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US inflation picks up, signalling bumpy path for Fed

Finance

US inflation accelerated at the end of 2023, fueled by stubborn services costs while a protracted decline in goods prices petered out.

The consumer price index increased 3.4% in the year through December, the most in three months, according to government figures. It also rose by more than forecast on a monthly basis as housing costs continued to climb, Americans paid more to drive and energy prices advanced for the first time since September.

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The figures show the Federal Reserve is facing a bumpy path to tame inflation, which risks staying elevated in coming months should prices of goods, such as clothing and cars, continue to climb. Fed policymakers and Wall Street economists have been starting to question the durability of the recent downturn, which has largely stemmed from improving supply chains.

Much of the surprise in so-called core goods, which excludes energy and food, came from pickups in prices for used cars and apparel, despite year-end promotional activity. Services prices also held firm, notably within costs for housing and car insurance, which rose the most on an annual basis since 1976.

“The concern that must be growing in the Fed’s mind at this point is that we are now getting less deflation and disinflation from goods and energy prices, and we still have yet to see a measurable reduction in inflation in housing or most services components,” Scott Anderson, chief US economist at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note. “This suggests the Fed’s journey to sustainable 2.0% inflation is still not complete.”

Even so, the figures cap a year in which inflation broadly eased without doing much damage to the labor market, setting the stage for the Fed to lower borrowing costs this year. Officials’ latest economic projections show they expect three rate cuts in 2024, though policymakers have pushed back against market expectations that the first reduction could come as soon as March.

The S&P 500 fell and Treasuries fluctuated after the release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fed officials next meet at the end of this month.

Metric Actual Estimate
CPI MoM +0.3% +0.2%
Core CPI MoM +0.3% +0.3%
CPI YoY +3.4% +3.2%
Core CPI YoY +3.9% +3.8%
Shelter prices, which make up about a third of the overall CPI index and contributed to more than half of its advance, rose 0.5% in December. The gain included a rise in hotel prices that were lower in the prior month. Economists see a sustained moderation in this category as key to bringing core inflation down to the Fed’s target.

Excluding housing and energy, services prices climbed 0.4% from November, easing slightly from the prior month, according to Bloomberg calculations. While Fed Chair Jerome Powell and his colleagues have stressed the importance of looking at such a metric when assessing the nation’s inflation trajectory, they compute it based on a separate index.

That measure, known as the personal consumption expenditures price index, doesn’t put as much weight on car prices as the CPI does. That’s one reason why economists don’t see the core PCE gauge rising as firmly when it’s released later this month. That set of indexes has been trending much closer to the Fed’s 2% target.

Friday’s release of the producer price index will provide more clues, as several categories within that report feed directly into the PCE calculation.

What Bloomberg Economics Says…

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“The surprisingly strong CPI print for December shows the road to a durable return to 2% inflation is bumpy, and the last mile could be difficult. Some of the disinflationary impulse for core goods – a key driver of easing price pressures over the past few months — has faded. It likely will take more than the much-anticipated disinflation in rents for inflation to get to the Fed’s 2% target.” — Anna Wong and Stuart Paul

Separate figures on Thursday showed initial applications for unemployment insurance held at a historically low level last week, while the number of people receiving benefits fell to the lowest level since October.

The Fed is looking for softer labour-market conditions to rein in demand across the economy, especially after last week’s mostly solid jobs report. A separate report Thursday showed real earnings advanced 0.8% in December from a year earlier, extending a months-long streak in which wage growth has modestly outpaced inflation.

Toward the end of the year, US consumers grew more sanguine about the inflation outlook, with several metrics of near-term expectations declining to the lowest levels since early 2021. That’s helped lift measures of consumer sentiment.

However, it hasn’t been the same boon for Joe Biden. Despite the progress on easing price pressures, inflation has dogged Biden’s presidency, with his approval rating at similar level today as it was when the overall CPI peaked above 9% in June 2022.

Voters rank this issue, along with the broader economy, of high importance for this year’s election, but further softening in the jobs market could undercut the political benefits of slower inflation.

Looking ahead, inflation is expected to moderate further this year toward the Fed’s 2% target, especially as housing costs are seen easing. However, other factors like rising shipping costs due to attacks in the Red Sea and low water levels in the Panama Canal threaten to upend progress in goods deflation, while an escalation of the war in the Middle East — which could put upward pressure on oil prices — can’t be ruled out.

© 2024 Bloomberg

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