Fed’s Preferred Inflation Gauge Stubbornly High at 2.8%, Locking in Higher Rates

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Inflation in the United States showed alarmingly little signs of cooling in March, according to the latest data on the Federal Reserve’s preferred price gauge released Friday. The stubbornly elevated readings essentially guarantee the U.S. central bank will need to keep interest rates higher for longer to fully constrain persistent price pressures.

The core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, which strips out volatile food and energy costs, rose 2.8% in March from a year earlier, the Commerce Department reported. This matched February’s annual increase and exceeded economists’ expectations of 2.7%.

On a month-over-month basis, the core PCE climbed 0.3% in March, in line with projections. The headline PCE price index including food and energy costs also rose 0.3% for the month and was up 2.7% annually.

The data highlights the challenges the Fed is facing in its battle to bring inflation back down to its 2% target after it surged to multi-decade highs last year on supply shocks, robust demand and pandemic-driven disruptions. Price pressures have proved remarkably persistent, defying the central bank’s aggressive interest rate hiking campaign that kicked off in March 2022.

“Inflation reports released this morning were not as hot as feared, but investors should not get overly anchored to the idea that inflation has been completely cured and the Fed will be cutting interest rates in the near-term,” said George Mateyo, chief investment officer at Key Private Bank. “The prospects of rate cuts remain, but they are not assured.”

The fresh PCE readings follow worse-than-expected inflation figures in Thursday’s GDP report that revealed the personal consumption expenditures price index surged at a 3.4% annualized rate in the first quarter. That was well above the 2.7% forecast and offset a decent 1.6% rise in economic growth over the same period.

The persistent inflation pressures backed bets that the Fed will likely leave interest rates unchanged at the current 4.75%-5% range at its next couple of meetings in June and July. According to the CME Group’s FedWatch tool, traders now see around a 44% probability that the central bank could implement two quarter-point rate cuts by the end of 2023.

However, most analysts agree that the Fed would need to see clear signs that consistently high inflation is beginning to dent the still-robust labor market before feeling confident about pivoting to an easing cycle. Policymakers want to avoid making the same mistake of prematurely loosening monetary policy like they did in the 1970s, which allowed inflation to become deeply entrenched.

For investors, the path forward for markets hinges on whether the Fed can achieve a so-called “soft landing” by getting inflation under control without sparking a severe recession. Equity traders largely looked past Friday’s inflation data, with futures pointing to a higher open on Wall Street. But Treasury yields edged lower as traders increased bets on the Fed ultimately reversing course next year.

Still, the latest PCE figures underscore the Fed’s dilemma and the likelihood that interest rates will need to remain restrictive for some time to prevent inflation from becoming unmoored. That raises the risks of overtightening and potential economic turbulence ahead as the full impact of the most aggressive tightening cycle since the 1980s hits home.


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