What’s Really Worrying About the Inflation Fears That Hit the Stock Market

Consumer prices rose faster than expected in January, briefly pushing the stock markets as measured by the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial average into the red Wednesday.

Investors took the Core Consumer Price Index’s year-over-year jump of 1.8% in January, compared to the expected 1.7%, as a sign that higher inflation is in the works. The logic goes that the trend of a rising CPI could lead the Fed to ease up on its fiscal stimulus by raising interest rates.

But it isn’t just the thought of potentially more Federal Reserve interest rate hikes that has investors worried—rather, investors today are worried about the Fed raising interest rates despite the fact that consumers are spending less. In doing so, the Fed could encourage even less buying.

“What is impacting S&P futures negatively is not a core CPI number of 1.8% vs 1.7% expected, but the combination of higher CPI and weaker retail sales,” wrote Evercore ISI DeBusschere in a recent note. “It would imply fed tightening even as consumption slows.

But those fears were apparently short lived. The S&P 500 rose 0.3% to 2,671 as of midday trading Wednesday, while the Dow remained flat at 24,640. Potentially, consumers dismissed the January retail figures as a hangover from heavy spending during the holiday season. Moreover, a paradox exists within Wednesday’s figures. Lower retail sales could point to lower inflation—which complicates a decision to raise interest rates.

U.S. retail sales fell roughly 0.3% in the same month that CPI rose on a month-over-month basis, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Economists had expected a rise of about 0.2%.

Market watchers aren’t expecting spending to remain depressed in the long term.

ING Bank Chief International Economist James Knightley said, “We think the softness in retail sales is temporary. With tax cuts, record low unemployment, rising wages, and high confidence levels suggesting the outlook for spending remains good.”

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