(Bloomberg) — U.S. consumer prices rose in March by the most since late 1981, underscoring the painfully high cost of living and reinforcing pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates even more aggressively.
The consumer price index increased 8.5% from a year earlier following a 7.9% annual gain in February, Labor Department data showed Tuesday. The widely followed inflation gauge rose 1.2% from a month earlier, the biggest gain since 2005.
Gasoline costs drove half of the monthly increase, while food was also a sizable contributor, as Americans paid more for vegetables, meats and dairy products.
Excluding volatile food and energy components, so-called core prices increased 0.3% from a month earlier and 6.5% from a year ago, due in large part to the biggest drop in used vehicle prices since 1969 and a deceleration in price growth in other merchandise categories.
Treasuries rose and the dollar erased an earlier advance to weaken after the data showed core inflation rose less than forecast. The S&P 500 index opened higher.
Used car prices, which had been a driver of higher goods inflation for months, were down 3.8% in March, the second straight monthly decline. New car prices, meanwhile, rose slightly.
The figures are “a welcome respite from the sustained heated core increases of late, and fuel costs look to ease in response to the recent pullback in oil prices,” Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note.
“However, food, rent, and a few other items look to remain troublesome and act to slow the expected retreat in inflation in the year ahead.”
The March CPI reading represents what many economists expect to be the peak of the current inflationary period, capturing the impact of soaring food and energy prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While the Fed has opened the door for a half-percentage point increase in interest rates, inflation isn’t likely to recede to the central bank’s 2% goal anytime soon — especially given the war, Covid-19 lockdowns in China and greater demand for services like travel.
What Bloomberg Economics Says…
“Slower core-goods inflation is partly offset by higher services inflation, underscoring the challenge the Fed faces in taming price pressures even if supply and demand in the goods sector were to balance. The Fed needs to hike rates expeditiously, but if goods demand continues to cool they may not need to hike as aggressively as the market — now pricing in almost three 50-bps rate hikes this year — currently expects.”
— Anna Wong and Andrew Husby, economists
President Joe Biden has come under fire for failing to rein in prices as Americans pay up for fuel and groceries. Inflation more broadly will complicate Democrats’ efforts to maintain their tight congressional margins in midterm elections later this year.
At the same time, risks that inflation will tip the economy into recession are building. A growing chorus of economists predict that activity will contract either because consumer spending declines in response to higher prices, or the Fed will over-correct in its effort to catch up. However, the majority still expects the economy to grow.
Goods and Services
The report showed goods inflation stayed elevated, while services continued to advance. On a year-over-year basis, goods inflation excluding food, energy and used vehicles rose 8.1% in March, the most since 1981. Food prices rose 1% from February.
Prices for household furnishings and supplies rose 1% from February after outsize gains in recent months. The index for furnishings and operations jumped 10.1% from a year earlier, the most since 1975.
Services costs increased 5.1% from a year ago, the biggest advance since 1991. Airline fares rose a record 10.7% in March from a month earlier. Shelter costs, which include rents and hotel stays, rose 0.5% for a second month.
The war in Ukraine, which started in late February, led to a spike in energy prices on fears that cutting off Russian oil and gas would stretch already-tight supply. The CPI report showed that energy prices rose 11% in March from the prior month, the most since 2005, while gasoline prices jumped 18.3%, the largest gain since 2009.
That said, gas prices have started to decline in recent weeks, in part because of sinking demand in China where several major cities are under strict Covid lockdowns. If sustained, the drop suggests that energy prices will have less of an impact on inflation in April.
Even so, inflation is projected to stay near 6% by the end of the year, which will keep pressure on the Fed Chair Jerome Powell and his colleagues. The central bank is expected to hike interest rates by a half-point at its next policy meeting in May — and possibly at one or more meetings after that — while moving forward on plans to reduce its balance sheet.
Americans are also struggling because wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, even as employers boost pay to attract and retain workers. Inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings dropped 2.7% in March from a year earlier, the 12th straight decline, separate data showed Tuesday.
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