Inflation was lower than expected in November amid a broad-based slowdown in consumer prices that have been rising at their fastest rate in decades.
The consumer price index, a key inflation barometer, jumped by 7.1% in November from a year earlier, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said Tuesday. Economists expected a 7.3% annual increase.
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The CPI reading for November was the smallest 12-month increase since December 2021, and down from 7.7% in October.
“Across the board, we saw a moderation of inflation,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “That’s what’s most encouraging. It’s not one or two special factors.”
Inflation is a measure of how quickly the prices consumers pay for a broad range of goods and services are rising. Inflation has moderated from its recent 9.1% peak in June this year but is still higher than any point since the early 1980s.
In November, the average U.S. household spent $396 more per month to buy the same goods and services it did a year ago — down from $433 in October, according to Moody’s Analytics. Wage growth — which is at its strongest in decades — has lagged inflation for the average worker. As a result, their paychecks buy less than they did a year ago.
It’ll be a “long road,” perhaps another 18 months or so, for inflation to fall back to earth, Zandi said.
“We took a definitive step down that road today,” he said. “Inflation is still painfully high, but the pain is increasingly less intense.”
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Economists are closely watching one number
A decline in the annual inflation rate doesn’t mean prices fell for goods and services; it just means prices aren’t rising as quickly.
Monthly changes in inflation generally provide a more accurate gauge of near-term trends (i.e., if inflation is speeding up or slowing down) than the annual rate.
That’s especially true of “core inflation,” which strips out price trends in food and energy, like gasoline, heating oil and electricity.
While many Americans feel those price changes acutely — given food and energy are household staples — they’re volatile categories more beholden to the whims of global economic forces and which largely can’t be controlled by U.S. policymakers. Take the war in Ukraine, for example: Russia’s invasion roiled oil markets earlier this year, and gasoline prices surged. (So did margarine, oddly enough, due partly to the war’s impact on sunflower oil from Ukraine, the world’s largest producer.)
In other words: “core” inflation gives a better sense of the future inflationary trend in the U.S., economists said.
When inflation is low and stable, monthly core inflation is roughly 0.2%, on average, said Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.
Core CPI rose 0.2% in November, after a 0.3% reading in October — down significantly from 0.6% in September and August.
“One month doesn’t make a trend, or even two months, but the October and November readings are clearly a big step in the right direction,” Hunter said.
Notable inflation categories in November
Despite the overarching slowdown, some consumer categories still saw a jump in inflation.
Inflation for groceries, apparel and communication increased from October to November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prices fell for energy, used cars and trucks, and airline fares over the month.
However, airfare is still up 36% over the year, among the largest annual increases among consumer categories. Other notable annual price increases include: fuel oil (66%), butter and margarine (34%), flour (25%) and public transportation (24%).
Inflation is still painfully high, but the pain is increasingly less intense.Mark Zandichief economist at Moody’s Analytics
Food, energy and housing have been among the larger pain points for households in recent months.
Housing represents the biggest share of average consumer budgets, accounting for 34% of household spending in 2021, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Labor data. Transportation, which includes gasoline, and food are No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, at 16% and 12%.
“The good news is, we’re seeing energy prices and food prices come off their highs,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG. “We welcome that with open arms.”
Housing may prove to be stubborn for some time, however, given there’s typically a lag in rent and home price trends flowing through to the consumer price index.
The “shelter” index is up 7.1% over the last year, accounting for about half of the increase in annual “core” inflation, according to the BLS. While shelter inflation moderated a bit from October to November, shelter was “by far the largest contributor” to the monthly inflation, more than offsetting decreases in energy indexes, the BLS said.
“Rent inflation is still yet to slow meaningfully, but we know from the private-sector rent data that a sharp slowdown is coming there too,” Hunter said.
How supply-demand economics fueled inflation
A healthy economy experiences a small degree of inflation each year. U.S. Federal Reserve officials aim to keep inflation around 2% annually.
But prices started rising at an unusually fast pace starting in early 2021, following years of low inflation.
As the U.S. economy reopened, a supply-demand imbalance fueled inflation that was initially limited to items such as used cars, but which has since spread and lingered longer than many officials and economists had expected.
The problem isn’t siloed in the U.S. In some cases, it’s been worse overseas.
On the global stage, inflation first showed up in the U.S., however. That’s partly due to Covid-related restrictions unwinding sooner in many states relative to the rest of the world and federal support for households kickstarting the economic recovery.
Americans had more disposable income as the economy reopened, the result of federal funds such as stimulus checks and pent-up demand from staying at home. Meanwhile, Covid-19 lockdowns snarled global supply chains — meaning ample cash ran headlong into fewer goods to buy, driving up prices.
The dynamics that had underpinned high inflation for physical goods seem to be retreating, Hunter said. Supply-chain issues have largely faded, while a strong U.S. dollar relative to foreign currencies generally makes it less costly to import goods from overseas, he said.
‘We’re in a world that’s much more prone to inflation’
But inflation for “services” has proven “a bit stickier,” Hunter said. Labor costs are a big driver of inflation in the services sector, which might include anything from haircuts to hotel stays. Demand for workers is near historic highs and the unemployment rate low, helping fuel competition for workers and therefore fast-rising wages — in turn feeding through to high labor costs to businesses, creating upward pressure on their cost of services.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also fueled a surge in commodity prices — for crude oil and grain, for example — which has fed into higher costs for gasoline and food. High energy costs have broad ripple effects on other goods, which become more costly to produce and transport.
Other one-off events have also weighed on inflation. For example, one of the worst cases of bird flu in U.S. history has led the price of eggs to surge more than most other food categories this year. The price of eggs is up 49% in the past year, according to Tuesday’s CPI report.
Severe drought in Western U.S. states like California and Arizona has reduced vegetable supplies, triggering big price increases.
Climate change, along with elevated geopolitical risk and aging trends, represent a “trifecta” of issues that create more inflationary pressure relative to before the Covid-19 pandemic, Swonk said.
For example, global extreme weather events can disrupt food supplies and supply chains, a wave of U.S. retirements have contributed to a smaller pool of available workers, and political tensions have led to more protectionism and self-sourcing — all of which have implications for inflation, Swonk said.
“I think we’re in a world that’s much more prone to inflation than the world we left,” Swonk said.
“What is the new equilibrium once we’ve gotten there?” she added. “That’s where the difficulty is.”
The U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks are trying to make sense of these multi-pronged inputs and tamp down inflation by raising borrowing costs for consumers and businesses. The dynamic serves to reduce demand, ultimately filtering through to prices. That’s likely to be a lengthy process, according to some economists.
“Inflation has likely already peaked in most markets, but reducing price pressures tied to labor markets and wage growth will take longer,” Vanguard Group economists wrote in an outlook report published Monday. “As such, central banks may reasonably achieve their 2% inflation targets only in 2024 or 2025.”