US inflation rose hotter-than-expected 3.1% in January, dimming hopes for Fed rate cuts

US inflation rose 3.1% in January, a hotter-than-expected increase that further stokes doubts as to whether the Federal Reserve will begin cutting interest rates this spring.

Last month’s Consumer Price Index — which tracks changes in the costs of everyday goods and services — came in higher than the 2.9% figure economists had expected, according to FacfSet.

Core CPI — a number that excludes volatile food and energy prices — increased 0.4% in January, to 3.9%, after rising 0.3% in December. The figure, a closely-watched gauge among policymakers for long-term trends, was also higher than what economists at FactSet expected.

Dow futures were poised to drop early Tuesday as traders began to unwind bets that the Fed will begin easing rates sooner rather than later.

The latest inflation figure marks a cooldown from December’s stiffer-than-expected 3.4% gain, which dampened hopes on Wall Street that the first of three highly-anticipated interest rate cuts this year could come as soon as March.

“The question is whether or not May 1 remains a possibility if the next series of inflation related data do not edge lower than expected,” said LPL Financial’s chief global strategist, Quincy Krosby.

“This could easily be a one off. But for all those people saying rates are too high, he’s got to cut now,” Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer of Independent Advisor Alliance, said of Fed Chair Jerome Powell. “What are we waiting for? This is why. This is exactly what Powell was worried about.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics attributed the CPI’s increase to the shelter index, which rose 0.6% on a monthly basis and contributed to two-thirds of the monthly all-items increase. The food index increased 0.4% in January, more than the 0.2% it advanced in December.

The gas index, meanwhile, experienced a handsome 3.3% drop, offsetting increases in the electricity and natural gas indexes, the federal agency said. As of Tuesday, the average price for a gallon of gas in the US is $3.23, according to AAA data.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest CPI report underscores that cash-strapped Americans, who are still dealing with retail prices far above where they were before the pandemic.

Hopes for rate cuts also took a hit with the January jobs report showing the labor market is booming, with US employers adding a staggering 353,000 jobs last month.

The figure blew past the 185,000 jobs economists expected, as the unemployment rate remained steady at 3.7% for the third month in a row.

Januarys jobs report was the first major piece of economic data since the Federal Reserves latest policy meeting, when central bankersunanimously decided to keep interest rates at their current 22-year high, between 5.25% and 5.5%.

Considering the jobs report and the CPI, the Fed still “doesnt have a coherent set of criteria for cutting, so for all we know this resets the clock,” according to Subadra Rajappa, Societe Generale’s Head of US Rates Strategy.

“If cutting is a confidence game, we dont know when enough progress is enough or whether mild setbacks undermine their confidence.”

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Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has addressed the issue of “shrinkflation” — when businesses cut product sizes but keep prices the same — in a video posted on X ahead of Super Bowl LVIII.

Biden called the practice “a rip-off.”

Im calling on companies to put a stop to this. Lets make sure businesses do the right thing now, he said, though he didn’t offer a solution or policy to address the practice.

Senator Bob Casey in December released a report that showed the impact of smaller product sizes on everything from toilet paper to Oreos.

The report noted that household paper products were 34.9% more expensive per unit than they were in January 2019, with about 10.3% of the increase due to producers shrinking the sizes of rolls and packages.

It said the price of snacks like Oreos and Doritos had gone up 26.4% over the same period, with shrinking portions accounting for 9.8% percent of the increase.

Although inflation appears to be slowing, the economy remains Americans overall top concern, cited by 22% of poll respondents, as they have struggled with inflation and other aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last month.

Since taking office, Biden has made a pitch for lower supermarket prices, pushed drug makers to lower insulin costs, hotel chains to reduce fees and tried to diversify the meat-packing industry after beef prices skyrocketed in the aftermath of the pandemic.