Economists are slashing U.S. inflation forecasts for 2015 as oil prices tumble. What’s not changing are predictions that the Federal Reserve will raise its benchmark interest rate anyway, probably around mid-year.
“We’re still saying June with risks to September,” said Michael Gapen, the New York-based chief U.S. economist for Barclays Plc. The Fed “can push rates higher in the middle of the year, even though visually that may look awkward if headline inflation is around zero.”
A stronger dollar, slowing global growth and cheaper oil are holding down costs for goods such as televisions and autos. Fed policy makers will probably look past that and see an improving labor market that will force employers to offer higher wages. Those costs will soon push up the price of such things as rent and restaurant meals, no matter what happens overseas, giving the central bank room to raise interest rates that have been stuck near zero for six years.
The personal consumption expenditure, or PCE, price index that’s the Fed’s preferred measure will be up 0.5 percent in the second quarter of 2015 from the same time this year, Barclays economists projected on Dec. 19. That’s down from a previous forecast of 1.2 percent. The consumer-price index, a separate gauge, is projected to show a small decline in the 12 months through June.
The Fed’s goal is for PCE inflation to climb around 2 percent a year.
Core prices, which exclude food and fuel, will rise 1.7 percent over the same period, according to the analysis by Barclays. That compares with a previously estimated 1.9 percent.
“Low pass-through into core from falling energy prices, and a gradually improving labor market leads to some wage and services inflation” in 2015 that will help assuage any concern the U.S. is catching a disinflation bug, said Gapen, a former Fed economist.
Too-low inflation hurts debtors by making it harder to pay off loans. Also, the longer central banks undershoot their price targets, the more their ability to deliver stability will be questioned, undermining expectations further and putting even more downward pressure on prices.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues probably will face a communications challenge as they pave the way for the central bank’s first interest-rate increase since 2006. Policy makers have said they believe the plunge in fuel prices will prove temporary, which will be more difficult to substantiate as inflation gauges keep sliding six months from now.
Energy “is going to be pushing down headline inflation and may even spill over to some extent to core inflation,” Yellen said in a Dec. 17 news conference after the central bank’s policy meeting. “But at this point, although we indicated we’re monitoring inflation developments carefully, we see these developments as transitory.”
An improving economy and labor market will help “inflation to move gradually back toward its objective,” she said.
The Commerce Department reported last week that the core PCE price index climbed 1.4 in the year ended in November, which means Barclays is still projecting it will move toward the Fed’s goal, just take longer to get there.
That’s probably enough from central bankers’ perspective to prompt a rate increase, said Omair Sharif, an economist with Newedge USA LLC, a New York-based brokerage firm.
“It may take three years to get back to 2 percent, but as long as we’re not going back to 1 percent, they seem OK with it,” said Sharif.
Regional Fed bank gauges are signaling inflation will be slow to accelerate. The Dallas Fed’s “trimmed mean” index, which eliminates the components in the PCE price gauge that show the biggest changes in any month, increased 1.6 percent in November from a year earlier, holding within the 1.6 percent to 1.7 percent range it’s been in since April.
Including food and fuel, the PCE price index rose 1.2 percent in the 12 months ended in November, the smallest gain since March, according to Commerce Department figures issued last week. The rule of thumb is that it will converge toward the trimmed mean reading over the next 12 months, pointing to a gradual pickup, according to the Dallas Fed’s report.
The Dallas measure featured the biggest one-month drop in goods prices excluding food and fuel in data dating back to 1977, according to the report. It was “fairly broad-based” with clothing and footwear, furnishings and household durable equipment, and recreational goods and vehicles all showing price declines of about 10 percent at an annualized rate, senior economist Jim Dolmas wrote.
Meanwhile, core services climbed at an annualized 2.4 percent last month, exceeding the 2.2 percent gain over the past year. The increase was paced by gains in the costs of paramedical services, rent and dining out, the report showed.
Economists at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are among those forecasting core inflation won’t show signs of moving toward the Fed’s goal next year as the upward pressure on prices from an improving economy will be more than offset by the impact of the drop in oil and stronger dollar. An appreciating currency makes goods produced by the nation’s trading partners less expensive to U.S. shoppers.
The Goldman economists maintain that September will be the most likely month for the Fed to begin raising rates even as they now project the core PCE price index will rise 1.3 percent by next year’s second quarter, down from a prior estimate of 1.5 percent.
If it’s lower than 1.5 percent by June, as they predict, and wages show only a modest pickup, then the central bank will probably hold off, Jan Hatzius, Goldman’s New York-based chief economist, wrote in a Dec. 26 note. Should inflation undershoot even their below-consensus forecast, the Fed could wait until 2016, he said.
While Barclays’s Gapen acknowledges a rate liftoff could be delayed, the Fed has to make decisions based on where policy makers think the economy and inflation will be in 12 to 18 months, he said. And by June, the jobless rate will already be close to the 5.2 percent to 5.5 percent that Fed officials say is consistent with full employment, a sign bigger pay increases are in store.
“If you can run the domestic economy hot enough, then you can have services inflation that offsets a weak global backdrop,” said Gapen. “What we would be looking for is just broad-based services inflation related to wages.”
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