U.S. Inflation Slowed for Sixth Straight Month in December
Consumer-price index rose 6.5% last month from a year earlier
Consumer-price index rose 6.5% last month from a year earlier
U.S. inflation eased in December for the sixth straight month following a mid-2022 peak as the Federal Reserve aggressively raised interest rates and the economy showed signs of cooling.
The consumer-price index, a measurement of what consumers pay for goods and services, rose 6.5% last month from a year earlier, down from 7.1% in November and well below a 9.1% peak in June.
Core CPI, which excludes volatile energy and food prices, climbed 5.7% in December from a year earlier, easing from a 6% gain in November. Many economists see increases in core CPI as a better signal of future inflation than the overall CPI. Core prices increased at a 3.1% annualised rate in the three months ended in December, the slowest pace in more than a year and down from 7.9% in June.
The figures added to signs that inflation is turning a corner following last year’s surge. They also likely keep the Fed on track to reduce the size of interest-rate increases to a quarter-percentage-point at their meeting that concludes on Feb. 1, down from a half-percentage point increase in December.
U.S. stocks climbed Thursday and investors bought U.S. Treasurys, lifting bond prices and weighing on yields. The S&P 500 added 0.3%, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.6%, or 217 points. The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite also rose 0.6%.
Easing inflation follows several signs that U.S. economic activity cooled in late 2022. U.S. imports and exports fell in November from October, while retail sales, manufacturing output and home sales all declined. Job and wage growth slowed in December, though the labor market remained tight with historically low claims for unemployment insurance at the start of the year.
“The December CPI report was welcome good news after a very bad patch for inflation,” said Bill Adams, chief economist at Comerica Bank. He said consumers are getting relief from lower gasoline prices and moderating food prices, as well as declining prices for other goods.
On a monthly basis, the CPI fell 0.1% in December, due to sharply falling energy prices. That compared with a gain of 0.1% in November and 0.4% in October. Food-price increases also slowed last month. Core CPI rose 0.3% in December, up from November’s 0.2% rise but down from 0.6% increases in August and September.
Goods prices, a key driver of inflation over the past year and a half, fell for the third straight month in December as prices fell for products such as autos, computers and sporting goods.
Improving supply chains and reduced demand have relieved price pressures on goods, but services prices continued to climb in part because of wage gains in a tight labour market.
Some economists worry that still-high wage growth could keep consumers flush with cash and companies eager to raise prices to compensate, holding inflation above the Fed’s 2% target.
“Taming services inflation will be the Fed’s biggest challenge this year,” said Ryan Sweet, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics.
Shelter prices rose 7.5% in December from a year earlier, the Labor Department said, and a broader measure of services prices that excludes utilities rose 7% during the same period. Both increases were the biggest since 1982.
Daycare and preschool prices rose 5.4% in December from a year earlier, the biggest increase since 2006, while those for home-health care increased 6.1% in the same period. Hospital services prices, meanwhile, jumped 1.5% in December from the prior month, the sharpest monthly increase since 2015.
Inflation remained high across the globe in November, though it abated during the month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said Tuesday. Consumer prices across the Group of 20 largest economies—which contribute four-fifths of economic output worldwide—rose 9% from a year earlier in November, down from October’s 9.5% increase, the first drop in the G-20 inflation rate since August 2021.
Prices rose sharply in 2021 as the U.S. economy rebounded from the Covid-19 pandemic, powered by pent-up consumer spending that got a boost from low interest rates and government stimulus. Snarled supply chains fueled higher prices for many goods. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 also tightened supplies of energy and other commodities, further stoking inflation worldwide.
Inflation pressures on goods dissipated last summer as supply chains improved and energy prices fell. Shipping costs from China to the West Coast are near pre pandemic levels. Gasoline prices have declined, with the national average price of regular unleaded gasoline at $3.27 a gallon on Thursday, down about 50 cents a gallon from mid-November, according to OPIS, an energy-data and analytics provider. Gasoline prices peaked in mid-June at a record $5.02 a gallon.
“Logistics prices have also slowed materially, shipping costs are back to where they were pre-Covid,” said Jake Oubina, senior economist at Piper Sandler. “The alleviation on the cost side is creating the wherewithal to discount more aggressively as we head into 2023.”
The clearest impact of Fed tightening so far is in the housing market. Existing-home sales fell in November for a 10th straight month as high mortgage rates boosted buyers’ costs.
Ian Snowden, a 33-year-old tech salesman, said the shift to remote work after the pandemic hit allowed him to move to Asheville, N.C., where he has easy access to hiking, fishing and other outdoor activities.
The move proved expensive, though. After losing out to cash buyers in bids for existing homes, Mr. Snowden signed a contract in September 2021 to buy a newly constructed property. By the time his home was completed the following June, mortgage rates had doubled. On top of that, the construction company told him that he was on the hook for an extra $25,000 to offset unexpectedly high costs for concrete, labor and other items—or he could back out of the contract.
At that point, Mr. Snowden said, he was already selling his old house and had made plans to move, so he wasn’t going to back out. “So much was already in motion,” he said. Between the higher mortgage rates and the additional costs, the monthly mortgage payment increased $200, he said.
—Austen Hufford contributed to this article.
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Office owners are struggling with near record-high vacancy rates
First, the good news for office landlords: A post-Labor Day bump nudged return-to-office rates in mid-September to their highest level since the onset of the pandemic.
Now the bad: Office attendance in big cities is still barely half of what it was in 2019, and company get-tough measures are proving largely ineffective at boosting that rate much higher.
Indeed, a number of forces—from the prospect of more Covid-19 cases in the fall to a weakening economy—could push the return rate into reverse, property owners and city officials say.
More than before, chief executives at blue-chip companies are stepping up efforts to fill their workspace. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase are among the companies that have recently vowed to get tougher on employees who don’t show up. In August, Meta told employees they could face disciplinary action if they regularly violate new workplace rules.
But these actions haven’t yet moved the national return rate needle much, and a majority of companies remain content to allow employees to work at least part-time remotely despite the tough talk.
Most employees go into offices during the middle of the week, but floors are sparsely populated on Mondays and Fridays. In Chicago, some September days had a return rate of over 66%. But it was below 30% on Fridays. In New York, it ranges from about 25% to 65%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes.
Overall, the average return rate in the 10 U.S. cities tracked by Kastle Systems matched the recent high of 50.4% of 2019 levels for the week ended Sept. 20, though it slid a little below half the following week.
The disappointing return rates are another blow to office owners who are struggling with vacancy rates near record highs. The national office average vacancy rose to 19.2% last quarter, just below the historical peak of 19.3% in 1991, according to Moody’s Analytics preliminary third-quarter data.
Business leaders in New York, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they have seen only slight improvements in sidewalk activity and attendance in office buildings since Labor Day.
“It feels a little fuller but at the margins,” said Sandy Baruah, chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a business group.
Lax enforcement of return-to-office rules is one reason employees feel they can still work from home. At a roundtable business discussion in Houston last week, only one of the 12 companies that attended said it would enforce a return-to-office policy in performance reviews.
“It was clearly a minority opinion that the others shook their heads at,” said Kris Larson, chief executive of Central Houston Inc., a group that promotes business in the city and sponsored the meeting.
Making matters worse, business leaders and city officials say they see more forces at work that could slow the return to office than those that could accelerate it.
Covid-19 cases are up and will likely increase further in the fall and winter months. “If we have to go back to distancing and mask protocols, that really breaks the office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the business group Partnership for New York City.
Many cities are contending with an increase in homelessness and crime. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which are struggling with these problems, are among the lowest return-to-office cities in the Kastle System index.
About 90% of members surveyed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said that the city couldn’t recover until homelessness and public safety problems were addressed, said Rachel Smith, chief executive. That is taken into account as companies make decisions about returning to the office and how much space they need, she added.
Cuts in government services and transportation are also taking a toll. Wait times for buses run by Houston’s Park & Ride system, one of the most widely used commuter services, have increased partly because of labor shortages, according to Larson of Central Houston.
The commute “is the remaining most significant barrier” to improving return to office, Larson said.
Some landlords say that businesses will have more leverage in enforcing return-to-office mandates if the economy weakens. There are already signs of such a shift in cities that depend heavily on the technology sector, which has been seeing slowing growth and layoffs.
But a full-fledged recession could hurt office returns if it results in widespread layoffs. “Maybe you get some relief in more employees coming back,” said Dylan Burzinski, an analyst with real-estate analytics firm Green Street. “But if there are fewer of those employees, it’s still a net negative for office.”
The sluggish return-to-office rate is leading many city and business leaders to ask the federal government for help. A group from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition recently met with elected officials in Washington, D.C., lobbying for incentives for businesses that make commitments to U.S. downtowns.
Baruah, from the Detroit chamber, was among the group. He said the chances of such legislation being passed were low. “We might have to reach crisis proportions first,” he said. “But we’re trying to lay the groundwork now.”