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Latest inflation information comes as the Fed rethinks its aggressive rate hikes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Falling gasoline and grocery prices helped to bring down inflation in March. So what happens now, as we learn the inflation numbers for April? NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do analysts expect to learn today?

HORSLEY: Well, they think the annual inflation rate in April was somewhere around 5%. That is, of course, a big improvement from last June when inflation topped out just over 9%.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

HORSLEY: It would be about the same as the rate we saw in March. In fact, April's rate could be a little bit higher than the March number. A big driver of inflation in recent months has been housing costs, and forecasters do expect housing inflation to ease over time as newer rental prices make their way into the government's data. But Omair Sharif, who heads the forecasting firm Inflation Insights, says there was actually a pretty big decline in housing inflation in March. And he thinks we could be due for a rebound in the April number.

OMAIR SHARIF: My feeling is that there is a very gradual slowdown here that you can kind of - you know, if you squint, you can see it. But March seemed a little too good to be true.

HORSLEY: Energy prices also jumped a little bit last month, and used car prices may have done a U-turn as well. They've been coming down, but there is a lot of demand for used cars right now. Dealers had to pay premium prices at wholesale auctions this winter to get cars on their lots, and that could show up in the April sticker price as well.

INSKEEP: What kind of bottom line does this give us then, about the direction of inflation?

HORSLEY: You know, these April numbers may not tell us a whole lot. Some of these numbers bounce up and down from month to month. And...

INSKEEP: Sure.

HORSLEY: ...Sharif thinks if you screen out that monthly noise, inflation still seems to be headed lower.

SHARIF: I think once you look through some of these details, I think you actually ought to be feeling better about where things are headed on inflation over the next, you know, three to six months.

HORSLEY: The inflation watchdogs at the Federal Reserve have been keeping a close eye on the price of services other than housing - things like restaurant meals and car repair. Those prices tend to be a little stickier, so that's something we'll be watching for today.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you brought up the Federal Reserve. We'll state the obvious here - the Fed wants to control inflation. That's one of their mandates. They've been raising interest rates again and again and again to try to do that. So given this information, where do they go from here?

HORSLEY: Good question. Last week, the Fed raised its benchmark interest rates for the 10th time in 14 months. That's the most aggressive series of rate hikes since the 1980s. Policymakers hinted, though, that could be the last rate hike for a while. But the central bank is not making any promises.

John Williams heads the New York Federal Reserve Bank. And yesterday, he told The Economic Club of New York that there's still just a lot of uncertainty about the economy right now, so the Fed wants to keep its options open.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN WILLIAMS: There's just a lot of churn, if you will, going on in supply and demand. And so it's not a business-as-usual, macro economy right now.

HORSLEY: Adding to that uncertainty is the situation in the banking sector. We've had three bank failures since March. That means other banks are getting more cautious about making loans, and that could be a drag on the economy as it raises the risk of recession.

INSKEEP: Risk of a recession, even though the job market is still really strong.

HORSLEY: Yeah. Unemployment's just 3.4%, tied with a half-century low. Employers added more than a quarter million jobs last month. Wage growth picked up a little bit last month, and the Fed's worried that rising wages could put upward pressure on prices. But last week, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said he doesn't think wages are the principal driver of inflation, and Sharif agrees.

SHARIF: Wages are definitely pushing up inflation. And, in fact, a lot of people would argue inflation is pushing up wages. But there's a lot of other elements that probably are playing a bigger role.

HORSLEY: So we'll get some clues about those other inflationary elements today.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.