US inflation at 8.5%, highest since 1981

WASHINGTON – Inflation soared over the past year at its fastest pace in more than 40 years, with costs for food, gasoline, housing and other necessities squeezing American consumers and wiping out the pay raises that many people received.

US inflation at 8.5%, highest since 1981
American consumers are paying much more for groceries, gas and other necessities as a result of inflation rising at the fastest clip since 1981. (Photo by Tara Clark on Unsplash)

The Labor Department said Tuesday that its consumer price index jumped 8.5% in March from 12 months earlier, the sharpest year-over-year increase since December 1981. Prices have been driven up by bottlenecked supply chains, robust consumer demand and disruptions to global food and energy markets worsened by Russia’s war against Ukraine. From February to March, inflation rose 1.2%, the biggest month-to-month jump since 2005.

Across the economy, the year-over-year price spikes were widespread in March. Gasoline prices have rocketed 48% in the past 12 months. Used-car prices have soared 35.3%, though they actually fell in February and March. Bedroom furniture is up 14.7%, men’s jackets suits and coats 14.5%. Grocery prices have jumped 10%, including 18% increases for both bacon and oranges.

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Even excluding volatile food and energy prices, which have driven overall inflation, so-called core inflation jumped 6.5% over the past 12 months, the biggest such increase since 1982.

“The inflation fire is still out of control,” said Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at the economic research firm FWDBONDS LLC.

The March inflation numbers were the first to capture the full surge in gasoline prices that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Moscow’s brutal attacks have triggered far-reaching Western sanctions against the Russian economy and have disrupted global food and energy markets. According to AAA, the average price of a gallon of gasoline – $4.10 – is up 43% from a year ago, though it has fallen back in the past couple of weeks.

The escalation of energy prices has led to higher transportation costs for the shipment of goods and components across the economy, which, in turn, has contributed to higher prices for consumers.

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The latest evidence of accelerating prices will solidify expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates aggressively in the coming months to try to slow borrowing and spending and tame inflation. The financial markets now foresee much steeper rate hikes this year than Fed officials had signaled as recently as last month.

“The Fed will be pressing firmly on the brake pedal – not just pumping the brakes – in an effort to slow demand and bring the inflation rate back down,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.

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Even before Russia’s war further spurred price increases, robust consumer spending, steady pay raises and chronic supply shortages had sent U.S. consumer inflation to its highest level in four decades. In addition, housing costs, which make up about a third of the consumer price index, have escalated, a trend that seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon.

Economists point out that as the economy has emerged from the depths of the pandemic, consumers have been gradually broadening their spending beyond goods to include more services. A result is that high inflation, which at first had reflected mainly a shortage of goods – from cars and furniture to electronics and sports equipment – has been emerging in services, too, like travel, health care and entertainment. Airline fares, for instance, have soared an average of nearly 24% in the past 12 months. The average cost of a hotel room is up 29%

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