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Live Updates: Inflation Stronger Than Expected

Live Updates: Inflation Stronger Than Expected


Jeanna Smialek

A closely watched measure of inflation remained stronger than expected in March, worrying news for Federal Reserve officials who have become increasingly concerned that their progress on lowering prices increases might be stalling.

The surprisingly stubborn inflation reading could raise doubts about when the Fed will be able to start cutting interest rates, and how much they will be able to reduce borrowing costs this year.

The Consumer Price Index climbed 3.8 percent on an annual basis after stripping out food and fuel prices, which economists do in order to get a better sense of the underlying inflation trend. That “core” index was stronger than the 3.7 percent increase economists expected, and unchanged from 3.8 percent in February. The monthly reading was also stronger than what economists had forecast.

Counting in food and fuel, the inflation measure climbed 3.5 percent in March from a year earlier, up from 3.2 percent in February and faster than what economists have anticipated. A rise in gas prices contributed to that inflation number.

This week’s inflation figures come at a critical juncture for the Fed. Central bankers have been hoping to confirm that warmer-than-expected inflation figures at the start of the year were just a seasonal quirk, not evidence that inflation is getting stuck well above the 2 percent inflation target. Wednesday’s report offers little comfort that the quick early 2024 readings have not lasted.

While the Fed officially targets Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation, a separate measure, the Consumer Price Index comes out earlier and includes data that feeds into the other metric. That makes it a closely watched signal of how price pressures are shaping up.

Policymakers have made it clear that they want to see further evidence that inflation is cooling before they cut interest rates. Fed officials raised borrowing costs to 5.3 percent in 2022 and mid-2023, which they think is high enough to meaningfully weigh on the economy. Central bankers forecast in March that they will cut interest rates three times this year.

But Fed officials do not want to cut rates before they are confident inflation is on track to return to normal. Lowering borrowing costs too early or too much would risk allowing price increases to pick back up. And if households and businesses come to expect inflation to remain slightly higher, officials worry that could make it even harder to stamp out down the road.

That threat of lingering inflation has become a more serious concern for policymakers since the start of the year. Inflation flatlined in January and February after months of steady declines, raising some alarm at the Fed and among forecasters. Going into the year, investors expected the Fed to cut rates sharply in 2024 — to about 4 percent — but have dialed back those expectations. Investors now expect just two or three rate cuts.


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