By Alicia Wallace, CNN Business
The economy was top of mind for voters in the midterm elections, exit polls showed, adding even more weight to a highly anticipated inflation report due out on Thursday.
The Consumer Price Index for October, which measures the change in price of everything from pork chops to plane tickets, will provide the latest insight on whether Americans saw any relief last month from the current bout of historically high prices.
Economists estimate the pace of inflation likely slowed somewhat in October — but nowhere near enough for the Federal Reserve to tap the brakes on the aggressive rate hikes it has rolled out in its battle to cool the economy.
“We’re definitely not there yet,” said Stephen Juneau, a US economist for Bank of America Securities. “I don’t think this report will do much to ease concerns for the everyday person.”
Consensus estimates on Refinitiv put annual inflation at 8% in October, which would be a slower pace of increase than the 8.2% seen in September’s reading and the lowest year-over-year increase since February.
However, higher energy prices likely pushed up monthly inflation by 0.6%.
Core CPI, which doesn’t include the volatile food and energy categories, is expected to have dropped to a 6.5% rate of increase for the 12-month period ended in October, down from 6.6% a month earlier.
That’s partly due to improved supply chains but also a weaker housing sector, which has led to decreased demand for home appliances and other goods, Juneau said.
Additionally, the latest inflation numbers could benefit from the way the Bureau of Labor Statistics tabulates the index. To calculate medical services prices, the agency uses health insurance providers’ retained earnings, or profit margins. That data is published once a year and with a lag. During the past 12 months, the medical services category reflected the robust profit margins from 2020, when people stayed home or delayed doctor visits — but that will rebalance in the October report, which will reflect the 2021 return to elective surgery and other health services, Juneau said.
CPI has come in hot for the past two months, showing overall price increases mellowed only slightly during the respective 12-month periods, and core CPI shot up much faster than anticipated.
Shelter remained an inflation driver, but the surge in core CPI was a reflection of a potentially sticky problem: Inflation has been settling in deeper into service industries.
Unlike in goods, where inflationary inputs include supply chains and commodity prices, the biggest input into service-providing industries is labor costs.
“If you’re continuing to pay higher labor costs, then you have to find a means of passing that on to the consumer,” Juneau said.
And the nation’s labor market still remains historically tight, which could keep putting upward pressure on wages.
There needs to be far greater give in the labor market to make a dent on inflation, said Steven Ricchiuto, US chief economist for Mizuho Securities USA.
That hasn’t happened yet.
Earlier this month, the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey data showed that job openings unexpectedly rose in September, a month after they tumbled by nearly 1 million. The latest jobs report also came in above expectations, but the 261,000 jobs added in October was the lowest monthly total since December 2020.
And although there has been a wave of mass layoffs announced in recent weeks, the continued demand for workers has meant people aren’t staying on the unemployment rolls for long, Ricchiuto said.
Despite all that, it is still possible for CPI to once again surprise to the upside — which means the Fed will have to stay the course, he added.
“I think it leaves open [a fifth-consecutive rate hike of] 75 basis points in December,” he said.
The Consumer Price Index for October will be released at 8:30 a.m. ET on Thursday.
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