September Consumer Price Index: Inflation Rises

Consumer Price Index data from the Labor Department showed that prices continued their ascent in September.

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Consumer prices jumped last month, a problem for Washington and Wall Street.

Container ships at the Port of Savannah last month. Factory shutdowns, clogged shipping routes and labor shortages have combined to make goods difficult to produce and transport.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Oct. 13, 2021Updated 8:42 a.m. ET

A key reading of consumer prices jumped more than expected last month, data released on Wednesday showed, raising the stakes for the White House and Federal Reserve as they continue to wager that rapid inflation will cool as the economy returns to normal.

The Consumer Price Index climbed 5.4 percent in September when compared with the prior year, more than expected in a Bloomberg survey of economists and faster than its 5.3 percent increase through August. From August to September, the index rose 0.4 percent, also above expectations.

The gains came as housing prices firmed, and as food — especially meat and eggs — cost consumers more. Stripping out volatile food and fuel, inflation is still rapid, at 4 percent in the year through last month.

Monthly gains have slowed from their breakneck pace earlier this year — they popped as much as 0.9 percent this summer — but they remain abnormally rapid. And price pressures have not been fading as rapidly as policymakers had hoped.

Change in monthly Consumer Price Index from a year ago

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

By The New York Times

Inflation jumped early in 2021 as prices for airfares, restaurant meals and apparel recovered after slumping as the economy locked down during the depths of the pandemic. That was expected. But more recently, prices have continued to climb as supply shortages mean businesses can’t keep up with fast-rising demand. Factory shutdowns, clogged shipping routes and labor shortages at ports and along trucking lines have combined to make goods difficult to produce and transport.

The snarls show no obvious signs of easing, and while Fed officials still think inflation will fade, they are increasingly concerned that supply disruptions could last long enough to prompt consumers and businesses to expect higher prices. If people believe that their lifestyles will cost more, they may demand higher compensation — and as employers lift pay, they may charge more for their goods to cover the costs, setting off an upward spiral.

Already, companies are raising wages to lure back employees who left the job market during the pandemic and have yet to return, and landlords are raising rents rapidly. Both factors could feed into inflation in the months ahead — and unlike pandemic-tied quirks that should eventually resolve themselves, higher wages and housing costs could become a more persistent source of price pressures.

Fed officials have signaled that they would use the central bank’s policies to control inflation if it proves persistent — but they would prefer to leave borrowing costs at low levels until the job market is more fully healed. Those potentially conflicting goals could set the stage for a tense 2022.

Wall Street is watching every fresh inflation data print closely, because higher rates from the Fed could dent growth and stock prices.

And the White House is under pressure to come up with whatever fixes it can. Later on Wednesday, President Biden is expected to address the supply-chain problems — which are weighing on his approval ratings as they push prices higher.

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