WASHINGTON (AP) — Over the past year, inflation in the United States has tumbled from 9% all the way to 3%, softening most of the price pressures that have gripped the nation for more than two years.
Now comes the hard part.
Squeezing out the last bit of excess inflation and reducing it to the Federal Reserve’s 2% target rate is expected to be a much harder and slower grind.
A measure called “core” inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices is even higher than overall inflation. It, too, seems likely to slow only gradually. The Fed pays particular attention to core prices as a signal of where inflation might be headed. In June, core prices were up 4.1% from a year earlier, according to the Fed’s preferred gauge.
“We see some challenges in getting that all the way back to 2% quickly,” said Michael Hanson, senior global economist at J.P. Morgan.
The stickiness of inflation could endanger the possibility that the Fed will achieve a rare “soft landing” — a scenario in which it manages to slow inflation down to its target level through higher interest rates without derailing the economy. If inflation were to remain elevated for too long, the Fed might feel compelled to further raise its key rate from its current 5.4%, a 22-year high. Most economists say they think the central bank is done hiking, but only if inflation continues to cool.
At the same time, the Fed has acknowledged that inflation pressures have eased significantly over the past year. Encouragingly, that slowdown has occurred even while the economy has continued to expand and employers have steadily hired at a healthy pace.
On Thursday, when the government will issue inflation data for July, economists expect it to show a slight pickup in year-over-year inflation to 3.3%. It would be the first such increase after 12 months of declines.
In part, any rebound in annual inflation for July will reflect higher gas prices. Unless they ease, gas prices could keep overall inflation above 3% through the end of the year. The national average pump price has jumped about 30 cents, to $3.83, in the past month, partly because the cost of oil has risen.
One obstacle in bringing inflation down to the Fed’s 2% target is that the price slowdown so far has reflected mainly relatively painless changes not likely to be repeated. Until last month, for example, gas prices had already plunged from a peak national average of $5. And supply-chain snarls that had swollen the prices of cars, furniture, appliances, and other physical goods have mostly unwound. The cost of long-lasting manufactured goods actually declined slightly in June from a year ago.
Another factor is that prices had soared in the first half of 2022 before slowing in the second half. So any increase in July would have the effect of boosting the year-over-year inflation rate.