Consumers Kept Spending in September, as Inflation Held Steady

American consumers spent at a robust clip last month, fresh data showed, as the economy continued to chug along even after more than a year and a half of Federal Reserve interest rates increases.

The Fed’s policy moves have been intended to slow demand in order to tamp down inflation. Price increases have been slowing down: Friday’s Personal Consumption Expenditures report also showed that overall inflation held steady at 3.4 percent in September.

That was in line with what economists had expected, and is down from a peak of 7.1 percent in the summer of 2022. And after stripping out volatile food and fuel for a clearer sense of the underlying inflation trend, a closely-watched core inflation measure eased slightly on an annual basis.

Still, Fed officials aim for 2 percent inflation, so the current pace is still much faster than their goal.

The question confronting policymakers now is whether inflation can slow the rest of the way at a time when consumer spending remains so strong. Businesses may find that they can charge more if shoppers remain willing to open their wallets. Friday’s report showed that consumer spending climbed 0.7 percent from the previous month, and 0.4 percent after adjusting for inflation. Both numbers exceeded economist forecasts.

The strong spending figures are likely not enough to spur Fed officials to react immediately: Policymakers are widely expected to leave interest rates unchanged at their meeting next week, which wraps up on Nov. 1. But such solid momentum could keep them wary if it persists.

“You see inflation still generally trending in the right direction, so I think they’re willing to look past this,” said Carl Riccadonna, chief U.S. economist at BNP Paribas. “If this continues for multiple quarters, then I think that maybe it starts to wear a little bit thin: If you have persistent above-trend growth, then you have to start worrying about what the inflation consequences will be.”

Fed policymakers have raised interest rates to 5.25 percent, up from near-zero as recently as March 2022, and many officials have suggested that interest rates are likely either at or near their peak.

But policymakers have been careful to avoid entirely ruling out the possibility of another rate increase, given the economy’s staying power.

A report yesterday showed that the economy grew at a 4.9 percent annual rate in the third quarter, after adjusting for inflation. That was a rapid pace of expansion, and was even faster than what forecasters had expected.

“We are attentive to recent data showing the resilience of economic growth and demand for labor,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in a recent speech, adding that continued surprises “could put further progress on inflation at risk and could warrant further tightening of monetary policy.”

Inflation has slowed over the past year for a number of reasons. Supply chains became tangled during the pandemic, causing shortages that pushed up goods prices — but those have eased. Gas and food prices had shot up after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but have faded as drivers of inflation this year.

Some of those changes have little to do with monetary policy. But in other sectors, the Fed’s higher interest rates could be helping. Pricier mortgages seem to have taken at least some steam out of the housing market, for instance. That could help by spilling over to keep a lid on rent increases, which are a big factor in key measures of inflation.

Wrestling inflation down the rest of the way could prove to be more of a challenge. Almost all of the remaining inflation is coming from service industries, which include things like health care, housing costs and haircuts. Such price increases tend to stick around more stubbornly.

For now, officials are waiting to see if their substantial rate moves so far will continue to feed through to cool the economy.

There are reasons to think that growth could soon slow.

“Despite the quarter-to-quarter gyrations in economic data, the Fed feels that it has restrictive policy in place,” said Mr. Riccadonna from BNP. “It’s really just a matter of waiting for the medicine to kick in, to a full degree.”

Plus, a recent jump in longer-term interest rates could weigh on the economy. While the Fed sets short term rates directly, those market-based borrowing costs can take time to adjust — and they matter a lot. The jump in long term rates is making it much more expensive to take out a mortgage or for companies to borrow to fund their operations.

Plus, consumers have slightly less money to spend: After adjusting for inflation, disposable income declined by 0.1 percent in September, Friday’s report showed. And global instability — including from the war between Israel and Hamas — could add to uncertainty and economic risk.

“Despite the quarter-to-quarter gyrations in economic data, the Fed feels that it has restrictive policy in place,” Mr. Riccadonna from BNP. “It’s really just a matter of waiting for the medicine to kick in, to a full degree.”

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