U.S. consumer price increases eased slightly from January to February but still pointed to an elevated inflation rate that is posing a challenge for the Federal Reserve at a delicate moment for the financial system.
The government said Tuesday that prices increased 0.4% last month, just below January’s 0.5% rise. Yet excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called core prices rose 0.5% in February, slightly above January’s 0.4% gain. The Fed pays particular attention to the core measure as a gauge of underlying inflation pressures.
Why it matters
Even though prices are rising much faster than the Fed wants, some economists expect the central bank to suspend its year-long streak of interest rate hikes when it meets next week. With the collapse of two large banks since Friday fueling anxiety about other regional banks, the Fed, for now, may focus more on boosting confidence in the financial system than on its long-term drive to tame inflation.
That is a sharp shift from just a week ago, when Chair Jerome Powell suggested to a Senate committee that if inflation didn’t cool, the Fed could raise its benchmark interest rate by a substantial half-point at its meeting on March 21-22. When the Fed raises its key rate, it typically leads to higher rates on mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, and many business loans.
What it means
When measured against prices a year ago, inflation has been easing for eight months. In February, consumer prices climbed 6% from 12 months earlier, down from January’s 6.4% year-over-year increase and well below a recent peak of 9.1% in June. Yet it remains far above the Fed’s 2% annual inflation target. Core prices in February rose 5.5% from 12 months ago, down slightly from 5.6% in January.
Jan Hatzius, the chief economist at Goldman Sachs, said Goldman now thinks the Fed’s policymakers will pause their rate increases next week. Goldman had previously predicted a quarter-point hike. In a note to clients, Hatzius noted that the Fed, for now, appears even more focused on calming the banking sector and the financial markets than on fighting inflation.
— From wire reports