Inflation picked up more than anticipated in December, dimming hopes that the Federal Reserve can soon pause its interest rate hiking campaign.
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 0.3% in December compared to the prior month, according to Labor Department data released Thursday. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had projected a 0.2% monthly gain.
On an annual basis, inflation hit 3.4% in December, accelerating from November’s 3.1% pace and surpassing expectations for 3.2% growth.
The uptick keeps the heat on the Fed to maintain its aggressive monetary tightening push to wrestle inflation back towards its 2% target. Investors were optimistic the central bank could stop hiking rates and even start cutting them in early 2023. But with inflation proving sticky, the Fed now looks poised to keep benchmark rates elevated for longer.
“This print is aligned with our view that disinflation ahead will be gradual with sticky services inflation,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley, in a note.
Core Contributes to Inflation’s Persistence
Stripping out volatile food and energy costs, the core CPI increased 0.3% in December, matching November’s rise. Core inflation rose 3.9% on an annual basis, up slightly from November’s 4.0% pace.
The core reading came in above estimates for a 0.2% monthly gain and 3.8% annual increase. The higher-than-expected core inflation indicates that even excluding food and gas, costs remain stubbornly high across many categories of goods and services.
Shelter costs are a major culprit, with rent indexes continuing to climb. The indexes for rent of shelter and owners’ equivalent rent both advanced 0.5% in December, equaling November’s rise.
Owners’ equivalent rent attempts to estimate how much homeowners would pay if they rented their properties. This category accounts for nearly one-third of the overall CPI index and over 40% of core CPI.
With shelter carrying so much weighting, persistent gains here will hinder inflation’s descent. Supply-demand imbalances in the housing market are delaying a moderation in rents.
Used Cars See Relief; Insurance Soars
Gently easing price pressures showed up in the used vehicle market. Used car and truck prices edged up just 0.1% in December following several months of declines. In November, used auto prices fell 0.2%.
New vehicle prices also cooled again, dipping 0.1% versus November’s 0.2% decrease. The reprieve comes after a long bout of supply shortages weighed on auto affordability.
But motor vehicle insurance blindsided with its largest annual increase since 1976, vaulting 20.3% higher over the last 12 months. In November, the insurance index had risen 8.7% year-over-year.
Food Index Fluctuates
Food prices have been especially volatile, reacting to supply chain disruptions and geopolitical developments like the war in Ukraine. The food index rose 0.1% in December, down from November’s 0.5% increase.
The index for food at home slid 0.1% last month, reversing course after four straight monthly gains. Egg prices spiked 8.9% higher in December, building on November’s 2.2% surge. The egg index has skyrocketed 60% year-over-year.
But not all grocery aisles saw rising costs. Fruits and vegetables turned cheaper, with the index dropping 0.6% as supply conditions improved.
Bigger Picture View
The faster-than-expected inflation in December keeps the Fed on course to drive rates higher for longer to manage price pressures. Markets are still betting officials will engineer a soft landing and start cutting interest rates by March.
But economists warn more patience is needed before declaring victory over inflation. “Overall, the December CPI report reminds us that inflation will decline on a bumpy road, not a smooth one,” said Jeffrey Roach, chief economist at LPL Financial.
Until clear, convincing signs of disinflation emerge, the Fed looks unlikely to pivot from its aggressive inflation-fighting stance. The CPI report illustrates the complexity of the inflation picture, with some components moderating while others heat up.
With shelter costs up over 6% annually and services inflation staying elevated, the Fed has reasons for caution. Moderately higher inflation won’t necessarily prompt more supersized rate hikes, but it may prolong the current restrictive policy.
Investors longing for a Fed “pivot” may need to wait a bit longer. But the war against inflation rages on, even with the December CPI report threatening to squash hopes of an imminent policy easing.