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U.S. inflation slows but remains elevated in sign that price pressures are easing only gradually



Annual inflation in the United States eased in the last month, showing signs of a gradual slowdown in the surge of prices that the pandemic had set off. The U.S. Labor Department's report on Tuesday disclosed a 0.3 percent rise in the consumer price index from December to January, a slight uptick from the 0.2 percent increase the month prior. Over the past year, prices have climbed by 3.1 percent.


Although this is a drop from December's 3.4 percent figure and significantly below the peak of 9.1 percent inflation in mid-2022, it remains higher than the U.S. Federal Reserve's target of two percent. This comes at a crucial time for President Joe Biden, with public frustration over inflation becoming a central issue in his bid for re-election.


Looking closer at the numbers, when excluding the volatile food and energy sectors, core prices saw a 0.4 percent increase last month, up from December's 0.3 percent and marking a 3.9 percent rise over the past 12 months. Core inflation is closely monitored as it offers a better indication of where inflation is heading. The annual core inflation figure remains the same as December's.


Officials from the Biden administration point out that inflation has significantly decreased since the pandemic-induced disruptions and extensive government aid caused it to surge three years ago. Forward-looking data suggests a continued cooling of inflation, yet the frustration lingers among Americans, as average prices remain approximately 19 percent higher than when Biden assumed office.


The mixed data from Tuesday's release could reinforce the caution of Federal Reserve officials. While pleased with the progress in curbing inflation, they remain hesitant without further evidence that it is sustainably returning to their two percent target. Most economists anticipate the central bank will likely wait until May or June before considering a cut to its benchmark rate, currently at a 22-year high of around 5.4 percent.


The Fed had aggressively raised its key rate 11 times from March 2022 to July of the previous year to combat high inflation. This resulted in significantly higher borrowing rates for businesses and consumers, affecting mortgages and auto loans. Rate cuts, when implemented, are expected to bring down borrowing costs for various types of loans.


Fed Chair Jerome Powell recently highlighted that the decline in inflation so far primarily stems from lower prices for goods such as used cars, furniture, and appliances. These have witnessed a drop in six of the past seven months. However, the costs of services, including auto repairs, healthcare, hotel rooms, and entertainment, continue to rise. Core services prices, excluding energy, surged by 5.3 percent in 2023, and the Fed seeks a cooling in these prices to gain confidence in the declining trend of inflation.


A rate cut by the central bank typically translates to lower costs for mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, and other consumer and business borrowings, potentially giving a boost to the economy. However, a stronger economy poses a challenge, as accelerated growth can lead to increased wages and consumer spending. If businesses struggle to keep up with heightened demand, they might respond by raising prices, exacerbating inflation concerns.


The last quarter of the previous year saw an unexpectedly rapid 3.3 percent annual growth in the economy. Early signs in 2024 indicate a healthy continuation of growth, with businesses engaging in increased hiring, manufacturing companies reporting a rise in new orders, and services companies noting an uptick in sales.


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