February’s core 12-month inflation rate met or surpassed the Federal Reserve’s target for the fourth month in a row, showing signs of a strengthening economy.
The core index, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, increased 0.3 percent in February and rose 2.3 percent over the past year — the largest 12-month increase since May 2012, according to Wednesday’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Fed’s target inflation rate is 2.0 percent.
Yet, despite those positive signals, the Fed, also on Wednesday, demonstrated more concern about the economy than about inflation. It didn’t raise interest rates and announced that it was slowing down its plans for future increases this year from four to two, citing an uncertain global landscape.
“We’re close to full employment and inflation rose, but the Fed did not raise rates. It’s a disconcerting sign for the overall health of the economy,” said Jason Schenker, president of Austin, Texas–based Prestige Economics. “It’s a bearish signal.”
Rather than a targeted 1.0 percent rise, the Fed is now aiming for 0.5 percent, and most analysts do not expect the next raise to come until June, even though the Fed board meets again in April.
“What’s really surprising is in December the dynamics of the labor market warranted a rate hike, and that’s not too dissimilar from where we are this month, and yet they’re on hold,” Schenker continued. “The inaction belies some potential underlying concern.”
Still, though the Fed may be hesitant on raising rates, core prices are marching upward.
“I’ve definitely noticed food prices increasing, especially chicken and meat,” said Brooklyn resident Felecia Thompson, 30. “Also milk and cooking oil.”
After showing declines in recent months, food prices rose 0.2 percent for the month and 0.9 percent on the year. But the categories with the biggest monthly gains were apparel, housing and health care.
Apparel’s first uptick in January after four months of declines strengthened in February with a 1.6 percent surge and had an annualize increase of 0.9 percent. Housing prices were up 3.3 percent for the 12-month period. Medical care services rose 0.5 percent in February and were up 3.9 percent over the past year.
“Everything is going up, prices for housing, clothing, food,” said Shakisha Staley, 30, of Schenectady, N.Y. “I’m using coupons more and looking for sales. Coupons have become my best friend.”
What wiped out overall gains for the general index were continued price declines for energy — 6% overall and 13% for gasoline. February’s general index repeated January’s number and declined 0.2 percent, which was in line with analyst expectations. Prices for the 12-month index increased 1.0 percent.
“The significant declines in energy and gas of that magnitude was a big surprise,” said Hugh Johnson, chief economist of Albany, N.Y.–based Hugh Johnson Advisors, given that oil prices have been rising again. “But it’s important to keep in mind these numbers jump around from month to month. In March, we will see a recovery in the overall number.”
Indeed, the decline in energy prices seems to be slowing overall, despite the big February dip. The percentage price drops have been decreasing for the most part over the past year, going from -19.6 percent in January 2015 to -6.5 percent this past January. February’s sharper decline may be a blip given that Brent crude oil prices are now above $40 a barrel.
Schenker also voiced concern about being in “an industrial and manufacturing recession.” That may in essence be true, as February’s Manufacturing ISM Report on Business showed contraction in the sector for the fifth month in a row. However, the numbers were an improvement over January’s, with the production index up 2.6 percentage points to 52.8 percent and new orders remaining steady at 51.5 percent. (Numbers above 50 percent represent expansion.)
“Manufacturing is finding traction, it’s stabilizing, and the stored up inventory at the end of 2015 is finally being depleted,” countered Mikhail Melnik, associate professor of economics at Atlanta’s Kennesaw State University.
In addition, manufacturing represents a smaller portion of the economy, while the service sector, by far a larger employer, has seen steady growth.
And with the dollar stabilizing, manufacturing stabilizing and oil prices rising, April’s monthly CPI number could be positive and the 12-month cumulative change even stronger — which would make another Fed inaction even more suspect.
“If you don’t like the February numbers, March will be more exciting,” Melnik said. “The meltdown in energy prices is reversing itself, and we’ll see inflation accelerate.”