I expect Tuesday’s Consumer Price Index report for October to be critical in determining whether the Christmas rally narrative can be sustained.
Right now, short-term, stocks look like they want to move higher. That trend is built on a narrative that says, the economy is slowing enough and interest rates (including in the bond market) are high enough so that the Federal Reserve is done with raising interest rates for this cycle. And, the narrative continues, the Fed will start to cut interest rates in June.
That story has been good for a 6% gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 from the October lows.
All the narrative needs to keep going and to produce a Christmas rally is for real world data to fall into line with the consensus sentiment.
Or, of course, there’s the possibility that the real world won’t confirm the consensus. Although I wouldn’t count on a mild disagreement with the consensus having the power to force a revision of the current sentiment.
We’ll get the first dose of real world data with the potential to confirm or contradict the consensus view on Tuesday, November 14, with the release of the October report on the Consumer Price Index. Right now economists forecast a 0.1% month-to-month increase in headline, all-items inflation. On a year to-year basis the Nowcast forecast from the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank is looking for a headline annual rate of 3.28%. On a month to month basis economists project a 0.3% increase in the core rate. On a year-over-year basis economists project the core inflation rate, which strips out prices for food and energy, will increase by 4.1%.
If headline inflation comes in at 3.28% it would be a huge drop from the 3.7% annual rate in September. The drop is likely because of a big decline in energy prices in the month. Oil prices are down 20% from their September highs and much of that drop came in October.
The market has a tendency to react to the headline inflation rate, even though everyone knows that the number Fed cares about is the core rate. If the CPI headline rate comes in as projected, the drop from 3.7% to 3.28% would be enough to keep the consensus scenario in place and might even give it a substantial boost. Which would keep the rally from the October lows running.
The core rate isn’t likely to be as favorable to the consensus scenario–4.1% is still just too high for it to guarantee that the Fed won’t increase rates one more time or that it will begin to cut rates in June.
But there is the possibility that the core rate will come in under the currently projected 4.1%. And a surprise there, even if it is a statistically insignificant one, would likely be enough to add fuel to the rally fire.
Why might the core rate surprise by coming in below projections?
Increases in housing prices, which have a huge weight in the CPI, have slowed. The latest Case-Shiller Home price index with data from August showed prices up 2.6% year over year. Looking at rental prices with more recent data, the national average fell in October at a 1.2% annual rate. In September, the CPI still reflected a 7.4% annual increase in housing prices.
The market is almost certain to ignore the Fed’s recent focus on what is sometimes called the super-core services rate of inflation which strips out housing prices (among other “goods” prices) to look at the inflation rate in just the service sector. (Where prices have been slower to come down than in the goods sector.)
All in all, I’d have to conclude, there’s a good chance that we’ll get a positive surprise in Tuesday’s CPI inflation report. (Or at least in the way that the financial market has traditionally looked at this inflation report.)
And that would be enough to keep the rally going for a few more days. Until the market decides to react or not react to what seems like an ever more likely government shutdown on November 18.