How new inflation numbers complicate the Fed’s next move on rates

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A new reading on inflation offers another challenge to investor expectations of a Federal Reserve rate cut in March.

A report out Thursday showed that consumer prices increased more than expected in December as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 3.4% over the prior year, an increase from the 3.1% increase seen the month prior.

When removing the volatile food and energy categories, “core” inflation fell to an annual rate of 3.9% from 4.0% the month prior. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had expected core inflation of 3.8%.

The numbers could complicate the task facing Fed officials who predicted three interest rate cuts in 2024 without saying when they could happen. Investors expect six cuts this year, starting in March.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (REUTERS / Reuters)

“Today’s CPI report suggests that the Fed’s initial rate cut may be later than the market is hoping for,” said Quincy Krosby, chief global strategist for LPL Financial.

Inflation, to be sure, continues to moderate following the most aggressive central bank campaign to cool prices since the 1980s. Core inflation has fallen to 3.9% from 5.6% at the beginning of last year.

The Fed last raised rates in July, to a 22-year high.

New York Fed President John Williams on Wednesday pushed back on Wall Street’s hopes for the second time in two months, saying that he only sees cuts happening when the Fed is confident inflation is sustainably moving back to its 2% target.

“I expect that we will need to maintain a restrictive stance of policy for some time to fully achieve our goals,” he said in a speech.

But he noted “significant progress” in a key measure of inflation known as “core services inflation,” noting that shelter inflation is slowing as the growth of rents for newly signed leases return to pre-pandemic levels.

Thursday’s CPI report showed the inflation measure less housing grew 3.4% for December, while shelter itself grew at a slower pace of 6.2% versus 6.5% in November.

Within core inflation, rent prices remained elevated. The index for rent and owners’ equivalent rent each rose 0.5% on a monthly basis for the third straight month. Owners’ equivalent rent is the hypothetical rent a homeowner would pay for the same home.

Other Fed officials have also been trying to temper Wall Street’s expectations that rate cuts are coming soon, saying they want more evidence that inflation is moving down.

Fed Governor Michelle Bowman and Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic urged caution in their comments this week, saying they believe that holding interest rates at current levels for some time could bring inflation back down to the central bank’s target.

“Inflationary pressures, while generally inching lower, remain stubbornly higher than expectations as the so-called ‘last mile’ requires more time to reach the final goal,” said Krosby of LPL Financial.

Investors — and some other market observers — remain convinced of a quick cut even after Thursday’s inflation data. Wall Street is still pricing in a 61% chance the Fed will cut rates in March.

“I don’t think it’s enough to delay cuts,” Bank of America US economist Stephen Juneau told Yahoo Finance Live.

“We’re looking for a March cut to kind of kick of the cutting cycle. This kind of keeps the door open, it definitely doesn’t slam the door shut.”

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