Inflation gauge closely tracked by Fed falls to lowest level in over 2 years

WASHINGTON — A measure of consumer prices that is closely monitored by the Federal Reserve fell last month to its lowest level since March 2021, the latest sign that inflation in the United States is steadily cooling from its once-painful highs.

Prices rose just 3% in June from 12 months earlier, down from a 3.8% annual increase in May, though still above the Fed’s 2% inflation target. On a monthly basis, prices rose 0.2% from May to June, up slightly from 0.1% the previous month.

Last month’s sharp slowdown in year-over-year inflation largely reflected falling gas prices, as well as milder increases in grocery costs.

Still, a measure of “core” prices, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, remained elevated even though it also eased last month. Those still-high underlying inflation pressures are a key reason why the Fed raised its short-term interest rate Wednesday to a 22-year high. The Fed’s policymakers consider core prices a better measure of where inflation might be headed.

Core prices were still 4.1% higher than they were a year ago, well above the Fed’s target, though down from 4.6% in May. From May to June, core inflation was just 0.2%, down from 0.3% the previous month, an encouraging sign.

Friday’s report from the Commerce Department also showed that Americans’ willingness to keep spending, despite two years of high inflation and 11 Fed rate hikes over 17 months, remains a powerful driver of the economy. Consumer spending rose 0.5% from May to June, up from 0.2% the previous month.

The latest data underscores the unusual nature of the economy: A healthy job market is bolstering hiring, driving up wages and keeping unemployment near a half-century low. Yet inflation is weakening rather than rising, as it typically does when unemployment is low. That suggests that the Fed may be able to achieve a difficult “soft landing” for the economy, in which inflation falls toward the Fed’s 2% target without triggering a deep recession.

The Fed’s policymakers, though, still appear concerned that the steadily growing economy could help perpetuate inflation. This can occur as persistent consumer demand enables more companies to raise prices, thereby keeping inflation above the Fed’s target and potentially causing the central bank to raise rates even higher.

The latest evidence of the economy’s resilience came Thursday, when the government reported that it grew at a 2.4% annual rate in the April-June quarter — faster than analysts had forecast and an acceleration from a 2% growth rate in the first three months of the year.

At a news conference Wednesday, Chair Jerome Powell suggested that the Fed’s benchmark short-term rate, now at about 5.3%, was high enough to restrain the overall economy and likely tame inflation over time. But Powell added that the Fed would need to see more evidence that inflation has been sustainably subdued before it would consider ending its rate hikes.

Powell declined to offer any signal of the central bank’s likely next moves. In June, Fed officials had forecast two more rate hikes this year, including Wednesday’s.

Fed officials are also closely tracking measures of U.S. wages. They have said they believe that rising pay helps fuel inflation, in part because businesses often raise prices to cover their higher labor costs.

The inflation gauge that was issued Friday — the personal consumption expenditures price index — is separate from the government’s better-known consumer price index, or CPI. For June, the CPI reached its lowest point since early 2021 — 3% in June compared with a year earlier, down sharply from a 4% annual rate in May, though still above the Fed’s 2% target.

The Fed prefers the PCE index because it accounts for changes in how people shop when inflation jumps — when, for example, consumers shift away from pricey national brands in favor of cheaper store brands. And rents, which are among the biggest inflation drivers but which many economists think aren’t well-measured, carry only about half the weight in the PCE that they do in the CPI.