US inflation rises more than expected to 3.5%

 Inflation ticked up again in March compared with the year before — in yet another sign that the economy doesn’t need high-interest rates to come down any time soon.

Fresh data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday showed prices rose 3.5 percent from March 2023 to March 2024. That’s up slightly from the 3.2 percent annual figure notched in February. Prices also rose 0.4 percent between February and March.

That’s the latest update for Federal Reserve officials looking for progress in their fight to slow rising prices. The central bank has pushed interest rates to their highest level in 23 years, and officials say they expect to cut rates three times this year. But they also want more data before they act.

So far, the reports haven’t signaled any urgency to bring rates back down. The Fed entered the year bolstered by six months of encouraging data, and notable progress since inflation soared to 40-year highs in the middle of 2022. But prices went in the other direction in January and February, coming in hotter than expected and disrupting the Fed’s remarkable streak of welcome news.

Now the question is whether the start of 2024 simply brought predictable plot twists — or if the Fed is staring down a bigger problem.

At a news conference last month, Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said the task of getting inflation down to normal levels was always going to be bumpy.

“Now here are some bumps, and the question is, are they more than bumps?” Powell said on March 20. “And we just don’t — we can’t know that. That’s why we are approaching this question carefully."

But financial markets are also wary that the uncertainty could interfere with cuts this year. Stocks dropped last week after Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari said that while he has cuts in his forecast, that could change if progress stalls.

“That would make me question whether we needed to do those rate cuts at all,” he said.

Over the past few years, inflation has been driven by different factors. First, bungled supply chains sent prices for couches, electronics, and more way up. Then historic levels of government stimulus injected a jolt of consumer demand at the same time other parts of the economy — especially service industries like restaurants and hotels — were still hobbling back from the pandemic. After that, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine roiled global energy markets, sending gas prices over $5 per gallon that summer.

More recently, housing costs have kept inflation high. Plenty of economists argue the official statistics in the consumer price index are delayed and don’t account for real-time measures that show rents falling in many places. But policymakers are still unsure why the shift hasn’t shown up yet. And the hazard is that the longer the shift takes, the harder it will be to wrestle overall inflation down to normal levels.

All of these factors pushed the Fed to raise borrowing costs after inflation spiked. That’s meant to slow the economy by making it more expensive to get a mortgage, take out a car loan, or grow a business. And while practically every economist expected that all-out effort to tip the economy into a recession, the opposite has happened, with job growth and consumer spending holding strong, all while inflation generally simmers down.

But it hasn’t returned all the way to normal yet, and Fed officials are quick to caution that victory isn’t guaranteed. The Fed’s target is to get inflation to 2 percent, using its preferred inflation measure. That metric is different from the one released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday, and it clocked in at 2.5 percent in February compared with the year before.

Still, central bankers won’t necessarily wait for inflation to get all the way to their 2 percent target before they trim interest rates for the first time in years. The idea is that there’s been enough progress for officials to gently take their foot off the brake. But policymakers are still looking for total assurance that inflation is moving steadily downward — and will keep at it.

While they wait, central bankers have penciled in three interest rate cuts this year. Financial markets have been setting their sights on a first cut in June. But the odds of that getting pushed back later in the summer — or beyond — grow as officials find themselves waiting for better news month after month.

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester underscored why it takes time to reach a decision.

“I don’t want to prejudge,” Mester said. “I just need to see more evidence.”

Obviously, this is very bad news for Joe Biden. It’s still only April, and we’ll have another half a year’s worth of inflation reports before the election. But we’re approaching the point where high inflation is bound to still be in voters’ minds when they head to the polls, regardless of how the price figures come in over the summer.

The cost of going to the ballpark is among the inflation outliers. Admission to sporting events fell 8.9%.

Remember, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge is the separate PCE measure, which won’t be out until April 26. The Morgan Stanley team is penciling in a 0.31% monthly gain in the March core PCE index after today’s CPI. That would mark an acceleration from 0.26% in February. That would mean a core annual inflation rate of 2.76%, still well above the Fed’s 2% target. Morgan Stanley will update its PCE forecast after tomorrow’s PPI (producer price) report.

The morbid fear of central bankers is to call an end to inflation only to see it revive. The Fed, and Chairman Jerome Powell in particular, have been very careful to repeat that they need to be confident prices are coming back to target before they could cut.

Well, for the first quarter of this year prices haven’t come back to target. If anything, the concern now will be whether inflation is actually accelerating again. One-off factors no longer explain it.
The Treasury front end is under the CPI cosh as the 2-year yield is now up nearly 20 basis points on the session. The yield was actually 2bps lower before CPI landed, so the market was leaning toward a soft report, and the parlance of trading was “long and wrong.”

The pressure on the front end reflects a material repricing of the Fed’s policy path. Less than 50bps of cuts for 2024 are now priced via swaps, and the market is far less dovish than many Fed speakers who up to now have been consistently telling us they want to ease.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post