The inflation squeeze tightens
Prices spiked 4.1 percent last year, the highest increase in 17 years.
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When the Fed looks at inflation, one of its chief concerns is inflationary expectations. For example, it looks at the financial market's expectations about the long-term inflation rate. DeKaser says. At the moment, the bond market is expecting inflation to remain at about 2.3 percent over the next five to 10 years. "That is pretty much where it has been for some time," he adds.Skip to next paragraph
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The Fed also looks at consumer surveys of inflation expectations. In November, the Conference Board, a business research group, saw a spike in inflation concerns that mirrored a sharp increase in gasoline prices. In December, inflation concerns eased slightly. But, since then the price of gasoline has climbed about 10 cents a gallon at the pump.
"We would not expect an easing of inflationary expectations," says Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center in New York. "And with the weather turning colder, heating bills will also tick up, which will put added pressure on consumers."
Inflation per se still hasn't shown up as a problem in polling data, says Dennis Jacobe, chief economist at the Gallup Organization in Washington. "When you ask, people are concerned about college costs, healthcare expenses, and energy, but for some reason that's not translated into a broad concern," says Mr. Jacobe. "I think there is more of a concern about weakness in the economy than about inflation."
However, he thinks that is about to change. "Inflation is a building concern and I would expect it will show up in our surveys more going forward," he says.
The last time the US annual inflation rate was higher was in 1990, when it stood at 6.1 percent. The main reason for this inflation spike was a run-up in the price of oil after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The US and its allies then pushed Mr. Hussein out.
Back in 1990, the Federal Reserve discounted the run-up in oil prices and cut interest rates. "They were motivated by concerns about economic decline," recalls DeKaser. "They could do this because when oil prices rise it has a debilitating effect on the economy, this causes the unemployment rate to rise and that will relieve inflation pressures," he explains.
In the past year, energy costs were up 17.4 percent while food costs rose 4.9 percent. For the past six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the sharpest price increases have been for fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fuel oil, and medical care. However, prices have come down for electronics, cars, and household furniture.