More expensive food, rents boost U.S. inflation; further increases anticipated

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer prices increased solidly in September as Americans paid more for food, rent and a range of other goods, putting pressure on the Biden administration to urgently resolve strained supply chains, which are hampering economic growth.

With prices likely to rise further in the months ahead following a recent surge in the costs of energy products, the report from the Labor Department on Wednesday could test Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s repeated assertion that high inflation is transitory. Powell and the White House have blamed supply chain bottlenecks for the high inflation.

Supply chains have been gummed up by robust demand as economies emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has caused a global shortage of workers needed to produce raw materials and move goods from factories to consumers.

“Today’s number, with food price inflation and shelter inflation moving higher, suggests growing pressure on consumers,” said Seema Shah, chief strategist at Principal Global Investors. “Keep in mind too that the recent rise in oil prices hasn’t yet fed through to the numbers – that’s still to come, while the renewed rise in car prices is also likely to drive inflation numbers higher in the coming months.”

The consumer price index rose 0.4% last month after climbing 0.3% in August. Food prices jumped 0.9% after increasing 0.4% in the prior month. Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would receive from renting a home, increased 0.4% after gaining 0.3% in August.

Food and rents accounted for more than half of the increase in the CPI in September. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the overall CPI would rise 0.3%.

In the 12 months through September, the CPI increased 5.4% after advancing 5.3% on a year-on-year basis in August.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI climbed 0.2% after edging up 0.1% in August, the smallest gain in six months. In addition to rents, the co-called core CPI was lifted by a 1.3% increase in the cost of new motor vehicles, which marked the fifth straight month of gains above 1%.

A global semiconductor shortage has forced auto manufacturers to cut production. There were also increases in the prices of household furnishings and operations last month. Consumers also paid more for motor vehicle insurance.

But prices for airline fares and apparel as well as used cars and trucks all fell. The so-called core CPI rose 4.0% on a year-on-year basis last month, matching the gain in August.

HIGH ENERGY PRICES

Oil prices jumped on Monday to the highest levels in years amid a rebound in global demand after the pandemic. Though Brent crude futures fell on Wednesday, prices remained above $80 a barrel. Natural gas prices have also surged.

Expensive energy products would add to accelerating wage growth in exerting upward pressure on inflation. The government reported last week that average hourly earnings increased by the most in seven months on a year-on-year basis in September because of worker shortages.

With the number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs hitting a record high in August and at least 10.4 million unfilled positions, wage inflation is set to rise further.

“The right place to look for inflation is not just in the so-called inflation data itself, but also in the tighter labor market and associated wage growth,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, chief U.S. economist at Citigroup in New York.

“Firms confident of passing on input costs may make higher energy prices a driver of broader inflation.”

September’s CPI report will have no impact on the Fed’s timeline to begin scaling back its massive monthly bond-buying program. The U.S. central bank signaled last month that it could start tapering its asset purchases as soon as November.

Economists expect that announcement will come at the Nov. 2-3 policy meeting.

“The central bank has already said that inflation has met the threshold for tapering, it’s the job market that hasn’t,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “The CPI could garner a reaction in the bond market as it could alter market expectations for the timing of the first rate hike by the Fed, which in our opinion, is still far off on the horizon.”

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure for its flexible 2% target, the core personal consumption expenditures price index, increased 3.6% in the 12 months through August, rising by the same margin for a third straight month. September’s data will be published later this month.

The Fed last month upgraded its core PCE inflation projection for this year to 3.7% from 3.0% in June.

Despite strong wage gains, high inflation is cutting into consumers’ purchasing power.

That, together with motor vehicle shortages, led economists to cut their gross domestic product estimates for the third quarter to as low as a 1.3% annualized rate from as high as a 7% pace. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday slashed its 2021 U.S. growth forecast by a full percentage point, to 6.0% from 7.0% in July.

(Reporting by Lucia MutikaniEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Anxious Americans to pay debt, taxes with COVID-19 stimulus checks

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) – Michael Johnson, a construction worker in Washington, D.C., is waiting for the $1,400 check from the government promised after U.S. President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill last week.

He’s not planning a spending spree. He’s nervous. “I’ll try and get ahead on my mortgage a little bit. You know, we are still in this pandemic,” Johnson, 45, said.

Almost 900 miles away in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Aric Nowicki runs a heating and air conditioning business that takes in about $150,000 annually but has expenses of about $100,000. He has clients who are late on their bills, and he plans to use his money to pay his own overdue bills.

“I’m very apprehensive,” Nowicki said. “I’m not sure the vaccines will bring us back to normality. Too many people say they don’t want to take it, and there are these mutations.”

In interviews with a dozen Americans, including a nurse, a man made homeless by the pandemic, a plumber, a teacher, and a bar owner, nearly all say they are so worried about the future that they will use their stimulus checks to pay debt and taxes accumulated in the past year.

Those spending priorities are not what massive stimulus bills are traditionally meant to achieve. They are designed to encourage people to buy goods and services, to help U.S. businesses and create jobs.

Labor economist Diane Swonk sees a divide between those who can work from home and those who cannot – highlighted by the ways Americans have spent their stimulus checks from the government during the year-long coronavirus pandemic.

Consumer spending on goods was quite robust in January, Swonk said. But that was mostly by people who did not necessarily need the three checks sent out by the U.S. Treasury in the past year. Most who desperately needed the money have used it for food, shelter, and to pay debt. “This gets to the issue that a rising tide does not lift all boats,” Swonk said.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked on Monday how Biden expected people to spend their stimulus checks.

“They will use it for different means,” Psaki said. “Some Americans will use it to ensure they can put food on the table, that’s a form of stimulus. Some will use it to ensure that they can pay their rent. That’s a form of stimulus. It’s up to family to family.”

Reverend Lee May, the pastor of Transforming Faith Church, an ecumenical Christian church in suburban Atlanta, said members of his congregation “really need this boost.”

“This is intended to help and we feel blessed to have it sent our way, but it isn’t enough to make us whole,” May said. “We know there are prohibitions on evictions and shut offs of utilities for now, but those rent and light bills don’t go away.”

“More needs to be done,” he said.

Reginald Smith, 36, a cook who was laid off in the crisis as many restaurants closed, was waiting in line at the food pantry outside the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta on Monday.

He lost his place to stay and he has been “couch surfing” at the homes of friends.

“I need a job and hope to get one once this all opens back up,” he said. “But first I need my own place to stay. I’m hoping that this (the stimulus check) will help me make a deposit, get a place and get back on my feet. I wish it was more though. I don’t know if this is enough to dig me out.”

Others are more optimistic. Steve Pitts, the general manager of Manuel’s Tavern in Midtown Atlanta, hopes the stimulus checks will give people more cash to go out.

“We’re hoping it loosens things up a bit,” Pitts said. “To say it’s been a tough year isn’t the half of it. We all need a break. We’ve had to let people go and it hurt. This, of course, isn’t the cure. We’re all waiting for this crisis to be over, but maybe this is a little light, a little bump.”

Thadd Ernstmeyer, who runs a family plumbing business in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, grosses about $150,000 a year, with overheads about one third of that, and is taxed roughly 25%. His stimulus check would go toward his tax bill, Ernstmeyer said.

“It’s going straight back to the government.”

(Reporting by Tim Reid in Washington and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Donna Bryson and Grant McCool)

Americans are spending coronavirus checks on rent and groceries

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – When Jessica Rosner saw the $1,200 coronavirus relief payment from the U.S. government was deposited into her bank account Wednesday morning, the furloughed behavioral therapist knew immediately how she would spend the cash.

The unemployment benefits she applied for two weeks ago have yet to come through. And Rosner, 23, who lives near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, still owed nearly $1,500 for April’s rent and about $200 for car insurance.

The “Economic Impact Payments” being issued under the $2.3 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress last month started landing in consumers’ bank accounts this week. The relief payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child are meant to soften some of the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

Americans’ lives have been upended by the crisis, with most schools and businesses closed, vacations canceled, and families mourning the more than 31,000 people killed by the virus.

The relief money is arriving in bank accounts as states across the country struggle to process unemployment claims filed by more than 22 million Americans over the past month, and helping some people cover the essentials.

“It’s going to get used quickly because there are so many people who need money right now,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist and now the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Preliminary results from a survey Sahm is conducting with Google and the University of Michigan suggest U.S. families plan to spend the money on essentials or pay off debt, Sahm said. That is the way stimulus checks were used during the financial crisis of 2008 and to counter an economic slowdown during the summer of 2001, she said.

Some people said they were planning to save the cash temporarily, an indication the payments may not lead to the immediate economic stimulation hoped for by the government.

Hyniah Herrin, 26, wanted to enroll in college this fall but put those plans on hold after she lost her two part-time jobs as a school bus driver and restaurant host in Philadelphia. The stimulus money landed in her bank account on Monday, and she’s holding on to it. “We don’t know when we’re going to be able to resume life,” Herrin said.

Steve Davison, 61, says the workload in his part-time job handling social media advertising for a forklift distributor hasn’t decreased because of the coronavirus outbreak. But Davison, who has not received a payment yet, said he is still living paycheck to paycheck and is worried about the future.

After he pays an old tax bill, he plans to hold on to the rest of the cash. “I’m just going to stash it because you never know what’s going to come up,” said Davison, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Treasury Department Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier this week that more than 80 million Americans would have the money deposited directly into their bank accounts by Wednesday morning.

Those who haven’t received the money can check their status and provide bank account information through a new “Get My Payment” app. Paper checks bearing President Donald Trump’s name on them will be sent out starting early next week to people who don’t use direct deposit.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Heather Timmons and Paul Simao)