Sharply Higher Gas Prices Pushed Inflation Up in August

Still, underlying price measures cooled, and the Federal Reserve is unlikely to hike interest rates at its meeting next week.

Image by iamchamp for Adobe Stock
Image by iamchamp for Adobe Stock

A spike in gas prices pushed up inflation in August, yet most other costs rose at a more modest pace, evidence that price increases overall are still cooling.

In a set of conflicting data released Wednesday, the Labor Department said the consumer price index rose 3.7 percent in August from a year ago, up from a 3.2 percent annual pace in July. Yet excluding the volatile food and energy categories, so-called core prices rose 4.3 percent, a step back from 4.7 percent in July and the smallest increase in nearly two years. That is still far from the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target.

Despite the seemingly divergent figures, the decline in the core measure points to inflation coming under control. The Federal Reserve closely tracks core prices because they are seen as a better indicator of future inflation trends.

Wednesday's figures also make it more likely the Fed will skip an interest-rate hike at its meeting next week. While higher gas prices could lift inflation this month as well, most economists believe that inflation will slowly decline through the end of the year.

Primed at the pump

On a monthly basis, consumer prices jumped 0.6 percent in August, the biggest increase in more than a year. Gas prices spiked nearly 11 percent, though they have since levelled off: According to AAA, the average nationwide price at the pump was $3.85 on Wednesday, unchanged from a month ago.

The big rise in gas prices accounted for more than half of the monthly inflation increase, the government said.

Excluding food and energy, core prices increased just 0.3 percent in August from July, though that is up from 0.2 percent in the two previous months.

Energy costs rose 5.6 percent just in August, the biggest monthly increase since June 2022. Auto insurance prices also soared, rising 2.4 percent last month and 19.1 percent compared with a year ago. The sharp increase in new car prices in the past two years has also made them more expensive to insure and repair.

But prices rose more slowly, or even fell last month for many other items: Used-car costs dropped 1.2 percent, the third-straight decrease, while hotel prices fell 3 percent, also the third consecutive fall.

Grocery prices moved up 0.2 percent, a trend that has strained many household's finances. But food cost increases are cooling: They rose 3 percent compared with a year ago, down from double-digit increases last year.

The view from the Fed

Federal Reserve officials are becoming more open to the idea that inflation is coming under control, though chair Jerome Powell said last month it was still "too high."

But in his high-profile speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Powell said the Fed would proceed "carefully" with any further rate hikes, which many economists saw as an opening for the Fed to skip a rate increase at its Sept. 19-20 meeting. When the Fed increases its key rate, it typically raises the cost of mortgages, auto loans and business borrowing.

The Fed has lifted its benchmark interest rate 11 times in the past 12 meetings to about 5.4 percent, the highest level in 22 years. It increased the rate a quarter-point in July after leaving it unchanged in June.

Lorie Logan, president of the Federal Reserve's Dallas branch, said last week that "another skip could be appropriate" at its next meeting, "but skipping does not imply stopping."

Investors see only a 3 percent chance of a rate hike next week, according to CME's FedWatch. But they have priced in a 40 percent chance for an increase at the Fed's subsequent meeting in November.

The European Central Bank is contemplating lifting its key interest rate at its next meeting Thursday, though officials also could choose to skip an increase. The European economy is nearing recession as it struggles with high inflation and rising borrowing costs.

The 20 countries that use the euro currency are expected to grow just 0.8 percent this year, according to a gloomy forecast issued Monday by the European Commission, the European Union's executive arm. Germany's economy, the E.U.'s largest, is projected to shrink 0.4 percent. Inflation in the E.U. is higher than in the United States — it was 5.3 percent in July — though that is half of the 10.6 percent peak reached last October.