U.S. consumer prices increased by the most in 13 years in June amid supply constraints and a continued rebound in the costs of travel-related services from pandemic-depressed levels as the economic recovery gathered momentum.
With used cars and trucks accounting for more than one-third of the surge in prices reported by the Labour Department on Tuesday, economists continued to believe that higher inflation was transitory, aligning with Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell’s long-standing views.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note briefly shot up before retreating as investors concluded the U.S. central bank would likely maintain its ultraeasy monetary policy position for a while. Mr. Powell will present the semi-annual Monetary Policy Report to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.
“June’s [consumer price index] numbers looked scary, but once again, we see that it was mainly temporary price increases that pumped up the figures,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Va. “Over all, this report is consistent with inflation cooling off later this year.”
The consumer price index increased 0.9 per cent last month, the largest gain since June, 2008, after advancing 0.6 per cent in May. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI would climb 0.5 per cent. Used cars and trucks prices accelerated 10.5 per cent. That was the biggest jump since January, 1953, when the government started tracking the series. Used cars and trucks have been the major driver of inflation in recent months.
They surged a record 45.2 per cent on a year-over-year basis. A global semi-conductor shortage has undercut motor vehicle production. New motor vehicle prices also rose solidly. Demand is mostly being driven by rental companies, desperate to restock after off-loading their fleets at the height of the pandemic. Industry data suggest used car and truck prices will soon cool off.
But there are signs inflation is spreading beyond the sectors at the centre of the economy’s reopening, with consumers paying more for food, gasoline, rents and apparel last month. That could sharpen criticism of the very accommodative monetary and fiscal policies. COVID-19 vaccinations, low interest rates and nearly US$6-trillion in government relief since the pandemic started in the United States in March, 2020, are fuelling demand, straining the supply chain.
White House officials are cautiously optimistic the current increase in prices will be transitory, citing a continued drop in forward prices for lumber and other goods that experienced sharp increases as a result of supply chain bottlenecks. Steel capacity had also risen substantially over the past few months, they said.
In the 12 months through June, the CPI jumped 5.4 per cent. That was the largest gain since August, 2008, and followed a 5-per-cent increase in May. Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI accelerated 0.9 per cent after increasing 0.7 per cent in May. The core CPI surged 4.5 per cent on a year-over-year basis, the largest rise since November, 1991, after advancing 3.8 per cent in May.
Stocks on Wall Street were mixed. The dollar gained versus a basket of currencies. Longer-dated U.S. Treasury prices rose.
The U.S. central bank slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero last year and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. It has signalled it could tolerate higher inflation for some time to offset years in which inflation was lodged below its 2-per-cent target, a flexible average.
The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures price index, jumped 3.4 per cent in May, the largest gain since April, 1992. Minutes of the Fed’s June 15-16 policy meeting published last week showed “a substantial majority” of officials saw inflation risks “tilted to the upside,” and the central bank as a whole felt it needed to be prepared to act if those risks materialized.
Annual inflation rates have been boosted by the dropping of last spring’s weak readings from the CPI calculation. June was likely the peak in these base effects.
“The fact that the recent run-up in inflation has been dominated by a few categories should give the Fed leadership continued confidence in their view that it is mostly a transitory increase, a view which the market apparently shares,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan in New York.
With nearly 160 million Americans immunized, demand for travel is picking up. Lodging away from home including hotel and motel accommodation shot up 7.9 per cent. Prices for airline tickets rose 2.7 per cent. Although inflation has likely peaked, it is expected to remain elevated through part of 2022, as prices for many travel-related services are still below prepandemic levels.
But some factors boosting inflation could last beyond next year. Rents rose solidly in June and could soar as workers return to offices, pulling people back to cities and other urban centres amid the subsiding pandemic in the U.S.
Worker shortages, even as millions of Americans are unemployed, are also seen pushing up wages and keeping inflation elevated. Lack of affordable child care is keeping some parents at home. The pandemic also forced early retirements, reducing the labour pool.
“It is difficult to argue that everything will be back to normal in a few months,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Rent won’t remain tame once the government restrictions on eviction are over. The housing shortages will keep boosting rents.”
But the course of inflation will likely be determined by consumers’ and businesses’ perceptions.
“The big concern is that current high inflation gets built into consumers’ and businesses’ expectations, leading to higher long-run inflation, as happened in the 1970s,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh. “However, the temporary nature of current inflation pressures, and Fed watchfulness, should prevent this from happening.”
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