WASHINGTON – A measure of inflation that is closely monitored by the Federal Reserve remained painfully high last month, the latest sign that prices for most goods and services in the United States are still rising steadily.
Friday's report from the Commerce Department showed that prices rose 6.2% in September from 12 months earlier, the same year-over-year rate as in August.
Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called core prices rose 5.1% last month from a year earlier. That's faster than the 4.9% annual increase in August, though below a four-decade high of 5.4% reached in February.
The latest price figures come just as Americans have begun voting in midterm elections in which Democrats' control of Congress is at stake and inflation has shot to the top of voters' concerns. Republicans have heaped blame on President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats for the skyrocketing prices that have buffeted households across the country.
The persistence of high inflation, near the worst in four decades, has intensified pressure on the Fed to keep aggressively raising its key short-term interest rate to try to wrestle rising prices under control. Last month, the Fed raised its key rate by a substantial three-quarters of a point for a third straight time, and next week it’s expected to do so for a fourth time.
Higher pay is helping maintain spending for many workers. Wages and benefits rose 5% in the July-September quarter from a year ago. That was a healthy gain, just below a two-decade high of 5.1% reached in the April-June quarter.
Still, there are signs that pay growth is cooling a bit. On a quarterly basis, it rose 1.2% from the April-June quarter to the July-September period. Yet that marked a second straight quarterly slowdown after compensation growth had reached a 20-year high of 1.4% in the first three months of 2022.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell has previously mentioned the wage figures released Friday, known as the employment cost index, as among the most important measures of worker pay. Since the pandemic recession ended, the index has soared, with companies offering more generous pay and benefits to attract and keep workers.
Businesses often pass on the cost of that higher pay to their customers in the form of price increases, thereby worsening inflation. As a result, the slight slowing in pay gains may be welcomed by the Fed as a sign that inflation pressures are easing.
Though consumers spent at a solid pace last month, there were signs in Friday's report that this trend might not last. Many Americans are tapping their savings to keep up with inflated costs for groceries, rents and utilities or are taking on more credit card debt. The saving rate fell to 3.1%, just above 3% in June, which was the lowest level in 14 years.
Americans, on average, built up their savings during the pandemic, a time when many people stayed home, postponed travel and vacations and dined out less. Economists estimate that that extra savings totaled about $2.4 trillion last year, mostly among higher-income Americans. But it is being spent down and now stands at about $1.5 trillion.
Friday's report also showed that consumers spent more last month, even after adjusting for inflation, a sign of Americans’ willingness to keep spending in the face of high prices. Consumer spending increased 0.6% from August to September, or 0.3% after accounting for price increases.
“The modest deceleration in wage growth is surely welcomed by the Fed but won’t prevent a 0.75 percentage point rate hike at next week’s FOMC meeting,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics.
The central bank’s latest rate hikes far exceed the quarter-point increases that it typically used in the past when it sought to tighten credit to fight inflation. But after being caught off guard beginning late last year, when prices accelerated far more than the Fed’s policymakers had anticipated, the officials have been raising their benchmark rate at the fastest pace in four decades. In doing so, they are raising the risk of a recession — something that many economists expect to occur sometime next year as a result.
The Fed’s hikes have led to much higher loan rates for businesses and consumers, particularly for mortgages. The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate surged past 7% this week, according to Freddie Mac, the highest level in two decades and more than twice what it was a year ago.
The rapid run-up in borrowing costs has crushed the housing market. Sales of existing homes have dropped for eight straight months and are down nearly 25% in the past year. New-home sales and construction are also falling.
A weaker housing market has slowed the economy, as fewer home purchases also drag down sales of furniture, appliances, and home improvement gear.
Home prices, which rocketed during the pandemic, have started to fall as a result. The S&P Case-Shiller home price index fell from July to August for a second straight month, according to the latest data available.
But those declines have yet to show up in the government’s measures of housing costs, which include rents, which are still rising for many people as they renew their leases. It could take until late spring or summer before falling home prices work their way into the government’s inflation indexes. That delay could keep official measures of inflation from falling much over the next few months.
Auto prices are also showing early signs of easing, though they are still much higher than before the pandemic. Vehicle prices ticked up 0.1% from August to September, the smallest increase in six months.
The Fed monitors Friday’s inflation gauge, called the personal consumption expenditures price index, more closely than it does the government’s better-known consumer price index. Earlier this month, the government said the CPI rose 8.2% in September from a month earlier, down from June's 9.1% increase, the biggest in four decades. The decline reflected mostly cheaper gas prices.
The PCE index tends to show a lower inflation level than CPI. Rents, which are rising at their fastest pace in 35 years, have double the weight in the CPI as in the PCE.
The PCE price index also seeks to account for changes in how people shop when inflation jumps. As a result, it can capture, for example, when consumers switch from pricey national brands to cheaper store brands.