Mar 13, 2024 - Business

The Fed's inflation fight is starting to feel like a forever war

Illustration of binoculars with sad face emojis reflected in the lenses.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

New data is calling into question whether the U.S. economy will return to the pre-pandemic benchmark of 2% inflation anytime soon.

Why it matters: The so-called "last mile" of the Fed's inflation fight was always going to be hard. But at least a few economists think 3% could well become the new normal.

Driving the news: February's consumer price figures released yesterday showed that inflation rose 3.2% in the 12 months that ended in February — showing how the road to 2% is getting increasingly bumpy and unpredictable.

  • "Inflation was able to decelerate from 9% to 3% rather quickly, but the path to the Fed's 2% target may take more time than expected," according to Skyler Weinand, CIO of Dallas-based Regan Capital.

Follow the money: Consumers are struggling with higher rates making record credit card debt more expensive to carry, while mortgage rates north of 7% are putting home ownership aspirations out of reach.

  • "Consumers want to grow capital and they don't want to spend on credit cards, but they don't have any choice … credit cards are the most used solution for any kind of credit need," Rodney Williams, co-founder of SoLo Funds, tells Axios in a recent interview.
  • "Once upon a time there was the person who didn't have a credit card, that's no longer true."

Reality check: Even with interest rates that will likely remain higher for longer than most anticipated, the economy is still expanding.

  • Higher wages, combined with a booming stock market, are giving consumers the incentive to open their wallets on just about everything.
  • That might be to their detriment, given that strong demand is playing a key role in keeping prices elevated.

What they're saying: Lara Rhame, chief U.S. economist at FS Investments, thinks that we're living in a "3% world" until further notice.

  • With inflation durable and jobs plentiful, she tells Axios that she's expecting the Fed to perform three or fewer "surgical" rate cuts this year.
  • The Fed is "going to err on the side of caution in terms of cutting too quickly," Rhame says in an interview.
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