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Elevated Inflation Readings Complicate Fed’s Rate Cut Timeline

Economy
0 min read

The Federal Reserve’s efforts to tame stubbornly high inflation are facing a fresh challenge, as new economic data released on Thursday showed price pressures are proving more persistent than expected. The latest inflation readings are likely to reinforce the central bank’s cautious approach to cutting interest rates and could signal that borrowing costs will need to remain elevated for longer in 2024.

The new inflation report came from the Labor Department’s Producer Price Index (PPI), which measures the prices businesses receive for their goods and services. The PPI climbed 0.6% from January to February, accelerating from the prior month’s 0.3% rise. Even more concerning for the Fed, core producer prices excluding volatile food and energy components rose 0.3% month-over-month, higher than the 0.2% increase forecast by economists.

On an annual basis, core PPI was up 2% compared to a year earlier, matching January’s pace but exceeding expectations. The stubbornly elevated core figures are particularly worrisome as the Fed views core inflation as a better gauge of underlying persistent price trends.

“Given the stickier than expected nature of inflation, it’s going to be very difficult for the Fed to justify a near-term rate reduction,” said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel. “Our base case is that the Fed holds off to the second half of the year before initiating a change in policy.”

The hotter-than-anticipated producer inflation data follows a similarly elevated reading for consumer prices earlier this week. The Consumer Price Index showed core consumer inflation rose 3.8% over the past 12 months in February, also surpassing economist projections.

The back-to-back upside inflation surprises underscore the challenges the Fed faces in its efforts to wrestle price growth back down to its 2% target rate after it reached 40-year highs in 2022. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has repeatedly stressed that the central bank wants to see convincing evidence that inflation is moving “sustainably” lower before easing its monetary policy stance.

In the wake of Thursday’s PPI report, market expectations for the timing of a first Fed rate cut this year shifted slightly. The odds of an initial rate reduction happening at the June meeting dipped from 67% to 63% according to pricing in the fed funds futures market. As recently as earlier this year, many investors had anticipated the first cut would come as soon as March.

The Fed is widely expected to leave interest rates unchanged at the current 5.25%-5.5% range when it concludes its next policy meeting on March 22nd. However, officials will also release updated economic projections and interest rate forecasts, and there is a possibility some could scale back expectations for rate cuts in 2024 given the persistent inflation data.

In December, Fed policymakers had penciled in approximately three quarter-point rate reductions by year-end 2024 based on their median forecast. But the latest inflation figures cast doubt on whether that aggressive easing will ultimately materialize.

“This does leave a degree of uncertainty as to when they cut first and what they’ll do on the dot plot,” said Wil Stith, a bond portfolio manager at Wilmington Trust. “Will they leave it at three cuts or will they change that?”

Former Fed official Jim Bullard downplayed the significance of any single month’s inflation reading, but acknowledged the broad trajectory remains difficult for policymakers. “A little bit hot on the PPI today, but one number like this probably wouldn’t affect things dramatically,” he said.

With inflation proving more entrenched than hoped, the Fed appears set to maintain its policy restraint and leave interest rates at restrictive levels until incoming data provides clear and consistent evidence that the central bank’s battle against rising prices is being won. Consumers and businesses alike should prepare for higher borrowing costs to persist in the months ahead.

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