Gasoline, shelter costs lift US consumer prices in February

By Thomson Reuters Mar 12, 2024 | 7:49 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices increased solidly in February amid higher costs for gasoline and shelter, suggesting some stickiness in inflation that could delay an anticipated June interest rate cut from the Federal Reserve.

The consumer price index (CPI) rose 0.4% last month after climbing 0.3% in January, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said on Tuesday. Gasoline and shelter, which includes rents, contributed more than 60% to the monthly increase in the CPI. In the 12 months through February, the CPI increased 3.2%, after advancing 3.1% in January.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI gaining 0.4% on the month and increasing 3.1% year-on-year. The annual increase in consumer prices has slowed from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022, but progress has stalled in recent months.

Inflation picked up in January, largely blamed on beginning- of-year price raises by service providers, which economists said were not fully addressed by the model used by the government to strip out seasonal fluctuations from the data.

There was also a jump in owners’ equivalent rent (OER), a measure of the amount homeowners would pay to rent or would earn from renting their property, which diverged from rents. That was partly the result of some methodology changes by the government.

The BLS last week held a webinar to discuss the underlying methodology related to the January OER and rent data.

“There is a high likelihood that OER inflation will exceed rent inflation more often moving forward,” said Stephen Juneau, an economist at Bank of America Securities in New York. “However, we think that much of the 20 basis points divergence was noise and not signal. Rent and OER inflation should continue to moderate over the course of this year, helping to drive core inflation lower as goods price deflation dissipates.”

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI increased 0.4% last month after rising by the same margin in January. In the 12 months through February, the so-called core CPI advanced 3.8%. That was the smallest year-on-year increase since May 2021 and followed a 3.9% rise in January.

The Fed tracks the personal consumption expenditures price indexes for its 2% inflation target. These measures are running at rates more tamer than the CPI. Though job growth accelerated in February, the unemployment rate increased to a two-year high of 3.9% and annual wage inflation moderated a bit.

Prior to the release of the CPI data, financial markets saw a roughly 70% chance of the Fed cutting rates in June. Since March 2022, the U.S central bank has raised its policy rate by 525 basis points to the current 5.25%-5.50% range.

(This story has been refiled to insert a dropped word in paragraph 1)

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)