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U.S consumer prices surge in March, CPI finds, pushing inflation to 2 1/2-year high

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 4/13/2021 Jeffry Bartash
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ECONOMIC REPORT

The numbers: Consumer prices rose in March for the fourth month in a row and the pace of inflation hit the highest level in two and a half years, underscoring new pressures emerging on the economy as the U.S. recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

The consumer price index jumped 0.6% last month, the government said Tuesday, spearheaded by the rising cost of oil. Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast a 0.5% increase in the CPI.

The rate of inflation over the past year shot up to 2.6% from 1.7% in the prior month, marking the highest level since the fall of 2018.

The yearly rate of inflation is widely expected to surge in the next few months.

A chief reason is a faster U.S. economic recovery fueled by massive fiscal stimulus and a sharp drop this year in new coronavirus cases. That’s boosting demand for a wide array of goods and services at a time when when many key materials are in short supply.

Inflation also turned negative March and April of 2020 in the early stages of the pandemic when the U.S. economy was largely locked down. As those readings drop out of the 12-month average, it will make inflation even worse.

The yearly rate of inflation is likely to settle down later in the year, but it could top 3% in the near future and put more pressure on the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy. The last time inflation topped 3% was a decade ago.

Fed leaders insist any increase in inflation is likely to be mild and temporary.

The Fed predicted in March that inflation would average 2.4% in 2021, using its preferred PCE price measure. The rate of inflation would then drop back down to the central bank’s 2% target by 2022.

The Biden White House, mindful of rising U.S.Treasury yields, has drawn the same conclusion as the central bank. The president’s top economists argued in a new paper on Monday that inflation worries are vastly overblown.


Video: U.S. consumer prices post biggest gain in 8-1/2 years as economy reopens (Reuters)

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What happened: The cost of gasoline jumped again and accounted for almost half of the increase in the cost of living last month. Gas prices leaped 9.1%.

Oil prices are on the rise because of production cutbacks by energy companies and higher consumer demand as Americans get back on the road or take to the skies again.

The cost of food edged up a scant 0.1%, but prices are expected to rise somewhat faster in the coming months, particularly for takeout and meals prepared outside the home.

A separate measure of consumer inflation that strips out food and energy rose a smaller 0.3% last month. The so-called core rate has risen 1.6% in the past year, up from 1.3% in the prior month.

Economists prefer readings of core inflation because energy and food prices can often gyrate sharply over short periods and distort underlying price trends.

Prices also increased last month for rent, auto insurance, used vehicles, home furnishings, recreation and personal-care items.

The few products or services to decline in price included clothing and educational services.

Big picture: There’s no doubt inflation is rising and will continue to do in the months ahead.

Part of the increase simply reflects a natural rebound after the rate of inflation nearly fell to zero early in the coronavirus crisis.

The strains on the global economy from the pandemic are also feeding into higher prices. Some key supplies are hard to come by because of production or shipping disruptions caused by the pandemic and that’s pushing up inflation.

The faster than expected U.S. economic recovery is playing a role, too. Businesses have been taken aback by the sharp increase in demand for new cars, houses and many other goods and services. Some economists contend government fiscal stimulus is excessive and contributing to the surge in demand.

When inflation levels off is anyone’s guess. A recent survey shows that business economists believe the threat of rising inflation is the highest in decades.

If inflation charges past 3% or heads even higher, pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates or junk its easy-money strategy are likely to grow.

And it will become more expensive for consumers to buy a car or house or for businesses to obtain a loan, all of which could threaten to slow the recovery.

What they are saying? “We expect inflation to trend moderately higher next year, though remain largely in check,” said senior economist Sal Guatieri of BMO Capital Markets.

“Officials will call the increase in inflation ‘transitory’ and will push back hard against the idea that any sort of policy response is needed,” wrote chief economist Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics in a note to clients. “That idea will hold for a while, but if the increase in inflation persists, and — especially — if it is accompanied by faster wage growth, then the Fed’s line will become untenable.”

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 were set to open lower in Tuesday trades. Yields on the 10-year Treasury were unchanged at 1.67% after the CPI report.

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