Falling energy prices continued to keep overall inflation down in January, which could keep Federal Reserve interest rate hikes at bay.
The consumer price index was unchanged for the third month in a row, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said on Wednesday. Prices were up 1.6 percent from a year earlier, the lowest rate of annual inflation in over a year. Core inflation, which excludes food and fuel prices, was up .2 percent in January, making the year-over-year inflation rate 2.2 percent, unchanged since November and in line with economists’ expectations.
The modest rate of price growth supports the Federal Reserve’s pivot to backing off from interest rate raises early this year, even while unemployment remains low and wages rise. The Fed looks at the core inflation to determine monetary policy, and and with little change in the January report, and inflation pressures described “muted” by the Labor Department, there is not a need to raise borrowing costs.
Economists are watching for potential signs of a rising inflation in 2019, which would give the Fed cause to change monetary policy. A jump in commodities could suggest a potential uptick inflation going forward. When more people are employed and high wages brought on by businesses competing for workers, more consumer demand could drive up prices.
“Inflation shows no indication of getting out of control any time soon,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics. “It seems like the tightness in the labor market isn’t translating into higher inflation yet, therefore I think all indications are the Fed can sit tight for now.”
Last month, the Federal Reserve’s chairman Jerome Powell cited low inflation, slowing growth in China and Europe and the possibility of another government shutdown as reasons for holding off interest rate hikes in early 2019. It was a stark change in tone from 2018, when the Fed bumped rates four times, showing it thought the economy was strong.
The drop in energy prices for a third straight month, which showed gasoline prices down 5.5 percent in January, stood out to economists as a continued drag on inflation. In December, gas prices dipped 7.5 percent. This offset price increases for other U.S. goods and services, such as apparel, medical costs and new cars, that contribute to a higher cost of living.
“That’s very positive for the consumer,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide Insurance. “It may not be as positive for the oil companies, but the average consumer will have more money in her or his wallet after paying to fuel their vehicle.”
Despite the overall low rate of inflation, there were hints in the report that price growth could accelerate this year. Economists are especially keeping an eye on the .4 percent jump from December to January in core commodity prices, which account for goods such as apparel and new cars. It’s unclear yet whether that’s a sure sign of the strengthening economy pushing core inflation up, or an insignificant one-off increase.
“Is it a one-month blip? We don’t know yet, but it is certainly something to watch,” Berson said.