U.S. consumer prices post largest drop in five years amid coronavirus disruptions
U.S. consumer prices fell by the most in more than five years in March and further decreases are likely as the novel coronavirus outbreak suppresses demand for some goods and services, offsetting price increases related to shortages resulting from disruptions to the supply chain.
With the country virtually at a stand-still, the economy rapidly contracting and millions unemployed as state and local governments adopt stiff measures to control the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, economists are predicting the disinflationary trend will persist for a while or even a short period of outright deflation.
"The big concern right now is deflation," said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh. "Deflation is likely to take hold over the next few months as businesses slash prices in response to much lower demand from the coronavirus outbreak and associated restrictions on movement."
The Labor Department said on Friday its consumer price index dropped 0.4 percent last month amid a tumble in the cost of gasoline, and record decreases in hotel accommodation, apparel and airline ticket prices. That was the biggest drop since January 2015 and followed a 0.1 percent gain in February. In the 12 months through March, the CPI increased 1.5 percent, the smallest advance since February 2019, after accelerating 2.3 percent in February.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI dropping 0.3 percent in March and climbing 1.6 percent year-on-year.
Deflation, a decline in the general price level, is harmful during an economic downturn as consumers and businesses can delay purchases in anticipation of lower prices. It can also distort monetary policy, the labor market and signals from stock and real estate prices, economists say.
Economists believe the economy entered recession in March.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, the private research institute regarded as the arbiter of U.S. recessions, does not define a recession as two consecutive quarters of decline in real GDP, as is the rule of thumb in many countries. Instead, it looks for a drop in activity, spread across the economy and lasting more than a few months.
The Federal Reserve has adopted extraordinary measures to cushion the economy's free-fall. President Donald Trump last month signed a historic 2.3 trillion U.S. dollars package to aid businesses and workers. A record 16.8 million people have applied for unemployment benefits in the last three weeks. The unemployment rate is expected to top 10 percent in April.
Economists said it was unlikely these massive stimulus measures would spark inflation, noting that price pressures remained low during the Great Recession and after despite the U.S. central bank pumping money into the economy through extensive bond buying programs.
"The disinflationary impulse, along with the great disruption in economic and financial market activity, is a key reason why the Fed is unleashing vast new monetary policy stimulus," said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.
Restaurants, bars and other social venues have been shuttered. Clothing retailers have also closed shop as have some manufacturers, while transportation has been drastically scaled back. Fears of a sharp global recession and an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia have led to a collapse in crude prices. This is expected to offset price increases caused by bottlenecks in the supply chain.
The widespread business closures affected March’s CPI report, with in-store data collection suspended on March 16, the Labor Department said. It said data collection last month was also impacted "by the temporary closing or limited operations of certain types of establishments," leading to "an increase in the number of prices being considered temporarily unavailable and imputed."
That resulted in many indexes being based on smaller amounts of collected prices than usual, and a small number of indexes that are normally published were not published in March. Those issues will likely persist with April's inflation data collection.
The dollar was trading marginally lower against a basket of currencies. Wall Street and the U.S. Treasury market are closed for Good Friday.