WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices increased more than expected in December as rents maintained their upward trend, which could delay a much anticipated interest rate cut in March from the Federal Reserve.
The consumer price index (CPI) rose 0.3% last month after nudging up 0.1% in November, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said on Thursday. The cost of shelter accounted for the more than half of the increase in the CPI.
In the 12 months through December, the CPI rose 3.4% after increasing 3.1% in November. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI gaining 0.2% on the month and climbing 3.2% on a year-on-year basis.
Since slowing to an annual increase of 3.0% last June, further progress towards lower consumer inflation has been limited by persistently high rents. The annual increase in consumer prices has cooled from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022.
The report followed news last Friday that the economy added 216,000 jobs in November, with annual wage growth picking up.
Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI rose 0.3% last month after increasing 0.3% in November. The so-called core CPI advanced 3.9% on a year-on-year basis in December after rising 4.0% in November.
Though consumer prices remain elevated, measures tracked by the U.S. central bank for its 2% inflation target improved significantly through much of 2023, with the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index posting its first monthly decline in more than 3-1/2 years in November.
Rents, which account for a larger share of the CPI basket, have a smaller weighting in the PCE price index, which will be published later this month.
Early on Thursday, financial markets saw a roughly 69% chance of a rate cut at the Fed’s March 19-20 policy meeting, according to CME Group’s FedWatch Tool. The Fed has hiked its policy rate by 525 basis points to the current 5.25%-5.50% range since March 2022.
With the resilient labor market keeping wage growth elevated, some economists expect a rate cut in May or June.
The labor market is easing, but only gradually as layoffs remain low by historical norms.
In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 202,000 for the week ended Jan. 6. Economists had forecast 210,000 claims for the latest week.
Claims data tend to be volatile at the start of the year. Filings remain in the lower end of the 194,000-265,000 range that prevailed in 2023. Employers are hoarding workers following difficulties finding labor in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping a recession at bay.
The number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid, a proxy for hiring, dropped 34,000 to 1.834 million during the week ending Dec. 30, the claims report showed.
The so-called continuing claims have mostly increased since mid-September, a trend blamed mainly on difficulties adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations after an unprecedented surge in filings early in the pandemic.
Economists expect the distortion will be smoothed out when the government revises the data this year.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)