Rate cuts possible as US consumer prices post first drop in four years

Weekly jobless claims fall 17,000 to 222,000 while continuing claims decline 4,000 to 1.852 million

By Reuters

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A low price sign hangs from a shelf at a Target store on May 20, 2024 in Miami, Florida. The consumer price index dipped 0.1 per cent last month, the first drop since May 2020. — AFP File
A low price sign hangs from a shelf at a Target store on May 20, 2024 in Miami, Florida. The consumer price index dipped 0.1 per cent last month, the first drop since May 2020. — AFP File

Published: Thu 11 Jul 2024, 6:34 PM

US consumer prices fell for the first time in four years in June amid lower petrol costs and moderating rents, firmly putting disinflation back on track and drawing the Federal Reserve another step closer to cutting interest rates in September.

The second straight month of benign consumer price readings reported by the Labour Department on Thursday should help to bolster confidence among officials at the US central bank that inflation is cooling after surging in the first half of the year.


The report also showed a measure of underlying inflation posting the smallest increase since August 2021 on a monthly basis. Financial markets saw a very high probability of the Fed starting its easing cycle in September.

"Barring rogue price data in July, the Fed has a checkered flag to reduce rates in September," said Brian Bethune, an economics professor at Boston College. "This guidance will be solidified at the July meeting."


The consumer price index dipped 0.1 per cent last month, the first drop since May 2020, after being unchanged in May, the Labour Department's Bureau of Labour Statistics said. The CPI was weighed down by a 3.8 per cent drop in gasoline prices, which followed a 3.6 per cent decrease in May. Shelter costs, which include rents, increased a moderate 0.2 per cent after advancing 0.4 per cent in May.

Food prices rose 0.2 per cent after edging up 0.1 per cent in May. In the 12 months through June, the CPI climbed 3 per cent, the smallest gain since June 2023. That followed a 3.3 per cent advance in May.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI ticking up 0.1 per cent and gaining 3.1 per cent year on year.

The annual increase in consumer prices has slowed from a peak of 9.1 per cent in June 2022. June's moderation narrowed the CPI gap with the measures tracked by the Fed for its 2 per cent inflation target. The Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price indexes both increased 2.6 per cent in May.

The CPI report followed news last week that the unemployment rate rose to a 2-1/2-year high of 4.1 per cent in June from 4 per cent in May.

Economic growth has also slowed in response to the central bank's hefty rate hikes in 2022 and 2023, with second-quarter gross domestic product forecast near the 1.8 per cent annualised rate that policymakers view as the non-inflationary growth pace.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell has acknowledged the recent improving trend in price pressures, but told lawmakers this week he was not yet ready to declare inflation had been beaten and that "more good data" would strengthen the case for rate cuts.

Financial markets saw a roughly 85 per cent chance of a rate cut at the Fed's September meeting, compared with about a 70 per cent chance seen before the report. US Treasury yields fell. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies.

The central bank has maintained its benchmark overnight interest rate in the current 5.25-5.50 per cent range since last July. It has hiked its policy rate by 525 basis points since 2022.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI gained 0.1 per cent in June. That was the smallest increase in the so-called core CPI since August 2021 and followed a 0.2 per cent rise in May. The core CPI was restrained by a moderation in rents, which increased 0.3 per cent, the smallest gain since August 2021.

Consumers also got relief from healthcare costs, which rose 0.2 per cent after advancing 0.5 per cent in May. Airline fares were cheaper as were used cars and trucks, new motor vehicles and communication services. But motor vehicle insurance prices rebounded 0.9 per cent after falling 0.1 per cent in May.

Household furnishings and operations cost more as did personal care, education, recreation and apparel.

In the 12 months through June, the core CPI increased 3.3 per cent. That was the smallest year-on-year increase since April 2021 and followed a 3.4 per cent rise in May.

A separate report from the Labour Department on Thursday showed first-time applications for unemployment benefits dropped more than expected last week, but volatility around this time of the year as automobile manufacturers idle plants for retooling makes it harder to get a clean read on the labour market.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 17,000 to a seasonally adjusted 222,000 for the week ended July 6, the lowest level since late May. Economists had forecast 236,000 claims in the latest week.

The claims data included the Independence Day holiday. Claims tend to be volatile around holidays, and auto makers typically shut down assembly plants starting the July 4 week to retool for new models.

The timing can, however, vary from one manufacturer to the next, which can throw off the model that the government uses to smooth out the data for seasonal fluctuations.

While this is likely injecting noise into the claims data, signs are mounting that the labour market is losing steam as hefty interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve in 2022 and 2023 cool economic activity.

There were 1.22 job openings for every unemployed person in May, not much higher than the 1.19 average in 2019. The unemployment rate rose to a 2-1/2-year high of 4.1 per cent in June from 4 per cent in May. Claims had since June been stuck in the upper end of their 194,000-243,000 range for this year.

The number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid, a proxy for hiring, slipped 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 1.852 million during the week ending June 29, the claims report showed.



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