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US consumer price data expected to magnify inflation concerns

US consumer price growth is expected to have accelerated last month ahead of a surge in energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, raising pressure on the Federal Reserve to more substantively tighten monetary policy.

The consumer price index (CPI) is set to have increased another 0.8 per cent month on month in February, according to consensus forecasts compiled by Bloomberg, following a 0.6 per cent increase in January.

From a year ago, prices are forecast to have increased 7.8 per cent, the fastest pace since January 1982. Once highly volatile items like food and energy are stripped out, “core” CPI is set to have jumped 6.4 per cent over that period, or 0.5 per cent on a month-to-month basis.

The data will be published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 8:30am Eastern Time on Thursday.

The report captures the period just before Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine, which prompted the US and its allies to unveil among the most punitive financial penalties ever levied on a country. In addition to slapping sanctions on Russia’s central bank and ringfencing the country from the global financial system, the Biden administration this week banned imports of Russian oil and gas into the US.

The actions caused global energy markets to seize up, sending gas and oil prices rocketing. Prices for wheat, nickel and other commodities also soared.

Headline inflation is set to push higher as a result and the peak in the pace of consumer price growth that was broadly expected later this year is likely to be delayed.

Economists fear that a prolonged crisis could not only dent growth, but also further entrench inflationary pressures that have already begun to take root across a broad swath of the economy.

Market measures of inflation expectations have moved higher in recent days to reflect these concerns, with the popular two-year break-even rate climbing above 4 per cent after the invasion. A swap rate that measures what five-year inflation expectations will be in five years’ time has also jumped, and at 2.7 per cent is well above the Fed’s 2 per cent core inflation target.

However, ongoing geopolitical tensions are not expected to knock the Fed off course. It is on track to raise interest rates at its policy meeting next week, but the conflict may complicate the path forward for policy.

At congressional testimonies this month Jay Powell, Fed chair, who is awaiting Senate confirmation for a second term, laid out the central bank’s plans to tackle the highest inflation in 40 years.

The Fed is expected to proceed with a quarter-point interest rate at its policy meeting next week, and will then seek to move the federal funds rate closer to a level that neither aids nor constrains economic activity — also known as neutral rate and estimated to be between 2 and 2.5 per cent.

Half-point interest rate increases, which have not been used in more than two decades, are firmly on the table for one or more meetings, Powell said. He also acknowledged that it may be appropriate to lift rates above neutral, increasing the risk of a recession.

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