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Price growth continued to cool in January, bolstering hopes for a ‘soft landing’

U.S. price growth cooled in January, slowing from 3.4% to 3.1% on a 12-month basis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday.

Excluding food and gas prices, “core” price growth was flat at 3.9% compared with December.

While price growth continued to drift downward last month, the January data missed expectations for a more robust slowdown: Ahead of the report, economists surveyed were expecting a reading of 2.9%. They also expected a lower reading for the “core” reading, at 3.7%.

The data showed an unexpected increase in shelter costs, which include rent and homeownership. These climbed more than 6% on a 12-month basis.

However, in a note to clients, Capital Economics research group’s chief U.S. economist Paul Ashworth said such increases are unlikely to be sustained given more recent measures of rent growth.

“There is still plenty of disinflation in the economy,” Ashworth wrote.

Still, Tuesday’s report is another sign that elevated inflation continues to pervade parts of the U.S. economy.

While the pace of 12-month price increases has slowed from the near-double-digit highs reached in the summer of 2022, American consumers are still encountering higher prices compared with pre-pandemic prices.

With a few exceptions, economists agree that these higher price levels are most likely here to stay. Now, the question is how quickly price growth for consumer goods and services will continue to slow.

High price tolerance

Still, consumers appear to be adjusting to a new normal of higher prices. NBC News recently covered how the cost of fast food — traditionally seen as a refuge from high-priced dining — has surged in the post-pandemic period.

“Eating at home has become more affordable,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said in a call with analysts last week, noting that consumers making $45,000 or less per year were showing particular price sensitivity. “The battleground is certainly with that low-income consumer.”

After a massive surge amid the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, price growth for food at home has slowed dramatically — to just 1.3% on a 12-month basis in December.

By comparison, the price of food away from home has climbed, rising just above 5% on a 12-month basis in December.

Despite the recent divergence, the price of food in both categories has surged an identical 25% since the start of the pandemic. It’s one reason it has taken so long for consumer confidence to rebound in the post-pandemic period and overall readings remain below pre-pandemic levels.

As for Tuesday’s report, economists say that while it is likely to show marginal improvement toward the Federal Reserve’s official target of 2% annual inflation, it looks like solid economic growth will keep the pace of price increases elevated.

“We continue to see the path back to 2-percent inflation as challenging, absent a more significant loosening in the labor and housing markets,” economists with Citibank wrote in a note to clients Monday.

In other words, slower price growth could come at the cost of higher unemployment.

But absent a weakening labor market, price growth may be stuck above the 2% target, given wage and home price increases that remain elevated, the Citi analysts said.

Hurry up and wait

If that is the case, lower interest rates may not begin to materialize until late spring or early summer. In his most recent remarks, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said he would need to see greater confidence that inflation was slowing meaningfully. Powell also indicated that an interest rate cut in March was highly unlikely.

After March, the next opportunity for the Fed to announce a rate cut would be May 1. But the Citi analysts say it might take one more meeting after that, in June, for the first rate cut to come.

Analysts at Bank of America also see June as the likeliest month for the first rate cut since the end of the pandemic. In a note to clients Monday, they said January’s data will help Fed officials build a case for a rate cut in June but won’t be decisive on its own.

Meanwhile, the chief political victim of higher inflation remains President Joe Biden. In the latest NBC News poll, Biden’s chief Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump, held a 22-point advantage on the question of which presidential candidate would do a better job handling the economy, with 55% picking Trump and 33% choosing Biden.

A separate poll published last month by Harvard CAPS-Harris found that immigration had surpassed inflation as the chief concern among voters who were surveyed — but with inflation still ranking second.

Over the weekend, Biden called on corporations to curb the trend of “shrinkflation,” charging the same prices for lesser-sized goods. A report released by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., found that household paper products were 34.9% more expensive per unit than they were in January 2019, with about 10.3% of the increase due to producers’ shrinking the sizes of rolls and packages.

As for how Trump would tackle inflation, liberal and conservative economists alike say some of his proposals — specifically adding foreign tariffs on imports and limiting immigration — could actually reignite it. Trump has also promised to replace Powell, whom he nominated when he was president in 2017, as Federal Reserve chairman, though only because, Trump said, he believed Powell would seek to “help the Democrats” by cutting interest rates in advance of the November 2024 election, a claim that is unfounded.

The Fed has historically sought to immunize itself from political pressures and didn’t comment on Trump’s remarks.

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