The pace of consumer price increases eased again in January compared with a year earlier, the latest sign that the high inflation that has gripped Americans for nearly two years is slowing.
At the same time, Tuesday’s consumer price report from the government showed that inflationary pressures in the US economy remain stubborn and are likely to drive price spikes well into this year.
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Consumer prices rose 6.4 percent in January from 12 months earlier, down from 6.5 percent in December. It was the seventh straight year-over-year slowdown and well below a recent peak of 9.1 percent in June. Yet it remains far above the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent annual inflation target.
And on a monthly basis, consumer prices increased 0.5 percent from December to January, much higher than the 0.1 percent rise from November to December. More expensive petrol, food and clothing drove up inflation in January.
The Fed has aggressively raised its benchmark interest rate in the past year to its highest level in 15 years in its drive to get rampaging inflation under control. The Fed’s goal is to slow borrowing and spending, cool the pace of hiring and relieve the pressure many businesses feel to raise wages to find or keep workers. Businesses typically pass their higher labour costs on to their customers in the form of higher prices, thereby helping raise inflation.
So far, most of the slowdown in inflation reflects freer-flowing supply chains and earlier declines in petrol prices. But the Fed’s rate increases — eight since March of last year — have had no discernible effect on the US job market, which has remained exceptionally strong.
The unemployment rate has dropped to 3.4 percent, the lowest level in 53 years, and job openings remain high. The strength of the job market has, in turn, helped support consumer spending, which underpins the bulk of the US economy.
Yet the flip side of healthier spending is that inflation may become harder to tame. Petrol prices rose 2.4 percent in January, the government said, with prices averaging $3.50 a gallon ($0.92 per litre) nationwide by the end of last month. That is still much lower than the $5 a gallon ($1.32 a litre) peak reached in June. Prices at the pump have since dropped back to $3.41 ($0.90 per litre) as of Tuesday, according to AAA.
Tuesday’s inflation report showed that food prices jumped 0.5 percent from December to January, defying hopes for a smaller increase. Cereals and bread products became costlier. And egg prices jumped 8.5 percent just in January and have skyrocketed 70 percent in the past year. Those prices have been driven up by an avian flu epidemic that has devastated chicken flocks and more expensive feed.
Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called “core” prices increased 0.4 percent last month, up from 0.3 percent in December. Compared with a year ago, core prices rose 5.6 percent, down just a tick from December’s 5.7 percent.
Behind much of the surge in core prices were rents and other housing costs. Rents jumped 0.7 percent in January, only slightly below December’s 0.8 percent rise. Housing costs have a significant effect on inflation, because they make up nearly four-tenths of the core consumer price measure.
Market rates for new rental leases have been easing since the end of last year, and the Fed expects those lower costs to gradually feed into the government’s data as renters renew their leases. Once they do, those lower rents should help reduce inflation, though the impact might not appear until near the middle of the year.
Clothing prices jumped 0.8 percent in January after having risen just 0.2 percent in December. Healthcare services costs fell, and used car prices dropped 1.9 percent.
Wages still on the rise
With unemployment so low, average wages are rising at a brisk pace of about 5 percent from a year ago. Those pay gains, spread across the economy, are likely inflating prices in labour-intensive services. Powell has often pointed to robust wage increases as a factor that was driving up services prices and keeping inflation high even as other categories, like rent, are likely to decelerate in price.
Many economists expect inflation to fall to roughly 4 percent later this year. But it could plateau at that point so long as hiring and wage gains remain vigorous. The Fed might then feel compelled to keep borrowing rates high well into 2024 or even raise them further this year.
The Biden White House last week calculated a measure of wages in service industries excluding housing — the sector of the economy that Powell and the Fed are most closely tracking. The administration’s Council of Economic Advisers concluded that wages in those industries for workers, excluding managers, soared 8 percent last January from a year earlier but have since slowed to about a 5 percent annual pace.
That suggested that services inflation could soon slow, especially if the trend continued. Still, wage gains of that level are too high for the Fed’s liking. The central bank’s officials would prefer to see wage growth of about 3.5 percent, which they see as consistent with their 2 percent inflation target.
A key question for the economy this year is whether unemployment would have to rise significantly to achieve that slowdown in wage growth. Powell and other Fed officials have said that curbing high inflation would require some “pain” for workers. Higher unemployment typically reduces pressure on businesses to pay bigger wages and salaries.
For now, the job market remains historically very robust. Powell said last week that the jobs data was “certainly stronger than anyone I know expected,” and suggested that if such healthy readings were to continue, more rate rises than are now expected could be necessary.
Other Fed officials, speaking last week, stressed their belief that more interest rate increases are on the way. The Fed foresaw two more quarter-point rate increases, at its March and May meetings. Those increases would raise its benchmark rate to a range of 5 percent to 5.25 percent, the highest level in 15 years.
The Fed lifted its key rate by a quarter-point when it last met on February 1, after carrying out a half-point rise in December and four three-quarter-point increases before that.