March 11, 2019 / 3:23 PM / a month ago

U.S. inflation forecasts decline, supporting rate-hike holiday

A customer shops for Thanksgiving ham at a grocery store in Los Angeles, California U.S. November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. consumers expect prices to rise more slowly, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a decline in inflation expectations in February that likely reinforces policymakers’ reluctance to hike rates.

The survey of consumer expectations, published on Monday, is one of the Fed’s price gauges as it weighs the need for rate rises. It showed one- and three-year ahead inflation expectations were down 0.2 percentage points to 2.8 percent last month, with sharp declines in expected medical care expenses. Both the one- and three-year gauges had been roughly unchanged since April 2018.

Stable and low inflation is one of the main reasons that the U.S. central bank, having raised interest rates four times last year, is now taking a wait-and-see approach to any more tightening in 2019.

The Fed is also conducting a broad policy review that may result in the central bank welcoming inflation that is slightly and temporarily over its target. Some policymakers and analysts think the Fed now has far more ability to respond to upward spikes in prices rather than persistently low readings. That is because interest rate cuts lose their potency as those borrowing costs approach zero.

Fed officials last raised their target policy rate in December to 2.25 to 2.50 percent but signaled after that point that they would be “patient” before deciding future moves.

The New York Fed’s survey found that consumers expected tame inflation despite also forecasting their own wages would rise. Average one-year earnings growth expectations increased to 2.5 percent last month, from 2.4 percent the month before. Consumers also forecast a lower likelihood that unemployment will rise. Economists are debating whether rising wages and low unemployment figures still translate into higher inflation as orthodox economic theory assumes.

Consumers were also slightly more optimistic about the direction of U.S. stock prices and their ability to access credit to finance purchases.

The internet-based survey taps a rotating panel of 1,300 households.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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