U.S. consumer inflation eases to 7.7% over past 12 months

Price increases moderated in the United States last month in the latest sign that the inflation pressures that have gripped the nation might be easing as the economy slows and consumers grow more cautious.

Consumer inflation reached 7.7% in October from a year earlier and 0.4% from September, the government said Thursday. The year-over-year increase, a slowdown from 8.2% in September, was the smallest rise since January. A separate gauge called core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy, rose 6.3% in the past 12 months and 0.3% from September.

The numbers were all lower than economists had expected.

Helping drive the inflation slowdown from September to October were used car prices, which dropped for a fourth straight month. Also down were the prices of clothing and medical care. Food price increases slowed. By contrast, energy prices rebounded in October after having declined in August and September.

Even with last month’s tentative easing of inflation, the Federal Reserve is widely expected to keep raising interest rates to try to stem persistently high price increases. But Thursday’s better-than-expected data raised the possibility that the Fed could decide to slow its rate hikes—a prospect that sent stock prices jumping immediately after the government issued the figures.

“We expect this to mark the start of a much longer disinflationary trend that we think will convince the Fed to halt its (hikes) early next year,” said Paul Ashworth, chief North American economist at Capital Economics, a consulting firm. “With supply shortages normalizing, deflationary pressure is now finally showing up.”

Many economists have warned that in continuing to tighten credit, the central bank is likely to cause a recession by next year. So far this year, the Fed has raised its benchmark interest rate six times in sizable increments, heightening the risk that prohibitively high borrowing rates—for mortgages, auto purchases and other high-cost expenses—will tip the world’s largest economy into recession.

Some economists suggested that the latest inflation data shows that the hikes are beginning to achieve their goal, though the Fed needs to see further evidence.

“The data will be welcome news for the (Fed), finally showing some response in prices” to the rate increases, said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

In the midterm elections that ended Tuesday, roughly half of voters cited inflation as the top factor in their decisions, according to VoteCast, an extensive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago. About 8 in 10 said the economy was in bad shape, and a slim majority blamed President Joe Biden’s policies for worsening inflation. Just under half said factors beyond Biden’s control, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, were to blame.

Those economic anxieties contributed to the loss of Democratic seats in the House of Representatives, though Republicans failed to score the huge political gains that many had expected. And a sizable chunk of voters — 44%, according to VoteCast — said their top concern was the future of democracy, an issue that was emphasized by Biden and Democratic congressional candidates.

Even before the release of Thursday’s figures, inflation by some measures had begun to ease and could continue to do so in coming months. Most gauges of workers’ wages, for example, show that the robust pay increases of the past 18 months have leveled off and have begun to fall. Though worker pay is not a primary driver of higher prices, it can compound inflationary pressures if companies offset their higher labor costs by charging their customers more.

Except for automakers, which are still struggling to acquire the computer chips they need, supply chain disruptions have largely unsnarled. Shipping costs have dropped back to pre-pandemic levels. The backup of cargo ships off the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach has been cleared.

And as declines in new rents that have emerged in real-time measures from such sources as ApartmentList and Zillow begin to be captured in the government’s forthcoming measures, that factor should also reduce inflation.

Even as many fear that the economy will fall into recession next year, the nation’s job market has remained resilient. Employers have added a healthy average of 407,000 jobs a month, and the unemployment rate is just 3.7%, close to a half-century low. Job openings are still at historically high levels.

But the Fed’s rate hikes have inflicted severe damage on the American housing market. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage has more than doubled over the past year and topped 7% this week. As a result, investment in housing collapsed in the July-September quarter, falling at a 26% annual rate.

Higher mortgage rates have depressed sales. Home prices are slowing sharply compared with a year ago and have begun to fall on a monthly basis. The cost of a new apartment lease is also declining.

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