WASHINGTON — Falling prices for fuel, airline tickets and clothes helped give Americans a slight break from the pain of high inflation last month, though overall price increases slowed only modestly from a four-decade high that was reached in June.
Consumer prices jumped 8.5% in July compared with a year earlier, the government said Wednesday, down from a 9.1% year-over-year increase in June. On a monthly basis, prices were unchanged from June to July, the smallest such rise in more than two years.
Much of the relief last month was felt by travelers: Hotel room costs fell 2.7% from June to July, airfares nearly 8% and rental car prices a whopping 9.5%. Those prices declines followed steep increases in the past year after COVID-19 cases eased and travel rebounded. Airfares are still nearly 30% higher than they were a year ago .
Last month’s declines in travel-related prices helped lower so-called core inflation, a measure that excludes the volatile food and energy categories to provide a clearer picture of underlying inflation. Core prices rose just 0.3% from June, the smallest month-to-month increase since March. And compared with a year ago, core inflation amounted to 5.9% in July, the same year-over-year increase as in June.
All told, the July figures raised hope that inflation may have peaked after more than a year of relentless increases that have strained household finances, soured Americans on the economy, led the Federal Reserve to raise borrowing rates aggressively and diminished President Joe Biden’s public approval ratings.
Still, core prices have slowed in the recent past only to re-accelerate in subsequent months. And even if inflation continues to weaken, it is a long way from the Fed’s 2% annual target.
“There’s good reason to think inflation will continue to slow,” said Michael Pugliese, an economist at Wells Fargo. “What I think gets lost in that discussion is, slow by how much?”
Even if consumer inflation were to slow to 4% — less than half its current level — Pugliese suggested that it would still likely cause the Fed to keep raising rates.
Americans are still absorbing bigger price increases than they have in decades. Grocery prices jumped 1.1% in July and are 13% higher than a year ago, the largest year-over-year increase since 1979. Bread prices leapt 2.8% last month, the most in more than two years. Rental and medical care costs rose, though slightly less than in previous months.
Average paychecks are rising faster than they have in decades, but not fast enough to keep up with those rising costs. As a result, some people who had retired have felt the need in recent months to return to the workforce.
Among them is Charla Bulich, who lives in San Leandro, California. For the past six months Bulich, 73, has worked a few hours a week caring for an elderly woman because her Social Security and food stamps don’t cover her rising costs.
“I go over my budget all the time — that’s why I had to go get a job,” Bulich said. “I wouldn’t even think about buying hamburger meat or a steak or something like that.”
Now, she worries that she will lose her food stamps in the coming months because of her extra income.
Micheal Altfest, director of community engagement at the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, said his organization now provides about 4.5 million pounds of food a month, up from below 4 million in January. The group has also budgeted for a 66% increase in fuel costs. That’s mostly because of higher fuel prices but also because it’s now using more trucks to keep up with the demand for food.
Altfest’s own rent recently jumped 14%, he said, forcing him to recalibrate his budget.
“All these costs are going up, all at once,” he said. “The people here were stretched already.”
Wednesday’s report increased hope that the modest slowdown in inflation might enable the Fed to slow the pace of its increases in short-term rates when it meets in late September — and sent stock prices jumping. How quickly and how far the Fed raises borrowing costs has significant effects on the economy: Sharper hikes tend to reduce consumer and business borrowing and spending and make a recession more likely.
If the Fed doesn’t have to raise rates as high to restrain prices, it has a better chance of engineering an elusive “soft landing,” whereby growth slows enough to curb high inflation but not so much as to cause a recession.
Biden seized on the report in remarks he made Wednesday, highlighting the flat monthly inflation figure:
“I just want to say a number: Zero,” he told reporters. “Today, we received news that our economy had zero percent inflation in the month of July.”
Biden has pointed to declining fuel prices as a sign that his policies — including large releases of oil from the nation’s strategic reserve — are helping lessen the higher costs that have hurt household finances, particularly for lower-income Americans and Black and Hispanic households.
Yet Republicans are stressing the persistence of high inflation as a top issue in the midterm congressional elections, with polls showing that elevated prices have driven Biden’s approval ratings down sharply.
There are other signs that inflation may fade in coming months. Americans’ expectations for future inflation have fallen, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, likely reflecting the drop in fuel prices that is highly visible to most consumers.
For the first time in months, the average price for a gallon of diesel fuel across the nation has dropped below $5.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the price sits at $4.99.
Inflation expectations can be self-fulfilling: If people believe inflation will stay high or worsen, they’re likely to take steps — such as demanding higher pay — that can send prices higher in a self-perpetuating cycle. Companies then often raise prices to offset higher their higher labor costs. But the New York Fed survey found that Americans’ foresee lower inflation one, three and five years from now than they did a month ago.
Supply chain snarls are also loosening, with fewer ships moored off Southern California ports and shipping costs declining. Prices for commodities like corn, wheat and copper have fallen steeply.
Yet in categories where price changes are stickier, such as rents, costs are still surging. One-third of Americans rent their homes, and higher rental costs are leaving many of them with less money to spend on other items.
Stubborn inflation isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. Prices have jumped in the United Kingdom, Europe and in less developed nations such as Argentina.
In the U.K., inflation soared 9.4% in June from a year earlier, a four-decade high. In the 19 countries that use the euro currency, it reached 8.9% in June compared with a year earlier, the highest since record-keeping for the euro began.
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