Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Feb 29, 2024

Making Sense of Confusing Economic Data


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I’m Matthew Hornbach, Morgan Stanley’s Global Head of Macro Strategy. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, today I'll talk about what investors should take away from recent economic data. 

It's Thursday, February 29, at 4pm in New York.

There’s been a string of confusing US inflation reports recently, and macro markets have reacted with vigor to the significant upside surprises in the data. Before these inflation reports, our economists thought that January Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation, or PCE inflation, would come at 0.23 per cent for the month. 

On the back of the Consumer Price Index inflation report for January, our economists increased their PCE inflation forecast to 0.29 per cent month-over-month. Then after the Producers’ Price Index, or PPI inflation report, they revised that forecast even higher – to 0.43 per cent month-over-month. Today, core PCE inflation actually printed at 0.42 per cent - very close to our economists’ revised forecast.

That means the economy produced nearly twice as much inflation in January as our economists thought it would originally. The January CPI and PPI inflation reports seem to suggest that while inflation is off the record peaks it had reached, the path down is not going to be smooth and easy. 

Now, the question is: How much weight should investors put on this data? The answer depends on how much weight Federal Open Market Committee participants place on it. After all, the way in which FOMC participants reacted to activity data in the third quarter of 2023 – which was to hold rates steady despite encouraging inflation data – sent US Treasury yields sharply higher.

Sometimes data is irrational. So we would take the recent inflation data with a grain of salt. Let me give you an example of the divergence in recent data that’s just that – an outlying number that investors should treat with some skepticism. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, calculates two measures of rent for the CPI index: Owner’s equivalent rent, or OER, and rents for primary residences. Both measures use very similar underlying rent data. But the BLS weights different aspects of that rent data differently for OER than for rents.

OER increased by 0.56 per cent month-over-month in January, while primary residence rents increased 0.36 per cent month-over-month. This is extremely rare. If the BLS were to release the inflation data every day of the year, this type of discrepancy would occur only  twice in a lifetime – or every 43 years.

The confusing nature of recent economic data suggests to us that investors should interpret the data as the Fed would. Our economists don't think that recent data changed the views of FOMC participants and they still expect a first rate cut at the June FOMC meeting. 

All in all, we suggest that investors move to a neutral stance on the US treasury market while the irrationality of the data passes by.

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Our Global Macro Strategist explains the complex nature of recent U.S. economic reports, and which figures should matter most to investors.