Economists expect that US consumer inflation will continue to tick higher in tomorrow’s December report (scheduled for Wed., Jan. 12). Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve continues to offer increasingly hawkish commentary (on the margins) as the market prepares for one or more interest-rate hikes this year.
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is expected to rise to a 7.1% for the year-over-year pace through December, according to Econoday.com’s consensus point forecast. That compares with a 6.8% increase previously. Core inflation (a more reliable measure of the trend) is lower, but the December print is also on track to edge higher, rising to 5.4%.
If the forecasts are right, pricing pressure will set yet another new multi-decade high at 2021’s close. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell says he’s on the job and will not let inflation become entrenched in the economy. The “transitory” view is long gone, but Powell is now offering a kind of feel-your-pain commiseration in public commentary.
“We know that high inflation exacts a toll, particularly for those less able to meet the higher costs of essentials like food, housing and transportation,” he said in prepared remarks released yesterday in advance of today’s testimony in Congress (Tues., Jan. 11). “We are strongly committed to achieving our statutory goals of maximum employment and price stability. We will use our tools to support the economy and a strong labor market and to prevent higher inflation from becoming entrenched.”
Perhaps, but Powell faces some tough questioning today, says Claudia Sahm, a former Fed economist who worked under Powell. “The Republicans are going to just grill him on inflation. Democrats — Sherrod Brown, Maxine Waters, the Squad — they’re totally going to take him to task on maximum employment. So he’s going to get it from both sides.”
Powell’s remarks suggest he’s going to attempt to tinker around the edge for thinking about policy. “We can begin to see that the post-pandemic economy is likely to be different in some respects,” he explains in the prepared speech. “The pursuit of our goals will need to take these differences into account. To that end, monetary policy must take a broad and forward-looking view, keeping pace with an ever-evolving economy.”
Will any of this make a difference or change perceptions of the Fed? Unclear, but we’re not holding our breath.
Meantime, what is clear is that recent forecasts that inflation is peaking have been wrong, so far, including efforts by CapitalSpectator.com. But we’re a glutton for punishment and our Inflation Trend Index (ITI) continues to indicate that pricing pressure has reached an apex, based on the median estimate for 13 indicators through this month (see this summary for details).
The caveat is that while the median estimate is looking relatively well behaved lately, the full range of estimates for January, for example, reminds that there’s (still) a strong case for remaining humble about projecting inflation’s path in the near term.
Of course, even if inflation is peaking, it’s not obvious that we’re about to return to a pre-pandemic level of inflation in the 2% range any time soon.
On the matter of monetary policy, one question that’s topical is whether the Fed’s recent shift to a more hawkish outlook will be curtailed by the potentially stronger economic headwinds linked to the spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus? Not yet, or so Fed funds futures suggest. Although the implied probability of a rate hike for the upcoming at the Jan. 26 FOMC meeting is less than 10%, futures are pricing in a 76% probability for higher rates when the Fed meets on March 16, based on data published by CME Group.
And that may be merely the opening bid. Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, is now forecasting up to four rate hikes this year.
“The Fed’s growing discomfort with higher inflation is currently outweighing any concerns about downside risks from the Omicron variant,” advises Oxford Economics economists Nancy Vanden Houten and Kathy Bostjancic in a recent note to clients.
Let’s see if Powell strengthens or changes that narrative in today’s testimony to Congress.
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