By Christopher Rugaber
An inflation gauge closely tracked by the Federal Reserve rose 6.3% in April from a year earlier, the first slowdown since November 2020 and a sign that high prices may finally be moderating, at least for now.
The inflation figure the Commerce Department reported Friday was below the four-decade high of 6.6% set in March. While high inflation is still causing hardships for millions of households, any slowing of price increases, if sustained, would provide some modest relief.
The report also showed that consumer spending rose at a healthy 0.9% annual rate from March to April, outpacing the month-to-month inflation rate for a fourth straight time. The ongoing willingness of the nation's consumers to keep spending freely despite inflated prices is helping sustain the economy. Yet all that spending is helping keep prices high and could make the Federal Reserve's goal of taming inflation even harder.
“Inflation is finally slowing, but it’s a little early for high-fives,” said Bill Adams, chief economist at Comerica Bank.
Adams noted that gas and food prices have risen in May and that Russia's war against Ukraine and COVID-19-related lockdowns in China could further disrupt supply shortages and send prices accelerating again.
Consumers' resilience in the face of sharply higher prices suggests that economic growth is rebounding in the current April-June quarter. The economy shrank at a 1.5% annual rate in the first quarter, mostly because of an increase in the trade deficit. But analysts now project that, on an annual basis, it's growing as much as 3% in the current quarter.
Americans have been able to keep spending, despite higher inflation, because of rising wages, a stockpile of savings built up during the pandemic and a rebound in credit card use. Economists say those factors could bolster spending and support the economy for much of this year.
Incomes rose 0.4% from March to April, Friday's report showed, slightly faster than inflation. Still, high inflation is forcing consumers, on average, to save less. The savings rate fell to 4.4% last month, the lowest level since 2008. Overall, though, Americans have built up an additional $2.5 trillion in savings since the pandemic, and economists calculate that that pile is eroding only slowly.
Friday's report showed that on a month-to-month basis, prices rose 0.2% from March to April, down from the 0.9% increase from February to March. The April increase was the smallest since November 2020.
Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, so-called core prices rose 0.3% from March to April, matching the previous month's rise. Core prices climbed 4.9% from a year earlier, the first such drop since October 2020.
Still, inflation remains painfully high, and it's inflicting a heavy burden in particular on lower-income households, many of them Black or Hispanic. Surging demand for furniture, appliances and other goods, combined with supply chain snarls, began sending prices surging about a year ago.
Consumers have shifted some of their spending from goods to services, like airline fares and entertainment tickets. That trend could help cool inflation in the months ahead, though it's unclear by how much.
Goods prices, which were the major drivers of inflation last year, fell 0.2% from March to April after having jumped the previous month. Used car prices dropped 2.3% in April, though they're still much more expensive than a year ago. The cost of clothing, appliances, and computers also declined.
And retailers like Target have reported rising stockpiles of televisions, patio furniture and other goods for the home as consumers have shifted their spending more toward travel and services-related goods like luggage and restaurant gift cards.
Those stores will likely have to offer discounts to clear inventory in the coming months. And auto manufacturers have been ramping up production as some supply chain snarls untangle and as they have managed to hire more workers. Both trends could keep reducing the cost of manufactured items.
Yet the cost of such services as restaurant meals, plane tickets and hotel rooms is still rising, offsetting much of the relief from cheaper goods. And the rising prices of gas and food, worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will keep measures of inflation painfully high at least into the summer. The national average price of a gallon of gas has reached $4.60, according to AAA. A year ago, it was $3.04.
Chair Jerome Powell has pledged to keep ratcheting up the Fed's key short-term interest rate until inflation is “coming down in a clear and convincing way.” Those rate hikes have spurred fears that the Fed, in its drive to slow borrowing and spending, may push the economy into a recession. That concern has caused sharp drops in stock prices in the past two months, though markets have rallied this week.
Powell has signaled that the Fed will likely raise its benchmark rate by a half-point in both June and July — twice the size of the usual rate increase.
Most economists have forecast that inflation, as measured by the Fed’s preferred gauge, will still be at about 4% or higher by the end of this year. Price increases at that level would likely mean that the Fed will still raise interest rates to lower inflation to its 2% target.
A better-known inflation gauge, the consumer price index, earlier this month also reported a slowing in price gains. The CPI jumped 8.3% in April from a year earlier, down from a 40-year high in March of 8.5%.
The inflation measure reported Friday, called the personal consumption expenditures price index, differs in several ways from the consumer price index that help explain why it shows a lower inflation level than the CPI does.
The PCE is a broader measure of inflation that includes payments made on behalf of consumers, such as medical services covered by insurance or government programs. The CPI covers only out-of-pocket costs, which in recent years have risen more. Rents, which are steadily rising, are also given less weight in the PCE than in the CPI.
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.
Updated on May 27, 2022, at 12:06 p.m. ET with additional details.