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Prices climbed more slowly in August, welcome news for the Fed

Supply chain snarls have pushed shipping costs higher, feeding into prices for all sorts of products.
Supply chain snarls have pushed shipping costs higher, feeding into prices for all sorts of products.Kathy Tran/Bloomberg

A recent run-up in consumer prices cooled slightly in August, signaling that although inflation is higher than normal, the White House and Federal Reserve may be beginning to see the slowdown in price gains they have been hoping for.

Policymakers have consistently argued that a surprisingly strong burst of inflation this year has been tied to pandemic-related quirks and should prove temporary, and most economists agree that prices will climb more slowly as businesses adjust and supply chains return to normal. The major question hanging over the economy’s future has been how much and how quickly the jump will fade.

Tuesday’s data suggested that a surge in Delta variant coronavirus cases is weighing on airfares and hotel rates, but it also showed that price increases for key products — like cars — are beginning to moderate, helping to cool off overall inflation. The Consumer Price Index rose 5.3 percent in August from the prior year, data released Tuesday by the Labor Department showed. That’s a slightly slower annual pace than the 5.4 percent increase in July. On a monthly basis, price gains moderated to a 0.3 percent increase from July to August, down from 0.5 percent the prior month and a bigger slowdown than economists in a Bloomberg survey had expected.

The news on core inflation, which strips out volatile food and fuel prices to try to get a cleaner read of underlying price trends, was even more encouraging for policymakers hoping to see signs that price increases are slowing. That index picked up 0.1 percent for the month and 4 percent over the past year, down from 0.3 percent and 4.3 percent in the July report.

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“We’re seeing the unwinding of a lot of factors that pushed inflation points higher early in the summer,” said Guy Lebas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Capital Management. “We’ll see these rolling supply and demand imbalances gradually diminish into 2022.”

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White House economists greeted the report as confirmation of their view that prices should stop climbing so quickly heading into 2022.

“We view the report as consistent with the story we, the Federal Reserve, and the vast majority of forecasters have been talking about,” Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said after the report was released. “It’s one month, and we’re going to continue to vigilantly watch the data.”

Inflation has been running hot this year as the economy has reopened from the pandemic, causing airline fares and hotel room rates to bounce back from depressed levels. At the same time, supply chain snarls have pushed shipping costs higher, feeding into prices for all sorts of products, from lumber to toys. Labor costs have climbed for some companies, nudging inflation up around the edges, and rents are rising again as workers return to cities after fleeing during 2020.

But policymakers are betting that annual price gains will settle down toward the Fed’s 2 percent average target over time. Officials define their target using a different index than the one released Tuesday, a measure known as the Personal Consumption Expenditures index. That gauge has also picked up this year but by less, climbing 4.2 percent in the year through July.

“The rapid reopening of the economy has brought a sharp run-up in inflation,” Jerome Powell, the Fed chair, acknowledged in a speech last month. But “the baseline outlook is for continued progress toward maximum employment, with inflation returning to levels consistent with our goal of inflation averaging 2 percent over time.”

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Central bankers are hoping that quick inflation will dissipate before consumers learn to expect steadily higher prices — which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as shoppers accept loftier price tags and workers demand higher pay. A closely watched tracker of household inflation outlooks released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Monday showed that expectations rocketed up 5.2 percent in the short term and 4 percent in the medium term.

That data point is disquieting, but market-based inflation expectations have been relatively stable after moving up earlier this year, and real-world prices may begin to ease in important categories in the months ahead.

The central bank is closely watching inflation as it considers when and how to reduce the big bond purchases it has undertaken to help cushion the economy against the pandemic shock — a move that officials have repeatedly signaled could come later this year. The report likely confirmed expectations among key officials, keeping policy on its measured and heavily-communicated course.

“At the margin, the recent data will dampen some of the more excitable inflation forecasts in the markets and at the Fed,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note following the release.