As inflation continues to rise — with Americans paying more for food, gas and other basics — so too does the debate among economists and policy makers over whether higher prices are a short-term blip or are here to stay.
The Commerce Department reported on Friday that its personal consumption expenditure price index — the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation — climbed 0.4% in May. The index is up 3.9% over the last 12 months, nearly double the Fed’s annual target of 2%.
The latest figures echo other government data showing that inflation is increasing at its fastest clip since 2008. Consumer prices rose 0.6% last month, pushing the annual inflation rate to 5% over the last 12 months, the Labor Department said this month.
Although prices have turned up more sharply than expected, price increases will ultimately abate, according to Fed Chair Jerome Powell, who told a congressional hearing on Tuesday that he expects the rise to be temporary.
Powell’s view is hardly unanimous. Other policy makers and economists expect inflation to persist for months and possibly even years.
While Powell stuck to the script in his congressional appearance, “Other Fed officials sounded less convinced,” Paul Ashworth, chief North American economist at Capital Economics, said Friday in a client note.
Several members of the central bank have recently called for the Fed to start hiking interest rates next year to keep a lid on inflation. Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic worries the “transitory” factors driving up prices could last another six to nine months rather than two to three.
Michael Hartnett, Bank of America’s top strategist, estimates that above-trend inflation could persist for years, driven in part by heavy federal spending.
“So fascinating so many deem inflation transitory when the stimulus, economic growth, asset/commodity/housing inflations deemed permanent; we see inflation firmly in 2-4% range next 2-4 years,” he wrote in a report on Friday.
Swelling inflation comes as U.S. businesses struggle to hire workers, especially lower-paid employees. Chipotle Mexican Grill, for instance, recently boosted prices as much as 4% across its menu to help offset higher costs. The restaurant chain in May raised its average hourly pay to $15 for 100,000 workers.
“I believe with wage gains now picking up steam, as said by just about every single business I hear from, price pass-throughs are really only beginning,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer, Bleakley Advisory Group, in a note.