Next came bad news from the inflation gauge the Fed watches most closely: The government’s personal consumption expenditures price index. It accelerated 0.6% from December to January, far above the 0.2% November-to-December uptick. On a year-over-year basis, prices rose 5.4%, up slightly from the annual increase in December and well above the Fed’s 2% inflation target.
The PCE report “adds to the difficult if not impossible task facing the Fed in terms of getting inflation back to its 2% target without driving the economy into a ditch,’’ said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at the Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc. consultancy.
One concern is that this time, inflation may prove harder to slow than it was initially. Households have increasingly shifted their spending away from physical goods like patio furniture and appliances to experiences like traveling, restaurant meals and entertainment events. Inflationary pressures, too, have shifted from goods toward services, where price acceleration can be harder to tame.
In part, that’s because chronic labor shortages at stores, restaurants, hotels and other service-sector industries have led many employers in those industries to keep raising pay to attract or retain workers. Those employers, in turn, have generally raised their prices to make up for their higher labor costs, thereby fueling inflation.
Some economists expect the Fed to raise its benchmark rate by a substantial half-percentage point when it next meets March 21-22, after having announced only a quarter-point hike when it met Jan. 31-Feb. 1.