The long stretch of weak U.S. inflation may be coming to an end as consumer prices jumped 0.5% in January, adding to equity investors’ jitters.
The rise in the consumer price index topped economists’ expectations of a 0.3% gain, and, excluding volatile food and energy prices, the CPI was up 0.3% against estimates of 0.2%.
The Labor Department’s report indicated that price pressures were “broad-based,” with rises in gasoline, shelter, clothing, health care, and food.
“Inflation has re-emerged after a long period of dormancy and that’s giving investors jitters,” MarketWatch reported, noting that “Wall Street is worried higher inflation will force the Federal Reserve to raise U.S. interest rates more aggressively, shifting money into bonds and potentially choking off an economic expansion that’s almost nine years old.”
The Fed is expected to raise rates three times this year, with the first hike coming next month. On news of the inflation report, the Dow Jones Industrial Average opened more than 100 points lower on Wednesday, but reversed those losses after the first half-hour of trading.
“Faster economic growth over most of the past year has tightened labor and product markets and helped to boost prices at a faster pace,” David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide, said in a client note.
Last month’s inflation surge was led by a 9.5% spike in fuel oil prices and a gain of 5.7% in gasoline. Food prices rose 0.2%, clothing costs were up 1.7%, and auto insurance rose 1.3%, the largest gain since 2001.
But many economists and market strategists believe inflation fears are exaggerated. The increase in the CPI over the past 12 months remained unchanged in January at 2.1% and the 12-month rate of core inflation was also flat at 1.8%.
“This is a classic inflation scare,” Michael Arone, chief investment strategist of State Street Global Advisors, said before the CPI report was issued, predicting inflation will crest soon and level off.
“We aren’t changing our view that the U.S. faces medium-term inflation risks, but the short-term picture does not look alarming,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.