Home » CPI report shows inflation easing in April, with consumer prices still rising 3.4% from a year ago

CPI report shows inflation easing in April, with consumer prices still rising 3.4% from a year ago

KEY POINTS

  • The CPI report showed an increase of 0.3% from March, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday.
  • Inflation eased slightly in April, providing some relief for consumers.
  • On a 12-month basis, however, the CPI increased 3.4%, in line with expectations.
  • Core inflation was at 3.6%, the lowest reading ex-food and energy since April 2021.

Inflation eased slightly in April, providing at least a bit of relief for consumers while still holding above levels that would suggest a cut in interest rates is imminent.

The consumer price index, a broad measure of how much goods and services cost at the cash register, increased 0.3% from March, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday. That was slightly below the Dow Jones estimate for 0.4%.

On a 12-month basis, however, the CPI increased 3.4%, in line with expectations.

Excluding food and energy, the key core inflation reading came in at 0.3% monthly and 3.6% on an annual basis, both as forecast. The core 12-month inflation reading was the lowest since April 2021 while the monthly increase was the smallest since December.

Markets reacted positively after the CPI release, with futures tied to major stock indexes rallying and Treasury yields tumbling. Futures traders raised the implied probability that the Federal Reserve would start cutting interest rates in September.

“This is the first print in a month that wasn’t hotter than expected, so there’s a relief rally,” said Dan North, senior economist at Allianz Trade North America. “The excitement is a little overdone. This is not Caitlin Clark. She’s exciting, this is not exciting.”

In other economic news Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales were flat on the month, compared with the estimate for a 0.4% increase. That figure is adjusted for seasonality but not inflation, suggesting consumers did not keep up with the pace of price increases.

For the inflation report, price gains on the month were driven heavily by rises in both shelter and energy.

Shelter costs, which have been a particular trouble spot for Federal Reserve officials expecting inflation to come down this year, increased 0.4% for the month and were up 5.5% from a year ago. Both are levels uncomfortably high for a Fed trying to drive overall inflation back down to 2%.

The energy index rose 1.1% for a month and was up 2.6% on an annual basis. Food was flat and up 2.2%, respectively. Used and new vehicle prices, which had contributed to the early rise in inflation during the worst of the Covid pandemic, both declined, falling 1.4% and 0.4%, respectively.

Areas showing notable gains on the month included apparel (1.2%), transportation services (0.9%) and medical care services (0.4%). For transportation services, that took the annual increase up to 11.2%. Services excluding energy, a key point for policymakers, increased 0.4% on the month and were up 5.3% on the year.

The inflation increase was bad news for workers, who saw earnings fall 0.2% on the month when adjusted for inflation. On a 12-month basis, real earnings rose just 0.5%.

In the shelter components, both rent of primary residence and the important owners equivalent rent, or what homeowners think they can get to rent their properties, rose 0.4% on the month. They respectively increased 5.4% and 5.8% on a 12-month basis.

Retail sales disappoint

Consumers apparently still felt the pinch of higher prices for the month.

The advance estimate for retail sales in April showed no change on the month after increasing a downwardly revised 0.6% in March. Sales, however, were up 3% from a year ago. Excluding autos, sales rose 0.2%, in line with the Dow Jones estimate.

A 1.2% decline in online receipts held the sales figure back, as did a 0.9% slide in sporting goods and related stores, while motor vehicles and parts dealers posted a 0.8% decrease.

Gasoline stations, boosted by rising prices at the pump, reported a jump of 3.1%, while electronics and appliances saw a 1.5% increase.

The so-called control group, which excludes a number of items and feeds into the Commerce Department’s gross domestic product calculations, fell by 0.3%.

“The weaker than expected retail sales number needs to be watched – cooling consumer spending is good, but if that transitions into a deeper slowdown it could herald some economic problems that markets would not welcome,” said Seema Shah, chief global strategist at Principal Asset Management.

Dilemma for the Fed

The reports come with the Fed on hold since July 2023 as inflation has proved more resilient than expected. Policymakers have said in recent weeks that they need more evidence inflation is on a sustainable path back to their 2% goal before agreeing to lower rates.

The Fed’s benchmark overnight lending rate is targeted in a range between 5.25%-5.5%, the highest level in 23 years.

In remarks Tuesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledged that readings earlier in 2024 had been higher than expected and said it’s likely the central bank will need to keep monetary policy “at the current rate for longer than had been thought.”

To financial markets, that means the Fed likely will wait out the summer for better inflation data, with an initial rate cut coming in September. That would be the first reduction since the early days of the Covid pandemic in 2020.

“We think it’s September at the earliest that they’re going to cut,” said North, the Allianz economist. “Their mind seems to be that, ‘we’re not in any hurry to cut rates. Inflation is not near 2%, the economy is OK, we’re not going anything for months.’”

Fed officials hiked the key overnight funds rate 11 times from March 2022 through July 2023 in hopes that it would help tamp down demand that drove inflation to its highest level in more than 40 years. Policymakers had thought inflation would pass once supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic eased, but powerful demand fueled by fiscal and monetary policy stimulus has kept price pressures elevated.

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