The Federal Reserve has warned for months that wrestling rapid inflation back to a normal pace was likely to be a bumpy process, a reality underscored by fresh data on Thursday that showed a closely watched inflation gauge picking back up in July.
The Personal Consumption Expenditures index climbed 3.3 percent in the year through July, up from 3 percent in the previous reading. While that is down from a peak last summer of 7 percent, it is still well above the 2 percent growth rate that the Fed targets.
Central bankers tend to more closely monitor a measure of core inflation that strips out volatile food and fuel prices to give a clearer sense of the underlying price trend. That measure also climbed, touching 4.2 percent after 4.1 percent the previous month.
Inflation is expected to slow later this year and into 2024, so Thursday’s report marks a bump in the road rather than a reversal of recent progress toward cooler prices. But as inflation figures bounce around, Fed officials have been hesitant to declare victory.
Their wariness has only been reinforced by other recent economic data, which has shown that the economy retains a surprising amount of momentum after a year and half in which Fed policymakers have ratcheted up interest rates. The Fed’s policy rate is now set at 5.25 to 5.5 percent, up from near-zero in March 2022, which is making it more expensive to borrow to buy a house or car or to expand a business.
Despite that, the job market has remained strong and consumers continue to shop. An employment report set for release on Friday is expected to show that while businesses added fewer jobs in August, the unemployment rate remained very low at 3.5 percent. And fresh consumption data released Thursday showed that Americans continued to open their wallets: Personal spending climbed by 0.8 percent in July from the month before, more than economists expected and a solid pace. Even after adjusting for inflation, it was up 0.6 percent, a pop from 0.4 percent in the previous report.
The tick higher in P.C.E. inflation was widely expected: Various data points that feed into the number, including the Consumer Price Index inflation report, come out earlier in the month. Even so, the measure remains a point of focus on Wall Street and in policy circles because it is the one the Fed uses to define its official inflation goal.
Fed officials will be watching data over the next few weeks as they consider what to do with interest rates at their meeting on Sept. 20. Policymakers have said that the meeting is a “live” one, meaning that they could either lift interest rates or keep them on hold, but several have suggested that at this point they feel that they can be patient in making a move.
“Given how far we have come, at upcoming meetings we are in a position to proceed carefully as we assess the incoming data and the evolving outlook and risks,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in a high-profile speech last week.
Many investors do anticipate a final rate increase later this year, but later on — perhaps at the central bank’s November gathering. And even if the Fed does not lift borrowing costs in a few weeks, policymakers will release a fresh set of economic projections that will show both whether they expect to nudge rates higher and by how much they expect inflation to slow both by the end of 2023 and into 2024.
POST AUTHOR: Jeanna Smialek