The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) hit a trifecta in its March 2 release, “Personal Income and Outlays: January 2015.” As the chart below shows, the first piece of wonderful news was that real disposable personal income (DPI), which is what you have left of your income after taxes and inflation, hit a new record in January of $12.246 trillion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate. That finally eclipsed the old record of $12.214 trillion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate set in December 2012. That old record was an unsustainable outlier at the time, which was caused by many people who had the ability to bring income such as bonuses and special dividends forward to avoid the higher tax rates of 2013, doing exactly that.
Conversely, the January 2015 record was driven by a seasonally adjusted increase of $42.4 billion in wage and salary income from December. That accounted for a very healthy 83.5 percent of the total increase in personal income of $50.8 billion, seasonally adjusted. That strong performance of wages and salaries suggests that, driven by ever-growing employment, disposable personal income will set many more records in 2015 and 2016.
Even more astonishingly, real disposable personal income rose by 0.9 percent in January from December. That was the biggest increase since—you guessed it—the 2.84 percent spurt in December 2012, which was on top of a very strong increase of 1.44 percent in November 2012. Of course, real DPI plunged by 5.9 percent in January 2013, the biggest drop in over 50 years. That is most unlikely to occur this time, as we will see when we get the data for February 2015 on March 30.
This 0.9 percent increase in real DPI in January is even more amazing, because January wages and salaries are hit every year by increases in Social Security taxes on both employees and employers. Every employed person who exceeded the $117,000 taxable maximum in 2014 before December 31 had to start paying again on January 1. This year the tax covers wages and salaries up to $118,500. That change subtracted an additional $7.9 billion in January.
Note the phenomenal growth in real DPI in the previous chart. It is now six times higher than in 1959, triple the 1973-1975 level and double where it was in 1987-1988. It’s up more than 20 percent since 2009. Most countries would be delighted to have such terrific growth in DPI over comparable periods.
The second piece of great news in the report was the fact that real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) set a new record in January of $11.164 trillion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, as shown in the following chart. That was up 0.3 percent from December and a very impressive 3.4 percent from January 2014. Because real PCE makes up by far the largest share of real GDP (68.2 percent in 2014), this strong beginning to 2015 reinforces the consensus forecast that this will be the first year since 2005 to see real GDP growth of 3.0 percent or more.
The third piece of wonderful news was the continued low rate of increase of so-called “core” inflation, the implicit price deflator for PCE less food and energy. The chart below shows how this measure rose in the late 1970s and early 1980s hitting a peak of 4.02 percent in January 1981. It is probably not a coincidence that that was the month when President Reagan took office, as his first official act was to deregulate oil prices. While both energy and food are excluded from this index, the impact of that decision had far-ranging consequences in reducing inflation.
The overall PCE deflator fell 0.5 percent in January from December and was only 0.2 percent above January 2014. That was primarily because “Energy goods and services” registered price declines of 10.4 percent in January from December, and fell a whopping 21.2 percent from January 2014.
This very small increase in the overall PCE deflator made a big contribution to the 0.9 percent jump in real DPI. The rest came from the large increases in nominal income.
This BEA report is one of the best ones we’ve had in many years. It should be followed by much more good news on income and spending by consumers in coming months.
Dr. James F. Smith