Dan Alpert, a managing partner at Westwood Capital in New York, is one of my favorite sources. He was a life saver on that fateful Sunday night in September 2008 when it seemed the world was ending. He was in the CNN studios doing TV hits about Lehman's impending bankruptcy. I was working that day and he graciously agreed to swing by the CNNMoney newsroom to discuss the chaos with me and some editors and writers over pizza.
His tweet about Friday's disappointing jobs report hits the nail on the head. There is a heavy focus on how jobs growth is stalled and the unemployment rate is still relatively high. But perhaps a bigger concern from a consumer spending standpoint is that those who do have jobs are not able to keep up with the meager pickup in inflation. People that are returning to the workforce may be settling for jobs that don't pay all that well.
If you dig into the jobs report, there's a table showing the average hourly and weekly earnings for private sector workers. Hourly wages rose just 2.1% from March 2011. Weekly earnings are up 2.6% year-over-year ... but they were lower than they were in February. That's not good.
The consumer price figures for March aren't due out until next Friday (the 13th ... beware ladders, black cats and psychos in hockey masks) but according to the February CPI report, prices for "all items" were up 2.9% over the past 12 months. Gas prices accounted for 80% of the monthly jump in the price of all goods in February. And gas prices have continued to rise since then. So it would not be a shock if the year-over-year price change for all items through the end of March is above 3%.
Now the Fed and many economists like to look at core CPI numbers since they strip out the volatile costs of food and energy. The argument is that price hikes tied to commodities can be "transitory." And core CPI is only up 2.2% year-over-year. That's a little big higher than the Fed would like but not uncomfortably so.
However, real people can't exclude eating and driving from their daily life. So unless gas prices head lower soon, the lack of wage growth could be a huge problem for the U.S. economy. With consumers spending more of their paycheck to fill the tank of their car, they may spend less on other "discretionary" items. And that could mean that the current slowdown is only beginning.