December's Consumer Price Index (CPI) data is in, and it brought a mixed bag of news for investors and consumers alike. While headline inflation ticked up slightly to 3.4%, exceeding most analysts' expectations, the core inflation rate held steady at 3.9%. This uptick leaves us wondering: where do we stand on a soft landing – a scenario where inflation falls back to the Fed's 2% target without triggering a recession?
The biggest contributor to the increase was the shelter index, rising 6.2% on an annual basis. This isn't surprising, considering ongoing housing market tightness and rising rent prices. Rent prices particularly remained high, with both rent and owners' equivalent rent indexes increasing 0.5% for the third month in a row.
However, that’s not to say all hope is lost for a soft landing. The monthly increase in headline inflation was only 0.3%, the same as November's. This suggests a possible leveling, indicating that the pace of price rises might be slowing down. Core inflation, excluding the food and energy categories, also remained unchanged.
This somewhat stability aligns with what Morgan Stanley's chief US economist, Ellen Zentner, predicted: "gradual disinflation with sticky services inflation." Services such as housing and rent tend to be slower to react to economic changes, hence their delayed response to the Fed's tightening monetary policy.
The market, eager for signals, remains optimistic. Despite the December data, investors still price in nearly a 70% chance of a Fed rate cut in March. This sentiment seems bolstered by Fed officials' cautious optimism. While Governor Michelle Bowman and Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic reiterated the central bank's commitment to lowering inflation to 2%, they also acknowledged the possibility of future rate cuts if inflation falls further.
So, are we still on track for a soft landing? It's too early to say yes, but December's data provides some cautious optimism. The leveling of rates of inflation and the Fed's measured approach suggest that a soft landing remains a possibility. As Fed Chair Jerome Powell has repeatedly stated, the central bank will remain data-driven, adjusting its course as inflation evolves.
The coming months will be crucial for investors to keep a keen eye on. Continued moderation in headline and core inflation, with easing housing market pressures, will strengthen the case for a soft landing. However, continued inflationary pressures, particularly in the services sector, could cause further tightening measures from the Fed, increasing the risk of a recession.
For investors and consumers alike, navigating this landscape requires vigilance and flexibility. Staying informed about economic developments, diversifying portfolios, and adjusting spending habits based on inflation realities are key strategies in this dynamic environment. While the December CPI data provides no definitive answers, it does offer a glimpse of the tightrope the US economy is walking. The soft landing may still be attainable, but only if inflation continues its downward trajectory and the Fed maintains its delicate balancing act.