Consumers shop in Rosemead, California, on Dec. 12, 2023.

Frederic J. Brown | Afp | Getty Images

The annual inflation rate edged higher in December following two months of declines. However, that reversal likely isn’t cause for concern — and may be somewhat misleading, economists said.

“We’re still making progress in the inflation fight,” said Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo Economics.

The consumer price index rose 3.4% last month relative to a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday. That’s a larger increase than the 3.1% in November and 3.2% in October.

The index has fallen by half since December 2022 — when the inflation rate was 6.5% — and has declined significantly from the 9.1% pandemic-era peak in June 2022.

Consumers’ buying power also increased over the past year. Hourly wages after accounting for inflation — so-called “real earnings” — rose 0.8% from December 2022 to December 2023, according to the Labor Department.

Inflation is ‘moving in the right direction’

The CPI, a key inflation gauge, measures how fast the prices of everything from fruits and vegetables to haircuts and concert tickets are changing across the U.S. economy.

Lower energy prices had helped pull down the overall index in recent months but didn’t provide as much relief to consumers in December, economists said.

Further, so-called “base effects” made the latest yearly CPI reading seem somewhat distended, economists said. This term refers to how fluctuations in the monthly inflation rate can influence the magnitude of an annual change.

Where inflation jumped in December

Meanwhile, prices have leveled out — or even declined — in some categories. Largely, that trend has occurred in physical goods such as new and used cars; household furnishings; recreational goods such as toys, televisions and musical instruments; and education and communication commodities such as computers and college textbooks, economists said.

For example, prices of used cars and trucks have decreased 1.3% since December 2022. Those of household appliances fell 4%, while those for dishes and flatware declined 2% and those for men’s suits, sport coats and outerwear fell 6%.

Broadly, that easing is attributable to “an unwinding of the pandemic-era supply shortages,” Hunter said. Supply chain bottlenecks and elevated consumer demand had fueled those shortages.

Meanwhile, seasonally adjusted gasoline prices rose 0.2% from November to December, whereas they’d declined 6% and 5% in November and October, respectively. They’re down 1.9% over the year.

Food inflation has also moderated, as grocery prices rose an annual 1.3% in December compared to 1.7% in November. There have been signs of consumers doing more bargain hunting at grocery stores, which has in turn gotten somewhat more competitive in pricing to woo consumers, House said.

Why food is getting more expensive for everyone

While shelter inflation has been stubbornly high, it’s expected to fall over the coming months since marketplace rents have been flat to down, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. It takes time for those dynamics to feed through into the Labor Department’s CPI calculations, he said.

“What’s important for most Americans is the cost of staples — the cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline, and food and rent — those things are moving in the right direction,” Zandi said.

While food and housing prices are “still very elevated” relative to two to three years ago, consumers can “take some solace that they’re no longer rising,” he said.

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