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Tough times: A customer shops for meat at a store in San Francisco. Surging prices are eating into family budgets, wiping out the wage increases that US workers have battled for after last year’s jobs wipeout. — AFP

AFTER United States prices climbed by the most in three decades, there’s even worse news ahead for households and policymakers: Inflation likely has further to rise before it peaks.

October’s annual rate was 6.2%, the highest since 1990, as price increases spread well beyond the parts of the economy most disrupted by pandemic closures.

Key drivers, like hot housing markets and a global energy crunch, show few signs of fading away soon – leading economists to predict even bigger jumps in the coming months.

“We’re going to see the inflation picture get worse before it gets better,” said Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo & Co. She doesn’t expect much relief before next spring.

For the Federal Reserve (Fed), and President Joe Biden, that likely seems a long way off – and pressure for a change of policy course will ratchet up in the meantime, as calls to rein in pandemic support grow louder.

Surging prices are eating into family budgets, wiping out the wage increases that US workers have battled for after last year’s jobs wipeout, and squeezing profit margins for small businesses.

The Fed has already begun to back away from the case it’s been making since Covid-19 first arrived: That pandemic inflation will be “transitory.” It’s starting to wind down bond purchases this month, and leaning toward raising interest rates next year instead of waiting until 2023. The latest inflation data could accelerate the timetable.

The US central bank may have arrived at a “tipping point,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING.

“Is it really justifiable to be continuing to stimulate when you’ve got the economy growing at 6% and inflation increasing at 6% and no sign that there’s any loss of momentum in either of those indicators?” Knightley expects the Fed’s so-called taper to be concluded in the first quarter of 2022 – about three months ahead of the consensus schedule. And he foresees two 25-basis-point rate hikes to follow by the end of the year, with a growing likelihood that could turn into three.

That’s roughly what financial markets expect too. Investors have been betting on a speeded-up hiking cycle for nearly two months. After Wednesday’s inflation numbers, yields on five-year Treasuries rose more than 10 basis points.

An acceleration of the timetable could show up at next month’s meeting of the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee, said Michael Feroli, chief US economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Last time the Fed released a so-called “dot-plot” in September, it showed an even split on whether rates will rise next year. “It is reasonable to suspect you could get the median to move higher,” Feroli said.


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