Consumer spending rebounds after lull to start the year. Economy has plenty of support.

A measure of inflation that is closely tracked by the Federal Reserve slipped last month in a sign that price pressures continue to ease.

The government reported Friday that prices rose 0.3% from January to February, decelerating from a 0.4% increase the previous month in a potentially encouraging trend for President Joe Biden’s re-election bid. Compared with 12 months earlier, though, prices rose 2.5% in February, up slightly from a 2.4% year-over-year gain in January.

Excluding volatile food and energy costs, last month’s “core” prices suggested lower inflation pressures. These prices rose 0.3% from January to February, down from 0.5% the previous month. And core prices rose just 2.8% from 12 months earlier — the lowest such figure in nearly three years — down from 2.9% in January. Economists consider core prices to be a better gauge of the likely path of future inflation.

Friday’s report showed that a sizable jump in energy prices — up 2.3% — boosted the overall prices of goods by 0.5% in February. By contrast, inflation in services — a vast range of items ranging from hotel rooms and restaurant meals to healthcare and concert tickets — slowed to a 0.3% increase, from a 0.6% rise in January.

The figures also revealed that consumers, whose purchases drive most of the nation’s economic growth, surged 0.8% last month, up from a 0.2% gain in January. Some of that increase, though, reflected higher gasoline prices.

Annual inflation, as measured by the Fed’s preferred gauge, tumbled in 2023 after having peaked at 7.1% in mid-2022. Supply chain bottlenecks eased, reducing the costs of materials, and an influx of job seekers made it easier for employers to keep a lid on wage growth, one of the drivers of inflation.

Still, inflation remains stubbornly above the Fed’s 2% annual target, and opinion surveys have revealed public discontent that high prices are squeezing America’s households despite a sharp pickup in average wages.

The acceleration of inflation began in the spring of 2021 as the economy roared back from the pandemic recession, overwhelming factories, ports, and freight yards with orders. In March 2022, the Fed began raising its benchmark interest rate to try to slow borrowing and spending and cool inflation, eventually boosting its rate 11 times to a 23-year high. Those sharply higher rates worked as expected in helping tame inflation.

The jump in borrowing costs for companies and households was also expected, though, to cause widespread layoffs and tip the economy into a recession. That didn’t happen. The economy has grown at a healthy annual rate of 2% or more for six straight quarters. Job growth has been solid. And the unemployment rate has remained below 4% for 25 straight months, the longest such streak since the 1960s.

The combination of easing inflation and sturdy growth and hiring has raised expectations that the Fed will achieve a difficult “soft landing″ — taming inflation without causing a recession. If inflation continues to ease, the Fed will likely begin cutting its key rate in the coming months. Rate cuts would, over time, lead to lower costs for home and auto loans, credit card borrowing, and business loans. They might also aid Biden’s re-election prospects.

Michael Pearce, economist at Oxford Economics, said that even a 0.3% January-to-February uptick in consumer prices was probably still too hot for the Fed’s inflation fighters. The central bank has signaled that it expects to cut rates three times this year, and Wall Street investors have been eagerly awaiting the move. Pearce wrote that a June rate cut now looks more likely than the May cut that he and his Oxford colleagues had previously expected.

The Fed tends to favor the inflation gauge that the government issued Friday — the personal consumption expenditures price index — over the better-known consumer price index. The PCE index tries to account for changes in how people shop when inflation jumps. It can capture, for example, when consumers switch from pricier national brands to cheaper store brands.

In general, the PCE index tends to show a lower inflation level than the CPI. In part, that’s because high rents carry double the weight in the CPI that they do in the PCE.

Friday’s government report showed that Americans’ incomes rose 0.3% in February, down sharply from a 1% gain in January, which had been boosted by once-a-year cost-of-living increases in Social Security and other government benefits.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Friday reiterated a message he has sounded in recent weeks: While the Fed expects to cut interest rates this year, it won’t be ready to do so until it sees “more good inflation readings’’ and is more confident that annual price increases are falling toward its 2% target.

Speaking at a conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Powell said he still expected “inflation to come down on a sometimes bumpy path to 2%.’' But the central bank’s policymakers, he said, need to see further evidence before they would cut rates for the first time since inflation shot to a four-decade peak two years ago.

The Fed responded to that bout of inflation by aggressively raising its benchmark rate beginning in March 2022. Eventually, it would raise its key rate 11 times to a 23-year high of around 5.4%. The resulting higher borrowing costs helped bring inflation down — from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.2% last month. But year-over-year price increases still remain above the Fed’s 2% target.

Forecasters had expected higher rates to send the United States tumbling into recession. Instead, the economy just kept growing — expanding at an annual rate of 2% or more for six straight quarters. The job market, too, has remained strong. The unemployment rate has come in below 4% for more than two years, the longest such streak since the 1960s.

The combination of sturdy growth and decelerating inflation has raised hopes that the Fed is engineering a “soft landing’’ — taming inflation without causing a recession. The central bank has signaled that it expects to reverse policy and cut rates three times this year.

But the economy’s strength, Powell said, means the Fed isn’t under pressure to cut rates and can wait to see how the inflation numbers come in.

Asked by the moderator of Friday’s discussion, Kai Ryssdal of public radio’s “Marketplace’’ program, if he would ever be ready to declare victory over inflation, Powell demurred:

“We’ll jinx it,’' he said. ”I’m a superstitious person.’'

 Consumer spending in the U.S. rebounded in February after a lull at the start of the year, suggesting consumers still have plenty of buying power.

Household spending rose a solid 0.8% last month to mark the biggest increase in 13 months, the government said Thursday. Outlays rose a smaller 0.2% in the first month of the year.

Economists polled by The Wall Street Journal had forecast a 0.5% advance.

Incomes rose 0.3% in February.

Consumer spending is the main engine of the U.S. economy. Households have kept spending at a relatively strong pace despite higher interest rates for houses, cars, and other big-ticket items.

Inflation rose in line with expectations in February, likely keeping the Federal Reserve on hold before it can start considering interest rate cuts, according to a measure the central bank considers its more important barometer.

The personal consumption expenditures price index excluding food and energy increased 2.8% on a 12-month basis and was up 0.3% from a month ago, the Commerce Department reported Friday.. Both numbers matched the Dow Jones estimates.

Including volatile food and energy costs, the headline PCE reading showed a 0.3% increase for the month and 2.5% at the 12-month rate, compared to estimates for 0.4% and 2.5%.

Both the stock and bond markets were closed in observance of the Good Friday holiday.

While the Fed looks at both measures when making policy, it considers core to be a better gauge of long-term inflation pressures.

Rising energy costs helped push up the headline reading, with a 2.3% increase. The food index edged up 0.1%. Inflation pressures came more from the goods side, which rose 0.5%, compared to the 0.3% increase for services. That countered the trend over the past year, during which services rose 3.8% while goods actually fell by 0.2%.

Other upward pressure came from international travel services, air transportation, and financial services and insurance. On the goods side, motor vehicles and parts was the biggest contributor.

Along with the inflation increase, consumer spending shot up 0.8% on the month, well ahead of the 0.5% estimate, possibly indicating additional inflation pressures. Personal income increased 0.3%, slightly softer than the 0.4% estimate.

The release comes a little more than a week after the central bank again held its benchmark short-term borrowing rate steady and indicated it still has not seen enough progress on inflation to consider cutting. In their quarterly update of rate projections, members of the Federal Open Market Committee again pointed to three quarter-percentage point cuts this year and in 2025.

Markets expect the Fed to remain on hold again when it releases its decision on May 1, then begin cutting at the June 11-12 meeting. Market pricing is in line with FOMC projections for three cuts, according to the CME Group’s FedWatch measure of futures market action.

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