municipalities pursuing dark sky ordinances has been on the rise in recent years as a way to capitalize on tourism and to protect the natural night sky. The ordinances require outdoor lighting to be well-shielded, usually pointed down, with low light levels and warm color temperature – all intended to minimize light pollution and preserve the beauty of dark starry nights.          

Here in Texas, a statute regulating upward light emissions was signed in 2011, instructing seven counties around the McDonald Observatory in West Texas to adopt outdoor lighting ordinances. Wimberley, Dripping Springs, and Horseshoe Bay have achieved certification as dark skies communities. Last month, Texas passed additional legislation making it possible for more communities to pursue Dark Sky designations. Many state parks in Texas are designated International Dark Sky Parks, including Enchanted Rock, Copper Breaks, and South Llano River. Big Bend National Park became an International Dark Sky Park in 2012, and Big Bend Ranch State Park achieved the designation in 2017. The two Big Bend parks have a combined area of over one million acres and offer the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states. The stars at night are indeed big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.



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