US inflation picks up on bumpy path to cool price gains

AFP , Thursday 11 Jan 2024

Consumer inflation in the United States rose more than anticipated in December, government data showed Thursday, with President Joe Biden conceding he must do more to tackle high prices.

File Photo: People shop at a Target store in Clifton, New Jersey. AP


The Department of Labor's consumer price index (CPI), a key measure of inflation, jumped 3.4 percent from a year ago, up from November.

This underscores the bumpy road to lowering price increases as the presidential election looms in November.

Underlying pressures appear to be ebbing, as a "core" metric that strips out volatile food and energy prices cooled to 3.9 percent in the last month of 2023 -- the lowest since May 2021.

But a rising inflation figure complicates the picture for Biden, who heads into his reelection campaign facing persistent negative perceptions about the economy.

"The economy has created more than 14 million jobs since I took office, and wealth, wages, and employment are higher now than under my predecessor," said Biden in a statement Thursday.

"But there is much more work to do to lower costs for American families and American workers."

Analysts do not expect Federal Reserve officials to base their rate-setting off of one month's data, though accelerating inflation could add pressure on the central bank to hold interest rates at a high level.

The Fed rapidly lifted rates beginning in 2022 and have held them at a 22-year high, seeking to ease demand and sustainably rein in inflation.

- 'Step back' -

Despite December's CPI uptick, inflation has fallen significantly from the 9.1 percent peak in June 2022, while consumer spending and the jobs market remained resilient.

This has fueled hopes of a so-called "soft landing" for the world's biggest economy, where inflation cools without a damaging recession.

From November to December, CPI rose 0.3 percent, up from the prior month.

"The index for shelter continued to rise in December," the Labor Department said in its report.

The energy index jumped 0.4 percent over the month on increases in electricity and gasoline, while the food index rose 0.2 percent, holding steady.

Describing the inflation battle as two steps forward and one step back, economist Robert Frick of the Navy Federal Credit Union said: "December was a clear step back."

He noted that shelter prices accounted about half the increase, with little relief in sight "as rents prove sticky and homeownership costs rise."

Consumers also "felt the most immediate pain in December from higher food and energy prices, and those are the two commodities Americans are most sensitive to," Frick said.

As Biden seeks another term in office, he has focused on touting achievements such as the growing economy and low unemployment.

But households still feel the squeeze of stubborn inflation and his economic agenda, dubbed "Bidenomics," has not appeared to resonate strongly despite largely encouraging data.

- Rate cut expectations -

Economist Michael Pearce of Oxford Economics expects the inflation jump "will reverse some of the more aggressive rate cut bets this year."

Although the Fed has signaled that it saw three rate reductions this year, markets are moderating their expectations of an early start to the reductions.

But analysts and policymakers say the big picture has not changed.

Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester told an interview with Bloomberg News that the report "doesn't really change my view of where we are."

While the US economy is on the path to a soft landing, data shows "there's more work to do," said Mester, a voting member of the Fed's rate-setting committee.

"And that work is going to take restrictive monetary policy," she added, noting that March is likely too soon for a rate decline.

Experts expect the Fed to wait for more data as it mulls the path of rates.

"Fed officials will likely look through any upturn in headline CPI inflation, especially if it comes from the more volatile components," added economist Oren Klachkin of Nationwide.

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