Prices in the year though February were expected to have risen 7.8 percent, which would be the fastest pace of inflation in 40 years as gas prices increased and an array of goods and services became more expensive.
Fresh Consumer Price Index data is set for release Thursday morning, and that estimate — the median in a Bloomberg survey of economists — underscores the grim reality facing economic policymakers. Climbing prices are hitting consumers in the pocketbook, causing their confidence to fall and stretching household budgets. The burden is falling most intensely on lower-income households, which devote a big chunk of their budgets to daily necessities that are rapidly becoming costlier.
The quickest inflation in most Americans’ lifetimes is hurting President Biden politically, and the challenge could grow temporarily worse amid fallout from sanctions and other economic responses to Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has already pushed gas prices higher. Rising prices tend to make voters unhappy, posing trouble for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections in November.
Understand Inflation in the U.S.
- Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.
- Your Questions, Answered: Times readers sent us their questions about rising prices. Top experts and economists weighed in.
- How Americans Feel: We asked 2,200 people where they’ve noticed inflation. Many mentioned basic necessities, like food and gas.
- Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.
They are also a problem for the Federal Reserve, which is in charge of achieving price stability. The central bank has signaled it will raise interest rates by a quarter percentage point at its meeting next week, likely the first in a series of moves meant to increase the cost of borrowing and spending money and slow down the economy. By reducing consumption and slowing the labor market, the Fed is able to take some pressure off inflation over time.
“Mortgage rates will go up, the rates for car loans — all of those rates that affect consumers’ buying decisions,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, told Congress last week. “Housing prices won’t go up as much, and equity prices won’t go up as much, so people will spend less.”
Even as the Fed prepares to rein in demand, high gas costs tied to the conflict in Ukraine threaten to keep inflation elevated for longer. They could become a serious issue for central bank policymakers if they help convince consumers that the burst in prices will last. If people begin to expect inflation, they may change their behavior in ways that make it more permanent — accepting price increases more readily and asking for bigger raises to keep up.
This is just the latest instance, as far as prices go, in which what can go wrong does seem to be going wrong.
What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.
What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.
Where is inflation headed? Officials say they do not yet see evidence that rapid inflation is turning into a permanent feature of the economic landscape, even as prices rise very quickly. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the inflationary burst will fade, but some concerning signs suggest it may last.
Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains can lead to higher wages and job growth.
How does inflation affect the poor? Inflation can be especially hard to shoulder for poor households because they spend a bigger chunk of their budgets on necessities like food, housing and gas.
Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.
Fast inflation began to kick in early last year, and economists initially predicted that it would fade by the end of 2021 as the economy reopened from the pandemic and conditions returned to normal.
Instead, turmoil in supply chains collided with strong consumer demand for goods, and price gains accelerated. Now, how quickly and how much prices will moderate in 2022 are increasingly uncertain as the war in Ukraine threatens to keep shipping routes tangled and key parts scarce. Ukraine is an important producer of neon, which could keep computer chips in short supply, perpetuating the shortages that have plagued automakers. Higher energy costs could ricochet through other industries.
There are still reasons think price gains will slow at least somewhat. Starting in the March data, they will be lapping high readings from last year, which should mechanically bring down the year-over-year measure. But it is unclear when they will recede to the Fed’s 2 percent inflation goal. The central bank defines that target using a separate inflation index, but one that is also elevated.