Tuesday’s report from the Labor Department showed that the consumer price index rose 0.3% from December to January, up from a 0.2% increase the previous month. Compared with a year ago, prices are up 3.1%.
That is less than the 3.4% figure in December. Yet the latest reading is still well above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target level at a time when public frustration with inflation has become a pivotal issue in President Joe Biden’s bid for re-election.
Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, so-called core prices climbed 0.4% last month, up from 0.3% in December and 3.9% over the past 12 months. Core inflation is watched especially closely because it typically provides a better read of where inflation is likely headed. The annual figure is the same as it was in December.
Still, even as it nears the Fed’s target level, many Americans remain exasperated that average prices are still about 19% higher than they were when Biden took office.
The mixed data released Tuesday could reinforce the caution of Fed officials, who have said they’re pleased with the progress in sharply reducing inflation but want to see further evidence before feeling confident that it’s sustainably headed back to their 2% target. Most economists think the central bank will want to wait until May or June to begin cutting its benchmark rate from its 22-year-high of roughly 5.4.
The Fed raised its key rate 11 times, from March 2022 to July of last year, in a concerted drive to defeat high inflation. The result has been much higher borrowing rates for businesses and consumers, including for mortgages and auto loans. Rate cuts, whenever they happen, would eventually lead to lower borrowing costs for many categories of loans.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell noted during a recent news conference that most of the decline in inflation so far has stemmed from lower prices for goods, including used cars, furniture and appliances, which have dropped in six of the past seven months.
By contrast, the costs of services — auto repairs, health care, hotel rooms, concerts and other entertainment — are still rising briskly. Core services prices, which exclude energy, jumped 5.3% in 2023.