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NY Fed finds mixed outlook for inflation expectations in March


By Michael S. Derby

(Reuters) -Americans’ outlook for inflation was mixed last month amid expectations for bigger price rises across a range of key goods and services, while worries about missing debt payments mounted, a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said on Monday.

The bank found in its March Survey of Consumer Expectations that the public sees inflation a year from now at 3%, unchanged from the prior month. The expected level of inflation three years from now rose to 2.9% from 2.7% in February, while five years from now inflation is seen at 2.6% from the prior month’s prediction of 2.9%.

Evan as the survey found a fragmented inflation outlook, the public in March forecast bigger rises in food, gasoline, rent, college and medical costs a year from now compared to February. Meanwhile, the expected rise of home prices a year from now held steady at 3% for the sixth straight month.

The New York Fed report on what consumers foresee for the economy comes as Fed officials, traders and investors are trying to divine whether unexpectedly sturdy inflation gains at the start of the year mean that last year’s swift retreat in inflation has stalled. In February, the Fed’s preferred price pressure index, the personal consumption expenditures price index, was up by 2.5% compared to a year earlier, a higher rate than January’s 2.4% year-over-year gain.

Anxiety that inflation may no longer be moving as quickly toward the Fed’s 2% inflation target has driven investors to pare back estimates of when the Fed will be able to lower its short-term rate target, with futures markets now split on the prospect of a June easing. Strong hiring data released on Friday showing robust payroll expansion in March further complicated the case for the Fed cutting rates.

Fed officials have over recent days cautioned that they need to see more progress on inflation before they can sign off on an easing. Fed Governor Michelle Bowman, speaking on Friday, even warned the central bank might need to act further to cool price pressures, saying “while it is not my baseline outlook, I continue to see the risk that at a future meeting we may need to increase the policy rate further should progress on inflation stall or even reverse.”

Fed officials believe the expected path of inflation greatly influences the actual level of inflation and have been sanguine on the state of projected price increases, which have on balance come down amid the broader retreat in inflation.

On Wednesday, markets get a fresh look at price pressures when the government reports on consumer prices for March. The Consumer Price Index is seen rising by 3.4% from the same month a year ago, while stripped of food and energy factors, the index is projected to rise by 3.7%.

“Inflation data remains the top factor in determining the time when it becomes appropriate to cut rates,” said Tim Duy, chief U.S. economist with SGH Macro Advisors. “To keep the June rate cut in play, the Fed needs to see March and April inflation numbers more like those in the second half of last year,” he said, adding “that means this week’s inflation data could knock out a June cut.”

The New York Fed report said that views on the labor market were mixed last month, with expectations about earnings growth unchanged but respondents more pessimistic about job prospects.

And while those surveyed on balance viewed their personal financial situations more positively, the largest number in four years were worried about missing a debt payment. Those fears were concentrated in lower-income households and among respondents aged 40 to 60.

Over recent months Fed data has shown some signs that more consumers are running into challenges on the debt front, burdened by higher borrowing rates tied to Fed policy actions and reduced savings as pandemic support levels have run their course.

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