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Inflation Has Eased, but Economists Are Still Worried

Inflation is beginning to abate meaningfully for American consumers. Gas is cheaper, eggs cost roughly half as much as they did January and prices are no longer climbing as rapidly across a wide array of products.

But at least one person has yet to express relief: Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve.

The Fed has spent the past 15 months locked in an aggressive war against inflation, raising interest rates above 5 percent in an attempt to get price increases back down to a more normal pace. Last week its officials announced that they were skipping a rate increase in June, giving themselves more time to see how the already enacted changes are playing out across the economy.

But Mr. Powell emphasized that it was too early to declare victory in the battle against rapid price increases.

The reason: While less expensive gas and slower grocery price adjustments have helped overall inflation to fall from its four-decade peak last summer, food and fuel costs tend to jump around a lot. That obscures underlying trends. And a measure of “core” inflation that strips out food and fuel is showing surprising staying power, as a range of purchases from dental care and hairstyling to education and car insurance continue to climb quickly in price.

Last week, Fed officials sharply marked up their forecast of how high core inflation would be at the end of 2023. They now see it at 3.9 percent, higher than the 3.6 percent they predicted in March and nearly twice their 2 percent inflation target.

The economic picture, in short, is playing out on something of a split screen. While the steepest price increases appear to be over for consumers — a relief for many, and a development that President Biden and his advisers have celebrated — Fed policymakers and many outside economists see continued reasons for concern. Between the subtle signs that inflation could stick around and the surprising resilience of the American economy, they believe that central bankers might need to do more to cool growth and rein in demand to prevent unusually elevated price increases from becoming permanent.

“Big picture: We are making progress, but the progress is slower than expected,” said Kristin J. Forbes, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and a former Bank of England policymaker. “Inflation is somewhat more stubborn than we had hoped.”

A fresh Consumer Price Index inflation report last week showed that inflation continued to moderate sharply on an overall basis in May. That measure helps to feed into the Fed’s preferred measure, the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, which it uses to define its 2 percent target. The fresh P.C.E. figures will be released on June 30.

White House officials, who have spent months on the defensive about the role that pandemic spending under Mr. Biden played in stoking demand and price increases, have greeted the recent cooling in inflation enthusiastically.

“We have seen a very large reduction in inflation, by more than 50 percent,” Lael Brainard, the director of the White House National Economic Council, said in an interview. She added that the current trajectory on inflation offered reasons for optimism that it could return back to normal fairly quickly as the economy slowed, and expressed hope that crushing it would not necessarily require a big jump in unemployment — something that has historically accompanied the Fed’s campaigns to wrangle inflation.

“The employment picture is very sustainable,” she said.

But many economists are less sanguine. That’s partly because most of the factors that have helped inflation to fall so far have been widely anticipated, sort of the low-hanging fruit of disinflation.

Supply chains were roiled by the pandemic and have since healed, allowing goods price increases to slow. A pop in oil prices tied to the war in Ukraine has faded.

And there may be more to come: Rents jumped starting in 2021 as people moved out on their own or relocated amid the pandemic. They have since cooled as landlords found that renter demand was not strong enough to bear ever-higher prices, and the moderation is slowly feeding into official inflation data.

What linger are relatively rapid price increases in services outside of housing. That’s a broad category, and it includes purchases that tend to be labor-intensive, like hospital care, school tuition and sports tickets. Those prices tend to rise when wages climb, both because employers try to cover their higher costs and because consumers who are earning more have the ability to pay more without pulling back.

“The big action is behind us,” said Olivier Blanchard, a former International Monetary Fund chief economist who is now at the Peterson Institute. “What remains is the pressure on wages.”

During a news conference last week, Mr. Powell said that in the measure of inflation that excluded food and energy “you just aren’t seeing a lot of progress,” emphasizing that “getting wage inflation back to a level that is sustainable” could be an important part of lowering the remaining price increases.

There are early signs that a labor market slowdown is underway. The Employment Cost Index measure of wages, which the Fed watches closely, is climbing much more rapidly than before the pandemic but has slowed from its mid-2022 peak. A measure of average hourly earnings has come down even more notably. And jobless claims have climbed in recent weeks.

But hiring has remained robust, and the unemployment rate low — which is why economists are trying to figure out if the economy is cooling enough to guarantee that inflation will return fully to normal.

Cylus Scarbrough, 42, has witnessed both features of today’s economy: fast wage growth and rapid inflation. Mr. Scarbrough works as an analyst for a homebuilder in Sacramento, and he said his skills were in such high demand that he could rapidly get a new job if he wanted. He got a 33 percent raise when he joined the company two years ago, and his pay has climbed more since.

Even so, he’s racking up credit card debt because of higher inflation and because he and his family spend more than they used to before the pandemic. They have gone to Disneyland twice in the past six months and eat out more regularly.

“It’s something about: You only live once,” he explained.

He said he felt OK about spending beyond his budget, because he bought a house just at the start of the pandemic and now has about $100,000 in equity. In fact, he is not even worrying about inflation as much these days — it was much more salient to him when gas prices were rising quickly.

“That was the time when I really felt like inflation was eating into our budget,” Mr. Scarbrough said. “I feel more comfortable with it now. I don’t think about it every day.”

Fed officials are not yet comfortable, and they may do more to tame price increases. Officials predicted last week that they would raise interest rates to 5.6 percent this year, making two more quarter-point rate moves that would push rates to their highest level since 2000.

Investors doubt that will happen. Given the recent cooling in inflation and signs that the job market is beginning to crack, they expect one more rate increase in July — and then outright rate cuts by early next year. But if that bet is wrong, the next phase of the fight against inflation could be the more painful one.

As higher borrowing costs prod consumers and firms to pull back, they are expected to translate into less hiring and fewer job opportunities for people like Mr. Scarbrough. The slowdown might leave some people out of work altogether.

Fed policymakers estimated that joblessness will jump to 4.5 percent by the end of next year — up somewhat from 3.7 percent now, but historically pretty low. But Mr. Blanchard thinks that the jobless rate might need to rise by one percentage point “and probably more.”

Jason Furman, a Harvard economist, said he thought the unemployment rate could go even higher. While it is not his forecast, he said that in a bad scenario it was “possible” that it would take something like 10 percent unemployment for inflation to return totally to normal. That’s how high joblessness jumped at the worst point in the 2009 recession, and inflation came down by about two percentage points, he noted.

In any case, Mr. Furman cautioned against jumping to early conclusions about the path ahead for inflation based on progress so far.

“People have been so crazily premature to keep declaring victory on inflation,” he said.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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