Consumer inflation may have cooled in February but only slightly

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Shoppers look at items displayed at a grocery store in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 15, 2023.

Stefani Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

Consumer inflation may have cooled off a little in February, but economists expect it is still running at a high pace.

The consumer price index, expected Tuesday morning, is forecast to show headline inflation rose 0.4% last month, or 6% from the prior year, according to economists polled by Dow Jones. That compares to a 0.5% gain in January, and an annual rate of 6.4%. Core inflation, excluding food and energy, is expected to be higher by 0.4% and the annual pace is expected to be 5.5%.

The report is expected at 8:30 a.m. ET.

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Just a few days ago, a hot inflation report would have increased expectations that the Federal Reserve could boost the size of its next interest rate hike to 50 basis points from the quarter point it implemented in February. But now, with markets more worried about bank failures and contagion, there’s a group of economists who doubt the Fed will even stick with a quarter point hike when it meets March 21 and 22. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“As far as how important we thought this one [CPI] was going to be, it definitely now is not nearly as much of a market mover, given the backdrop,” said Kevin Cummins, chief U.S. economist at NatWest Markets. Cummins, in fact, no longer expects the Fed to raise interest rates this month, and he sees the rate hiking cycle at an end.

“I think if it’s stronger than expected, it would be looked at as a little stale,” he said. “From the perspective, if there’s downside risks to the economy from the potential fallout of what’s going on in financial markets, it will be considered old news. If it’s softer, it could embolden the idea the Fed may be pausing.”

Cummins expects the economy to fall into a recession in the second half of this year, and he said the fallout from Silicon Valley Bank’s failure could speed that up if banks pull back on lending.

Cummins also expects the slowdown in the economy could cool down inflation.

But, for now, economists said shelter costs continued to jump in February, while price increases for food and energy slowed.

Tom Simons, money market economist at Jefferies, expects the Fed to stick with a quarter-point rate hike in March.

“It would have to be a lot softer to take the hike out. By stopping here, it exposes them to risk of inflation expectations reaccelerating,” said Simons. “If they do that, they are risking having to make bigger moves later when they don’t know what the environment will look like. It makes sense to stay the course and keep everything in check. They do have more work to do.”

Simons said because of the uncertainty, markets will focus on just one Fed meeting at a time. The next meeting after March 21 and 22 will be in May. “May will be May’s business. A lot will happen between now and then that will help us see through things a little better,” said Simons.

Simons notes that January inflation data was hotter than expected and, for that reason, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told Congress last week the Fed could have to raise rates more than expected. That sent interest rates sharply higher, but they have dropped dramatically since last Wednesday with the failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB).

As of Monday, the 2-year Treasury yield, for instance, lost about 100 basis points since Wednesday, the biggest three-day move since 1987. The yield is most reflective of Fed policy, and it was at 4.08% Monday afternoon.

On Sunday, the U.S. government agreed to safeguard depositors and financial institutions affected by SVB and Signature Bank, which was closed by New York regulators over the weekend.

“Last month negated the notion that we were heading to a disinflationary trend. Q4 inflation data was coming in softer…and then with the revisions we got last month, they were revised higher and we got an acceleration in January on top of that,” said Simons. “It really called into question whether we were heading into lower inflation. That’s why Powell sounded more hawkish” at last week’s Humphrey-Hawkins testimony on Capitol Hill.

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