29 February 2024

U.S. Inflation Eased Slightly to 8.5% in July

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The pace of price increases slowed in July as energy costs dropped, pulling annual U.S. inflation down slightly from a four-decade high.

The Labor Department on Wednesday said the consumer-price index, a measure of what consumers pay for goods and services, rose 8.5% in July from the same month a year ago, down from 9.1% in June. June marked the fastest pace of inflation since November 1981.

On a monthly basis, the CPI was flat in July after rising 1.3% the prior month, the result of falling energy prices such as gasoline. Core CPI, which excludes often volatile energy and food prices, eased to 0.3% last month, down sharply from June’s 0.7% gain.

Stocks rallied on the moderating of price increases last month. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all opened higher. Yields on U.S. Treasurys fell.

Price pressures abated across energy categories, with gasoline down 7.7% in July from the prior month. Used-car prices, up sharply earlier in the pandemic, also dropped on a month-to-month basis, as did airline fares and apparel.

Grocery prices were up 1.3% in July from the prior month and rose 13.1% in July from a year ago, the fastest annual pace since 1979. Dining out costs also rose.

“It’s kind of a mixed blessing for individual households—they probably like what they see on gasoline prices coming down, but they’re still seeing the pain on the food side,” said Brian Bethune, an economist at Boston College.

Food prices could moderate in coming months as supply improvements filter through to consumers, he said. “For the things that really eat a hole in our pockets, gasoline and food, we’ve seen the turning point in gasoline and I think we’re on the cusp of some declines in food.”

Elevated inflation is the byproduct of rapid growth as the U.S. rebounded from the Covid-19 pandemic, fueled in part by lower interest rates and government stimulus. The Federal Reserve faces the challenge of tightening monetary policy to cool the hot labor market and slow demand enough to curb inflation, but not enough to set off a recession.

Fed officials lifted interest rates in both June and July, and will meet again in September to consider a further increase. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has said the central bank wants to see clear and convincing evidence that price pressures are subsiding before slowing or suspending rate increases.

The slowdown in the one-month measure of core inflation was upbeat news for the Fed, said Omair Sharif, who leads forecasting firm Inflation Insights. But inflationary pressures continue to broaden, which could stymie the sustained step down in core inflation that the Fed is looking for, he said.

“While the moderation in core inflation was a good sign, it seems like the Fed still has some work to do,” said Mr. Sharif.

Despite last month’s moderation, core prices were up 5.9% in July from the same month a year ago.

While the Fed targets overall inflation measures, it sees core prices as a better indicator of future inflation. Economists and policy makers are watching the latter in particular for signals that inflation is on a path to hit the Fed’s 2% target within a couple of years. An elevated rate of price gains adds pressure on the Fed to increase rates aggressively.

Easing demand for goods as consumers shift spending toward services, as well as improving supply chains, has brought down the rate of price gains for goods, which had been a major driver of the inflation surge.

July tends to be a big month for discounting, in part because of Amazon Prime Day, Mr. Sharif said. Price gains in airfares and hotels have also eased as pent-up demand for summer travel wanes.

“Demand has come off a lot in terms of bookings because people got the vacation they wanted and now they’re looking at their budgets,” said Mr. Sharif. But big moves in a few individual prices might not matter much, he said, since the Fed will want to see pressures moderating across a broad range of goods and services.

Slowing economic growth is also a factor. The U.S. economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.9% from April through June, marking the second straight quarterly decline and stoking fear among economists that a recession is imminent.

Still, high prices and shortages are a reality for many consumers. New parents Michael Tutas and his wife, Jessica Baryla, of Charlotte, N.C., scrambled to buy a home, a bigger car and newborn supplies before their baby arrived in May.

“While my wife was in labor, I was out looking for formula,” said Mr. Tutas, a systems analyst at Wells Fargo. Stores have struggled to stock baby formula because of a monthslong shortage.

He and Ms. Baryla gave up on hopes of buying a midsize SUV Honda after four months on the wait list, and set their sights on a similar Audi—only to find that the chip shortage meant most models lacked a key safety feature. Mr. Tutas flew to Lexington, Ky., to pick up a model that included the technology at a dealership there.

After finding that a certain baby rocker had doubled in price since the fall, he bought a used one for a quarter of the sticker price. But for many baby items, there simply aren’t cheaper alternatives, he said.

“Especially with the baby, we’d like to be putting away more each month,” Mr. Tutas said. “But increasing prices mean more money is going out the door for stuff you truly need.”

Price pressures remain strong in part because the labor market is unusually tight. The U.S. added 528,000 jobs in July, sending payrolls slightly beyond their prepandemic level, and the jobless rate ticked down to 3.5%, matching the lowest rate in more than 50 years.

High demand for workers is driving wage growth, though not enough to offset inflation. Increased labor costs from worker shortages are prompting many employers to raise prices. Meanwhile, strong gains in hiring are pumping more money into the economy, propping up overall demand as inflation erodes spending power.

Housing costs, which have been accelerating fast, are an underlying source of price pressures and a major component of the CPI—nearly one-third of overall CPI and two-fifths of the core index. Those measures contributed nearly 1.9 percentage points to the overall inflation rate in July, up from 1.7 percentage points in June. Housing-cost price pressures also tend to persist. That could keep inflation readings higher than actual price pressures in the economy, which is one reason some economists worry that the Fed could tighten too much, causing demand to fall and risking a recession.

“They’re looking at a measure of inflation that lags reality, and that was one of the factors that got them behind the curve—it was why they were a year late in raising rates,” said economist Robert Fry of Robert Fry Economics LLC. “They were too late in tightening, and I think they’re going to be too late in easing.”

One positive sign for the Fed is that inflation expectations fell in July, dragged down by lower gasoline and food prices. The Fed believes that expectations influence inflation’s future path as workers demand raises to offset inflation and businesses feel more comfortable raising prices.

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