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Resilient U.S. consumers spent more money in August, even as the Fed seeks to slow that down

It's a sign the economy is holding up even as inflation lifts prices for food, rent, and other essentials.
A shopper carries bags in San Francisco
A shopper carries bags in San Francisco, on Sept. 29, 2022.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON (AP) — Consumers spent a bit more in August than the previous month, a sign the economy is holding up even as inflation lifts prices for food, rent, and other essentials.

Americans boosted their spending at stores and for services such as haircuts by 0.4% in August, after it fell 0.2% in July, the Commerce Department said Friday. The government’s report also showed that an inflation gauge closely monitored by the Federal Reserve rose 0.3% last month, faster than July.

The figures suggest that the economy is showing some resilience despite sharply rising interest rates, violent swings in the stock market, and high inflation. On Thursday the government confirmed that the economy shrank in the first six months of the year.

Still, there were signs that rising prices are weighing on shoppers. Consumer spending, adjusted for inflation, rose at an annual rate of 2% in the April-June quarter. Yet July and August data indicate that spending is on track to slow to about 0.5% annual growth in the July-September quarter, economists said.

Compared with a year ago, prices jumped 6.2%, down from a 6.4% annual gain in July. The figure is lower than the more widely-known consumer price index, released earlier this month, which reported an 8.3% price gain in August from a year earlier.

The two indexes differ for several reasons. For example, the consumer price index puts much greater weight on rents and housing costs, which have been rising steadily, than the measure released Friday, known as the price index for personal consumption expenditures.

Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, core prices rose 0.6%, much faster than July’s flat reading. They increased 4.9% from a year earlier, up from July’s figure of 4.6%.

Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending ticked up 0.1% last month, after falling slightly in July.

The inflation figures in Friday’s report echoed those released earlier this month, with core prices rising more quickly than headline inflation. Falling gas prices have reduced overall inflation, while stubbornly high costs for housing, cars, and services such as health care and hair cuts have pushed core prices higher.

Even adjusted for inflation, consumer spending ticked up 0.1% last month, after falling slightly in July.

Friday’s report also showed that personal income rose 0.3% in August for the second month in a row. Adjusted for price increases, disposable income -- what is leftover after taxes -- ticked up 0.1%, after a hefty 0.5% gain in July. Those income gains will help fuel spending.

But over a longer time frame, incomes are trailing inflation. In the April-June quarter, inflation-adjusted disposable income fell 1.5% at an annual rate.

The Federal Reserve is seeking to wrestle inflation under control with its most rapid series of interest rate hikes in four decades. It has pushed its benchmark short-term rate to a range of 3% to 3.25%, the highest since early 2008, up from nearly zero in March.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell and other officials have repeatedly underscored the Fed’s determination to bring prices down, even if their rate hikes result in layoffs and a higher unemployment rate.

The Fed intends its interest rate increases to slow borrowing and spending, which should in turn reduce inflation pressures in the economy.

Inflation has spiked globally, contributing to economic and financial turmoil in the United Kingdom, Europe, and a slew of developing countries, from Turkey to Argentina.

Also Friday, the 19 countries that use the euro currency reported that inflation spiked 10% from a year earlier, as prices for natural gas and electricity soared. European countries are struggling with an energy crunch in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Russia has reduced its supplies of natural gas to the European Union.