Muted U.S. inflation strengthens case for Fed rate cut

People tour The Shops during the grand opening of The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City, New York, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices barely rose in May, pointing to moderate inflation that together with a slowing economy increased pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates this year.

But the report from the Labor Department on Wednesday will likely not shift Fed officials’ views that temporary factors are behind the weak inflation readings. Airline fares, among the transitory factors identified by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, rebounded and apparel prices stabilized after two straight monthly decreases.

U.S. central bank policymakers are scheduled to meet on June 18-19 against the backdrop of rising trade tensions, slowing growth and a sharp step-down in hiring in May that has led financial markets to price in at least two rate cuts by the end of 2019. A rate cut is not expected next Wednesday.

“This soft inflation backdrop reinforces our call for two (rate) cuts later this year,” said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. “We think next week is probably too soon to expect that action, given that growth is still holding in and trade-related risks remain two-sided.”

The consumer price index edged up 0.1% last month as a rebound in the cost of food was offset by cheaper gasoline, the government said. The CPI gained 0.3% in April.

In the 12 months through May, the CPI increased 1.8%, slowing from April’s 1.9% gain. May’s rise in the CPI was broadly in line with economists’ expectations.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI nudged up 0.1% for the fourth straight month, the longest such stretch since April 2017. The so-called core CPI was held down by a sharp decline in the prices of used cars and trucks as well as motor vehicle insurance.

In the 12 months through May, the so-called core CPI rose 2.0% after advancing 2.1% in April.

U.S. Treasury prices were trading mostly higher, while the dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street slipped as the rate-cut hopes were overshadowed by investor anxiety over the U.S.-China trade war.

GROWTH SLOWING

U.S. President Donald Trump in early May slapped additional tariffs of up to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods, prompting retaliation by Beijing. Trump on Monday threatened further duties on Chinese imports if no deal was reached when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at a G20 summit at the end of this month in Japan.

Economists have warned that the tariffs will undercut the economy, which will celebrate 10 years of expansion in July, the longest in history. Powell said last week the Fed was closely monitoring the implications of the trade war on the economy and would “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion.”

Data so far have suggested a sharp slowdown in U.S. economic growth in the second quarter after a temporary boost from exports and an accumulation of inventory early in the year. Job growth slowed sharply in May. Manufacturing production, exports and home sales dropped in April, while consumer spending cooled.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting gross domestic product to increase at a 1.4% annualized rate in the April-June quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

A survey of chief executive officers published on Wednesday showed unease about trade policy negatively impacting sales expectations as well as capital spending and hiring plans over the next six months.

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, increased 1.6 percent in the year to April after gaining 1.5% in March. Data for May will be released later this month. The core PCE price index has been running below the Fed’s 2% target this year.

Gasoline prices fell 0.5% in May after rising 5.7% in April. Food prices rebounded 0.3% in May after dipping 0.1% in the prior month. Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would pay to rent or receive from renting a home, increased 0.3% in May after rising 0.3% in April.

Healthcare costs increased 0.3%, matching April’s rise. That mirrored an increase in healthcare costs at the producer level, suggesting a pickup in the core PCE price index in May. There were gains in hospital and doctor fees. But prices for prescription medication fell 0.2%.

Apparel prices were unchanged in May after tumbling 0.8% in the prior month. They had declined for two months in a row after the government introduced a new method and data to calculate apparel prices. Economists expect the duties on Chinese goods to lift apparel prices in the coming months.

“That’s going to change with new tariffs on the way unless apparel companies can teach other nations to knit sweaters as well as Chinese workers can do,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Prices for used motor vehicles and trucks tumbled 1.4%. That was the largest drop since last September and marked the fourth straight monthly decrease. The cost of motor vehicle insurance fell 0.4%, the most since May 2007. The cost of recreation also decreased.

But prices for airline tickets rebounded 2.0% after falling for two straight months. Prices for household furnishings and new vehicles rose in May. Household furnishings prices are likely to trend higher in the coming months because of the duties on Chinese imports.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. inflation steadily firming; labor market strong

FILE PHOTO: People shop in Macy's Herald Square in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices barely rose in June, but the underlying trend continued to point to a steady buildup of inflation pressures that could keep the Federal Reserve on a path of gradual interest rate increases.

Other data on Thursday showed first-time applications for unemployment benefits dropped to a two-month low last week as the labor market continues to tighten. The Fed raised interest rates in June for a second time this year and has forecast two more rate hikes before the end of 2018.

“U.S. inflation continues to drift gradually higher in response to a nearly fully employed economy, with some nudging from tariffs,” said Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto. “The Fed has every reason to pull the rate trigger again in October.”

The Labor Department said its Consumer Price Index edged up 0.1 percent as gasoline price increases moderated and the cost of apparel fell. The CPI rose 0.2 percent in May. In the 12 months through June, the CPI increased 2.9 percent, the biggest gain since February 2012, after advancing 2.8 percent in May.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI rose 0.2 percent, matching May’s gain. That lifted the annual increase in the so-called core CPI to 2.3 percent, the largest rise since January 2017, from 2.2 percent in May.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast both the CPI and core CPI rising 0.2 percent in June.

The Fed tracks a different inflation measure, which hit the U.S. central bank’s 2 percent target in May for the first time in six years. Economists expect the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding food and energy will overshoot its target.

U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data.

In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 18,000 to a seasonally adjusted 214,000 for the week ended July 7, the lowest level since early May.

That suggests robust labor market conditions prevailed in early July. The economy created 213,000 jobs in June.

A tightening labor market and rising raw material costs are expected to push up inflation through next year. Manufacturers are facing rising input costs, in part because of tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on lumber, aluminum and steel imports.

So far, they have not passed on those higher costs to consumers. Fed officials have indicated they would not be too concerned with inflation overshooting its target.

Last month, gasoline prices rose 0.5 percent after increasing 1.7 percent in May. Food prices gained 0.2 percent, with food consumed at home rebounding 0.2 percent after falling 0.2 percent in May. Food prices were unchanged in May.

Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would pay to rent or receive from renting a home, rose 0.3 percent last month after increasing by the same margin in May. But the cost of hotel accommodation fell 3.7 percent after rising 2.9 percent in May.

Healthcare costs advanced 0.4 percent, with the price of hospital services surging 0.8 percent. Healthcare prices gained 0.2 percent in May. Consumers also paid more for prescription medication last month.

Prices for new motor vehicles rose for a second straight month. There were also increases in the cost of communication, motor vehicle insurance, education and alcoholic beverages.

But apparel prices fell 0.9 percent after being unchanged in May. The cost of airline tickets declined for a third straight month. Prices of household furnishings and tobacco also fell last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)