Prices rose again in September, ensuring more interest rate hikes

Prices rose faster in September than they had the month before, underscoring inflation’s remarkable grip on the U.S. economy despite the Federal Reserve’s aggressive work to ease the burden on families and businesses – and guaranteeing more interest rate hikes to come.

Seven months after the central bank started raising rates, the economy has seen little reprieve. Costs for housing, utilities, groceries and clothing strain the budgets of households nationwide. Yet policymakers face vexing choices about the path ahead: They must regain control of inflation before it embeds further into daily life. But they also run the risk of going too far, since their decisions won’t fully slow down the economy for months – and the five rate hikes they’ve already made could soon send the economy into recession.

“The report was yet another indication that inflation is a bigger problem, a more stubborn beast, than what it had seemed to be earlier,” said David Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Peter Institute for International Economics and director of U.S. economic research at Bloomberg Economics. “We knew we had an inflation problem before. We knew the Fed needed to be tightening. We knew a recession was a risk. All of those things are now intensified.”

There was no way to spin the September inflation report, released Thursday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the last look at inflation before the midterm elections. September prices rose at a pace of 8.2 percent compared with a year ago, a slight slowdown from the summer peak but still at highs not seen in four decades. Compared to the previous month, prices rose 0.4 percent, more than analysts expected. And “core inflation,” a closely watched measure that strips out more volatile categories such as food and energy, also came in hot, climbing 0.6 percent over the month and matching a similar pace in August. That’s a particularly worrying sign that inflation is becoming even more entrenched in the economy – and will be that much harder to root out.

The September price hikes were driven by increased costs for shelter, medical care, health insurance, new vehicles, home furnishings and education. Higher prices in those categories have all persisted for months, and they were only partly offset by a 4.9 percent drop in the gasoline index as prices continue to tick down from their summer peaks. The fuel oil index also rose a whopping 58.1 percent over last year.

Rent remains one of the most significant slices of the inflation report, known as the consumer price index. Rent costs rose 0.8 percent in September, up slightly from the previous two months. It is also up 7.2 percent in the past year, marking the largest increase since 1982.

The Fed’s rate hikes immediately hit other parts of the housing market by driving up costs for mortgages and helping home prices cool. But economists expect it will take months for rent costs to reverse course, leaving many Americans to stretch their budgets just to stay in their homes, or move somewhere else more affordable.

The food index rose 0.8 percent in September, as it did in August. Fruits and vegetables were up 1.6 percent, and cereals and bakery goods were up 0.9 percent. Flour, turkey and butter hit new highs. All told, food costs are up 11.2 percent over the past year.

A handful of indexes did drop in September. Used cars and trucks fell 1.1 percent, not as much as analysts were expected. Apparel dipped 0.3 percent.

Financial markets initially tumbled on the latest inflation report, but regained those losses throughout the day. By the close, the Dow Jones industrial average was up more than 827 points, or 2.8 percent. The Nasdaq was up 2.2 percent, and the S&P 500 2.6 percent.

Inflation remains the economy’s biggest problem. For more than a year, families have swallowed rising costs for groceries, gas, rent and nearly everything in between. Businesses are struggling to offset higher costs for transportation and find enough workers or get around persistent supply chain issues. Also on Thursday, the Social Security Administration announced an 8.7 percent increase in benefit checks for seniors starting next year, a response to the fastest inflation the United States has seen in four decades.

Looming over today’s bleak reality is an even more uncertain future, since no one knows whether the Federal Reserve’s efforts to cool down prices and the broader economy will spur a recession. Even President Joe Biden took an unusual step this week in acknowledging the possibility of a recession. “I don’t think there will be a recession. If it is, it’ll be a very slight recession,” Biden said in a CNN interview that aired Tuesday.

In a Thursday statement, Biden said “prices are still too high,” and slammed Republicans for opposing the Inflation Reduction Act, a major law aimed at lowering health-care costs and tackling the climate crisis. GOP lawmakers argue that Democrats’ stimulus spending from earlier in the pandemic triggered inflation and that Biden and congressional Democrats shouldn’t be trusted on economic issues.

Officials at the Federal Reserve have made clear that prices are too high to begin scaling back aggressive rate hikes, even as experts increasingly warn that the central bank risks overcorrecting the economy. Right now, the Fed’s policy rate, known as the federal funds rate, sits between 3 and 3.25 percent. Two more large hikes are expected in November and December, and the inflation report bolstered analysts’ expectations for a fourth consecutive hike of three-quarters of a percentage point next month.

“Read and weep,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM. “Talk about the Fed introducing the hard line. They may need to step up that hawkish rhetoric and follow through to at least 5 percent on the policy rate.”

To tackle inflation, the Fed raises interest rates, which can snuff out demand by making a whole host of lending – from auto loans to mortgages – more expensive. The Fed has hiked rates five times this year, most recently by three-quarters of a percentage point in September.

Uncertainty about the economy has rippled through the financial markets, which have been racked by recession fears in the United States and abroad. The major indexes have all fallen on the Fed’s clear warnings that it will not ease up on rate hikes, Thursday’s stock upticks notwithstanding. Fed officials say volatility in the markets doesn’t influence their rate hike plans. But falling stocks could become an issue in the midterm elections and shape people’s feelings about the economy’s strength.

At the same time, some parts of the economy have stayed resilient through high inflation and steep rate hikes. The job market is cooling in certain areas but has generally kept momentum, with employers adding a solid 263,000 jobs in September. Consumer spending and personal incomes both rose in August. Consumer confidence has recovered from its summer lows, when gas prices topped $5 a gallon.

At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, food costs are up about 20 percent, with staples such as chicken, turkey, pinto beans and rice all taking up a larger share of the organization’s budget. Fuel costs are up 50 percent and remain a major operational expense even as gas prices fall.

Chief executive Michael Flood said the food bank reached 800,000 people in September, a level roughly consistent with the rest of the year. Flood said he routinely hears from families that can barely scrape together a rent check, pay for medication or fill up a gas tank and have no choice but to skip out on food.

“We thought 2022 would be a bit of a quieter year, with the employment situation improving so much compared to 2020 and 2021,” Flood said. “But really, it’s inflation that has kept this demand for food assistance at this really elevated level.”

Katie Talbot decided she needed to find a new home for her and her teenage daughter before the start of the school year. The duo had shared a 600-square foot apartment near Holyoke, Mass., for $1,000 a month through the pandemic and remote learning, and they needed a three-bedroom rental once Talbot also started caring for her father.

She couldn’t find anything under $2,200, and the application fees – $35 here, $65 there – quickly added up. Talbot said her options were narrowed further, since her record includes an eviction from a decade ago. She looked at 15 properties before signing a lease for $1,980 per month, which she can barely swing between a full-time job as a community organizer and extra waitressing shifts on the weekends.

“If I didn’t want to eat, or my 14-year-old didn’t need clothes, my salary would cover my rent,” Talbot said. “But that’s it.”

After misjudging inflation for most of past year, some experts worry that the Fed’s plan to rein it back in could backfire. Rate hikes operate with a lag, and it takes months before their full weight hits. Also, policymakers can really only tackle problems with consumer demand. Their tools don’t help fix supply-side issues, such as chip shortages and housing shortages, that have driven up costs.

So far, Fed officials say there is a greater risk in not doing enough to fight inflation. But they also acknowledge that their tools are imprecise and blunt, and that any new global shocks make avoiding a recession even harder.

“The Federal Reserve takes into account the spillovers of higher interest rates, a stronger dollar, and weaker demand from foreign economies into the United States, as well as in the reverse direction,” Fed Vice Chair Lael Brainard said in a Tuesday speech. “We are attentive to the risk of further adverse shocks – for instance, from Russia’s war against Ukraine, the pandemic or China’s zero-covid policies.”

For the Fed and global central banks, the head winds are growing by the week. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday downgraded its global growth forecasts, saying in a new report that “the worst is yet to come, and for many people 2023 will feel like a recession.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also continues to roil the global economy, with a coalition of oil-producing nations led by Russia and Saudi Arabia announcing last week that they would slash production, which could soon send gas prices back up. Wholesale prices also rose more than expected in September, according to federal data released Wednesday.

In Richmond, brunch business is still hopping at LuLu’s. But the cost of serving customers is squeezing every margin. Payroll costs are up 20 to 30 percent from before the pandemic. It’s hard to hire enough skilled kitchen workers. Owner Paul Keevil said he knows he’d have to pay an inexperienced line cook a few dollars more per hour than he would have paid a veteran just a few years ago.

Keevil and General Manager Aaron Clifton said there’s a limit to how much they can raise prices at their cozy cafe. And there’s a ceiling to how much they can plan for the future, since prices for ingredients swing so wildly.

“The cost of eggs goes up 400 percent. If you were to increase costs for an omelet and charge $25, you’d be out of business,” Clifton said. “No one would buy it.”