Inflation hits fastest pace since 1981, at 8.5% through March
By Jeanna Smialek
Inflation hit 8.5% in the United States last month, the fastest 12-month pace since 1981, as a surge in gasoline prices tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added to sharp increases coming from the collision of strong demand and stubborn pandemic-related supply shortages.
Fuel prices jumped to record levels across much of the nation and grocery costs soared, the Labor Department said earlier this week in its monthly report on the consumer price index. The price pressures have been painful for U.S. households, especially those that have lower incomes and devote a big share of their budgets to necessities.
But the news was not uniformly bad: A measure that strips out volatile food and fuel prices decelerated slightly from February as used car prices swooned. Economists and policymakers took that as a sign that inflation in goods might be starting to cool off after climbing at a breakneck pace for much of the past year.
In fact, several economists said March may be a high-water mark for overall inflation. Price increases could begin abating in the coming months in part because gasoline prices have declined somewhat — the national average for a gallon was $4.10 on Tuesday, according to AAA, down from a $4.33 peak in March. Some researchers also expect consumers to stop buying so many goods, whether furniture or outdoor equipment, which could begin to take pressure off overtaxed supply chains.
“These numbers are likely to represent something of a peak,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at Ernst & Young’s strategy consultancy, EY-Parthenon. Still, he said, it will be crucial to watch whether price increases excluding food and fuel — so-called core prices — slow down in the months ahead.
A letup would be welcome news for the White House, because inflation has become a major liability for Democrats as midterm elections approach in November. Public confidence in the economy has fallen sharply, and as rapid price increases undermine support for President Joe Biden and his party, they could imperil their control of Congress.
While inflation is up across much of the world as economies adjust to the pandemic and share supply chain problems, core prices have risen more sharply in the United States than in places like Europe and Japan.
That has handed Republicans a talking point, especially as prices overwhelm recent wage growth. Average hourly earnings were up 5.6% in March, according to the Labor Department. But adjusted for inflation, average pay was down 2.7%.
“Americans’ paychecks are worth less and less each month,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., wrote on Twitter after the report.
While the Federal Reserve has primary responsibility for controlling inflation, the administration has taken steps to combat price increases. Biden on Tuesday announced that a summertime ban on sales of higher-ethanol gasoline blends would be suspended this year, a move that White House officials said was aimed at lowering gas prices.
The action followed the president’s decision last month to release 1 million barrels of oil a day from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months.
“I’m doing everything within my powers, by executive order, to bring down the prices and address the Putin price hike,” Biden said in Iowa on Tuesday afternoon, referring to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Inflation had risen sharply before the war in Ukraine, although the conflict has added to the pressure on energy and commodity prices.
There are a few hopeful signs that inflation could slow in the months ahead.
The first is largely mechanical. Prices began to pop last spring, which means changes will be measured against a higher year-ago number in the months ahead.
More fundamentally, March’s data showed that prices for some goods, including used cars and apparel, moderated or even fell — although the signal was somewhat inconsistent, with furniture prices rising sharply. If rapid inflation in prices for goods does wane, it could help overall inflation subside.
“It’s very welcome to see the moderation in this category,” Lael Brainard, a Fed governor and Biden’s nominee to be the central bank’s next vice chair, said in an online appearance hosted by The Wall Street Journal. “I’ll be looking to see whether we continue to see moderation in the months ahead.”
The critical question is how much and how quickly prices will come down, and recent developments ramp up the risks that uncomfortably rapid inflation could linger.
Services costs, including rent and other housing expenses, are increasing more rapidly. Those measures move slowly and are likely to be a major factor determining the course of inflation.
Wages are up sharply, pushing costs up for employers and potentially prompting them to lift prices. Businesses may feel that they have the power to pass rising costs along to customers, and even to expand their profits, because consumers have continued to spend during a full year of rapid price increases.
And cheaper goods are not guaranteed. A coronavirus outbreak is shuttering cities and disrupting production in China, and the war in Ukraine adds a huge dose of uncertainty about commodity prices and supply chains.
“The impact from these commodity price shocks, they can take a while to make it through the economy,” said Tim Mahedy, senior economist at the tax and advisory firm KPMG U.S.
After a long stretch of rapid inflation, America’s central bank is reacting, rather than waiting to see what happens next. Fed officials began raising interest rates last month and have signaled that they will continue to push them up “expeditiously” as they try to rein in lending, spending and demand, hoping to prevent steep price increases from becoming a more permanent feature of the U.S. economy.
“It’s been a shock: We went for a decade in which we could not get inflation to 2%,” Christopher J. Waller, a Fed governor, said during an event Monday. “We’re hoping that it will go away relatively fast, that’s our job, and we’re going to get it done.”
Policymakers are expected to make a half-point interest rate increase at their meeting in early May, and have indicated that they will soon begin to quickly shrink their bond holdings, a change that should reinforce higher rates and soften demand. Brainard suggested Tuesday that such a plan could be announced as soon as May, and go into effect as soon as June.
While she predicted that consumer demand would ease in the coming months as the government provided less financial help to households than in 2021 and as borrowing costs climbed, Brainard cited the war in Ukraine and Chinese lockdowns as risks that could curtail supply and keep inflation elevated.