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Annual Inflation Flat as Consumer Prices Decline in September

Falling gas prices kept inflation below zero for the  month of August. The BLS announced this morning that the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) fell 0.2% in September on a seasonally adjusted basis; this is in line with expectations. In August, the CPI-U fell 0.1% following 6 straight months of growth. Gas prices also drove the decline in August’s CPI-U number. September’s decline wiped out the annual gains of 0.2% that were posted at the end of August, leaving the CPI-U flat for the year ending in September.

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The index for all items less food and energy was up 0.2% in September, following increases of 0.1% in both July and August. For the 12-months ending in September, this core index increased 1.9%, pointing to more robust underlying growth for the U.S. economy. This is the highest annual core inflation number since July 2014. As the graph above shows, the disparity between overall consumer prices and consumer prices less food and energy continues to grow.

Energy Prices

The decline in overall consumer prices in September was largely driven by falling gasoline prices, which were down a seasonally adjusted 9% in the month alone.  Over the same period, the energy index fell 4.7%, adding to August’s 2% decline. The energy index accounts for about 8% of the CPI-U and gasoline about 4%.

Volatile gasoline and energy prices have driven overall price levels and kept inflation very low over the past year. The energy index is down 9.7% for the year ending in September. Over this period, the biggest price declines were seen in the price of gasoline and fuel oil, down 18% and 18.6% respectively.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly Numbers

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the CPI fell 0.2% in September following a decline of 0.1% in August.

Seasonally Adjusted Monthly % Change in CPI-U by Category (2016)

 JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly
All Items0-0.20.10.40.20.20.0
Food00.2-0.20.2-0.2-0.10.0
Energy-2.8-6.00.93.41.21.3-1.6
Gasoline-4.8-12.52.28.12.33.3-4.7
Fuel Oil (non seasonally adjusted)-6.5-2.91.71.96.23.7-1.5
Electricity-0.7-0.20.4-0.3-0.2-0.50.5
Utilities (piped gas service)-0.61.0-0.70.61.7-0.43.1
Energy Services-0.70.10.2-0.10.2-0.51.0
All Items Less Food and Energy0.30.30.10.20.20.20.1
Services Less Energy Services0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Shelter0.30.30.20.30.40.30.2
Transportation Services0.40.20.20.70.30.3-0.2
Medical Care Services0.50.50.10.30.50.20.5

The price of food climbed 0.4% in September, adding to August’s 0.2% increase in the food index. Higher prices for dairy and fruits and vegetables, including a 4.7% spike in the price of lettuce, were somewhat offset by declines in the prices for fish and poultry. The index that measures the price of food in primary and secondary schools was 7.2% higher in September alone.

The shelter index continues to climb, up 0.3% in September, following increases of between 0.2% and 0.4% per month since the beginning of the year. In September, higher shelter costs were the result of higher prices for hotels and lodging away from home. The rent index, which is part of the shelter index, climbed 0.4% in September. Shelter costs account for about one third of the CPI-U.

The medical care index was up 0.2% in September, including increases of 0.3% for medical care services and 0.6% for health insurance. At the same time, the costs for both prescription drugs and medical equipment and supplies were down 0.2%.

Following four months of declines, the index for household furnishings and operations increased 0.4% in September despite a fall of 0.7% in the price of floor coverings. Indoor plants and flowers were significantly more expensive, gaining 2.4% in September.

The index for apparel fell 0.3% in September, following two months of gains. September’s apparel number masks volatility within the index. On a seasonally adjusted basis, the prices for men’s outerwear fell 3.9% and girl’s apparel was down 3.7%. At the same time, the price of men’s sweaters climbed 8.7%.

Annual Inflation

September’s declining CPI-U wiped out any 12-month gains, leaving overall price levels flat for the year. Higher prices for most components of the index were just able to balance the 12-month 18.4% decline in energy prices. The food index was 1.6% higher for the 12-month period and Shelter costs climbed 3.7%. Transportation services were 2.2% higher, including increases of over 5% for both car and truck rentals and vehicle insurance. Significant 12-month price hikes were also posted for animal services including veterinary services (up 4.3%), admission to sporting events (up 7.8%) and childcare and nursery school fees (up 4.2%). In general, higher prices were recorded for most services. Financial service costs were nearly 4% higher for the year, including an increase of 5.1% for tax and accounting services.

Price declines over the past year include the cost of cell phone services (down 3.8%) and the index for cell phone hardware, calculators and consumer information items, which tumbled 15.8%. Airline fares were down 6% for the year as was the price of toys. Television sets became over 13% less expensive compared to a year earlier and the price of appliances in general fell 3.5%.

Economic Outlook

Today’s inflation numbers will be watched closely as the Federal Reserve appears divided over the possibility of an interest rate hike later in the year. Stronger inflation numbers would have suggested that the economy was more robust and ready for higher interest rates. However, today’s weak inflation data, although expected, add to a series of disappointing indicators.

The Producer Price Index, a principal gauge of inflation in the manufacturing sector, declined by 0.5% in September, its weakest number in 7 months. September retails sales were also a disappointment, missing expectations at 0.1% versus the expected 0.2%. Core retail sales slipped 0.3% below the expected decline of 0.1%. The U.S. dollar has also been falling due to a disappointing jobs report in September.

The next Federal Open Market Committee meeting is October 27-28. The markets have been pricing in approximately a 39% chance of a rate hike in December. However, this number has been declining following downturns in global and emerging markets. Today’s CPI-U numbers will not reverse the trend. Rates are likely to remain unchanged until at least March of next year.

Emily Cross Leon

Emily Cross Leon

Senior Writer at CPI Inflation Calulcator
Emily Cross Leon

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