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Why beating inflation is turning out to be as hard as losing weight

A customer shops at a grocery store in Chicago on Feb. 13, 2024. Annual inflation has eased significantly since two years ago but it has remained stubbornly above 3% this year.
Scott Olson
/
Getty Images
A customer shops at a grocery store in Chicago on Feb. 13, 2024. Annual inflation has eased significantly since two years ago but it has remained stubbornly above 3% this year.

Beating inflation is starting to feel a lot like losing weight, at least before the Ozempic era: Losing the first pounds is generally easier — it's getting rid of the last ones that's proving hard.

Data released on Wednesday showed consumer prices moving in the wrong direction once again, rising 3.5% in March from a year earlier, a little hotter than the 3.4% rise economists had predicted.

That also marked a slight pick-up from the 3.2% annual gain seen in February.

And inflation in March also turned out to be hotter than expected when measured on a monthly basis.

Inflation at these levels is still significantly better than it was two years ago, when it peaked at a decades-high of 9.1%.

But inflation is proving to be very stubborn. Although the Federal Reserve has managed to get inflation down significantly from two years ago, it's finding it exceedingly hard to push it below that 3% level.

That matters. That's because a rise of consumer prices above 3%, as it has been through this year, still feels high for many people across the country.

Why the last stretch in the inflation fight is so hard

What makes the current state of inflation particularly problematic is that it's hitting people in ways they can't avoid.

Among the drivers of inflation in March were rents, car insurance and electricity, for example.

"I mean, it's nice to see new and used car prices coming down a little bit, but they're still very high. And people don't go buy a car every month," says Greg McBride, Chief Market Analyst for Bankrate.

"But they do pay the electric bill every month. They do pay the rent every month. And they do have to pay the insurance on the automobile every month."

Gas prices in large parts of the country are rising on the back of higher oil prices. That threatens to push up inflation higher.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Gas prices in large parts of the country are rising on the back of higher oil prices. That threatens to push up inflation higher.

And lately, another factor is threatening to push up inflation: gas prices. That's because oil prices have been rallying recently because of a number of factors including worsening geopolitics in the Middle East and improved global demand.

The Fed will likely stay cautious

For the Fed it poses a dilemma: Policymakers have made clear they want to see inflation moving more consistently towards its 2% target before it starts cutting interest rates.

It's hard to say when that will happen. Though there are promising signs, they are not conclusive yet.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell this month acknowledged that inflation appeared to be on a "sometimes bumpy path," and was resolute in holding firm on interest rates for now.

"We do not expect that it will be appropriate to lower our policy rate until we have greater confidence that inflation is moving sustainably down toward 2%," Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a speech this month at Stanford University.

For now, investors are reassessing when the Fed might be ready to cut rates.

Stock and bond markets tumbled on Wednesday after the inflation data came out.

Earlier this year, markets had been hopeful the Fed would deliver more than the projected three rate cuts and could even be ready to move quickly.

But the stubbornness of inflation has investors reassessing their calls for interest rate cuts.

Investors are now bracing for fewer than three rate cuts and are eyeing the first potential rate cut in July at the earliest — though expectations can shift.

Ultimately, however, like losing weight, much will depend on whether the Fed can finally shed the last "pounds" of inflation and get it to its goal of 2%.

And it likely won't be easy.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rafael Nam
Rafael Nam is NPR's senior business editor.

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