The Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge slowed down significantly last month, which is a positive sign in their year-long effort to reduce price pressures through consistent interest rate hikes. The Commerce Department’s report on Friday revealed that consumer prices experienced a 0.3% increase from January to February, which is lower than the previous month’s 0.6% increase from December to January. Meanwhile, the year-over-year increase in prices slowed down to 5%, compared to January’s 5.3% annual increase. Likewise, the core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, rose by 0.3% from January and 4.6% from the previous year. Although this is a slowdown from the previous month, the Fed takes this measure carefully as an indicator of underlying inflation pressures.
Despite the gradual decrease in inflation pressures, the report shows that it is still holding onto the economy. The Fed has raised its benchmark rate nine times since March last year to tackle the inflation that reached a four-decade high in mid-2022. Consumer spending rose by 0.2% from January to February, lower than the previous month’s 2% increase. However, Phil Levy, the chief economist at supply chain firm Flexport, pointed out that the government revised up January’s consumer spending figures, indicating that Americans have the financial capability to keep spending.
The results also showed that job openings remain high, hiring is strong, and layoffs are still low, driving upward pressure on wages that contribute to inflation. Even though there has been a slowdown, consumer prices still rose year-over-year well above the Fed’s 2% target. Earlier this month, the Labor Department indicated that the consumer price index rose 0.4% from January to February and 6% from February last year.
The Fed’s policymaking has been complicated by the turmoil that erupted in the financial system after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and New York-based Signature, the second- and third-biggest bank failures in U.S. history. Thus, the central bank must consider the risk that their efforts to cool inflation through ever-higher interest rates could further destabilize the banking system.
According to Levy, the report’s year-over-year core inflation of 4.6% remained high in February, suggesting that inflationary pressures are persistent and that the Fed has work to do. Nevertheless, at 4.6% of after-tax income, the savings rate ticked up in February, signaling that Americans can afford to keep spending.
Inflation is still affecting many American families negatively. Eurozone inflation declined to its lowest level in a year as energy prices dropped, but food costs still rose, thereby putting pressure on the European Central Bank to raise rates further. In the United States, the Fed monitors the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index, which showed a lower inflation level than the government’s consumer price index, mainly because rents, the primary drivers of inflation, carry twice as much weight in the CPI than they do in the PCE. The PCE price index is also an important indicator of emerging trends in consumer behavior during inflation increases.