Here’s a fact: Inflation will eventually cool off.
Here’s another fact: No one really knows when.
Prices for consumer goods and services increased at an annual rate of 8.3 percent in April, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wednesday. That was a few ticks down from 8.5 percent in March, the first decline in eight months.
It was welcome news. It reinforced the view of some economists that inflation may have even peaked.
But this bad movie is far from over.
Consider prices are still escalating at rates we haven’t seen since the early 1980s. And consider that gasoline prices, which eased in April, are rising again as we shift into summer driving gear and the flow of Russian oil to the West remains in doubt after its invasion of Ukraine.
The average cost for a gallon of regular gas in Massachusetts hit $4.45 on Wednesday, according to AAA. That’s a record, though when adjusting for inflation, prices were higher in 2008.
Meanwhile, food prices are still climbing. Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are up 14 percent from a year ago.Cereals and other baked goods: plus 10 percent. Dairy products have risen 9.1 percent.
Economists like to strip out food and energy costs, which tend to be volatile, to get a sense of where underlying inflation is headed. This so-called core rate picked up steam from March to April. Not encouraging.
Airfares are up 19 percent just from March, on a seasonally adjusted basis, as a stir-crazy nation rediscovers the joys of flying. Meals at full-service restaurants cost 7.2 percent more than a year earlier (tip not included). The price of new cars has risen 14 percent, while used cars and trucks are up 23 percent.
Who or what gets the blame?
Start with the pandemic, which in March 2020 triggered the shortest, sharpest recession we’ve ever seen. The economy came roaring back, but fixing the damage COVID caused to the labor market and global supply chains has taken longer than anyone expected.
Curse Vladimir Putin every time you fill up the tank. Curse him even if you don’t own a car.
And, yes, we are paying the price for the trillions in pandemic relief passed by Congress under presidents Trump and Biden. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, Biden’s final package was too generous and left us with too much cash chasing too few goods. Trump, of course, bungled the government’s COVID response so badly that it made sense, at the time, for Biden and the Democrats to err on the side of going too big rather than too small.
Now it’s up to the Federal Reserve to clean up this mess, which they helped make by waiting too long to tighten credit. Central bank officials are now vowing to do whatever it takes to pound inflation into submission. They are raising interest rates in an effort to sap consumer and business demand for goods and services. They are draining billions of dollars a month from the financial system.
Already, mortgage rates have surged past 5 percent, which is expected to slow the growth in housing prices. The stock market, a source of much wealth and consumer confidence when strong, has taken a beating as investors brace for higher rates and a possible economic slowdown. The Wilshire 5000 index, which tracks nearly all US stocks, has given up more than $10 trillion in market value this year.
The Fed will succeed, just as Paul Volcker did back in the early 1980s. It’s just a question of how high the central bank will have to boost rates — and if it can bring inflation to heel without causing a recession, an outcome Volcker couldn’t avoid when he was Fed chairman.
The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, called the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, increased at an annual rate of 6.6 percent in March, the most recent month for which the data is available. That far exceeds its 2 percent comfort level.
In its latest projections, the Fed indicated that PCE would fall to 4.3 percent by the end of the year, and 2.7 percent by the end of 2023. Economists aren’t quite as optimistic.
Even if the Fed is right, prices will be rising at a discomfiting rate for an extended period.