Inflation gauge increased 0.4% in February, as expected and up 6% from a year ago

FAN Editor

Consumer prices rose 0.4% in February

Inflation rose in February but was in line with expectations, likely keeping the Federal Reserve on track for another interest rate hike next week despite recent banking industry turmoil.

The consumer price index increased 0.4% for the month, putting the annual inflation rate at 6%, the Labor Department reported Tuesday. Both readings were exactly in line with Dow Jones estimates.

Excluding volatile food and energy prices, core CPI increased 0.5% in February and 5.5% on a 12-month basis. The monthly reading was slightly ahead of the 0.4% estimate, but the annual level was in line.

Markets were volatile following the release, with futures tied to the Dow Jones Industrial Average pointing to a positive open.

Heading into the release, markets had widely expected the Fed to approve another 0.25 percentage point increase to its benchmark federal funds rate. That probability increased following the CPI report, with traders now pricing in about an 85% chance that the Fed will increase the rate by a quarter point.

“Even amid current banking scares, the Fed will still prioritize price stability over growth and likely hike rates by 0.25% at the upcoming meeting,” said Jeffrey Roach, chief U.S. economist at LPL Financial.

A decrease in energy costs helped keep the headline CPI reading in check. The sector fell 0.6% for the month, bringing the year-over-year increase down to 5.2%. A 7.9% decline in fuel oil prices was the biggest mover for energy.

Food prices rose 0.4% and 9.5% respectively. Meat, poultry, fish and egg prices decreased 0.1% for the month, the first time that index has retreated since December 2021. Eggs in particular tumbled 6.7%, though they were still up 55.4% from a year ago.

Shelter costs, which make up about one-third of the index’s weighting, jumped 0.8%, bringing the annual gain up to 8.1%. Fed officials largely expect housing and related costs such as rent to slow over the course of the year.

“Housing costs are a key driver of the inflation figures, but they are also a lagging indicator,” said Lisa Sturtevant, chief economist at Bright MLS. “It typically takes six months for new rent data to be reflected in the CPI. The quirk in how housing cost data are collected contributes to overstating current inflation.”

Because of the housing expectations, Fed officials have turned to “super-core” inflation as part of their toolkit. That entails core services inflation minus housing, cohort that increased 0.2% in February and 3.7% from a year ago, according to CNBC calculations. The Fed targets inflation at 2%.

Used vehicle prices, a key component when inflation first began surging in 2021, fell 2.8% in February and are now down 13.6% on a 12-month basis. Apparel rose 0.8% while medical care services costs decreased 0.7% for the month.

CPI measures a broad basket of goods and services and is one of several key measures the Fed uses when formulating monetary policy. The report along with Wednesday’s producer price index will be the last inflation-related data points policymakers will see before they meet March 21-22.

Banking sector turmoil in recent days has kindled speculation that the central bank could signal that it soon will halt the rate hikes as officials observe the impact that a series of tightening measures have had over the past year.

Markets Tuesday morning were pricing a peak, or terminal, rate of about 4.95%, which implies the upcoming increase would be the last. Futures pricing is volatile, though, and unexpectedly strong inflation reports this week likely would cause a repricing.

Either way, market sentiment has shifted dramatically.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell last week told two congressional committees that the central bank is prepared to push rates higher than expected if inflation does not come down. That set off a wave of speculation that the Fed could be teeing up a 0.5 percentage point hike next week.

However, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank over the past several days paved the way for a more restrained view for monetary policy.

—CNBC’s Gina Francolla contributed to this report.

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