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US Inflation Rises in February in Sign Price Pressures Remain Elevated

FILE - People shop at a grocery store in Rosemead, California, on Jan. 19, 2024. Prices in the United States rose 0.4% from January to February, the Labor Department announced on March 12.
FILE - People shop at a grocery store in Rosemead, California, on Jan. 19, 2024. Prices in the United States rose 0.4% from January to February, the Labor Department announced on March 12.

Consumer prices in the United States picked up last month, a sign that inflation remains a persistent challenge for the Federal Reserve and for President Joe Biden's reelection campaign, both of which are counting on a steady easing of price pressures this year.

Prices rose 0.4% from January to February, higher than the previous month's figure of 0.3%, the Labor Department said Tuesday. Compared with a year earlier, consumer prices rose 3.2% last month, faster than January's 3.1% annual pace.

Excluding volatile food and energy prices, so-called "core" prices also climbed 0.4% from January to February, matching the previous month's increase and a faster pace than is consistent with the Fed's 2% target. Core inflation is watched especially closely because it typically provides a better read of where inflation is likely headed.

Pricier gas pushed up overall inflation, with pump prices rising 3.8% just from January to February. Grocery prices, though, were unchanged last month and are up just 1% from a year earlier. The cost of clothing, used cars and rent also increased in February, raising the inflation figure.

Despite February's elevated figures, most economists expect inflation to continue slowly declining this year. At the same time, the uptick last month may underscore the Fed's cautious approach toward interest rate cuts.

Overall inflation has plummeted from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022, although it's now easing more slowly than it did last spring and summer. The prices of some goods — from appliances to furniture to used cars — are falling after clogged supply chains during the pandemic sent prices soaring higher. There are more new cars on dealer lots and electronics on store shelves.

By contrast, prices for dental care, car repairs and other services are still rising faster than they did before the pandemic. Car insurance has shot higher, reflecting rising costs for repairs and replacement. And after having sharply raised pay for nurses and other in-demand staff, hospitals are passing their higher wage costs on to patients in the form of higher prices.

Voter perceptions of inflation are sure to occupy a central place in this year's presidential election. Despite a healthy job market and a record-high stock market, polls show that many Americans blame Biden for the surge in consumer prices that began in 2021. Although inflationary pressures have significantly eased, average prices remain far above where they stood three years ago.

In his State of the Union speech last week, Biden highlighted steps he has taken to reduce costs, like capping the price of insulin for Medicare patients. The president also criticized many large companies for engaging in "price gouging" and so-called "shrinkflation," in which a company shrinks the amount of product inside a package rather than raising the price.

"Too many corporations raise prices to pad their profits, charging more and more for less and less," Biden said.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell signaled in congressional testimony last week that the central bank is getting closer to cutting rates. After meeting in January, Fed officials said in a statement that they needed "greater confidence" that inflation was steadily falling to their 2% target level. Since then, several of the Fed's policymakers have said they believe prices will keep declining. One reason, they suggested, is that consumers are increasingly pushing back against higher prices by seeking out cheaper alternatives.

Most economists expect the Fed's first rate cut to occur in June, although May is also possible. When the Fed cuts its benchmark rate, over time it reduces borrowing costs for mortgages, car loans, credit cards and business loans.

One factor that could keep inflation elevated is the still-healthy economy. Although most economists had expected a recession to occur last year, hiring and growth were strong and remain healthy. The economy expanded 2.5% last year and could grow at about the same pace in the first three months of this year, according to the Federal Reserve's Atlanta branch.

Last week, the Labor Department said employers added a robust 275,000 jobs in February, the latest in a streak of solid hiring gains, and the unemployment rate stayed below 4% for the 25th straight month. That is the longest such streak since the 1960s.

Still, the unemployment rate rose from 3.7% to 3.9%, and wage growth slowed. Both trends could make the Fed feel more confident that the economy is cooling, which could help keep inflation falling and lead the central bank to begin cutting rates.