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Consumer Prices Drop 0.1% Unexpectedly in May, Gold Rises

Consumer prices in the US fell for the third month in a row in May, dropping 0.1% after a major 0.8% drop in April according to the Labor Department. The April decline was the largest drop since December 2008. Annually, consumer price inflation (CPI) rose 0.1% in May and 0.3% in April. Economists had forecast no monthly change to consumer prices in May and 0.2% growth annually.

Key Takeaways

  • Consumer price inflation fell 0.1% in May vs. no change expected and 0.8% decline the month before.
  • Annually, CPI rose 0.1% in May vs. 0.2% expected and 0.3% in April.
  • The subdued demand seen throughout the US is a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which has led to store closures, poverty, and cautious spending habits.

Prices fell in the indexes for motor vehicle insurance, energy, and apparel, all of which are industries affected by the pandemic. Travel restrictions have impacted both the cost of oil and the necessity for cars for many new buyers, particularly buyers in lower income brackets. With tens of millions out of work, some Americans are simply more cautious when it comes to buying non-essential items. Gasoline fell 3.5% in May, with energy falling 1.8% overall. Costs for airline fares and used cars and trucks also declined in May.

The declines in the above indexes more than offset smaller increases in the cost of food, more expensive due to disrupted supply chains, and shelter. Food costs rose 0.7% overall, with food consumed at home rising 1.0%. Medical care, household furnishings and operations, and new vehicles all saw increased costs.

The index for all items excluding food and energy fell 1.0% for the third month in a row, falling for the first time ever this year. This index rose 1.2% in the 12 months through May compared to 2.4% growth in the 12 months through February. The index for all items rose 0.1% annually in May. Energy fell 18.9% on an annual basis, while food costs rose 4% annually and food consumed at home rose 4.8%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out in the May CPI report that due to social distancing measures, data was collected remotely where possible, and the sample size for prices was smaller for many segments than usual. It’s possible that the May report was less accurate than previous reports for that reason.

Market Reaction

Gold prices have ticked upward following the news that consumer inflation is lower than estimated. Spot gold last traded at $1,722.04/oz, up 0.38% with a high of $1,724.86/oz and a low of $1,712.07/oz.

While lower inflation under normal circumstances could be bearish for gold, in this case the data indicates that consumers have less demand for non-essential items, and that the extent of the coronavirus recession is still unfolding. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of all US economic activity. The report also makes it more likely that the Federal Reserve will continue its stimulus program, which is certain to contribute to long-term inflationary pressure.