News of the Day

Consumer Prices Rose at Slightly Slower Rate in April, New Data Shows

Consumer prices grew at slower yearly and monthly rates in April, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, the Federal Reserve’s preferred gauge of inflation, rose 6.3 percent in the 12 months ending in April, down from a 6.6 percent annual inflation rate in March.

The index rose 0.2 percent in April alone, well below the 0.9 percent monthly gain from March.

Inflation may have reached its peak earlier in the year as rising interest rates, shifting consumer spending habits and deepening concern about the global economy begin to weigh on price growth. Even so, the annual inflation rate remains close to four-decade highs and well above the Fed’s ideal level of 2 percent annual price growth.

Consumers also powered through rising prices to increase their spending overall, even as their disposable income flattened out last month. Personal consumption expenditures, a measure of consumer spending, rose 0.9 percent in April and 0.7 percent when adjusting for inflation. While disposable personal income rose 0.3 percent, the gain was wiped out after adjusting for inflation.

Americans also reduced their savings in April as they continued to spend amid high inflation. Households saved 4.4 percent of their disposable income last month, the lowest rate since September 2008, according to the BEA.

DATCP Continues to Waive Fee for Agricultural Chemical Cleanup Program Fund

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) will continue to waive the fee for the Agricultural Cleanup Program (ACCP). The fee holiday will extend through June 2023 for fertilizer sales and through the 2022-23 license year for other licensees.

The surcharge is based on the level of the ACCP fund on May 1 of each year, when DATCP is required to review the program funds. The fee holiday first took effect in 2018. ​Fertilizer and pesticide businesses normally pay this fee when renewing their license, and farmers pay it when purchasing fertilizer. The fee goes into the ACCP fund to help pay for cleaning up agrichemical spills. When the fund remains above $1.5 million, DATCP can waive the fee.

This will be the fourth year in a row fertilizer dealers will omit the ACCP surcharge from their customers’ bills. It is the fifth year that pesticide and fertilizer businesses, commercial pesticide applicators, and pesticide manufacturers will not have to pay it as part of their license fees.

For more information about the ACCP fund and surcharges, visit https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/ACCPFundSurcharges.aspx.

The Alliance: Study Ranks Wisconsin as 4th Most Expensive State for Hospital Prices

In round four of the RAND Hospital Price Transparency Study, we see the same message confirmed again from the last round: hospital prices remain high.  Prices paid to hospitals during 2020 by employers and private insurers for both inpatient and outpatient services averaged 224% of what Medicare would have paid, with Wisconsin averaging 307%. 

This point is especially important as premiums and deductibles have outpaced wages over the last decade.  One key driver of the price increases was demonstrated in the study to be market share and the impact of market consolidation which explains 7% of the variation in costs. And The Rand study shows that this provider consolidation does not lead to better quality. 

“High health care prices hurt us all, and this should be a call to action for employers and willing providers to work together to make health care more affordable. High health care prices are a drag on the economy, negatively impacting business growth and employee wages,” said Cheryl DeMars, President and CEO of The Alliance. “What’s more, we know that consumers avoid or delay needed care due to concerns about the cost. This has to change.”

 In addition to overall spend, the study included information on the price differences based on the site of service to better understand the importance of where an individual gets care. “We’ve long known the importance of the site of care and regularly utilize data to help our employers guide their employees to the best place of care at the best price.  We believe this study provides even more valuable data to help our employers with their benefit plan designs to be good fiduciary sponsors – and to help The Alliance better negotiate with willing providers to pay a fair price and make healthcare more affordable for everyone,” said Dr. Melina Kambitsi, Senior Vice President of Business Development and Strategic Marketing.

The RAND Hospital Price Transparency Study round four includes information from more than 4,000 hospitals in 49 states and Washington D.C. from 2018 to 2020.  It expands and refines earlier research by RAND on the topic. The analysis includes facility and professional claims for inpatient and outpatient services provided by Medicare-certified short-stay hospitals and other facility types. And for the first time, the analysis also includes more than 4,000 ambulatory surgical centers, which are free-standing facilities that perform outpatient surgical services.

Defendants who Delay can Lose their Chance to Arbitrate, Supreme Court Rules in 9-0 Decision

The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled against a fast-food franchise owner in a procedural dispute over whether a wage-theft lawsuit belongs in federal court or in arbitration. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion in Morgan v. Sundance, Inc.

Plaintiff Robyn Morgan worked at a Taco Bell franchise owned by Sundance. When she came to believe that some of Sundance’s pay practices violated federal wage-and-hour law, she filed a class action lawsuit against the company.

However, the job application that Morgan completed before Sundance hired her contained a clause that committed her to resolve any future disputes with the company in individual arbitration. In previous cases, the court has held that such clauses are typically enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. The question in this case was whether that still holds true if the company waits to demand arbitration. The court held that defendants can lose their chance to arbitrate if they wait too long.

When a plaintiff who is subject to an arbitration agreement files a lawsuit in court, the defendant usually seeks to move the case to arbitration without delay. But this case was unusual: Sundance waited for eight months, during which time the parties began to litigate the case and also discussed settlement. The district court concluded that Sundance had waived its right to arbitrate because its actions had prejudiced Morgan, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit disagreed.

On Monday, the justices reversed the 8th Circuit. Kagan wrote that the FAA does not authorize “special, arbitration-preferring procedural rules” like the one the 8th Circuit created.

Electric Grid Monitor Warns of U.S. Blackouts in ‘Sobering Report’

The central and upper Midwest, Texas and Southern California face an increased risk of power outages this summer from extreme heat, wildfires and extended drought, the nation’s grid monitor warned yesterday.

In a dire new assessment, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) described regions of the country pushed closer than ever toward energy emergencies by a combination of climate change impacts and a transition from traditional fossil fuel generators to carbon-free renewable power.

NERC’s analysis examined the potential punch of extreme weather, which may wreak havoc on everything from reduced hydropower to transmission lines brought down by wildfires. Grid operators are dealing with an increasing reliance on intermittent resources like wind and solar as coal units retire and the reliability and emissions of gas resources comes under scrutiny. How the summer unfolds also may have political ramifications, as it could affect public support for President Joe Biden’s push to decarbonize the U.S. grid by 2035.

The NERC report also highlighted what it called an increased, urgent hazard to grid operations from the electronic controls that link wind and solar farms to high-voltage grid networks. The devices, called power inverters, must be programmed to “ride through” short-term disturbances, such as the loss of a large power plant or high-voltage line, but too often they are not, Moura said. Those that shut down compound stress on the grid, he added in a briefing yesterday.

The report cited incidents in May and June of last year when the Texas system was hit with widespread solar farm shutdowns, followed by similar outages in California between June and August. The unexpected events disrupted traditional power plants, interfered with grid recovery operations and caused some outages of customer-owned power units, NERC said.

U.S. Existing Home Sales Fall for Third Straight Month

U.S. existing home sales dropped to the lowest level in nearly two years in April as house prices jumped to a record high amid a persistent lack of inventory.

Existing home sales fell 2.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.61 million units last month, the lowest level since June 2020 when sales were rebounding from the COVID-19 lockdown slump. It was the third straight monthly sales decline.

Home resales, which account for the bulk of U.S. home sales, declined 5.9% on a year-on-year basis.

The bulk of April’s sales were likely closings on contracts signed one to two months ago before mortgage rates started their rapid ascent. A further decline in sales is likely as contracts decreased for the fifth straight month in March.

The median existing house price shot up 14.8% from a year earlier to an all-time $391,200 in April. The median house price surged 22% in the South, which had seen a rapid rise in sales as Americans moved from other regions.

Sales remained concentrated in the upper-price end of the market amid a paucity of entry-level houses.

There were 1.03 million previously owned homes on the market, down 10.4% from a year ago.

Supply is likely to remain tight. The government reported on Wednesday that building permits for single-family housing, the largest segment of the housing market, tumbled to a six-month low in April.

At April’s sales pace, it would take 2.2 months to exhaust the current inventory of existing homes, down from 2.3 months a year ago. A six-to-seven-month supply is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.

Properties typically remained on the market for 17 days, unchanged from the prior month and a year ago. Eighty-eight percent of homes sold in April were on the market for less than a month. First-time buyers accounted for 28% of sales. All-cash sales made up 26% of transactions.

Retail Sales Rose 0.9% in April

Retail sales rose 0.9 percent in April as a rebound in automobile sales and a pickup in dining powered another monthly increase in consumer spending, according to data released Tuesday by the Census Bureau.

Sales by retailers, restaurants and bars totaled $677.7 billion in April, according to the Census Bureau, up from a revised March total of $671.6 billion. Retail sales are adjusted for seasonal spending pattern changes, but not for inflation.

Economists expected retail sales to rise 1 percent last month after auto dealers reported a sharp pickup in sales and restaurant activity rose in April. Both were key drivers of the April increase in retail sales, which has steamed ahead despite inflation hitting an annual rate of 8.3 percent last month, according to Labor Department data.

Sales by restaurants and bars rose 2 percent in April, in line with a 1.9 percent monthly increase in March. Retail sales minus auto dealers and auto parts shops rose by 0.6 percent in April, and retail sales without the food and beverage industry rose 0.7 percent.

“These broad increases reflect the continued strength of consumer demand in the US, despite rising economic risks. Retail sales have shown steady growth in recent months, despite the worsening outlook in consumer confidence,” wrote Cailin Birch, global economist at Economist Intelligence Unit, in a Tuesday analysis.

Employers’ Use of Artificial Intelligence Tools Can Violate the Americans with Disabilities Act

Yesterday, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) each released a technical assistance document about disability discrimination when employers use artificial intelligence (AI) and other software tools to make employment decisions.

Employers increasingly use AI and other software tools to help them select new employees, monitor performance, and determine pay or promotions. Employers may give computer-based tests to applicants or use computer software to score applicants’ resumes. Many of these tools use algorithms or AI. These tools may result in unlawful discrimination against people with disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The EEOC released a technical assistance document, “The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Use of Software, Algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence to Assess Job Applicants and Employees,” focused on preventing discrimination against job seekers and employees with disabilities. Based on the ADA, regulations, and existing policy guidance, this document outlines issues that employers should consider to ensure that the use of software tools in employment does not disadvantage workers or applicants with disabilities in ways that violate the ADA. The document highlights promising practices to reduce the likelihood of disability discrimination. The EEOC technical assistance focuses on three primary concerns under the ADA:

  • Employers should have a process in place to provide reasonable accommodations when using algorithmic decision-making tools;
  • Without proper safeguards, workers with disabilities may be “screened out” from consideration in a job or promotion even if they can do the job with or without a reasonable accommodation; and
  • If the use of AI or algorithms results in applicants or employees having to provide information about disabilities or medical conditions, it may result in prohibited disability-related inquiries or medical exams.

The DOJ’s guidance document, “Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Disability Discrimination in Hiring,” provides a broad overview of rights and responsibilities in plain language, making it easily accessible to people without a legal or technical background. This document:

  • Provides examples of the types of technological tools that employers are using;
  • Clarifies that, when designing or choosing technological tools, employers must consider how their tools could impact different disabilities;
  • Explains employers’ obligations under the ADA when using algorithmic decision-making tools, including when an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation; and
  • Provides information for employees on what to do if they believe they have experienced discrimination.

 

Biden Administration Cancels Oil and Gas Lease Sales

The Interior Department will not move forward with planned oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet, it announced Wednesday night.

A spokesperson for the department confirmed the Cook Inlet lease sale would not proceed due to insufficient industry interest. Meanwhile, the planned sale of two leases, lease 259 and lease 261, in the Gulf of Mexico will not proceed due to contradictory court rulings on the leases, the spokesperson confirmed.

Shortly after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order freezing all new oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Last summer, Judge James Cain, a Trump appointee, struck down the ruling, prompting the Biden administration to appeal.

Meanwhile, in January, the Washington, D.C., District Court invalidated another Gulf of Mexico lease sold by the federal government, lease 257. The administration is not appealing the January ruling, although it affects a separate lease from the ones named by the Interior spokesperson.

The Alaska lease would have covered more than 1 million acres. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management previously canceled lease sales in the area in 2006, 2008 and 2010, also citing lack of interest from industry at the time.

Under federal law, the Interior Department is required to adhere to a five-year offshore leasing plan, which was set to end at the end of June in the case of the affected leases.

 

U.S. Inflation Cools Slightly to 8.3%

Inflation cooled off slightly in April as the pace of both yearly and monthly price growth dropped, according to data released Wednesday by the Labor Department. The consumer price index (CPI), the Labor Department’s closely watched gauge of inflation, rose 8.3 percent over the past 12 months and 0.3 percent in April alone.

Gasoline prices dropped 6.7 percent in April and energy prices on the whole dropped 2.7 percent last month after double-digit gains in March. Gas prices are still up 44.7 percent over the past 12 months, and energy prices remain 30.3 percent higher than they were in April 2021.

While a dip in gas prices brought some relief for consumers, inflation in other crucial goods and services continued to rise.

Food prices rose 0.9 percent in April and are up 9.4 percent on the year — the steepest annual increase since April 1981 — with groceries alone costing 10.8 percent more over the past 12 months. Prices for transportation services rose 3.1 percent on the month, and prices for medical care services rose 0.5 percent in April.

Inflation for goods other than food and energy, which economists call “core inflation,” also rose 0.6 percent in April after a 0.3 monthly increase in March. Core inflation is significant to economists because it strips out more-volatile food and energy prices, giving a clearer view into broader trends beyond those two markets.