U.S. consumer prices rose solidly in May, leading to the biggest annual increase in nearly 13 years as a reopening economy boosted demand for travel-related services, while a global semiconductor shortage drove up prices for used motor vehicles.
The pandemic’s easing grip on the economy was also underscored by other data on Thursday showing the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in nearly 15 months.
Vaccinations against COVID-19, trillions of dollars from the government and record-low interest rates are whipping up demand, leaving companies scrambling for raw materials and labour. Very expensive used cars and trucks accounted for about one-third of the rise in consumer inflation last month, reflecting a global semiconductor shortage which is undercutting auto production.
May’s inflation drivers appear to be temporary, fitting in with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s repeated assertion that higher inflation will be transitory.
“Parts of the economy contributing the most to inflation in April and May are going through understandable short-term adjustments or merely reflating back to ‘normal’ levels,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York. “Areas not impacted by the pandemic are moderating the CPI rise. But this report confirms demand is exceeding supply.”
The consumer price index increased 0.6 per cent last month after surging 0.8 per cent in April, which was the largest gain since June, 2009. Food prices rose 0.4 per cent, but gasoline declined for a second straight month. In the 12 months through May, the CPI accelerated 5.0 per cent. That was the biggest year-on-year increase since August, 2008, and followed a 4.2-per-cent increase in April.
The jump partly reflected the dropping of last spring’s weak readings from the calculation. May was probably the peak in the CPI, with these base effects expected to level off in June. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI rising 0.4 per cent in May and vaulting 4.7 per cent year-on-year.
Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI increased 0.7 per cent after soaring 0.9 per cent in April. The core CPI was boosted by a 7.3-per-cent increase in used cars and trucks prices. New vehicle prices also increased strongly.
With at least half of the adult U.S. population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Americans are travelling.
Car rental prices increased 12.1 per cent in May. The cost of airline tickets and hotel accommodation also rose.
Consumers paid more for motor vehicle insurance, furniture and bedding, rents as well as apparel. But they got some relief from health care costs, which dipped 0.1 per cent as prices for prescription medication fell 0.3 per cent.
The core CPI shot up 3.8 per cent in the 12 months through May, the largest increase since June, 1992. The Fed 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 U.S. central bank’s preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index, excluding the volatile food and energy components, rose 3.1 per cent in April, the biggest gain since July, 1992. The Fed slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero last year and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases.
“Figures like today’s CPI will certainly be raising eyebrows at the Fed, but the bottom line is they will likely need additional evidence to determine whether upward inflation pressures will be more persistent,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist for Allianz Investment Management.
Investors shrugged off the strong inflation, lifting stocks on Wall Street. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mixed.
Inflation could get a boost from the labour market, where layoffs are subsiding. Employers are raising wages as they compete for scarce workers, with millions of unemployed Americans remaining at home because of trouble securing child care, generous unemployment benefits and lingering fears of the virus even though vaccines are now widely accessible.
In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 376,000 for the week ended June 5. That was the lowest since mid-March, 2020, when the first wave of COVID-19 infections barrelled through the country, leading to closures of non-essential businesses.
Claims have now decreased for six straight weeks. The drop in applications was led by California and Pennsylvania.
Though layoffs are subsiding, claims remain well above the 200,000 to 250,000 range that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labour market. They have, however, dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April, 2020.
Further decreases in applications are likely as Republican governors in at least 25 states, including Florida and Texas, are cutting off unemployment programs funded by the federal government for residents starting on Saturday.
These states account for about 40 per cent of the economy. The benefits being terminated early include a weekly US$300 unemployment subsidy, which businesses say is discouraging the jobless from seeking work.
The number of people continuing to receive benefits after an initial week of aid decreased 258,000 to 3.5 million during the week ended May 29. These continuing claims had been stuck in a 3.6 million-3.8 million range since the middle of March, indicating workers were rejoining the labour force.
At least 15.3 million people were on unemployment benefits under all programs during the week ended May 22. Worker shortages, despite employment being still 7.6 million jobs below its peak in February, 2020, boosted wage growth in May. There are a record 9.3 million unfilled jobs in the economy.
Be smart with your money. Get the latest investing insights delivered right to your inbox three times a week, with the Globe Investor newsletter. Sign up today.