Inflation slowed further in December, the sixth month in a row


Inflation eased again in December, giving relief to households and businesses nationwide and offering more assurance to economic policymakers that price increases are pulling back after they soared to 40-year highs last year.

The latest inflation data, released Thursday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed prices rose 6.5 percent in December compared with the year before — and fell 0.1 percent compared with November, the first time prices have dropped month-over-month since May 2020. It was the slowest rate of annual price increases since October 2021. Inflation is still well above normal levels, and the economy remains vulnerable to shocks that could send prices back up. But officials and American families alike have been desperate for signs that the Federal Reserves’s fight against inflation is working and that the economy will continue to stabilize in 2023.

“The Fed is likely preparing to pause [rate hikes] sometime before the middle of the year, and that’s about as good as you’re going be able to get,” Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM, said of the inflation report. “But just remember: Go into a grocery store today, and look at the price of eggs. And remind yourself: Don’t get overexcited about inflation.”

Stocks were essentially flat at Thursday’s open. The Dow Jones industrial average was barely in the green, as was the S&P 500. The Nasdaq was slightly negative.

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The December report, known as the consumer price index, follows encouraging news from October and November, when prices fell more than expected, helping to alleviate worries of a one-off drop. Falling costs for gasoline significantly helped pull down prices in December, more than offsetting a continued rise in shelter costs.

Prices for used cars and trucks fell 2.5 percent in December, the sixth consecutive month of declines. Airfares fell 3.1 percent, slightly better than in November. Food costs improved, rising 0.3 percent in December, compared to 0.5 percent in November. Egg costs, however, popped 11.1 percent as the industry deals with a severe outbreak of avian flu.

Yet housing costs continue to be a major driver of inflation, rising 7.5 percent over the last year, and accounting for more than half of the total increase in a measure known as “core inflation,” which strips out more volatile categories like food and energy. Specifically, rent climbed 0.8 percent in December, as it had the previous month.

Other notable increases included household furnishings and operations (up 6.7 percent), medical care (up 4 percent) and new vehicles (up 5.9 percent).

Economists have many ways to look under the hood of the inflation report to tease out whether supply chains are improving or if worker shortages are putting pressure on prices. Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left D.C.-based think tank, said she has been particularly focused on goods prices, which soared earlier in the pandemic as people shifted their spending from services to goods. That could mean eating out less at restaurants in exchange for new kitchen equipment.

“If we didn’t see deflation in this category, it’d would me a lot less hope that we were really going to get inflation under control without a whole lot of pain,” Edelberg said. “And indeed, three months of outright declines — that is spectacular news.”

If a trend toward lower price increases is in the making, there’s a long way to go. Rent costs weigh heavily on overall inflation and aren’t expected to come down meaningfully until later this year, despite a major slowdown in the housing market. To spot areas of the economy where inflation may pose a longer-term problem, Fed officials have directed their attention to a narrow measure of inflation that focuses on services outside of the food, energy and housing markets, where price growth can be especially sticky and put more pressure on wages. These services include health care, education and hospitality.

“It is the core services inflation, excluding shelter services, that just has shown no sense that it’s coming down,” San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly said this week at an event with the Wall Street Journal. “And that historically [has] been persistent and very highly related to the progression of the labor market and wage growth.”

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Fed officials have long said their decisions will be guided by incoming data, and the December report won’t overhaul their outlook in any direction. But it will help fill in their expectations for where inflation is headed before their next meeting, set for Jan. 31-Feb. 1. They’re expected to raise interest rates by either half a percentage point or one-quarter of a percentage point as they get closer to pausing hikes altogether.

On the heels of Thursday’s report, Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said he expected a few more rate hikes this year and that “hikes of 25 basis points will be appropriate going forward.” Boston Fed President Susan Collins told the New York Times on Tuesday, before the data release, that she was leaning toward a quarter-point interest rate increase, as well.

For nearly all of 2022, the Fed scrambled to catch up to sky-high prices and hoisted rates by more than four percentage points over the course of the year, the fastest pace in decades. Central bankers aren’t quite finished yet, and they’ve signaled two or three more increases in the coming months. But they will soon shift into a new chapter, pausing rates and keeping pressure on the economy simply by holding borrowing costs high rather than pushing them up more.

The obvious risk is that the Fed might slow the economy so much that it forces a recession. If history is any guide, that could happen this year as the full scope of high rates take hold. But so far, many parts of the economy remain surprisingly resilient: Employers are still eager to hire, and the job market added a strong 223,000 jobs in December. Consumer spending stayed strong through the holiday season. And though layoffs have hit certain parts of the economy, like the housing and tech industries, they are far from widespread.

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Still, uncertainty about the economy’s future can be enough to spook people into pulling back. At First Class Tattoo in New York City, owner Mikhail Andersson said he’s had more cancellations over the past few months than ever before. People will call in the middle of multiday sessions and say they have to wait and save up money before coming back.

Meanwhile, the cost of every single thing Andersson needs to run his shop has gone up, from gloves to paper towels to medical supplies. Yet he hasn’t raised prices because “if we raise the price, we lose the clients.” Andersson has seen a pickup in business since the new year began, possibly from customers who got gift cards or cash over the holidays. He hopes it sticks.

“Our business itself — it’s not like groceries. So when the economy gets hit, it’s not necessary,” Andersson said. “If people don’t have extra money, they’re not going to get a tattoo. They’re going to feed their family.”

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