By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices were unchanged in September and underlying inflation retreated, supporting expectations the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates in October for the third time this year amid risks to the economy from trade tensions.
A strong labour market could, however, complicate matters for the Fed. Other data on Thursday showed an unexpected decline in the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits last week. Layoffs remain low even as companies are becoming hesitant to hire more workers because of a slowing economy.
The unemployment rate is near a 50-year low of 3.5%. The economic expansion, now in its 11th year, is under threat from the 15-month-old U.S.-China trade war, slowing growth overseas and a likely disorderly exit from the European Union by Britain.
The trade war has undermined business investment and helped to drive manufacturing into recession. Growth is also being restricted by the fading stimulus from last year’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package.
The Labor Department said the flat consumer price index last month was the weakest reading since January and came as increases in the cost of food and rents were offset by decreases in the prices of energy and used cars and trucks.
The CPI edged up 0.1% in August. In the 12 months through September, the CPI increased 1.7% after advancing by the same margin in August.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI nudging up 0.1% in September and rising 1.8% on a year-on-year basis.
Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI climbed 0.1% after gaining 0.3% for three straight months.
The so-called core CPI was restrained by moderated gains in healthcare costs, as well as declines in apparel, new motor vehicles and communications prices. In the 12 months through September, the core CPI increased 2.4%, matching August’s rise.
The dollar slightly extended losses after the data, while U.S. Treasury prices fell. U.S. stock index futures edged lower.
The report came on the heels of data on Tuesday showing the biggest drop in producer prices in eight months in September. Minutes of the Fed’s Sept. 17-18 policy meeting published on Wednesday showed officials viewed risks to the longest economic expansion on record “had increased somewhat.”
The Fed cut rates in September after reducing borrowing costs in July for the first time since 2008. Economists expect another rate cut at the Fed’s Oct. 29-30 policy meeting.
The central bank tracks the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index for its 2.0% inflation target. The core PCE price index rose 1.8% on a year-on-year basis in August and has fallen short of its target this year.
Benign inflation also suggests a moderate annual increase for Americans receiving Social Security benefits. Based on July, August and September inflation data, recipients could see a 1.6% cost of living adjustment in the new fiscal year.
Economists expect inflation will pick up and breach its target in 2020 following the recent broadening of U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods to include a range of consumer goods. A tightening labour market is also expected to support inflation.
In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 210,000 for the week ended Oct. 5.
Economists had forecast claims unchanged at 219,000 in the latest week. Employers are holding on to their workers, even as demand for labour is ebbing.
Job openings fell to a 1-1/2-year low in August, the government reported on Wednesday.
Nonfarm payrolls rose by 136,000 jobs in September, down from 168,000 in August, the government reported last week. The three-month average gain in private employment fell to 119,000, the smallest since July 2012, from 135,000 in August.
The CPI report showed energy prices fell 1.4% in September after dropping 1.9% in the prior month. Gasoline prices declined 2.4% after falling 3.5% in August. Food prices gained 0.1% after being unchanged for three straight months. Food consumed at home was unchanged.
Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would pay to rent or receive from renting a home, rose 0.3% in September after rising 0.2% for two consecutive months.
Healthcare costs climbed 0.2% last month after jumping 0.7% in August, which was the biggest gain in three years. Apparel prices fell 0.4% after gaining 0.2% in the prior month. The government early this year introduced a new method and data to calculate the cost of apparel.
Used motor vehicles and trucks prices decreased 1.6% in September after rising for three straight months. Prices for new motor vehicles dipped 0.1%. There were increases in the costs of household furnishings, motor vehicle insurance, airline fares and tobacco.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)