Consumer prices rose at a rapid clip again in July, gains that could be problematic for both Federal Reserve officials and the Biden White House.
Prices increased by 5.4 percent last month compared with a year earlier, the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index showed on Wednesday. The inflation measure rose 0.5 percent from June.
The annual gain was slightly more than the 5.3 percent jump expected by economists, according to the median prediction of those surveyed by Bloomberg. The monthly gain matched the anticipated 0.5 percent increase.
The monthly figure did represent a moderation in the pace of increase — the C.P.I. rose 0.9 percent in June from May — but inflation is still faster than is typical.
Economists widely expected that price gains would pick up this year after slumping in 2020, but the extent of the jump has come as a surprise. Yearly price gains will almost surely moderate in the months ahead, as a data quirk that’s been helping exaggerate them fades. Monthly gains are also expected to continue cooling off as businesses find ways to cope with short-term disruptions to supply chains, which have pushed car prices sharply higher and led to much of the 2021 pop.
But the key question for the Fed, and the White House, is just how quickly that will happen.
For the Fed, which is charged with keeping price gains low and steady over time, temporary price jumps are tolerable — but persistent gains would be a problem. For the White House, climbing costs have become a political headache as Republicans use them to claim that the Biden administration is mismanaging the economy.
Here are a few things to know about Wednesday’s data.
The C.P.I. is not the Fed’s target measure. The central bank aims for 2 percent inflation on average over time, and it defines that goal using the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, which has also been up this year but not quite as sharply as the measure reported on Wednesday. But the C.P.I. is more timely, and its data feeds into the Fed’s metric, which makes it very closely watched.
Last year’s shutdown is less of a factor. A big factor behind gains earlier this year is something called the base effect. Prices for airline tickets and hotel rooms dropped last year when the economy locked down, so when today’s prices are measured against those figures, the increase looks outsized. But the base effect is now fading, because prices turned a corner after May 2020 as the economy reopened.
Fast inflation will become a problem if it lasts. The increases this year have been driven by pandemic reopenings, as supplies for goods and services — think used cars and restaurant meals — struggle to keep up with booming demand. Policymakers are willing to tolerate that pickup, temporarily. It is a weird period.
“The question is more, what the inflation outlook is going to be into the next year, 2022, 2023?” Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said on a call with reporters on Tuesday.
Fed officials are watching wage increases and inflation expectations for a sign of whether the current burst of reopening-driven inflation will linger. If pay takes off on a sustained basis, employers may find that they need to charge more to cover their expenses. Likewise, if consumers and businesses start to expect rapid price increases, they may be more willing to accept higher prices, setting off a self-fulfilling prophesy.
For now, policymakers don’t expect that to happen.
“My best estimate is that this is something that will pass,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in a recent news conference. “It’s really a shock to the economy that will pass through.”
Ben Casselman contributed reporting.