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Optimism about U.S. inflation took another blow yesterday morning – though it shouldn’t have been unexpected – with the release of the latest data on the Federal Reserve’s favorite measure of price changes. I said “shouldn’t have been unexpected” because, as Fed Chair Jerome Powell and others have noted, this gauge and the higher profile Consumer Price Index (CPI) put out by the Labor Department normally track each other pretty closely over the long run, and those CPI results were deeply discouraging.

Nonetheless, latest results from the Price Indexes for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) monitored by the Commerce Department matter because they strongly confirmed the latest CPI figures – which were pretty awful – starting with the month-to-month changes for the entire economy.

In June, headline PCE inflation shot up sequentially by a full one percent – much faster than May’s 0.6 percent and indeed the fastest rate not only throughout this latest high-inflation period, but the fastest since it increased by one percent in September, 2005.

But another observation should make even clearer how unusual that monthly headline increase was. The Commerce Department has been keeping these data since February, 1959. That’s 749 months worth of results through last month. How many times has monthly headline PCE inflation been one percent or higher? Twelve. And the all-time record is just 1.2 percent, hit in March, 1980, and February and March, 1974.

The annual figures were no better, and RealityChek regulars know that they’re more reliable than the monthlies because they measure changes over a longer time period, and therefore smooth out short-term fluctations.

June’s 6.8 percent rise was the strongest of the current high inflation era, and a significant pickup from May’s 6.3 percent. And it looks even worse when the fading baseline effect is taken into account. The June yearly jump in headline PCE came off a June, 2020-21 increase of four percent. So that year’s June PCE rate was already twice the Federal Reserve’s two percent annual inflation target.

By comparison, headline PCE this March was only a little lower than the June result – 6.6 percent. But the baseline figure for the previous March was only 2.5 percent. That rate was still higher than the Fed target, but not by much. So arguably unlike the price advances of June, this March’s inflation reflected some catching up from price increases that were still somewhat subdued due to the economy’s stop-go recovery from earlier during the pandemic.

Core PCE was lower by both measures, because it strips out the food and particularly energy prices that have spearheaded much headline inflation, and that are excluded supposedly because they’re volatile for reasons having little to do with the economy’s fundamental vulnerability to inflation. But here the monthly figures revealed new momentum, with the June seqential increase of 0.6 percent twice that of May’s 0.3 percent, and the highest such number since May and June of 2021.

Before then, however, core inflation hadn’t seen a monthly handle in the 0.6 percent neighborhood since September and October of 2001, which registered gains of 0.6 and 0.7percent, respectively.

On an annual basis, June’s core PCE increase of 4.8 percent was slightly higher than May’s 4.7 percent, but well below the recent peak of 5.3 percent in February. But the baseline effect should dispel any notions of progess being made. For June-to-June inflation for the previous year was 3.5 percent – meaningfully above the Fed’s two percent target. Core annual PCE inflation for the previous Februarys was just 1.5 percent – meaningfully below the Fed target.

As with most measures of U.S. economic perfomance, an unprecedented number of wild cards that can affect both PCE and CPI inflation has rendered most crystal balls (including mine) pretty unreliable. To cite just a few examples: Will China’s Zero Covid policy keep upending global supply chains and thus the prices of Chinese exports? Will the ongoing Ukraine War have similar impacts on many raw materials, especially energy? Will the Federal Reserve’s tightening of U.S. credit conditions per se bring inflation down significantly in the foreseeable future by dramatically slowing the nation’s growth? Will high and still soaring prices, coupled with vanishing savings rates, achieve the same objective if the Fed’s inflation-fighting zeal wanes? Or will the still huge amounts of money in most consumers’ bank accounts along with continuing robust job creation keep the demand for goods and services elevated for the time being whatever the Fed does?

Here’s what seems pretty certain to me: As long as that consumer demand remains strong, and as long as producer prices keep jumping, businesses will pass these rising costs on to their customers and keep consumer inflation worrisomely high. That seemed to be precisely the case in the last two months, with a torrid May read on producer prices being followed by the equally torrid June consumer inflation reports. So unless this wholesale inflation cooled a great deal this month, I’d expect at least another month of red hot consumer inflation. That producer price report is due out August 11.