The stock market wobbled on Thursday morning as investors reacted to fresh data that showed price increases slowed in December but in some corners of the economy, inflation remains stubbornly high.
The S&P 500 stock index fluctuated between small gains and losses in early trading. The index had posted a 1.9 percent gain for the week through Wednesday.
Despite the latest reading of consumer inflation cooling as expected, investors noted that the numbers were driven by a continued drop in used car prices and a sharp drop in energy costs, while price pressures in some parts of the economy driven by consumer demand remained strong. Buying clothes, drinking alcohol, getting a haircut and staying in a hotel became more expensive. Airline prices fell in December but remained nearly 29 percent higher compared with a year ago.
That’s not what the Federal Reserve wants to see because it suggests consumers are still willing to pay higher prices, hinting at the robust jobs market and wage gains that are making the Fed’s job of lowering inflation harder. As a result, the Fed may need to continue raising interest rates and keep them at a high level for an extended period of time, increasing costs for companies and weighing on stock markets.
“The risks to inflation remaining resilient mostly stem from wage gains,” said Lauren Goodwin, an economist at New York Life Investments. “What we see today is that may be the case. The Fed will be worried about that.”
Still, investors have been encouraged in recent months by signs that inflation is moderating and by the Fed’s response in December to slow the pace of interest rate increases.
The S&P 500 has risen more than 3 percent so far this year, after suffering a 20 percent fall last year, its worst annual performance since 2008.
Some investors pointed to the high cost of rent, which typically takes a while to catch up with changes in the economy, skewing inflation higher. Housing costs make up a big chunk of the overall Consumer Price Index.
The latest numbers were enough to solidify investors’ expectations of a further slowdown in the Fed’s next increase in interest rates, to 0.25 percentage points, down from a 0.5 percentage point increase in December. The Fed’s key policy rate is currently set in a range of 4.25 to 4.5 percent.
The yield on two-year U.S. government bonds, which is sensitive to changes in Fed policy, fell on Thursday to 4.17 percent from a peak of 4.72 percent in November, but trading remained choppy. The U.S. dollar also dropped.
Worries remain in markets over how long the Fed will need to keep interest rates elevated to slow inflation; the longer interest rates stay high, the more pressure they put on company costs, and the higher the risk that the economy slips into recession.
“We think any rally here based on the C.P.I. report will be temporary,” said Mary Ann Bartels, chief investment strategist at Sanctuary Wealth. “We have months if not quarters ahead of us where we need to see much lower levels of inflation, and we think we will get there but it’s going to take time.”
Isabella Simonetti contributed reporting.