Federal Reserve policymakers are likely to finish a year that has been colored by surprisingly high inflation with yet more bad news: Their preferred price measure could touch its highest level since 1982 when the latest reading is published on Thursday morning.
The Personal Consumption Expenditures price index, which is the indicator that the Fed officially targets when it aims for 2 percent annual inflation on average over time, is expected to have climbed by 5.7 percent in November from a year earlier, economists surveyed by Bloomberg estimate. That would be the fastest pace of increase in nearly 40 years.
Part of the jump will be caused by gasoline prices, which were up sharply in November, and have moderated this month. But a so-called “core” index that excludes food and fuel prices is also expected to increase sharply, to 4.5 percent.
Rapidly rising prices are lasting longer than policymakers had hoped, and they have become broader in recent months. Earlier this year, big price increases were largely limited to goods that were in short supply as demand surged and as overtaxed shipping lines struggled to keep up. More recently, they have spread into categories like rent — which can be more long-lasting.
Fed officials are tasked with keeping inflation moderate and helping the country achieve full employment, and they have grown increasingly worried about the surge in prices. This month they pivoted on policy, speeding up plans to cut back on economic support and preparing to raise interest rates early next year if that proves necessary. Higher interest rates can weaken demand for everything from homes to cars, helping to slow down the economy and restrain inflation.
What to Know About Inflation in the U.S.
- Inflation, Explained: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? We answered some common questions.
- The Fed’s Pivot: Jerome Powell’s abrupt change of course moved the central bank into inflation-fighting mode.
- Fastest Inflation in Decades: The Consumer Price Index rose 6.8 percent in November from a year earlier, its sharpest increase since 1982.
- Why Washington Is Worried: Policymakers are acknowledging that price increases have been proving more persistent than expected.
- The Psychology of Inflation: Americans are flush with cash and jobs, but they also think the economy is awful.
The big question for officials at the central bank — and in the Biden administration — is what will come next. With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus surging around the world, it is unlikely that tangled supply chains will get back to normal quickly. At the same time, rising housing costs could keep inflation high even as some of the most painful trends of 2021, including a surge in used-car prices tied to a computer chip shortage, moderate.
Fed officials do expect inflation to ease to 2.6 percent by the end of next year, their most recent economic forecasts showed, but that would remain substantially above their 2 percent goal. None of the Fed’s 18 top officials expect inflation to drop below 2 percent next year. High inflation also is sapping consumer confidence as people face down rising costs, even at a time when job openings far exceed available workers and wages are rising.
“It’s a devastating thing for people who are working class and middle-class,” President Biden said at the White House on Tuesday, adding: “It really hurts.”
The administration is trying to pull what levers it can — increasing the supply of oil and gas and trying to keep ports open longer in an effort to clear shipping backlogs.
But costs also are increasing because households have saved a lot after repeated government stimulus checks and months locked at home. People are spending voraciously, giving companies the power to raise prices without losing customers.
What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation costs and toys.
What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.
Where is inflation headed? Officials say they do not yet see evidence that rapid inflation is turning into a permanent feature of the economic landscape, even as prices rise very quickly. There are plenty of reasons to believe the price burst will fade, but some concerning signs suggest it could last.
Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains could also lead to higher wages and job growth.
How does inflation affect the poor? Inflation can be especially hard to shoulder for poor households because they spend a bigger chunk of their budgets on necessities — food, housing and especially gas.
Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.
It is the Fed’s job to lean against those demand-tied inflation pressures.
“While the drivers of higher inflation have been predominantly connected to the dislocations caused by the pandemic, price increases have now spread to a broader range of goods and services,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at a news conference last week. He suggested that if prices remain uncomfortably high, the Fed will do more to keep them under control.
“We understand that high inflation imposes significant hardship, especially on those least able to meet the higher costs of essentials like food, housing, and transportation,” Mr. Powell said. “We are committed to our price stability goal.”