photo by Bernhard Benke, used under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
U.S. inflation continues its steady upward trend as the Fed gets ready to increase interest rates next week. The Labor Department reported Tuesday consumer prices rose 0.2 percent in February, matching expectations of creeping inflation pressures as the economy continues into an eighth year of growth.
Food prices, a particularly volatile category, didn’t move from January. Energy too barely moved, increasing a tenth of a percent this month. Still, energy prices are up, with commodity prices increasing for the eighth month in a row year over year. This month marks the longest upward trend in over six years.
This comes as domestic oil production reaches a 50-year high. The U.S. is expected to surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top producer in 2018, the International Energy Agency announced earlier this year. The extra gasoline at home won’t mean cheaper prices for drivers, but it does soften the reliance on foreign bought oil, giving the U.S. market a tool to reel prices in.
“We can turn the spigot on very quickly, so as prices creep up, oil producers here in the US will increase production and that’ll bring the supply online,” said Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica Inc.
For Aziz Bah, a driver who’s worked for Uber, Lyft and Juno, the steady climb in prices adds friction to his already strung out budget. Two slow days and a parking ticket can wipe out his weekly earnings, he said. Bah points to cuts in Uber’s per-minute and per-mile rates as the major stressors, but gas prices are the kicker. He started driving three years ago, when the rise in gas prices above two dollars made news. In early March, the national average for a regular gallon was around $2.50. Gasoline prices have grown 11.4 percent year-over-year since last July, on average.
While energy and food prices largely stalled between January and February, core CPI, which excludes food and energy, rose at a similar 0.2 percent. The Fed keeps a closer eye on the more stable core level when considering interest rate adjustments.
Particularly now, as the economy is just two months shy of the second longest expansion in tracked U.S. history, regulators are watching for signs of exponential gains in prices. While core inflation is down half a percent from February 2017, yearly price averages rose from 1.7 percent to 1.8 percent over the past three months.
While the broader index is rising slightly, some temporary price trends account for the warming of the numbers this year. Apparel prices continued their atypical gains in February, increasing 1.5 percent last month, just short of January’s nearly thirty year high of 1.7 percent. Deep discounting in the holiday season meant a sluggish return to normal prices.
“When you get a seasonal quirk, it may unwind over the next month, or it may unwind over the next two or three,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Financial Inc.
Apparel helped push last month’s core number to 0.3 percent, a tenth above the expected level, as did autos, which finally dipped in February.
Used cars and truck prices turned down after increasing for four months, all well within one percent. The upward trend was temporary, the effect of Hurricane Harvey, which first struck Texas late last August. Lot inventories were destroyed in the storm.
“Until these inventories were replaced, that gave companies, for a very short term, additional pricing power,” said Harm Bandholz, chief U.S. economist for UniCredit Bank Ag, “and customers who lost their cars went searching for new ones.”
It will be another two months before Trump’s aluminum and steel tariffs start to show up in prices, if at all. U.S. firms paying higher prices for raw materials will have to test the consumer market. If companies can’t pass along their prices, they may lose out to foreign competition, who can keep prices low without paying for the tariff-backed raw materials.
“Whatever jobs we’re going to save in the steel industry, it’s going to be more than offset by losses in the downstream industries that use steel and aluminum,” said Brown.
Car makers are a worthy candidate to watch over the next few months.