WASHINGTON — Inflation in the United States has nudged upward for the first time in 12 months, according to the latest consumer index report by the Labor Bureau. While the increase from 3% to 3.2% still overshoots the Federal Reserve’s target of 2%, underlying factors paint a less alarming picture.
After a year of consistent declines, the year-over-year inflation rate has seen a modest bump. However, economic analysts urge a closer look at the data, which may not be as foreboding as it seems at first glance.
Energy Costs and Housing Prices: Context Matters
A significant portion of the increase stems from how energy costs are tabulated in the report. Last year’s retreat from peak oil prices in June 2022, when average gas prices soared to $5 per gallon, no longer skews the year-over-year inflation calculation.
Kurt Rankin, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group, observes that recent price hikes in energy have been “amplified in the year-over-year inflation numbers.”
Similarly, a cooling trend in housing costs for 2023 has yet to be fully reflected in Labor Bureau reports due to a months-long lag in data representation. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco expects these moderating housing prices to contribute to lower core inflation in future CPI reports.
The Fed’s View: Focus on Core Inflation
To gauge the true trajectory of inflation, the Federal Reserve often leans on core inflation, excluding fluctuating food and energy prices. Here, the trend has been reassuring, with core inflation continuing its cooling trend, slipping by 0.2% as it did in June.
The consistency in the cooling of core inflation is seen as a positive sign in controlling inflation. “It’s a good rate in terms of taming inflation, although it needs to be sustained,” says Rankin.
Fed chair Jerome Powell, in June, stated his anticipation for core inflation to return to the 2% target only by 2025.
Interest Rates and the Borrowing Landscape
The Federal Reserve’s response to inflation has been a series of interest rate hikes initiated since March 2022. As a result, the benchmark federal funds rate now stands at a 22-year high, positioned between 5.25% to 5.5%.
This move, aimed at curbing spending by consumers and businesses, has not hindered economic and labor market strength. Consumer spending, though showing signs of deceleration, remains robust.
Interest rates, based on the Fed’s median projections, are likely to hover near 4% through 2024. This expectation implies no imminent relief for borrowers in areas such as credit card interest and auto loans.
Powell’s Commitment and Outlook
During a July press conference, Powell reiterated the Fed’s resolve to lower inflation to 2% over time, not discounting further rate hikes.
Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at Bankrate, recommends preparedness for higher rates to persist. “I think it’s appropriate for people to buckle up and be prepared for the possibility that rates do remain higher for longer,” he says.
Conclusion: A Balanced Perspective
The uptick in inflation warrants attention but demands a nuanced analysis. Consideration of core inflation and underlying factors, such as energy costs and housing prices, offers a more measured perspective. The Federal Reserve’s vigilant stance and strategic interest rate maneuvers reflect a controlled approach to inflationary pressures, a sentiment echoed by financial experts.