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Inflation Is Still Burning American Wallets

The latest CPI data could keep the Federal Reserve awake at night.

After the pandemic-era inflation bombs went off, from the CARES Act to the American Rescue Plan to the Federal Reserve’s multi-trillion-dollar stimulus and relief measures, flames engulfed the US economy. The economic landscape began dousing the fire after the consumer price index (CPI) reached 9.1% in June 2022. Nearly two years later, the inflationary disaster’s smoke and stench remain throughout the country, and it is unclear when the byproducts of the manufactured calamity will be extinguished from American life. Why all the pessimism? The latest CPI data is one factor.

An Inflation Summary

In January, the annual inflation rate eased to 3.1%, down from 3.4% in December but higher than the consensus estimates of 2.9%. The core CPI, which excludes the volatile energy and food components, was flat at a higher-than-expected 3.9%. On a month-over-month basis, the CPI and core CPI rose at a hotter-than-expected pace of 0.3% and 0.4%, respectively.

The most significant contributors to last month’s inflation reading were mainly on the services side, including natural gas (2%), electricity (1.2%), transportation (1%), medical care (0.7%), and shelter (0.6%). Food prices jumped 0.4%, while energy costs tumbled 0.9%. Additionally, new vehicles were flat, used cars and trucks slumped 0.3%, and apparel dropped 0.6%.

Headlines across the mainstream media landscape were quite gloomy, with even CNBC personality Steve Liesman telling viewers that “it was just a lousy month when it came to inflation.” You cannot blame the cheerleaders in the press for feeling bearish because a deeper dive into the report revealed uncomfortable truths: kitchen staples (bread, coffee, and eggs) were more expensive, rents were higher, vehicle-related costs surged, and day-to-day services increased.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Real (inflation-adjusted) average weekly earnings turned negative in January for the first time in seven months. Moreover, while the growth rate of inflation is slowing, the seasonally adjusted CPI climbed to nearly 310 points, up 19% since President Joe Biden arrived at the White House.

The Volcker Era

Financial markets tanked on the news, with the leading benchmark indexes deep in the red. The US dollar and Treasury yields soared. Why did these three events happen on Wall Street? The Fed.

Investors no longer anticipate the central bank pulling the trigger on the first rate cut in May. Fed Chair Jerome Powell already confirmed that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will not slash rates at next month’s powwow. The futures market is now penciling in the first reduction to the Fed funds rate in June, according to the CME FedWatch Tool.

For the central bank, it is a balancing act. The economy and labor market remain intact, but this is also helping to keep the inflation flame alive. A solid economic climate affords the Eccles Building the luxury to keep interest rates higher for longer without disrupting activity. The longer the Fed keeps rates high, the greater the risk of overtightening and breaking something. In addition, the central bank’s higher-for-longer mantra would keep bond yields elevated, making borrowing costs – for both the US government and consumers – continue to be above trend. Should the Fed cut rates prematurely, it potentially leaves the door open for a pivot back to raising rates and repeating the roller coaster ride of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.

The Usual Suspects

So, despite all the actions fiscal and monetary policymakers have taken, why is the inflation beast still swimming in the Swamp? The usual suspects are alive and well. Money supply growth has reaccelerated. The federal government is spending more than it receives. The Treasury is borrowing $1 trillion over the next six months. Washington has yet to understand why the progress on inflation has ground to a halt. But please tell the American people why Russian President Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine and Corporate America engaging in the practice of shrinkflation are the root causes of the folks’ unhappiness and suffering.

Read More From Andrew Moran

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