Inflation ended 2022 in a modest retreat, with consumer prices in December posting the biggest monthly decline since early in the pandemic, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
The consumer price index, which measures the cost of a broad basket of goods and services, fell 0.1% for the month, in line with the Dow Jones estimate. That was the biggest month-on-month drop since April 2020, as large parts of the country were locked down to fight Covid.
Even with the slowdown, the headline CPI rose 6.5% from a year ago, highlighting the continuing burden that the rising cost of living has placed on American households. However, it was the smallest annual increase since October 2021.
Excluding volatile food and energy prices, the so-called core CPI rose by 0.3%, also meeting expectations. Core was up 5.7% from a year ago, once again in line.
A steep drop in gasoline was responsible for most of the monthly decline. Prices at the pump fell 9.4% for the month and are now down 1.5% from a year ago after rising above $5 a gallon by mid-2022.
Fuel oil fell 16.6% for the month, and also contributed to a total decline of 4.5% in the energy index.
Food prices increased by 0.3% in December, while shelter also saw a sharp increase of 0.8% for the month and is now 7.5% higher than a year ago. Shelter accounts for about a third of the total CPI index.
The prices of used cars, also an important primary driver of inflation, were down 2.5% for the month and are now down 8.8% year-on-year.
Markets reacted little to the news, with futures linked to the Dow Jones Industrial Average up modestly and Treasury yields down across most maturities.
Both annual increases remain well above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target, but have consistently moved lower.
The CPI is the most watched inflation gauge as it takes into account movements in everything from a gallon of gas to a dozen eggs and the price of plane tickets.
The Federal Reserve prefers a different gauge that adjusts for changes in consumer behavior. However, the central bank takes in a wide range of information when measuring inflation, with the CPI being one piece of the puzzle.
Markets are watching the Fed’s moves closely as officials battle inflation that, at its peak, was the highest in 41 years. Bottlenecks in the supply chain, the war in Ukraine and trillions in fiscal and monetary stimulus helped drive up prices that spread across most areas of the economy.
Policymakers are weighing how much longer they need to go with rate hikes used to slow the economy and tame inflation. The Fed has so far raised its benchmark interest rate by 4.25 percentage points to the highest level in 15 years. Officials have indicated that the rate is likely to exceed 5% before they can step back to see the impact of the policy tightening.
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