Economy is in ‘Critical Moment’ But Fed Has Time to Wait on Interest Rates

"We’re waiting for inflation to come down – and we’re also waiting for the Federal Reserve to decide on when to lower interest rates."

NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz

WASHINGTON – As inflation continues to ease and the Federal Reserve ponders when to lower interest rates, the nation is in a “critical moment” of waiting to see what will happen next, National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said today.

“Today we’re waiting once again,” Kleinhenz said, referring to a point in 2017 when economists were waiting to see if fast economic growth and low unemployment would cause an increase in inflation. “Much like 2017, the economy is going strong, and the labor market is still relatively tight. But this time we’re waiting for inflation to come down – and we’re also waiting for the Federal Reserve to decide on when to lower interest rates.”

As it has over the past two years, the Fed must balance using high interest rates to reduce inflation with the risk that keeping rates too high for too long could slow the economy to the point of recession.

“We’re at a critical moment as consumers, businesses, investors and others wait to learn how they will need to adjust their plans for future economic conditions,” Kleinhenz said. “Fortunately, the risks for monetary policy look balanced at the moment.”

Kleinhenz’s comments came in the July issue of NRF’s
Monthly Economic Review, which said year-over-year gross domestic product growth dropped from 3.4% in the fourth quarter of 2023 to 1.4% in the first quarter this year, its lowest point since the spring of 2022. A key contributor to the deceleration was slower consumer activity – a goal of high interest rates intended to tame inflation without causing a recession.

Year-over-year inflation as measured by the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index dropped from 3.4% in the first quarter to 2.6% in May, the second month of the second quarter, according to the report. Most inflation came in the price of services, which were up 3.9% in May while prices for goods were down 0.1%.

“The Fed likely welcomed data that showed household income, spending and saving were all healthy in May, demonstrating that the economy is growing at a slower-but-steady pace,” Kleinhenz said. “The U.S. economy looks resilient enough for the Fed to wait and has afforded the Fed time to do so.”

Disposable personal income was up 3.7% year over year in May while personal consumption was up 5.1% and the savings rate rose to 3.9%, its highest level in four months. In addition, the labor market “continues to display resilience” and has driven income growth ahead of inflation, Kleinhenz said. Employment rebounded strongly in May with a gain of 272,000 jobs following a 165,000-job increase in April. Average monthly job gains through May were 248,000, just under the 2023 average of 251,000.

The June University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey found concerns about the effect of high prices and slowing wage growth on families’ finances but that consumers were confident inflation will continue to moderate.

As the leading authority and voice for the retail industry, NRF analyzes economic conditions affecting the industry through reports such as the
Monthly Economic Review.

About NRF
The National Retail Federation passionately advocates for the people, brands, policies and ideas that help retail succeed. From its headquarters in Washington, D.C., NRF empowers the industry that powers the economy. Retail is the nation’s largest private-sector employer, contributing $5.3 trillion to annual GDP and supporting more than one in four U.S. jobs — 55 million working Americans. For over a century, NRF has been a voice for every retailer and every retail job, educating, inspiring and communicating the powerful impact retail has on local communities and global economies.