Inflation eased in May with prices rising less than expected

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May’s consumer price index report

May’s consumer price index report 03:10

Inflation cooled slightly in May, offering the Federal Reserve some breathing room as it debates cutting interest rates amid a stubbornly robust jobs market.

Consumer prices were up 3.3% last month from May 2023, according to data issued by the Department of Labor on Wednesday. Economists expected the reading to come in at 3.4%, or unchanged from April’s pace, according to FactSet.

The so-called core consumer price index, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, increased 0.2% from April — the lowest since September 2021. 

How prices are changing

Wednesday’s report suggests Americans are starting to get some respite from the painful price increases that followed the pandemic. 

The price of airfare, furniture, clothing, new vehicles, energy and recreation fell in May, helping contain inflation. U.S. motorists have benefited from cheaper gasoline in recent weeks, with the average price of regular around the U.S. at $3.45, down from $3.62 a month ago and from $3.59 at the same time in 2023, according to AAA. Overall energy costs fell 2%, the CPI data show. 

Average grocery costs held steady in May after dipping 0.2% in April. Food prices are up 1% over the last 12 months, but remain roughly 20% higher compared with 2021. Shelter costs increased in May for a fourth straight month, up 0.4%, while medical care, used cars and trucks, education costs, and food away from home also edged up.

The report on consumer prices lands on the last day of a two-day policy meeting by the Federal Reserve, with most economists predicting the central bank will hold its benchmark rate steady as it awaits further data showing inflation coming down towards its 2% target. The rate decision is scheduled to be released at 2 p.m. Eastern.

“This was unequivocally a good report, a delightful appetizer while we await the main course later on today,” Olu Sonola, head of U.S. economic research at Fitch Ratings, said in an email. 

U.S. labor market is resilient despite inflation concerns 01:48

Wall Street cheered the data, with the S&P 500 pushing deeper into record terrain after rising more than 1% in morning trade. CPI has been trending lower, with major retailers cutting prices on a broad array of goods to entice inflation-wary shoppers. 

Still, while the yearly rise in consumer prices has moderated from a high of 9.1% in mid-2022, inflation is still running ahead of the Fed’s 2% annual target as well as robust job and wage growth. As a result, many analysts do not expect Fed rate cuts before September at the earliest.

“While the door to an interest rate cut in July is effectively shut, the window still looks open for later on this year,” Sonola at Fitch said.

Kate Gibson

Kate Gibson is a reporter for CBS MoneyWatch in New York, where she covers business and consumer finance.

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