Americans’ economic outlook brightens as inflation slows and wages outpace prices

WASHINGTON (AP) — After an extended period of gloom, Americans are starting to feel better about inflation and the economy — a trend that could sustain consumer spending, fuel economic growth and potentially affect President Joe Biden’s political fortunes.

A measure of consumer sentiment by the University of Michigan has jumped in the past two months by the most since 1991. A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that Americans’ inflation expectations have reached their lowest point in nearly three years. And the same survey, released last week, found that the proportion who expect their own finances to improve a year from now is at its highest level since June 2021.

Economists say consumers appear to be responding to steadily slower inflation, higher incomes, lower gas prices and a rising stock market. Inflation has tumbled from a peak of around 9% in June 2022 to 3.4%. According to the Federal Reserve’s preferred price gauge, inflation has reached the Fed’s annual 2% target when measured over the past six months.

What’s more, paychecks have outpaced inflation over the past year, thereby easing Americans’ adjustment to a higher cost of living. Weekly earnings for the typical worker — halfway between the highest and lowest earners — rose 2.2% last year after adjusting for inflation, the government reported last week. By that measure, inflation-adjusted pay is 2.5% higher than before the pandemic.

“While falling inflation took some time to feed through to consumer sentiment, it appears the good news is finally getting through,” said Grace Zwemmer, an analyst at Oxford Economics.

Consumers’ inflation expectations are important because they can become self-perpetuating: When people expect inflation to stay high, they often change their behavior, by accelerating purchases before prices rise further, which can, in turn, fuel more inflation. By contrast, lower inflation expectations can reverse that dynamic and help cool inflation.

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