Inflation measure closely tracked by US Fed rose in April

Despite rising prices consumer spending remained buoyant but high inflation complicates Fed’s interest rate decisions.

Shoppers pass by a display of big-screen televisions in a Costco warehouse in Colorado, US
Consumer spending, which drives most of the US economy, has been bolstered by solid job gains and pay increases [File: David Zalubowski/ AP Photo]

A key index of United States prices ticked higher in April, and consumer spending rebounded, a sign that inflationary pressures in the economy remain high.

The index, which is called personal consumption expenditures price index and is closely monitored by the Federal Reserve, showed that prices rose 0.4 percent from March to April. That was much higher than the 0.1 percent rise the previous month. Measured year over year, prices increased 4.4 percent in April, up from 4.2 percent in March. The year-over-year figure is down sharply from a 7 percent peak last June but remains far above the Fed’s 2 percent target.

Friday’s report from the government showed that despite rising prices, consumers remain buoyant. Their spending jumped 0.8 percent from March to April, the biggest increase since January. Much of the increase was driven by spending on new cars, which soared 6.2 percent. Among other items, Americans also bought more computers, petrol and clothing.

Despite longstanding predictions of a forthcoming recession, Friday’s data underscores the US economy’s surprising resilience. Consumer spending, which drives most of the US economy, has been bolstered by solid job gains and pay increases. The economy, which grew at a sluggish 1.3 percent annual rate from January through March, is projected to accelerate to a 2 percent pace in the current April-June quarter.

At the same time, the persistence of high inflation is complicating the Federal Reserve’s interest rate decisions. Chair Jerome Powell has signalled that the Fed will likely forgo a rate hike when it meets in mid-June, after 10 straight increases in the past 14 months. But a vocal group among the Fed’s 18-member interest-rate setting committee has pushed for more rate hikes later this year on the grounds that inflation isn’t slowing quickly enough.

“Inflation is too sticky for the Fed to commit to an extended pause,” said Michael Gapen, US economist at Bank of America Securities. “Even if the Fed skips June, it will keep July in play” for a rate hike.

Fed officials particularly watch a category of prices called core inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food costs and is considered a better gauge of underlying inflation. Core prices rose 0.4 percent from March to April, the same as in the previous month, and 4.7 percent from 12 months earlier. The year-over-year core inflation figure has changed little since it first touched 4.6 percent in December.

Another sign that the economy remains solid came in a separate report Friday. It showed that a measure of businesses’ investment in durable factory goods jumped 1.4 percent in April — evidence that companies have continued to spend despite higher inflation and borrowing costs given still-steady consumer demand.

The personal consumption expenditures price index is separate from the government’s better-known consumer price index. The government reported earlier this month that the CPI rose 4.9 percent in April from 12 months earlier.

Since inflation began surging after the pandemic recession, the PCE index has tended to show lower inflation than CPI. In part, that was because rents, which were among the biggest inflation drivers, carry twice the weight in the CPI that they do in the PCE. In addition, the PCE index seeks to account for changes in how people shop when inflation jumps. As a result, it can capture emerging trends — when, for example, consumers shift away from pricey national brands in favor of cheaper store brands.

Interest rates

The latest inflation figures arrived as Fed officials are noisily debating their next steps after having raised their key interest rate 10 times in the past 14 months. Several of the policymakers have said they favour raising rates even higher in the coming months. But most Fed watchers expect the central bank to forgo another hike at its next meeting in mid-June.

Powell said last week that after raising its benchmark rate to a 16-year high of about 5.1 percent, Fed officials can afford to wait and see how those increases have affected the economy. It can take a year or more for rate hikes to significantly slow the job market and the overall economy.

The Fed’s ultimate goal is to make borrowing costlier for consumers and businesses and thereby reduce spending, growth and inflation. Its rate increases have led to a more than doubling of mortgage rates and elevated the costs of car loans, credit card borrowing and business loans. They have also heightened the risk of a recession, which most economists predict will begin sometime this year.

Even some officials who likely favour skipping a rate hike in June, like Philip Jefferson, a member of the Fed’s influential Board of Governors, have said they are disappointed that inflation has not slowed more than it has. Much of the latest inflation pressure reflected persistently higher prices for services, including restaurant meals, hotel rooms and car maintenance.

Inflation has been a big reason why millions of Americans have expressed a gloomy outlook about the economy, even though the unemployment rate is at a half-century low of 3.4 percent and many workers have received solid pay gains.

Yet a Federal Reserve report this week found that, on average, inflation has outstripped those wage increases and left many people worse off. At the end of last year, just below three-quarters of Americans said they were “doing OK” financially or living comfortably. That marked a drop of 5 percentage points from the previous year and was among the lowest such levels measured since the survey began in 2016.

Source: AP