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Q1 2023 Brings Challenges with Inflation Control  

Slower-but-continued growth in gross domestic product and other economic indicators during the first quarter of 2023 showed the difficulty of bringing inflation under control, said Jack Kleinhenz, National Retail Federation (NRF) chief economist, in the May issue of NRF’s Monthly Economic Review.

“The World Health Organization says the pandemic is over, and the US government has ended its declaration of a public health emergency. But that doesn’t mean the economic challenges brought on by COVID-19 are over,” Kleinhenz said. “For the past year, the Federal Reserve has been trying to bring rampant inflation under control by raising interest rates. The effort has yet to reach its goal, and results from the first quarter show taming inflation without tipping the nation into a recession remains a formidable challenge.”

Kleinhenz continued: “A slowdown in GDP is normally seen as a negative, but in the current context is key to controlling inflation. Fortunately, the economic data is not consistent with a typical recession.”

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Kleinhenz said the US economy “remained in gear” during the first quarter even as GDP growth slowed to a modest 1.1 percent annual rate from the average 3 percent in the previous two quarters. The number could have been more than two percentage points higher, but many businesses reduced built-up inventories rather than producing or buying more goods. Consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of GDP, grew 6.5 percent up from 0.1 percent growth the previous quarter as disposable personal income saw annual growth of 8.4 percent

The Employment Cost Index showed growth in private manufacturing wages and salaries dropped to 4.9 percent in the first quarter from 5.1 percent the quarter before but remained above the 3.5 percent rate needed to be consistent with the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target. Heading into the second quarter, employment numbers were better than expected despite high interest rates, with a net jobs gain of 253,000, a year-over-year wage increase of 4.4 percent and the unemployment rate of 3.4 percent tying January for the lowest in more than fifty years.

Inflation as tracked by the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index—the Fed’s preferred measure—was 4.9 percent year over year in the first quarter. That was down from 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter and far below the 6.4 percent seen a year earlier. The core PCE index, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, was at 4.7 percent

Amid those numbers, the Fed last week raised interest rates another quarter-point to an upper bound of 5.25 percent Chairman Jerome Powell said sentiment on the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee favors a pause in interest rate hikes, but that the panel is not yet ready to commit. Kleinhenz said the key questions are how the Fed will know when to stop raising rates and how soon after that it will start to lower them.

In announcing the increase, the Fed said tighter credit conditions are likely to “weigh on” economic activity.

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“That is consistent with our views on the risks to the 2023 economic outlook,” Kleinhenz said. “But in the bad-news-is-good-news world of trying to control inflation, that may be exactly the result that is needed. The key is finding a way to control or manage the uncertainty.”

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