US consumer prices rise moderately in March; underlying inflation still hot

Published Wed, Apr 12, 2023 · 08:56 PM

US consumer prices barely rose in March as the cost of gasoline declined, but stubbornly high rents kept underlying inflation pressures simmering, likely ensuring that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates again next month.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) climbed 0.1 per cent last month after advancing 0.4 per cent in February, the Labor Department said on Wednesday (Apr 12).

In the 12 months till March, the CPI increased 5 per cent, the smallest year-on-year gain since May 2021. The CPI rose 6 per cent on a year-on-year basis in February.

The annual CPI peaked at 9.1 per cent in June, which was the biggest increase since November 1981, and is subsiding as last year’s large rises drop out of the calculation. Inflation by all measures remains more than double the Fed’s 2 per cent target.

Petrol prices are likely to rebound in the months ahead after Saudi Arabia and other Opec+ (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies) oil producers early this month announced further oil output cuts.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI gaining 0.2 per cent and advancing 5.2 per cent year on year.

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The inflation data came on the heels of last Friday’s employment report, which showed a solid pace of job growth in March and the unemployment rate falling back to 3.5 per cent.

Persistently high inflation, labour market tightness and signs that financial market stress, wrought by last month’s collapse of two regional banks, is easing should allow the Fed to continue prioritising restoring price stability.

Financial markets are leaning toward the US central bank increasing rates by another 25 basis points at the May 2-3 policy meeting, according to CME Group’s FedWatch tool.

The Fed last month raised its benchmark overnight interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point, but indicated it was on the verge of pausing further rate increases in a nod to the financial market turmoil. It has hiked its policy rate by 475 basis points since last March from the near-zero level to the current 4.75 per cent to 5 per cent range.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI increased 0.4 per cent last month after rising 0.5 per cent in February. Sticky rents continued to drive the so-called core CPI.

With independent measures showing rents on a downward trajectory, however, housing inflation is expected to start subsiding in the second half. The rent measures in the CPI tend to lag the independent gauges.

Nevertheless, the disinflation road is likely to be bumpy, with pressure coming from the cost of services away from housing.

In the 12 months till March, the core CPI gained 5.6 per cent after rising 5.5 per cent in February. That ended five straight months of slow increases in the year-on-year core CPI. REUTERS

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