U.S. Inflation Likely to Get Worse, Dealing Challenge to Fed and Biden

After U.S. prices climbed by the most in three decades, there’s even worse news ahead for households and policy makers: Inflation likely has further to rise before it peaks.

October’s annual rate was 6.2%, the highest since 1990, as price increases spread well beyond the parts of the economy most disrupted by pandemic closures. Key drivers, like hot housing markets and a global energy crunch, show few signs of fading away soon -- leading economists to predict even bigger jumps in the coming months.

“We’re going to see the inflation picture get worse before it gets better,” said Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo & Co. She doesn’t expect much relief before next spring.

For the Federal Reserve, and President Joe Biden, that likely seems a long way off -- and pressure for a change of policy course will ratchet up in the meantime, as calls to rein in pandemic support grow louder.

‘Tipping Point’

Surging prices are eating into family budgets, wiping out the wage increases that U.S. workers have battled for after last year’s jobs wipeout, and squeezing profit margins for small businesses.

The Fed has already begun to back away from the case it’s been making since Covid-19 first arrived: that pandemic inflation will be “transitory.” It’s starting to wind down bond purchases this month, and leaning toward raising interest rates next year instead of waiting until 2023. Wednesday’s inflation data could accelerate the timetable.

The U.S. central bank may have arrived at a “tipping point,” said James Knightley, chief international economist at ING. “Is it really justifiable to be continuing to stimulate when you’ve got the economy growing at 6% and inflation increasing at 6% and no sign that there’s any loss of momentum in either of those indicators?”