An inflation gauge closely tracked by the Federal Reserve rose 6.3% in April from a year earlier, the first slowdown since November 2020 and a sign that high prices may finally be moderating, at least for now.
The inflation figure the Commerce Department reported Friday was below the four-decade high of 6.6% set in March. While high inflation is still causing hardships for millions of households, any slowing of price increases, if sustained, would provide some modest relief.
Earlier this month, the Labor Department reported that the Consumer Price Index, a broad-based measure of prices for goods and services, surged a higher-than-expected 8.3% in April.
Friday’s report also showed that consumer spending rose at a healthy 0.9% annual rate from March to April, outpacing the month-to-month inflation rate for a fourth straight time. The ongoing willingness of the nation’s consumers to keep spending freely despite inflated prices is helping sustain the economy. Yet all that spending is helping keep prices high and could make the Federal Reserve’s goal of taming inflation even harder.
“Inflation is finally slowing, but it’s a little early for high-fives,” said Bill Adams, chief economist at Comerica Bank.
Adams noted that gas and food prices have risen in May and that Russia’s war against Ukraine and COVID-19-related lockdowns in China could further disrupt supply shortages and send prices accelerating again.
Consumers’ resilience in the face of sharply higher prices suggests that economic growth is rebounding in the current April-June quarter. The economy shrank at a 1.5% annual rate in the first quarter, mostly because of an increase in the trade deficit. But analysts now project that, on an annual basis, it’s growing as much as 3% in the current quarter.
Americans have been able to keep spending, despite higher inflation, because of rising wages, a stockpile of savings built up during the pandemic and a rebound in credit card use. Economists say those factors could bolster spending and support the economy for much of this year.
Incomes rose 0.4% from March to April, Friday’s report showed, slightly faster than inflation. Still, high inflation is forcing consumers, on average, to save less. The savings rate fell to 4.4% last month, the lowest level since 2008. Overall, though, Americans have built up an additional $2.5 trillion in savings since the pandemic, and economists calculate that that pile is eroding only slowly.
Friday’s report showed that on a month-to-month basis, prices rose 0.2% from March to April, down from the 0.9% increase from February to March. The April increase was the smallest since November 2020.
Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, so-called core prices rose 0.3% from March to April, matching the previous month’s rise. Core prices climbed 4.9% from a year earlier, the first such drop since October 2020.
Still, inflation remains painfully high, and it’s inflicting a heavy burden in particular on lower-income households, many of them Black or Hispanic. Surging demand for furniture, appliances and other goods, combined with supply chain snarls, began sending prices surging about a year ago.
Consumers have shifted some of their spending from goods to services, like airline fares and entertainment tickets. That trend could help cool inflation in the months ahead, though it’s unclear by how much.