Price Increases Cooled in November as Inflation Falls Toward Fed Target

A closely watched measure of inflation cooled notably in November, good news for the Federal Reserve as officials move toward the next phase in their fight against rapid price increases and a positive for the White House as voters see relief from rising costs.

The Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation measure, which the Fed cites when it says it aims for 2 percent inflation on average over time, climbed 2.6 percent in the year through November. That was down from 2.9 percent the previous month, and was less than what economists had forecast. Compared with the previous month, prices overall even fell slightly for the first time in years.

That decline — a 0.1 percent drop, and the first negative reading since April 2020 — came as gas prices dropped. After volatile food and fuel prices were stripped out for a clearer look at underlying price pressures, inflation climbed modestly on a monthly basis and 3.2 percent over the year. That was down from 3.4 percent previously.

While that is still faster than the Fed’s goal, the report provided the latest evidence that price increases are swiftly slowing back toward the central bank’s target. After more than two years of rapid inflation that has burdened American shoppers and bedeviled policymakers, several months of solid progress have helped to convince policymakers that they may be turning a corner.

Increasingly, officials and economists think that they may be within sight of a soft economic landing — one in which inflation moderates back to normal without a painful recession. Fed policymakers held interest rates steady at their meeting this month, signaled that they might well be done raising interest rates and suggested that they could even cut borrowing costs three times next year.

“Inflation is slowing a lot faster than the Fed had anticipated — that could allow them to potentially cut soon, and more aggressively,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, head of U.S. rates strategy at TD Securities. “They’re really trying their best to deliver a soft landing here.”

The inflation progress is welcome news for the Biden administration, which has struggled to capitalize on strong economic growth and low unemployment at a time when high prices are eroding household confidence.

President Biden released a statement celebrating the report, and Lael Brainard, director of the National Economic Council, called the slowdown in inflation “a significant milestone” in a call with reporters.

“Inflation has come down faster than even the more optimistic forecasts,” she said, noting that wage gains are outstripping price increases. While she didn’t comment on monetary policy directly, citing the central bank’s independence from the White House, she did note that households are already facing lower mortgage rates as investors come to expect a more lenient Fed.

Based on market pricing, the Fed is expected to begin lowering interest rates as soon as March, though officials have argued that it is too early to talk about when rate cuts will commence.

“Inflation has eased from its highs, and this has come without a significant increase in unemployment — that’s very good news,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at that meeting. Still, he emphasized that “the path forward is uncertain.”

Central bankers are likely to watch closely for signs that inflation has continued to cool as they contemplate when to start cutting rates. Some officials have suggested that keeping borrowing costs steady when price increases are slowing would effectively squeeze the economy more. (Interest rates are not price-adjusted, so they get higher after stripping inflation out as inflation falls.)

Still, Fed officials have been hesitant to declare victory after repeated head fakes in which price increases proved more stubborn than expected, and at a time when geopolitical issues could complicate supply chains or push up gas prices.

“The more benign inflation data is certainly something to celebrate, but there is some turbulence ahead,” Omair Sharif, founder of Inflation Insights, wrote in a note reacting to Friday’s data. “Fed officials will want to get through before turning the focus squarely to rate cuts.”

Policymakers are also likely to keep a close eye on consumer spending as they try to figure out how much momentum is left in the economy.

The report released Friday showed that consumers are still spending at a moderate clip. A measure of personal consumption climbed 0.2 percent from October, and 0.3 percent after adjusting for inflation. Both readings were quicker than the previous month. That suggested that growth is still positive, though is no longer quite as hot as it was earlier this year.

Officials still expect the economy to slow more notably in 2024, a demand cool-down that they think would pave the way to sustainably slower price increases.

After a year in which inflation cooled rapidly in spite of surprisingly strong growth, economists are expressing humility. But policymakers remain wary of a situation in which growth remains too strong.

“If you have growth that’s robust, what that will mean is probably we’ll keep the labor market very strong; it probably will place some upward pressure on inflation,” Mr. Powell said at his news conference. “That could mean that it takes longer to get to 2 percent inflation.”

That, he said, “could mean we need to keep rates higher for longer.”

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