Inflation signals were mixed in January, with the general level unchanged while the core level showed an increase.
Despite economists predicting a 0.1 percent decline, the Consumer Price Index, which measures the percentage change in the cost of a representative basket of consumer goods and services, remained steady for the month, according to the Labor Department Friday morning.
While several sectors including apparel, medical and transportation showed significant growth, these gains were offset by continued declines in food and energy prices, led by another drop in the price of fuel oil.
The 12-month inflation level, however, doubled to 1.4 percent from a month earlier, the fastest rise since October 2014.
And the core index, which removes the volatile food and energy sectors, also beat expectations with a price increase of 0.3 percent for the month. It soared to 2.2 percent for the yearly figure — the highest since June 2012 and above the Federal Reserve’s target of 2.0 percent inflation.
“I think it’s on an overall trend upward, and that’s what you see in the data,” said Stuart G. Hoffman, senior vice president and chief economist for the PNC Financial Services Group. “But I’m not alarmed by it, I don’t think it sets off any inflationary concerns.”
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Despite the surprise increases, inflation growth rates remain low, and this month’s data could be a blip — commodities (minus those in energy and food) and apparel prices had declined or remained even each of the prior four months. There’s also continued global economic insecurity and low oil prices to consider.
All this means the Federal Reserve is likely to keep interests rates even in March, and will wait to see if there’s a more sustained upswing before committing to another hike.
In addition, the Fed follows the Personal Consumption Expenditures report for inflation, which gives a lower weight to health care costs. The CPI saw rises in both medical commodities and services.
By contrast, the Producer Price Index released the prior week showed a slight decline in medical prices. The PCE report is next released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on Feb. 26.
If the economy continues to show improvement, “that’s what will set up a rate hike in June,” Hoffman said. “But if energy prices continue to fall and the stock market keeps going down, that will call those forecasts into question.”
Also not concerned about an uptick in inflation is A. Gary Shilling. The New Jersey-based economic consultant believes the numbers are overstated.
“The key reason is the way they treat housing in the index,” Shilling said.
The CPI assumes everyone who owns a house rents it from themselves. Rents are rising, partially because of increased demand from millennials who are not buying houses as soon in their lives as prior generations did due to high student debt, low credit scores and weak job security.
“It’s basically pushed this number up. It’s significant,” Shilling said, adding that if removed from the equation it would bring the year-over-year CPI down about a quarter of a percentage point.
In addition to low inflation, average weekly earnings and the average workweek ticked up in January, according to the BLS’ Real Earnings report, also released Friday. This means people are working longer, incomes are up and prices are flat.
“That’s a good combination for real income and having [people’s] money stretch further,” Hoffman said.