Weekly global economic update

What’s happening this week in economics? Deloitte’s team of economists examines news and trends from around the world.

Ira Kalish

United States

US household income and spending fall while inflation is steady

  • When adjusted for inflation, US household income and spending fell slightly from May to April, indicating a weaker beginning to the second quarter of 2024. In addition, the Federal Reserve’s favorite measure of inflation remained steady from May to April, indicating that the recent deceleration of inflation might have stopped. Still, both headline and core inflation are below 3%. With the economy possibly weakening, this likely sets the stage for the Fed to start cutting interest rates in September, which is what investors now expect. Let’s look at the details.

In April, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable personal income fell 0.1% from the previous month. This was likely due, in part, to the sharp slowdown in employment growth from March to April. Indeed, payroll employment grew in April at the slowest pace since October 2023. In addition, consumer spending fell 0.1% from March to April, after having grown at a robust pace in both February and March. Income and spending fell at the same rate as the personal savings rate remained steady at 3.6% of disposable income. 

The real decline in consumer spending involved a 0.1% drop in spending on durable goods, a 0.5% drop in spending on non-durable goods, and a 0.1% increase in spending on services. 

Meanwhile, the government also released data on the Federal Reserve’s favorite measure of inflation, the personal consumption expenditure deflator, or PCE-deflator. First, a word about the difference between the PCE-deflator and the more popular consumer price index (CPI). The CPI measures the changing price of a fixed basket of goods and services, reflecting the direct purchases made by households. The PCE-deflator measures the changing price of a basket that changes according to changing patterns of consumer spending. In addition, the PCE-deflator includes spending for households, regardless of who makes the expenditure—such as employer-paid medical services. The CPI is used to index government benefits and many private sector wage contracts. The PCE-deflator is used by the Federal Reserve to understand inflation trends.

In any event, the PCE-deflator was up 2.7% in April versus a year earlier, the same as in March. The index was up 0.3% from the previous month, the same as in February and March. When volatile food and energy prices are excluded, the core PCE-deflator was up 2.8% in April versus a year earlier, the same as in February and March. The core index was up 0.2% from the previous month, the smallest increase since December. 

Not surprisingly, the remaining inflation largely involves rising service prices. The government reported that prices of durable goods were down 2.2% in April from a year earlier, while prices of non-durable goods were up 1.4%, the biggest gain since December. The latter was likely due to an acceleration in energy prices. Prices of services, however, were up 3.9%, roughly in line with the pattern of the last several months. Naturally, the service number is of most concern to Fed policymakers. After all, services are labor-intensive, the labor market is tight, and wages are rising too fast for comfort.

On the other hand, the Fed has long said that the 2% inflation target is not meant to be a ceiling but rather an average. Thus, if underlying inflation stays below 3%, the Fed will likely be comfortable. Thus, with consumer demand weakening and core inflation staying below 3%, an initial rate cut in September seems reasonable to expect. US bond yields, meanwhile, fell slightly.  

US home prices accelerate

  • US home prices accelerated in March, with prices rising from a year earlier for the ninth consecutive month. The well-known S&P Case Shiller index of home prices in 20 major US cities was up 7.4% in March from a year earlier, the biggest increase since October 2022. Prices were up 1.6% from the previous month, the biggest increase since April 2023. The index is now at an all-time high, 57.4% above the cyclical peak reached in 2006 and 142.5% above the cyclical trough reached in 2012. 

Housing is a collection of local markets, and local market conditions vary. The biggest annual price increases took place in San Diego, New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. The smallest increases took place in Denver, Portland, Dallas, and Tampa. 

Home prices are now rising considerably faster than consumer prices. Thus, homeowners are seeing a real (inflation-adjusted) increase in their housing wealth. Yet many remain reluctant to sell given that many currently pay very low–interest rates on their mortgages. Meanwhile, mortgage rates remain very high. This has created a paucity of supply, contributing to a rise in prices. On the other hand, rising prices will likely stimulate more construction of new homes.  

Eurozone inflation accelerates while the ECB considers its next move

  • In the Eurozone, inflation accelerated slightly in May. The consumer price index rose 2.6% in May versus a year earlier, higher than the 2.4% increase in both February and March. Energy prices rebounded slightly in May after having fallen in the previous month. Food price inflation fell slightly in May. When volatile food and energy prices are excluded, core prices were up 2.9% in May versus a year earlier, higher than the 2.7% in April but the same as in March. 

As previously in the Eurozone and as is true in other Western countries, inflation is highest for services. Prices of services were up 4.1% from a year earlier, up from 3.7% in the previous month and the highest rate of services inflation since October. In part, this acceleration reflected the rebound in energy prices. Meanwhile, non-energy goods prices were up 0.8% in May versus a year earlier, a very low number compared to recent months. The latest data suggests that the deceleration of inflation in the Eurozone has stalled. Still, the numbers are low, below 3%, and the economy remains weak.  

By country, here are the annual inflation rates for May: Prices were up 2.8% in Germany, up 2.7% in France, up 0.8% in Italy, up 3.8% in Spain, up 2.7% in the Netherlands, up 4.9% in Belgium, up 2.3% in Greece, up 3.9% in Portugal, and up 0.5% in Finland. The wide disparity is a challenge for the European Central Bank (ECB). 

  • It appears increasingly likely that the ECB will cut interest rates very soon, becoming the first of the three major Western central banks (the United States, the United Kingdom, Eurozone) to do so. However, several smaller central banks (Switzerland, Sweden, Czechia, and Hungary) have already cut rates this year. The chief economist of the ECB, Philip Lane, said that “barring major surprises, at this point in time there is enough in what we see to remove the top level of restriction.”

Currently, the benchmark interest rate of the ECB is 4%, much higher than the 5.25%–5.5% range for the Federal Reserve’s benchmark rate. Yet in the Eurozone, inflation has fallen faster than in the United States. Moreover, while US economic growth has been strong, growth in the Eurozone has been slow. Thus, it is no surprise that investors are now pricing in a high probability of a rate cut at the next policy committee meeting. 

Meanwhile, although inflation has receded, inflation for services remains too high. Moreover, services tend to be labor-intensive and labor markets in many Eurozone economies are tight. Thus, the ECB is likely concerned about this. Consequently, even if it cuts rates, it might choose to cut them very gradually in the coming months–at least until it is confident that underlying inflation is falling. 

Although the ECB has a single mandate to minimize inflation, it is likely that the committee members have an eye on the health of the overall economy. The fact that the Eurozone just barely avoided recession in 2023 probably contributes to the committee’s calculus. 

Finally, if the ECB cuts rates soon, it will reinforce the weakness of the euro against the US dollar. Still, investors expect a rate cut, and so this is likely already incorporated into currency markets. Only if the ECB cuts rates more quickly than anticipated will it lead to a further decline in the value of the euro. The problem with a weak currency is that it boosts the cost of imported commodities and can feed inflation. On the other hand, a weak currency can boost export competitiveness. 

China’s currency has not yet internationalized

  • China’s government wants China’s currency, the renminbi, to become an important global currency. It wants a large share of global trade to take place in the renminbi and it wants businesses and central banks to hold a large amount of renminbi-denominated assets. Most importantly, it wants these things to reduce its vulnerability to the United States. Because the US dollar is dominant in the world, the United States can utilize the dollar, and levy sanctions on governments that are not aligned to US goals. The sanctions imposed on Russia are an example. In addition, the United States has what has been called an “exorbitant privilege” to borrow money in its own currency, thereby eliminating exchange risk. Moreover, the deep and liquid market for dollar-denominated assets ensures that US borrowing costs are lower than otherwise. China wants to enjoy these benefits given that it is now the second largest economy in the world. 

To this end China has developed currency-swap arrangements with many countries while it has encouraged Chinese companies to transact internationally in renminbi. Yet despite this goal, progress has been slow. Although the share of global trade taking place in renminbi has increased considerably, it remains very low. 

A new survey of companies offers insights into why the renminbi is not more widely used. The Cross-Border Yuan Insight report, produced by China’s Bank of Communications and Renmin University, involved a survey of 1,657 companies of which 71% are private sector Chinese companies, 13% are state-owned enterprises, and 15% are foreign-funded enterprises.  

The survey found that 47.7% of respondents said that a lack of interest in the renminbi on the part of trading partners is the principal reason for the paucity of transactions in renminbi. In addition, 63.8% of respondents noted the “complexity of policies” as a deterrent to transacting in renminbi. Also, 40% cited “compatibility of laws and regulations” and “capital-flow barriers.” Finally, 30% cited “limited investment scope” while 20% cited a lack of hedging tools. 

These numbers confirm what many observers already know, which is that capital controls hamper the ability of China to internationalize its currency. Moreover, capital controls limit the ability of global investors to invest in renminbi. Consider an example: Imagine a farmer in Argentina who exports wheat. If the farmer is asked how he/she wants to be paid for the wheat and is given the choice of US dollars or Chinese renminbi, the answer will most likely be dollars. Why? The answer is that capital controls preclude flexibility. That is, if the farmer takes renminbi and invests in Chinese assets in China, there will be a question as to the ability to liquidate the assets. Plus, it would be difficult to invest renminbi outside of China. None of this would be as true of dollar-denominated assets. 

Thus, the best way for China to internationalize its currency would be to eliminate capital controls. Yet in so doing, it would make the currency vulnerable to considerable volatility. Absent capital controls, China’s central bank would not be able to simultaneously target the value of the currency while maintaining an independent monetary policy. It would have to give up one or the other tool. That is, it could maintain control of monetary policy but might have to contend with sharp currency depreciation. On the other hand, by eliminating capital controls China would likely see a significant rise in renminbi-based transactions.  

Chinese consumers remain cautious

  • One of the reasons for China’s relatively slow economic growth is that household spending is growing slowly. One explanation is that the loss of wealth from declining home prices is likely discouraging people from spending and encouraging them to rebuild their wealth by saving. Another explanation is that people are uncertain about their financial security given problems in the property market and given relatively slow economic growth.

Whatever the reason, a recent survey suggests that consumers remain cautious in their spending plans. A survey conducted by Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, Sichuan province, found that an index of family future spending expectations is now lower than during the early days of the pandemic. Moreover, the index fell from the fourth quarter of 2023 to the first quarter of 2024. The first quarter reading is lower than in the second quarter of 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

The index is a diffusion index in which readings above 100 indicate more people intend to spend more than intend to spend less—and vice versa. The reading in the first quarter of 2024 was 101.9. The survey is based on answers obtained from middle-income households. The survey found that households were especially cautious about purchasing property—not surprising given the state of the Chinese residential property market.


Ira Kalish

United States


Cover image by: Sofia Sergi