Is inflation rising? 5 ways to keep track
WASHINGTON (AP) After nearly a decade of being all but invisible, inflation or the fear of it is back.
Tentative signs have emerged that prices could accelerate in coming months. Pay raises may be picking up a bit. Commodities such as oil and aluminum have grown more expensive. Cellphone plans are likely to appear costlier.
The specter of high inflation has spooked many investors, who worry it would force up interest rates, making it costlier for consumers and businesses to borrow and weighing down corporate profits and ultimately the economy. Historically, fear of high inflation has led the Federal Reserve to step up its short-term interest rate increases.
It's a big reason investors have dumped stocks and bonds in the past two weeks.
Yet for all the market turmoil, inflation for now remains quite low: Prices, excluding the volatile food and energy categories, have risen just 1.7 percent in the past year. That's below the Fed's target of 2 percent annual inflation.
Most economists expect inflation to edge up and end the year a few tenths of a percentage point above the Fed's target. But most foresee only minimal effect on the economy.
"I don't think that's a huge tragedy," said Mark Vitner, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities.
Inflation, though, is hard to forecast. One widely followed gauge is the government's monthly report on consumer price inflation. The January CPI report will come out Wednesday.
Here are some ways to track the direction of inflation in the coming months:
Cellphone plan cost
Roughly a year ago, major wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T began offering unlimited wireless data plans. This enabled their customers to watch more video, stream more music and trade more photos. It also lowered inflation.
That's because government statisticians don't simply review price changes when they calculate inflation. They also try to measure what consumers actually receive for what they pay. Because unlimited data plans are a better deal, they in effect lowered the overall cost of wireless phone services. Many economists cited this as a reason inflation slowed last year even as the unemployment rate fell.
Still, the cellphone plans were a one-time change. In March, their impact will pass from the government's year-over-year inflation calculations. Most analysts expect this change to boost that month's inflation estimate.