Top investment banks are calling peak inflation after a red-hot report. Here’s why they think consumer prices are set to cool

The early 1980s conjure up a lot of memories for economists.

The Reagan revolution reinvigorated Wall Street, as memorably depicted in the Oliver Stone movie of the same name. But before that, the 1980s saw the end of an era economists now call the Great Inflation. Data released on Tuesday brought back memories from that time.

U.S. inflation jumped to a four-decade high of 8.5% in March as supply constraints hit home amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The consumer price index (CPI), which measures a basket of goods and services used by the average American, rose at its fastest annual pace since December 1981, the Labor Department said on Tuesday.

Gas and food prices were the largest contributors to that jump, rising 48% and 8.8% respectively over the past year.

“The war in Ukraine heavily influenced consumer prices in the month of March…gas prices alone accounted for more than half of the monthly increase in the CPI,” Bankrate’s Chief Financial Analyst Greg McBride said. “Food prices are also impacted, with food-at-home costs rising 1.5% just in the past month, further squeezing household budgets.”

Core inflation, which strips out volatile food and energy costs, rose 6.5% in March, marking the fastest 12-month jump seen since August of 1982. But the pace of core consumer price growth appears to be slowing, rising just 0.3% month-over-month in March, compared to Wall Street’s 0.5% estimate. 

Now there’s a big question roiling Wall Street: Is this the peak? 

Despite the frightening headline inflation figure, markets have reacted positively to the latest inflation report. And a number of top investment banks, including Bank of America, UBS, and Morgan Stanley, were quick to call Tuesday’s figures the end of inflation’s climb. 

Here’s what those calling a peak are seeing.

Peak predictions from Bank of America, UBS, and Morgan Stanley  

“The YoY rates for headline inflation both headed higher this month…. We think that both reflect the peak for YoY rates,” Bank of America Research economists said in a note to clients on Tuesday.

Bank of America sees headline inflation remaining elevated through the end of 2022, even if this is the highest reading consumers should expect. Economists, led by Alexander Lin, see U.S. inflation falling to a 12-month increase of 6% by December.

The economists said that the recent increase in consumer prices was largely driven by rising energy prices caused by the war in Ukraine, which should drop over time, but noted consumers shouldn’t expect falling food prices anytime soon.

“Food has yet to feel the impact given lagged pass-through and is likely to remain hot throughout the year,” the Bank of America team wrote.

Two key components point to stickier inflation than Americans might hope for, according to Bank of America: rising transportation and lodging costs. The BofA economists said these reflect Americans’ transition from goods spending to services spending as pandemic restrictions fade.

Morgan Stanley also said it sees Tuesday’s figures as the “likely” peak of recent inflationary pressures after being surprised by a lower-than-expected core inflation figure.

The bank’s economists, led by Ellen Zentner, wrote in a note that they had expected rent inflation to be even higher in the March report.

“While we expect rent inflation to remain firm over the forecast horizon, the latest data does help reduce the risk, in our view, of substantial further acceleration in month-over-month run rates of shelter inflation,” the economists wrote.

UBS is also calling the peak in inflation after correctly predicting Tuesday’s headline inflation figure would come in at 8.5%, while core inflation would hit 6.5% last week.

That could be good news for U.S. consumers, as the bank is expecting consumer prices to continue dropping through the year, eventually falling to 3.5% by year-end as gas prices, which hit consumers hard in March, fall every month from April through November.

Other economists are split

Andrew Hunter, a senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, an independent economic research firm, told CNBC he also believes the March read will “mark the peak” for inflation as rising energy prices begin to slow and year-over-year comparisons force headline figures lower.

Other top economists aren’t as optimistic, however. Blerina Uruci, a U.S. economist at T. Rowe Price Group, an investment management firm, told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that she is seeing strong inflation momentum “across the board.”

“The other red flag is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of COVID in China. Those pose risks that the so-called normalization of supply chains takes longer to materialize,” Uruci said.

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